Russia Revisits History in Its School Textbooks

Article excerpt

For as long as anyone can remember, Russian school books have depicted the Tatars as bloodthirsty barbarians on horseback who crushed Russia under a cruel 250-year yoke. The nomadic followers of Ghengis Khan and his successors were butchers, pillagers, and little else.

But soon, that version of history may be, well, history. Some serious rewriting is going on.

While the Russian federal government is engaged in another ruthless war in breakaway Chechnya - and hints that it may wrest some powers back from regional governors - it is displaying a surprising political correctness on the education front.

New books on order

In recent months, academic assemblies have been organized and new textbooks commissioned to alter the way Russia's 150 ethnic minorities are portrayed. The impetus is coming from some of Russia's 20 ethnic republics and 10 semi-autonomous districts, who since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union have pushed to change schools' Slavic centrism.

Historical reforms up to now have been restricted mainly to the local level. Regional centers would issue their own textbooks to supplement the Moscow-slanted national curriculum. But this seems to be changing.

"Our people have been represented as ugly enemies. This destroys us psychologically," says Nazif Mirikhanov, the representative in Moscow of the semi-autonomous Tatarstan Republic, located in central Russia between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains. "This is a mistake that must be redressed."

The corrections are a long time coming, says Vladimir Batsyn, an official handling history books at the Russian Education Ministry in Moscow.

"We really need to reflect the polyethnic nature of the country. A lot of students don't even know there are Buddhist or Muslim nationalities in our own history," he says. "The Tatars were especially maligned. We Russians are backward by not depicting the situation properly. Their state was the biggest and most developed in the land for a long time."

To press his point, Mr. Batsyn turns to the bookshelf in his office. He opens a textbook, "The History of 19th Century Russia," to Chapter 15, which is devoted to the peoples of Russia. "Look, a mere 10 pages. Out of a total 420. That's all," he sniffs.

Batsyn picks up another tome, which covers Russian history between the 17th and 19th centuries. He flips through the 400 pages with a derisive snort. "Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Poland - that's not even Russia. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing."

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the rethink will be the Tatars, who at 5 million comprise Russia's second-largest ethnic group after the Slavs. …