Sunday, August 9, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Tatar Children’s Book on Conquest of Kazan in 1552 Outrages Russian

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 9 – A Tatar author’s richly illustrated children’s book on Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of Kazan in 1552 that asserts Tatarstan’s “struggle for the restoration of independence continues in our day” has prompted a Russian activist to demand that Moscow intervene to ban the book for “falsifying history to the detriment of Russia.”
On the “Svobodnaya pressa” website at the end of last week, Yan Stashkevich says that “children’s literature in Tatarstan is teaching that the Russian state is a mob of marauders, thieves and usurpers” and that the Tatar’s “struggle for the restoration of independence” has never ended (
And the Moscow journalist adds that this case is “not about ignoring the role of the Red Army in the victory over fascism and not about the revision of the results of the Second World War but about a war which ended … 500 years ago,” when the Russian tsar conquered the Kazan khanate.
Despite the antiquity of these events, Stashkevich continues, debates that “are no joke” have broken out in Tatarstan over these events. Moreover, he says, the Russian president’s commission on historical falsifications has been asked to look into the matter, a potentially disturbing extension of what Dmitry Medvedev said he was creating that body for.
The current “scandal” broke out following the publication in 5000 copies of a children’s book entitled “The Liberation Struggle of the Tatar People” by Nurulla Garif, a Tatar historian who describes the conquest of Kazan in 1552, the Christianization of the Muslims of the Middle Volga, and “’the five-hundred-year-long war” of the Tatars for independence from Russia.
According to Garif, Stashkevich says, this period has been one of “unceasing war against Russian ‘occupation,’” the Russian state “a mob of marauders, thieves and usurpers,” and Moscow’s representatives on the scene “’vengeful’” men capable of all sorts of crimes including burying Tatars who resist them alive.
The Moscow journalist says that at the end of his book, Garif calls on his young readers “not to follow stereotypes” but rather to “think about the lessons of history, in particular over the themes which consider ‘Moscow-Kazan relations.’” But to give them direction, Stashkevich says, Garif illustrates the page on which this appeal is made in a highly suggestive way.
On that page, Garif’s book shows “a black crow with two heads which reminds one of the state shield of Russia rapaciously attacking the tower of the Tatar queen Syuyumbika, the symbol of Tatarstan independence.” And given that clear message, Stashkevich suggests, it is no surprise that many Russians have been outraged.
Several weeks ago, one of their number Aleksandr Ovchinnikov, who teaches at a higher educational institution in Kazan, wrote to the Tatarstan republic procuracy asking that Garif’s book be examined by experts to determine whether its content was extremist and thus subject to a ban.
The republic procuracy immediately sent it to the Mardzhani Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Tatarstan, but scholars there, Stashkevich recounts, “shared the views of Nurulla Garif on the national path of the Tatar people and assured the procuracy” that the book in question did not contain any “call to national or religious hostility.”
Moreover, the Moscow journalist says, the Tatarstan historians accused Ovchinnikov of being engaged “in a provocation of destructive processes, pseudo-patriotism and the exacerbation of inter-ethnic antagonism.” After that, the procuracy dropped the case, and articles attacking Ovchinnikov began to appear “on the pages of the local press.”
These articles made it clear that “the scholars who had conducted the expert assessment of Garif’s book are his former colleagues with whom he had worked closely in the quite recent past,” Stashkevich reports, something that “casts doubt on ‘the independence’ of their expert assessment.”
However that may be, Ovchinnikov for his part has raised the possibility of sending Garif’s book to the Russian president’s commission on blocking attempts at the falsification of history and in the mean time “has again turned to the [Tatarstan] procuracy” which has again passed the volume to the same Institute of History, thus “closing the circle.”
Because Tatarstan’s Institute of History is headed by Rafael Khakimov, a longtime advisor to that republic’s president, Mintimir Shaimiyev, this incident might prove to be little more than yet another Russian probe against the latter, an effort to cast doubt on his loyalty to Moscow by questioning his ability to control his Middle Volga republic.
But even if that is so, this complaint and the readiness of some like Ovchinnikov to turn to the presidential commission is a disturbing indication of the way in which Moscow’s ostensible effort to deal with discussions of the Soviet role in World War II could rapidly become an attack on any independent thinking on other historical questions as well.
And because history is ultimately where many struggles about the present and future take place, both the original impulse between Dmitry Medvedev’s commission and the extension of the application of concern about “harm to Russia’s reputation” are a threat to far more than the righting of history: they are a threat to those who would make it as well.

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