Wolfram von Sheliha

Dr Wolfram von Scheliha is a senior fellow at the Global and European Studies Institute at the University of Leipzig. He is working on a study examining the reshaping of the Rus’ during the globalisation of the late Middle Ages (Neugestaltung der Rus' im Zeitalter der spätmittelalterlichen Globalisierung). He was also recently involved in a project at the Centre for the History and Culture of East Central Europe (GWZO) at the University of Leipzig examining the relationships between the Slavs and the European steppe peoples. He edited the volume Geschichte der Slavia Asiatica. Quellenkundliche Probleme (Leipzig 2013) with Christian Lübke and Ilmira Miftakhova.


A Eurasian Turn? The depiction of ‘The Tatar Yoke’ in Russian history textbooks since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Wolfram von Scheliha

Medieval history can be highly political, particularly when it concerns post-imperial and post-colonial societies, as contrasting interpretations of history, based on different national perspectives, then frequently clash with one another. In Russia this applies to the 240-year-long Turko-Mongolian dominance (ca 1237–1480) over the Rus’. This period, known as the ‘Tatar Yoke’, is frequently identified in Russian national historiography as being at the root of many negative events in Russia: the isolation from the rest of Europe, Russia’s notorious state of backwardness, the cities that remained underdeveloped for so long and the lack of an urban middle class, the emergence of a despotic and autocratic form of leadership and the development of the apparent ‘slavish’ nature of the Russian. This view corresponds with the western ‘culture gap’ theory: according to which the further east one travels, the more uncivilised and barbaric the inhabitants. An eastern influence over the west can therefore only be a negative development, as manifest in the expression, commonly ascribed to Napoleon, “scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tartar”. This culture gap theory also serves to legitimise the Russian expansion towards the east, constructed as a civilising mission to tame the supposedly barbaric Turkic peoples.

The peoples affected by this eastward expansion, and their descendants, naturally saw, and still see, the situation rather differently. By the end of the nineteenth century they had created their own national narrative, which was however suppressed within the Soviet Union whose historiography took a distinctly patriotic Russian turn. Any form of ‘progressiveness’ ascribed to the predominantly nomadic Turkic people was repudiated. Perestroika and the break-up of the Soviet Union brought about something of a renaissance in national narratives. Diverging views are not so simple to suppress in states defining themselves as democratic as they perhaps were under autocratic or totalitarian regimes. However, clashing views of history can reinforce ethnic conflicts and encourage movements towards independence. For this reason there have been calls for an integrated historiography, with which all peoples living in the Russian Federation can identify.

As early as the 1920s a group of Russian émigrés developed the idea of Eurasianism (also known as Eurasism). Influenced by geopolitical theories that were widespread at the time representatives from a variety of different academic disciplines attempted to prove that the areas which, before being subsumed into the Soviet Union, had once belonged to the Tsarist Empire constituted a naturally and historically determined entity, with a separate culture very different from that of the West. The resulting political demands contained elements of totalitarian ideologies. However, the fundamental idea was new in its desire to bring about a shift in the portrayal of ‘Asian’ elements in Russia; No longer depicting them as barbaric, but rather as a constituent, and therefore positively connoted, part of Eurasian culture.

The Eurasian movement disintegrated at the beginning of the 1930s but the Soviet historian Lev Gumilev seized on the idea in the 1960s and developed it further, adding to it a pseudo-academic, mystical superstructure. Gumilev was prohibited from publishing his works in the Soviet Union. His writings were not available until the Perestroika period, when they were widely adopted. Eurasianism was presented as a potential ‘third way’ between western democracy and Soviet socialism. Despite Eurasianism essentially being an imperialistic idea, it resonated with the Turkic peoples in Russia and Central Asia because it presented them, at least in theory, as equal partners of the Russians. In this respect Eurasianism had potential as a postcolonial integration concept. The ideals behind it also played a formative role in Vladimir Putins’s proposed ‘Eurasian Union’ in 2011.

Eurasianism has many faces in contemporary Russia. These range from extremist agendas from the ranks of the ‘new right-wing’ to mainstream politics and society. Research to date has tended to concentrate on the more radical currents; however this research project investigates Eurasianist ideas in the mainstream, for which textbooks are an excellent source material. Among the reasons for their suitability are: 1. they must be approved before being used in lessons and are therefore constrained within state-accepted boundaries. 2. Textbooks are an ideal platform for comparative studies. Works by different authors or publishing houses can be compared with one other, but new editions and revisions can also reveal diachronic changes. 3. Textbooks are comparatively influential as they shape the succeeding generation’s view of history.

The GEI was the most suitable location to gather the necessary materials. The library does not contain all textbooks published in Russia since 1991 or all editions, but the collection is so comprehensive that I spent four weeks (two weeks in June and two in August) at the Institute fully occupied with reviewing books. No verifiable research findings are yet available as the abundance of texts still requires in-depth analysis. Nevertheless it is possible to record one or two observations: Russian history books have much broader content on the Middle Ages than expected. Textbooks with roots in the Soviet era have generally only been cleansed of overtly Marxist vocabulary and still represent the traditional Russian, patriotic view. Books released in the 1990s, as Russia was seeking contact with the West, lament the separation of the Rus’ from Europe during Mongolian rule. Modifications in terminology are evident in new editions of one particular textbook. The traditional term ‘Tatar Yoke’ referring to Tatar oppression, is replaced in the 2010 edition by the term ‘Yoke of the Horde’. This is an attempt to avoid equating the medieval Turko-Mongols with contemporary Tatars. Some textbooks explicitly explain the difference between the Mongols cited as ‘Tatars’ in the text and contemporary Tatars. One teacher’s guide recommends approaching the subject with ‘utmost sensitivity’ so as not to stoke national conflict. Whereas other books avoid the term ‘yoke’ altogether or analyse its problematic nature. Certain editions compare differing interpretations of the ‘Tatar Yoke’ for example that of a Russian national historian and of Lev Gumilev; encouraging pupils to form their own opinions. Some textbooks take a distinctly Eurasianist position. They emphasise the positive influence of Turko-Mongolian rule over the Rus’, which cemented the specific character of ‘Russian civilisation’. Reference is made to the ‘vertical’ power structure of the Mongols, which was adopted by the Rus’ and consequently ended the sovereign feuds, united the country and led to the rise of Moscow. There is an unmistakeable analogy with the aims expressed by Vladimir Putin in 2000: to strengthen what he called the ‘power vertical’. Medieval history can clearly be highly topical as well as political.


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