The diversion of scholarship on ethnicity by political forces has been studied in Nazi Germany, where folklore became central to national self-perception and consequently suffered from uncritical enthusiasms. Who Gets the Past? is one of the first studies of this phenomenon in another arena.
In the Middle Volga region of Russia, the intellectuals of two ethnic groups are engaged in a protracted competition for the right to claim descent from various ancestries, most dating back to the first millennium A.D. Archeologists from both the Chuvash and the Tatar ethnic groups are attempting to present evidence connecting the groups with Turkic-speakers, Finnish-Ugric groups, Bulgars, or Sarmatians. At stake, according to Victor Shnirelman, are both territorial and political advantages.
Who Gets the Past? tells how and why, from the Stalinist period to the present, these intellectuals have made different, sometimes self-contradictory, claims on the past. The Soviet legacy of reinforcing and politicizing ethnic identities is largely responsible for the original extent of the competition, according to Shnirelman. But the importance of ethnic claims since the Soviet breakup has only contributed to its persistence.