Saturday, September 28, 2013

Window on Eurasia: The Mongol Yoke Vanishes – and So Too Will Russian Unity

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 28 – In ways that recall David King’s 1997 study of pictorial falsification in Stalin’s time, “The Commissar Vanishes,” the Putin regime plans to eliminate any reference to the Mongol yoke in school textbooks, a step some may welcome in the name of tolerance but one that will have some unintended and possibly unwelcome consequences.

            That is just one event in Russian history not mentioned in the draft conception of the new common history textbook Vladimir Putin is pushing out of a belief that such a work will help unify the peoples of the Russian Federation (,,  and

            Dropping any mention of the “Mongol yoke,” which along with the Soviet contribution to the victory over Hitler in World War II, has long served as a universal moral solvent to “dissolve” criticism of whatever Russia is or does, will please Kazan Tatars and other Muslim peoples.  But passing over events in silence will ultimately work against the Russian state.

            On the one hand, not talking about events that one or another group finds distasteful or objectionable, be it the Mongol yoke, Stalinism, opposition to the Soviet regime, of the contributions of Boris Yeltsin, will inevitably reduce the value of school textbooks as a primary source of knowledge about the past of Russia.

            In Soviet times, many Russians and non-Russians learned an alternative history at home, from their own reading, or from international broadcasting, something that reflected the boring quality of Brezhnev-era textbooks that attempted to avoid all difficult problems past and present by not talking about them and that further undermined public trust in the authorities.

            And on the other, Moscow’s willingness to defer to the objections of groups to talking about this or that issue or event will only lead more groups to demand that their objections be met as well, something that will leave the Russian history textbooks of the future nearly a blank slate if the state concedes or that will cause these other groups to offer their own alternatives.

            In the last decades of Soviet power, the failure of the government to approve discussion of certain themes had the effect of powering the rise of environmental and historical preservations movements, both of which, as some in Moscow appear to have forgotten, contributed to the growth of anti-Moscow regionalism and nationalism.

            In short, and again as in Brezhnev’s time, a Kremlin-led effort to promote unity almost certainly will have exactly the opposite effect, a classical counter-example of the oft-cited aphorism that “he who controls the past controls the future.” Instead, now in the Russian Federation, just as in the USSR, the illusion of control will ultimately lead to its loss.

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