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Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History

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"... an imaginative and dispassionate re-examination of the significance of the Mongol Conquest and its aftermath for Russia’s historical development." —Slavic Review

"On all counts Russia and the Golden Horde infuses the subject with fresh insights and interpretations." —History

"Combining rigorous analysis of the major scholarly findings with his own research, Halperin has produced both a much-needed synthesis and an important original work." —Library Journal

"Halperin’s new book combines sound scholarship and a flair for storytelling that should help publicize this all too unfamiliar tale in the West." —Virginia Quarterly Review

"It is a seminal work that will be repeatedly cited in the future... " —The Historian

"... ingenious and highly articulate... " —Russian Review

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I The Medieval Ethno-Religious Frontier

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During the middle ages two universalistic creeds, christianity and islam, struggled for control of Europe, the Mediterranean world, and the Middle East. Christians and Muslims believed devoutly that all peoples would eventually convert to their own faith, the only true one, and that all false religions would be swept from the earth. In the meantime, theologians of both religions condemned infidels to eternal damnation. Religious doctrine proscribed all (nonviolent) contact, even the breaking of bread, as an abomination. Inevitably, the religious conflict was accompanied by mutual bad feelings, ranging from contempt and suspicion to outright hatred.

Enmity between the two faiths was based, of course, on more than theological differences. Though both Christians and Muslims spent much time fighting their coreligionists, sometimes over matters of doctrine, they also made war on one another. The forces of Islam swept out of the Arabian desert in the seventh century to conquer the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Spain and the Balkans and soon threatened all of Europe. Christian Europe retaliated, with varying success, and through the fifteenth century sought to stem and reverse the Muslim tide. In these wars the sack of towns, the massacre of populations, and all the in-humanities of medieval warfare exacerbated the acrimony between the two cultures and reinforced their prejudices.

 

II Kievan Rus’ and the Steppe

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Historians usually consider the kievan period of russian history, from the migration of the East Slavs into the modern-day Ukraine in the sixth through eighth centuries until the Mongol conquest in the mid thirteenth century, as a golden age of national glory. The heart of the Kievan state was the Dnepr’ valley along the river route that ran from Novgorod in the north, gateway to the Baltic, down south past Kiev to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Kiev, as the seat of the grand prince, became the capital from the ninth century on, and following the baptism of grand prince Vladimir in 988, Kiev became also the seat of the metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church. Separatist tendencies in peripheral regions like Novgorod, Vladimir-Suzdalia, and Galicia-Volhynia were actually a symptom of Kievan prosperity as these regions forged new economic networks apart from the trade along the Dnepr’. The vibrant and devoutly Christian Kievan culture was rich in church architecture and religious literature, and in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Russian elite felt themselves very much a part of the Christian ecumene. With its active international commerce, flourishing cities, “democratic” institutions, and cultural achievements, Kievan Rus’ has been idealized by historians.1 This vision has tended to darken historical judgments of the subsequent Mongol period. A demythologized appreciation of Kievan history provides a surer foundation for estimating the significance of the Mongols in Russian history.

 

III The Mongol Empire and the Golden Horde

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Mongol rule over russia is traditionally considered to have lasted from 1240 to 1480, a century longer than in China or Persia, where the Mongols had maintained their supremacy for nearly a century and a half. The longevity of the Mongol Empire and its successor states, including the Golden Horde, owed much to their flexible and creative administration and to the legacy of Chingis Khan’s charismatic leadership and political acumen. Though he died before the Russian conquest, the figure of the World-Conqueror looms large in any consideration of the Mongol impact in history.

Evaluations of Chingis and his accomplishments tend toward the extremes. For some historians he is the noble savage, the illiterate sky-worshipper whose inspired leadership, flawless judgments of human character, and military genius catapulted the obscure Mongols to the height of world power. For others he is a monumental gangster whose bloodthirsty cruelty and indifference to human life mobilized the barbarian Mongols for a worldwide rampage of death and destruction. Both images derive from uncritical reading of the medieval sources. The demigod emerges from the pages of the so-called Secret History of the Mongols. Though the origin and often the meaning of this text are obscure, it has the virtue of expressing the Mongol point of view.1 Critics of Chingis have relied on chronicles written in the sedentary civilizations overrun by the Mongols, in particular China, Persia, and Russia. These sources attribute the excesses of Mongol conquest to innate depravity. Obviously neither of these views can be taken at face value. Empire-building is an invariably destructive process, unwelcome to the conquered. Tacitus immortalized the darker side of Roman expansion when he noted that the Romans made a wilderness and called it peace. Chingis Khan’s military and political genius and charismatic leadership cannot be questioned; neither can the number of lives lost during his pursuit of glory. The same is true of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon. Chingis was no more cruel, and no less, than empire-builders before and since. Moral judgments are of little help in understanding his importance, and none is advanced here.

 

IV The Mongol Administration of Russia

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The franciscan missionary carpini, who, on the pope’s behalf, passed through Russia on his way to Karakorum shortly after the conquest, described the first Mongol administrators. These were the baskaki (a word of Turkic origin, which the Mongols doubtless acquired from the peoples they overran and assimilated).1 According to Carpini’s report, the baskaki oversaw the collection of tribute, conscripted troops, and maintained order, that is, suppressed opposition to Mongol rule.2 (There were tax-farmers who were not baskaki, notably the Muslim tax-farmers expelled from a series of northeastern Russian cities in 1262.)3 The baskaki were stationed in the Russian forest zone, but as circumstances changed the Horde adapted its administrative methods and recalled the baskaki to the steppe. Their duties were taken over by envoys who brought directives from Sarai, where the bureaucracy now included specialists who followed developments in specific regions of Russia. The change did not constitute a loosening of the Mongols’ grip. Though they left the political infrastructures of the Russian principalities intact, the Mongols exercised authority very effectively in Russia during most of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries.4

 

V The Mongol Role in Russian Politics

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The mongol expansionist campaigns of the thirteenth century decisively altered the political fates of many lands, including those, like Russia and Eastern Europe, that the Mongols chose to leave with some degree of autonomy. Though these areas retained their political institutions and indigenous ruling classes, the Mongol presence on the steppe was a powerful factor in their politics. Mongol manipulation was a matter of course, and forcible coercion not uncommon. In Eastern Europe, the Golden Horde’s influence declined in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, though it never ceased, but in Russia the Tatars’ interference in regional politics continued almost unabated until the complete collapse of Mongol power west of the Urals.

Despite the importance of the Mongol factor, Russian politics continued to evolve internally, and as a result, the Golden Horde had perforce to react to developments not of its own choosing. The Horde’s tactics changed in response to new conditions in the Russian principalities, but its long-range goals remained essentially the same. Since the Golden Horde’s archives did not survive Tamerlane’s sack of Sarai, historians must infer these goals from the Mongols’ behavior during their lengthy overlordship. In doing this they run the risk either of underestimating the Mongols’ political sophistication by reducing their motives to simple extortion or of crediting the Horde with excessively subtle intentions. As our knowledge of Tatar activities is based largely on the Russian chronicles, the danger of distortion is especially great. Keeping in mind how things looked from Sarai and the internal dynamics of the Horde’s socio-political structure is the best way to analyze the Golden Horde’s policies.

 

VI The Russian “Theory” of Mongol Rule

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The mongol conquest and the years of oppression that followed created awkward problems for Christian Russia’s writers and intellectuals. The anomaly of Russia’s pragmatic and often cooperative relations with hated religious enemies was of course a familiar difficulty, for the East Slavs had been trading, intermarrying, and allying themselves with steppe enemies for centuries. The Russian bookmen had long since learned to skirt the dangerous logical corollaries of this situation with the ideology of silence, as Christians and Muslims all along the medieval ethno-religious frontier had done in similar circumstances. Now, however, the Russians faced a new and much greater threat to the religious and intellectual basis of their culture: they, the wards and agents of an invincible god, had been rapidly and efficiently subjugated by infidel hordes whose power in the foreseeable future was clearly unassailable. The Russians’ solution to this second intellectual problem was an extension of their solution to the first.

 

VII Economic and Demographic Consequences

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The immediate impact of the mongol invasions was catastrophic beyond anything the Russians had previously experienced. The Mongols had combined the siege weaponry of the Chinese and the Muslims and used it on an unprecedented scale, assaulting cities with thousands of catapults and battering rams day and night. When cities fell the Mongols would sometimes raze them and massacre the inhabitants, for though they were neither the first nor the last to do so, they were waging a war of terror. Merciless destruction spread panic before the Mongol armies, a powerful weapon, and also assured against armed centers of resistance in the Mongols’ strategic rear. Medieval warfare was seldom gallant, and the Mongols were the greatest practitioners of the art.

The corpses pierced with Mongol arrowheads that archaeologists have found amid burned-out rubble vividly evoke the nature of the Mongol conquest. However, archaeology has also been particularly useful in assessing its economic and demographic aftermath.1 Before the Mongols came, late Kievan Rus’ had been reasonably prosperous. Its cities carried on extensive international commerce with both East and West while sustaining a variety of artisanal activities, and its farms produced enough to support the urban populations.2 The Mongol campaigns of 1237–1240 shattered this economy. Many cities lay in ruins, their populations largely slaughtered. From among the survivors and from the cities less harshly dealt with, laborers and skilled artisans were deported to the steppe to raise the new Mongol cities along the lower Volga or else sold into slavery. The permanent decline of a number of artisanal skills reflects the Tatars’ most ruinous effects on urban life. Several skills disappeared entirely, including the art of cloisonné enameling for the luxury market. In the countryside crops were burned and livestock run off. The Russian forests probably hid many villages from the Mongol cavalry, but any settlements in the path of the advancing armies were destroyed. Population declined throughout Russia, most precipitously in the plundered cities (the great population shifts the Mongols caused were a later phenomenon).3 Even if Russia had not been abruptly cut off from foreign markets, the decline in agricultural and artisanal production would have left little surplus for trade. Though the Russians had probably stopped minting coins before the Mongols arrived, it was a century after the conquest before economic conditions were favorable enough to begin again.

 

VIII The Mongols and the Muscovite Autocracy

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In the sixteenth century, following the disintegration of mongol power, Moscow’s hereditary grand princes became autocratic rulers, stripping the other princely families of their autonomy and limited sovereign rights. With Muscovy’s power in Russia by then unchallenged, the new rulers, after 1547, bore the title tsar’, or emperor. Conservative Russian historians of the Imperial period of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries regarded this development with approval. However, their liberal and radical contemporaries did not see the evolution of an autocratic regime as progress, and the modern Soviet attitude is somewhat ambivalent (since the autocracy, though “progressive” and historically necessary, oppressed the masses). The autocracy has found few defenders among Western scholars, particularly in the twentieth century, or among Russian emigré scholars. In any case, critics of all times and political persuasions have attributed the direction of Russian politics after the Mongol period to the Golden Horde. Certainly the Mongol influence on Muscovy’s political development was immense. The Mongols played a role in Moscow’s emergence as the unifying force in medieval Russia, provided some of the institutions that made Moscow strong, and influenced Moscow’s imperial vision. Still, these elements alone did not determine Moscow’s political future. The Mongols facilitated rather than caused the appearance of that Muscovite autocracy which endured, in one form or another, until modern times. To see how this was true, we must begin by analyzing the importance of the Golden Horde in Moscow’s rise to preeminence in Russia.

 

IX The Mongols and Russian Society

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Historians have usually taken the russian bookmen at their word and accepted their picture of the Tatars as an alien race, whose ways the Russians neither understood nor wished to understand. On religious grounds alone, the Mongols were hateful as infidels, and on top of this they had plundered and burned the Russian cities, ravaged the Russian countryside, and then stayed on as Russia’s overlords. Russian writers of the age naturally heaped abuse on their conquerors, using hostile epithets when discussing them as a matter of course and as a matter of duty. In this literary atmosphere of religious and political hatred, any expressed familiarity with the Tatars and Tatar customs carried a suggestion of both blasphemy and treason. Yet for three centuries the Mongols were an integral, unavoidable fact of Russian existence, and Russians, whether they wanted to or not, became intimately familiar with them, both as individuals and as a society. Despite the heavy emphasis in the sources on military encounters, contacts between the two peoples took a variety of forms, including diplomacy, trade, and even intermarriage. Orthodox Christianity dictated that the only proper context in which Russian and Tatar could meet was mortal combat, but the exigencies of real life dictated otherwise. As a consequence, it would be a mistake, when considering the Mongol impact on Russian society and social history, to accept at face value, as many have done, the medieval Russian writers’ literary pose.

 

X Cultural Life

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If only for economic reasons, the initial impact of the mongol conquest on Russia’s cultural life, on its literature, arts, and architecture, was severe. The destructive campaigns of 1237–1240 and the rigorous taxation that followed drastically depleted the wealth of the land, and much of Russian cultural activity dried up as a result. Not surprisingly, its most visible and expensive manifestation, church construction, virtually came to a halt for a hundred years. (There may have been regional exceptions, as in Novgorod and Rostov, both of which escaped the brunt of the Mongol onslaught, and in Galicia-Volhynia.1) Many crafts traditions foundered, some of them disappearing forever, as those craftsmen not impressed into Mongol service found that patrons had fallen upon hard times. Nor was the damage to Russian cultural life limited to the effects of a vanished economic surplus. Nearly every major library of Kievan Rus’ perished as the Mongols systematically razed the cities of the Dnepr’ valley (Novgorod, again, constituting the significant exception). The consequences of this loss for Russian cultural development cannot be estimated, but the disappearance practically overnight of the manuscripts containing hundreds of years of cultural achievement may well have left in its wake a serious cultural lag.

 

XI Conclusion

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During the mongol period, medieval russia chanced to be at the interface of two vast and irreconcilable worlds. Considered from the West, Russia lay at the distant rim of European Christendom, on the most remote reaches of the frontier. Contemplated from the East, Russia was the westernmost of the huge Mongol dominions stretching all the way from the China Sea. It is part of the conundrum of medieval Russia that it was part and yet not a part of both realms. Tied culturally to Byzantium and the West, politically to the pagan and later Muslim East, Russia under the Golden Horde was from either perspective an anomaly.

Medieval Russia was, furthermore, a conquered land whose conquerors were often not in evidence. The enormous pastures of the Pontic and Caspian steppe supported large nomadic armies close enough to Russia that the Mongols found direct occupation unnecessary. The consequences of this, both for Russian history and for the writing of it, were profound. Elsewhere, in both the Christian-Muslim conquest societies of Europe and the Middle East and in the Mongol realms, conquerors dwelt as aristocratic minorities amid their subjects. These resident overlords tended in time to adopt some of the cultural traits of the people they ruled. But while the Mongols of the Yüan dynasty in China, for example, were learning calligraphy and an appreciation of Chinese poetry, most of the Mongols of the Golden Horde were still spending their days in the saddle and their nights in tents. The result for Russia was prolonged subjugation to Mongols whose cavalry remained as deadly as ever, and when cultural borrowing occurred, the Russians were influenced by their masters rather than the other way around.

 

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