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  • 8

    Russia and the Mongol Yoke
    History; Posted on: 2008-01-27 01:01:25 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]
    For 200 years, the Russian nation was submerged as a part of the Mongol empire, the largest land empire in history.

    by Matthew Raphael Johnson

    Many debates have been registered concerning the legacy of colonial rule, it might be sufficient to say that occupation by forced under the papacy would have been more destructive, and would have eliminated the Orthodox faith forever, at least as a social and political force. The Eurasian movement has sought to tease out the more positive elements in Mongol overlordship, and have largely depended on the rather deferential treatment of the Orthodox church as a result.

    According to medieval Chinese sources, the Mongols were considered a violent, warlike and a-cultural people. They were dedicated solely to the raising of horses, herding and marauding. But sometime in the early 13th century, a gifted leader named Genghis the Khan (1154-1227) rose and unified the scattered tribes of the Mongolian plain. The central tribes of this plain destroyed the southern groups, and slowly, this disconnected group of herders were molded into a band of horsemen that the world had never seen.

    The unified Horde moved South, into China, and then west, through India, Central Asia and the Middle East. The Turks, threatened, made a hasty alliance with some of the major Russian cities. Russia’s disunity, again, served the country poorly. The alliance did not wait for the Kievan reinforcements in 1224, the divided Russian principalities could not decide on a proper chain of command, and the results are known to all. At the death of Genghis in 1227, the Horde disappears for about 13 years. However, the Horde was merely electing another ruler, and the return of the Mongols this time was meant to be permanent. The major Mongol targets were Riazan and Suzdal, who fell in succession, taking some of the best troops from the Russian coalition. By 1240, most of Russia had been taken, and the southern regions of the country were absorbed into the empire of the Khan. Novgorod was never taken, largely due to the marshy approaches to the city, but they were still forced to pay a substantial tribute for their shaky independence. The Holy City of Kiev was sacked in 1240.

    The reasons for the defeat of Russia are many. The Mongols had a huge advantage in numbers. Various estimates of Mongol troop strength hover between 300,000 and up. These forces were massive for the time. The Mongol horsemen were completely unified under the Khan, and operated as a single unit. Russia herself was the polar opposite, ruled by jealous princes, divided and as concerned about precedent as about military victory.

    The fact that nearly all adult males were horseman warriors, and were taught horseman shop from toddlerhood, the Mongol forces moved quickly. This speed, as much as their martial skill, make it impossible for a concerted defense to be erected, and was too fact for the formation of any alliances. By the time the horsemen had reached Slavic lands, they comprised a hardened, experienced group of men whose bond with their horses was nearly an extension of their body. By 1250, the Mongols were quite literally invincible. The Horde was settled on the Volga, making money through water based trade, and was called the Golden Horde, with its capital at Sarai (literally, the castle). Within less than a generation (by 1260), Khan Uzbek declared independence from Mongolia, and ruled a prosperous trading empire on the Volga.

    The influence of the Horde is another matter, and we might give short summary of some of the literature in this field. Most scholars agree that there was little direct political change. Overwhelmingly, the Mongols were encamped permanently in the south, and would only venture north if taxes and tributes were not paid on time.

    What is normally considered in lectures such as this is the role of Russians under the indirect sovereignly of Sarai. And here, several issues can be summarized. Firstly, the Khan at the castle was the final arbiter of all political disputes. Given the absurdity and fratricide of the old system, this is far from a negative attribute. If anything , the Khan gave the Russian nation its social salvation in that only a single ruler can provide the necessary military unity to survive in the tough neighborhood of central Eurasia. Secondly, the Khans were convinced of their worldwide mission. Genghis, in his correspondence with the papacy, was firm in that his military conquests came into existence because God had provided such victory’s to him. Thirdly, the Khans regularly played their Russian territories and interests off the European powers of the day. The Khans were major European players as much as Asian ones, partially because of their long standing relations with the Genoese, Armenians and Greek merchants. Many European players, including the papacy, had a financial interest in the friendship of Sarai on the Volga, a point often played down in the literature.

    Fourthly, the Mongols developed the head tax, rather than the land tax, a practice to be resurrected later by Peter I. This tax was far heavier than Russians had been used to, and therefore, it was largely these payments that sparked off local revolts. The Mongols used local nobles and princes as their tax gatherers, and it is this practice that will see the end of Mongol domination, but it will also create synergy between Russian and Mongol elites, a synergy that will give birth to modern Russia.

    Fifth, there was some limited intermarriage between Russians and Mongols, showing that race was not a factor in Russian elite marriage choices, but political expediency and class might well have been at the center. The Mongols also used the death penalty, a practice rare in early medieval Russia. The peasant classes remained unchanged under Mongol rule, though their tax burdens grew. Russians were forced to supply military forces to Mongol rulers.

    A few conclusions can be drawn from this: Russia was now alien from the west and its ways. While this is true, it can be overdrawn: Sarai was too close to western merchant interests for this statement to be true absolutely, however, it is true in the sense that Russia will always be “different” from the west. It remains true that the best writers and craftsmen in Russia were forcibly resettled in China and along the southern Volga (i.e. Astrakhan) to work for Mongol lords, a significant “brain drain” that harmed Russian development over the next 200 years. The capital that might have gone for economic development was now going for the financial needs of the increasingly bureaucratic and sedentary horde in Sarai, again, leading to a state of underdevelopment. However, the later centralization of power at Moscow as given its genesis under Mongol rule, and the justification for the weakening of boyar power as well. The Mongols made certain that Moscow would win its fight with Novgorod, which itself separated Russia from the west in many respects. Had Novgorod won the war with the Muscovites, it is conceivable that Slavic peoples would have become satellites of the German, Dutch, Swedish and Danish merchant classes.

    The church remained the one institution free of Mongol influence and free, more importantly, of Mongol taxation. Some local chroniclers even hinted that the Mongols were intimidated by the popularity and holiness of Orthodox monastics, and sought their prayers and intercessions. If true, this shows, without a doubt, of the immense, holy presence of Orthodox monks. No one else made such an impression in the Mongol horsemen.

    Questions from Students

    Is it possible to make an argument that the Mongol influence on Russian was negligible?

    Yes, it is. Whether I accept it or not is another matter. One might say that Mongol rule was indirect, that there was no “occupation” of Russia, merely a regular expectation of tribute. Intermarriage was minimal (which is true), and therefore, much remained what it was before. The church always was a popular and privileged institution, and therefore, Mongol non-interference was not an issue. One might even say that Moscow’s rise, largely based on being the main Mongol tax gatherers, was inevitable regardless, or at least that one major city would have “gathered” the Russian lands out of necessity, and that Mongol dominance was merely a pretext for such organization, one that would have been found elsewhere had the Mongols not invaded.

    I’m not sure I accept this set of ideas, and its promulgation is rare. However, it does crop up whenever Russians are called “Asiatics” by certain western Europeans, which was done often during the Cold War, by the Austrians after Crimea, and by a handful of Ukrainians today. To minimize the Mongol influence is a means of countering this sort of name calling.

    Eventually, many of the Mongol Hordes and their descendants became Islamic. Why?

    Tough question. A simply answer might be their proximity to wealthy centers of Islamic trade. There was no Khazar empire to tempt them to Talmudic Judaism, so Islam made some sense. Orthodoxy was out, largely due to pride and a sense of superiority, but also due to the terrible straits the Byzantine empire found herself in after the Crusades, and it went downhill from there. If anything, Catholicism would have made more economic sense, in that the Mongols were tied into the Italian banking system. However, this was a purely Black Sea endeavor, and likely did not penetrate far enough physically and psychologically into the Mongol consciousness. Islam is almost exclusively a creed dedicated to warfare and state-building, and thus had a rather secular appeal to these leaders.

    Why did the Mongols weaken?

    I have said elsewhere that the Horde became a bureaucratic “state.” The Mongols originally were basically nomadic horsemen/warriors, without a real home base, and this sort of self-sufficiency was a major strength. Eventually, their success, both military and economic, was their downfall, in that they became sedentary businessmen and state builders. Additionally, the organization of Russia around Moscow was another issue. Moscow was blessed by a series of not merely talented and long-lived princes, but also pious and intelligent metropolitans as well, who, in unison, built a set of plans and tactics, designed for the long haul, that slowly chipped away at Mongol power (rather than engaging in an “all out” war, one that might be romantic to the poet, but disastrous to the realist politician). It might seem trite to say that this is “God’s blessing” on Russia, to create a strong Orthodox empire, but it is a very tempting thing to say. Few states have seen this lengthy succession of talented and long-reigning monarchs. One might either say that this was merely coincidence, the luck of the draw, or, I think more realistically, that God really did have a plan for Russia, and it is my belief that He did. We will get into how this worked out later in this series.

    News Source: Matthew Raphael Johnson

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