Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tatars, Mongols and Hordes, Oh My!

By Kelly Raftery

Back in the olden days, when I completed my Russian Studies degrees, we were taught about something that was referred to as the “Tatar Yoke.”  This rather inaccurate term referred to the Mongol (not Tatar) invasion and control of the burgeoning city-states that would eventually become Russia in the 13th to 15th centuries. 

Many an evening I would sit around a table groaning with food, consuming small crystal glasses of ice-cold vodka toasts and then listen, fascinated, as a Russian who was sharing the meal would begin to expound on the evils done by the “Tatars” to Russians, Russia and the world in general . This was not a philosophical, historical argument, but a heated, emotional presentation about if only Russia had not been invaded by the Golden Horde, it would be a modern, western democracy today. My host would often describe how the Mongols killed indiscriminately, devastated the embryonic Russian systems of governance and religion, introduced “oriental despotism” and made Russia a “backwards” society, which lagged by hundreds of years behind Europe. “What would Russia be today, if not for those filthy, barbaric Mongols?!?!” seemed to be the summary statement of every prolonged speech detailing of the evils of the Mongol Invasion.

A Russian depiction of the Golden
Horde's attack on Suzdal.

Now, as an American, this always struck me as odd, mostly because if you ask an American about, say, their feelings regarding the American Revolution, you would probably get a shrug and “Uh, um...it was a good thing?”  No one in my country could expound emotionally on the crimes against nascent American society committed by the British, and really, much of our history is something we find only in history tomes. But, in Russia, the Mongol invasion was (and is) a deeply personal subject and its negative influences on society were evident and regretted to modern times.

Fast forward a decade or so and I find myself married to someone who may very well be descended from Genghis Khan (an astounding eight percent of men alive today in the former Mongol Empire are, read a bit more about this factoid here) and my perspective shifts to wonder about what the impact of those Mongols on Russia really was. Which is not to assert that the Mongols were nice, peace-loving herders who asked pretty please before they invaded every civilization between the Pacific and the Caspian, but I have often noted that history’s narrative is quite variable, depending on point of view.

Mongol warriors in battle.

The current view of Mongol dominance over Russia is that while brutal initially, over time, it essentially became a financial agreement, by which the ruling lords of Russia paid a tribute to the Golden Horde and for the most part, they were left to their own devices. (An interesting side note is that the Russian word for money—dengi—is one of many bits of vocabulary left behind by the Mongols, along with loshad’ (horse), bazaar (market) and sunduk (wooden chest).)  As long as the money kept coming, the Mongols had no interest in imposing their worldview on the Slavs, or any of the other peoples that they conquered. In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church emerged after two centuries of Mongol rule stronger than it had been previously. However, if a municipality decided that it was no longer interested in paying the Mongols, retribution was swift and harsh.  

After its collapse, the Golden Horde left Russia a postal system, military and government organizations. Russian princes adorned themselves in silks and indulged in other luxuries that only efficient Mongol operation of the Silk Road made possible. The Mongol invasion and occupation also helped to bring forth the concept of a united Russia. On September 8, 1380 Prince Dmitry Donskoi united multiple Princes of Slavic city-states into one united Russian force to fight off the Mongols during the Battle of Kulikova. While the Mongols did not actually leave for another hundred years, this temporary victory is often pointed to as the key moment that formed the Russian nation.   

With time, the Mongol influence on Russia will be reevaluated and reconsidered, based on new evidence and perspectives. But, one cannot deny its lasting impact. As the Russian proverb proclaims, “Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar."