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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Was Tatar Yoke Really All That Bad?

They came from the east to conquer, butcher and pillage. Led by Genghis Khan, the Mongols laid cities and civilization to waste, then ruled cruelly for the next 300 years.

That is how Russian textbooks describe life under one branch of the Mongol empire, the Golden Horde. Its armies were led by Mongols from present-day Mongolia and peopled with foot soldiers of Turkic origin known as Tatars.

That invasion was about 763 years ago, but it still grates on some nerves. The present-day Tatars - the Russian citizens of Tatarstan - aren't happy about being represented in the nation's schools as barbarians. Some are calling for a scholarly revision.

"The Tatar yoke is painted as the most horrible period," said Rafael Khakimov, a historian at the Institute of History in Kazan. "We have our own opinion ... we want the Russian textbooks to be re-examined."

"[Russians] treat us like their worst enemies," agreed Nazif Mirikhanov, who is the official representative of the Tatar republic in Moscow.

Khakimov was an author of a letter sent to the Education Ministry last year asking for a re-evaluation of the depiction of Tatars in school history classes - a letter, by the way, that is part of a grand tradition of Tatarstan officials, writers and intelligentsia worrying aloud about the dim view Russians take of Tatarstan.

In fact, Tatarstan's hand-wringing on this point even became the butt of an old Soviet joke: The Tatarstan Soviet Socialist Republic files a formal complaint with the government about the old Russian proverb "An uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar." The complaint is sent up to the Politburo - which rules in Tatarstan's favor - ordering the proverb to be changed to "An uninvited guest is better than a Tatar."

Historians and representatives of Tatarstan's government aren't asking for the Golden Horde to be depicted from now on as peaceful horse lovers who just happened to wander west.

But they would like a few major achievements to be taken into account.

Tatars say their warrior ancestors, who rolled into Russia in 1223, brought as much good as bad. By the time the Mongol Empire began to break up in the late 15th century, much of the modern Russian state was already in place.

If the Tatars were to make a film of their predicament, then they could choose the scene in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" when a group of Jewish revolutionaries derisively ask "What have the Romans ever done for us?", only to surprise and irk themselves with answers ranging from building roads and aqueducts to laying down the legal system.

So what did the Tatars (or Mongols, if you prefer) give Russia?

Money, says one historian. A revival of Russian culture, says another. Safe borders, religious freedoms and a national postal system, says a third. The first Russian census, says a fourth.

The Mongol empire made a point of occupying wealthy and civilized nations like China and Iran, but Russia's sparsely populated forests held less appeal. Instead, they imposed tribute.

The first paper money to appear in Russia was issued under Mongol rule. The word dengi, or money, even has its origin as a Tatar word, as does the -ir in bankir, or banker, said Mirikhanov.

Harvard historian Richard Pipes, in his book "Russia Under the Old Regime," also lists other commerce-related words that crossed over from Mongol-Tatar languages into Russian, including tamozhnya (customs), kazna (treasury), tovar (good or merchandise), and even chemodan, sunduk and karman, (suitcase, trunk or chest, and pocket).

Under the Golden Horde, the postal system - made up of horse posts spread over 50-kilometer intervals - could send a letter from the banks of the Danube to Mongolia faster than any Russian postal system for centuries. Some might even say quicker than today's rickety network of post offices.

Russian culture also experienced a renaissance under the Golden Horde, according to Khakimov and other historians, because churches were relieved of the onerous burden of paying tribute. Novgorod icon painting and Suzdal architecture developed remarkably in this period.

For decades, if not centuries, the traditional view - both in academic circles and in popular imaginations - was that the Tatar invasion swept in like a natural disaster to destroy Russian culture, isolate Russia from the West and plunge the country into a dark age.

That view is indeed still entertained. But in recent years, major experts on Tatar history from the United States, Europe and Russia have challenged it - so much so that the Encyclopedia Britannica, reflecting these newer developments, now says that "these [earlier] views do not accord with the evidence and should probably be discarded."

At the same time, no one is rushing to paint the Tartar empire as an unusually enlightened one. After all, in some accounts the Golden Horde cooked people alive in enormous frying pans.

"Russian life became terribly brutalized, as witnessed by the Mongol or Turco-Tatar derivation of so many Russian words having to do with repression, such as kandaly and kaidaly (chains), nagaika (a kind of whip) and kabala (a form of slavery)," Historian Pipes has written. "The death penalty, unknown to the law codes of Kievan Rus, came in with the Mongols."

"During these years," Pipes continues, "the population at large first learned what the state was; that it was arbitrary and violent, that it took what it could lay its hands on and gave nothing in return, and that one had to obey it because it was strong."

Khakimov and others arguing for a revision would agree with most all of that, however. As he put it with a nice touch of understatement, "The Middle Ages were not the best period."

"But Europe was also far from civilized," he added. "You can't objectively say that was good, this was bad."

Children in Tatarstan already work from revised textbooks that try to point out the plusses and minuses of Tatar rule. At the national level, the Education Ministry has also moved on appeals like Khakimov's and is working on new "politically correct" textbooks.

"We really need to reflect the polyethnic nature of the country. A lot of students don't even know there are Buddhist or Moslem nationalities in our own history," said Vladimir Batsyn, an official who handles history books at the Education Ministry.

"The Tatars were especially maligned," Batsyn added, in remarks reported recently by The Christian Science Monitor. "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."