Friday, July 20, 2007

Window on Eurasia: How the Chuvash ‘Discovered’ America – And Other Notions from New Russian Textbooks

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 20 – The history that pupils in the Russian Federation are studying has not only been distorted by President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to promote himself and his vision of that country but also and perhaps more significantly by the efforts of some textbook writers who are rewriting the past to boost their own regions and peoples.
If the former trend is attracting a great deal of attention both in Moscow and the West, the latter has generally remained below the radar screen of most commentators -- even though it is likely to prove more long-lasting and thus more injurious to the way sin which Russian citizens will perceive their country and the world.
In an article that appeared in “Novyye izvestiya” this week, journalists Andrei Leonov and Mikhail Belyy suggest that a flood of “pseudo-scientific” ideas are making their way into the textbooks that Russian teachers are required to use and Russian pupils to memorize (
Indeed, they report, leading Moscow experts have concluded that students in some 80 percent of the schools of Russian regions are being told among other things that the Greeks had Tatar origins, that the wheel was invented by the Bashkirs, and that the Chuvash not only built the classical city of Troy but “discovered America.”
The major reason that such absurd ideas are making their way into textbooks, the journalists continue, is that regional textbook writers draw on the works of local writers who appear to be more interested in sensationalism and sales than in accuracy and that regional educational officials do not take their gate-keeping job seriously enough.
Leonov and Belyy provide some amazing examples of their general point. In Tatarstan, for instance, one text suggests that the ancient Egyptians and Greeks were in fact Tatars, that the word “theater” derives from the Tatar expression “to view for a long time,” and that Homer’s “Odyssey” is the retelling of a pre-existing Tatar epic.
In Bashkortostan, the journalists suggest, the situation may be even worse. There, one author insists that all modern languages derive from Bashkir, that Greeks “stole” their mythology from the Bashkir people, and that “even the words “Russia” and “Ukraine” come from the Bashkir language.
And in the Chuvash Republic, students are told to believe that in ancient Mesopotamia, there “lived only one people – proto-Chuvashes” and that somewhat later the Chuvash created the world’s great religions, provided the basis for modern agriculture, and even discovered America!
But lest anyone think that this problem is confined to non-Russian peoples, a view that many Russians certainly are likely to have, the two journalists point out that Russian textbooks are often at least as replete with impossible claims.
One text prepared in Moscow by a professor at the State University of Administration, for example, says that the Slavs dominated all of Eurasia from Portual to the Urals already in Neolithic times and that in the Stone Age, “the North from Alaska to Great Britain was Russian.”
Even more outlandishly, the same author suggests that ethnic Russians helped Alexander the Great in his conquests for which he says they received special written recognition and that Russian was the language which people spoke before the Tower of Babel.
According the two authors, the apperance of such ideas in textbooks reflects the growth of local patriotism and nationalism, the desire of people who feel they have been neglected to push themselves forward, and “the unprofessionalism” of the writers on whom the authors of textbooks draw.
The “Novyye izvestiya” journalists say these examples are an occasion more for humor than for concern, but they and several of the experts they talked with pointedly warn that such texts carry with them the danger of the propaganda of nationalism among the young – something that is an increasing problem in the Russian Federation.
But there is another danger as well: In Stalin’s time, as many will recall, Soviet students were told “Ivanov invented baseball.” Now, in Putin’s, they are being told equally absurd things. That could lead the future generation to misunderstand the world or, more likely, to make them more cynical about everything they are told.

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