Charles E. Ziegler


     The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations
     Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling, Series Editors
     Greenwood Press / Westport, Connecticut · London / 1999


     Maps:      The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History / 1992

                    The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia / 1995

                    Dorling-Kindersley Atlas of World History / 1999

                    Encyclopaedia Britannica / 1985











Kievan Russia and the Mongol Experience



You have your millions. We are numberless, numberless, numberless. Try doing battle with us! Yes, we are Scythians! Yes, Asiatics, with greedy eyes slanting!


Aleksandr Blok, "The Scythians," in John Stallworthy and Peter France, eds., The Twelve and Other Poems ( New York: Random House, 1970). Reprinted by permission of Random House.





            For many Russians, Ukraine, which gained its independence in 1991 along with the other fourteen republics of the former USSR, is more than simply another Slavic country. The first state of the eastern Slavic peoples was centered around Kiev, Ukraine's capital. It was the Kievan state that adopted Orthodox Christianity as Russia's official religion, and it was in Kievan Russia that the Russian language acquired written form and its distinct Cyrillic alphabet. Although Moscow would emerge as the political center of Russia two centuries after the Mongol invasion, Kiev's early history is an inseparable part of Russia's historic identity.


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The rise of Kiev begins, according to the Primary Chronicle, a twelfth century account of early Russian history mixing fact and legend, with the city's occupation by the shadowy Oleg, a Varangian, from 882 to his death in 913. Oleg came to Kiev from Novgorod, the ancient northern city where, according to the Primary Chronicle, warring tribes agreed (in 860-862) to invite princes from Scandinavia to rule over them. Of the three princes who accepted their offer, only Riurik survived to establish the first Russian dynasty. Oleg, according to this account, campaigned southward along the Dniepr River, captured strategic Kiev (the city is situated on a hill overlooking a bend of the river), and united it with Novgorod, establishing the Kievan state.



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Oleg was succeeded by Prince Igor, who expanded Kievan authority and conducted a series of campaigns against Byzantium in 941-944. Igor was murdered by one of the tribes tributary to Kiev, the Derevlians, and his wife Olga took his place. A rather devious figure, Olga visited cruel revenge on those who had murdered her husband. When a Derevlian delegation proposed that the new widow marry their prince, she graciously assented, invited the delegation to be carried by her servants in their boat to a splendid banquet, and then had them dropped in a huge trench and buried alive. A second delegation sent to Kiev was burned to death in a bath house. Next Olga invited herself to the city where her husband was buried, held a huge funeral feast for her hosts (who were either very trusting or not terribly astute), and then had her followers slaughter some 5,000 of the drunken revelers. She then laid siege to the Derevlians' city, burning it and imposing heavy tribute on the survivors.



Varangians of Kievan Rus (reconstruction: Angus McBride / 1979)


The warrior on the left was born and raised in Kiev as can be seen by his dress influenced by Slav and Asian neighbours. That includes his white linen tunic, baggy trousers and leather boots. Anothr Asiatic trait adopted by some Kievan Varangians was the tattooing of the hands and arms. His helmet is also of Turcic origin.
The warrior to the right is dressed and armed like recent immigrant from Scandinavia




Olga was the first Christian Kievan ruler. Although she converted to Christianity around 954-955, her son and successor Sviatoslav was pagan, and it was not until 988, under Vladimir ( 980-1015), that the Kievan state formally adopted Byzantine Christianity. Sviatoslav greatly expanded Kievan territory with his subjugation of the Viatichi, an eastern Slavic tribe, and his campaigns against the Khazars, Alans, and Bulgars. Following an unsuccessful campaign against Byzantium, Sviatoslav was killed by the Pechenegs, a fierce tribe of Central Asians. Legend has it that the chief of the Pechenegs had Sviatoslav's skull lined with gold and used it as a drinking cup.



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Prince Vladimir's forcible conversion of Kievan Russia to Orthodox Christianity and his marriage to the Byzantine emperor's sister strengthened Kiev's links to Constantinople. Reportedly, Vladimir considered the pros and cons of the region's major religious influences--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As Nicholas Riasanovsky has pointed out, the story of how the Russians chose Orthodoxy over Islam or Judaism may be apocryphal (supposedly Islam was unacceptable because it rejected alcohol, Judiasm because it was a stateless religion of a defeated people, and Roman Catholicism because it lacked splendor), but it does indicate the range of choices available in this cosmopolitan environment. Historians David MacKenzie and Michael Curran note that Vladimir's emissaries were more impressed with the pageantry and glory of the Greek Orthodox ritual than with the philosophical depth of Orthodox beliefs. This preoccupation with ceremony over substance would be a constant in Russian and Soviet history.

The adoption of Orthodoxy would have a formative impact on Russian development. Geography combined with religion to isolate Russia from many of Europe's later cultural, philosophical, and political currents, most notably the Reformation and the Renaissance. Russia in the Kievan period, however, was no less advanced than Western Europe, and had close contacts with many European principalities. Kiev's location on the Dniepr River made it a critical stop on the trade route "from the Varangians to the Greeks"; that is, from Scandinavia to Byzantium. Much of Kiev's prominent position was due to its location astride the trade routes of this period.

By the middle of the eleventh century, Kiev controlled most of the territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and from the Carpathian Mountains to the Oka River in the east. Prince Iaroslav the Wise ( 1019-1054) ruled over the Kievan state at its zenith, developing and expanding the Orthodox Church and implementing the first written Russian laws, The Russian Justice.



The Kievan political system was authoritarian, but much less so than its successor state Muscovy. Many scholars have remarked on the "democratic" character of certain political institutions, especially the veche (town assembly) and the duma (council of boyars, or nobility). The veche was an assembly, dating from prehistoric times, of free heads of households who were called together from time to time to resolve questions of war, succession, or other major issues. The veche was a disorderly form of direct democracy, with freewheeling debate where decisions were made unanimously rather than by majority rule.

The boyars' duma also preceded the institution of the prince, and served as his advisory and consultative body. The institution of the duma persisted through the Muscovite and imperial periods, resurfaced as Tsar Nicholas II's concession to limited constitutional government in 1907, and was recreated in 1993 as democratic Russia's main legislative assembly.




Kiev's major political institution was the office of prince. Typical Kievan princely functions included providing military leadership, dispensing justice, protecting the Orthodox Church, and administering the government through his druzhina, or military retainers. Janet Martin has argued that a well-defined political system had evolved in Kievan Russia by the eleventh century, in which Kiev was the center of princely authority, legitimate rulers were those who descended from the Riurikid dynasty, and succession occurred laterally by order of seniority.

Interestingly, Kievan law and punishments were relatively mild by the standards of that era. The Russian laws formulated early in the eleventh century by Grand Prince Iaroslav--The Russian Justice--dealt largely with property crimes and assessed fines for most offenses. Iaroslav also developed a Church Statute in an effort to define the respective jurisdictions of princely, boyar, and Church authority. In supporting the Church's juridical authority, the Kievan government was able to impose Christian legal and social norms through the Russian lands.

Kievan society was complex and stratified. At the top was the princely class, served by the druzhina. Next in the hierarchy were the boyar nobility, who energetically defended their interests against princely encroachment, and the Orthodox clergy. Below the boyars and clergy were the liudi or free middle-class, largely urban craftsmen; owners of blacksmith shops, tanneries, or carpentry shops; and moderately prosperous merchants and rural landowners. Propertyless urban workers and free peasants constituted the next level of society. The lowest classes were debtors (the "half-free") and slaves.

There is some dispute about the Kievan form of government. Soviet historians, who analyzed Kievan politics from a Marxian class perspective, described it as a European-style feudal system, with powerful landowners exploiting peasant labor and a complex hierarchy of mutual obligations. Kiev does appear to have been highly decentralized, like a feudal system, but Kiev was as much a trading state as it was agricultural. As Janet Martin points out, the Kievan peasantry were not tied to the land, as are serfs, but were free landowners. They farmed and shared responsibilities for taxes and other obligations jointly, through the village commune. The boyar nobility owned rural estates, but as Martin observes, they largely raised horses and livestock, and did not necessarily interfere or compete with peasant farming.

The economic life of Kiev revolved mostly around trade and agriculture. Writings of the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus described how the Kievan princes would tour their territories collecting tribute, including boats, which they would then use to transport their exports down the broad Dniepr River to Constantinople. Kiev exported wax, honey, furs, flax, and slaves, and in turn imported wines, silks, spices, ironware, and glassware from Byzantium, Asia, and eastern Europe.

The larger towns like Suzdal, Novgorod, Riazan, and Smolensk were centers of medieval Kievan political, ecclesiastical, and commercial life. Major cities probably had 10,000 to 20,000 inhabitants; Kiev might have been as large as 50,000, roughly comparable to London of that period. Kievan Russia's houses, shops, and churches were built of wood, so fire was a common danger. Wood was plentiful, but its extensive use for construction means that we know little about Kievan structures, since only archaeological ruins remain from that time. Various trades were practiced in Kievan towns, and the major urban centers boasted a marketplace where all manner of products were bought and sold. To protect their wealth, Russian medieval princes usually built a fortress, or kremlin, basically a stockade of logs fortified by towers. Later kremlins, like that in Moscow, would be constructed of more enduring stone and brick.

The great majority of people in medieval Kievan Russia lived in the countryside and farmed for a living. The peasants used slash and burn techniques to clear patches of forest, moving on when the soil in a particular area became depleted. Kievan agriculture consisted of cattle raising and wheat cultivation in the south; rye, flax, hemp, barley, and oats were produced in the north. They also raised horses, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens, fished in nearby lakes and rivers, and gathered mushrooms and wild berries to supplement their diet. Honey, beeswax, and furs were quite important to Kievan agriculture and trade, as were metalwork and textiles. A portion of what the peasants produced was allocated to the Kievan princes as tribute or taxes, and they in turn extended their protection to the rural population.

In religious matters, Kievan culture combined the early indigenous pagan Slavic beliefs with the strong influence of Byzantine Orthodox Christianity. The Church and the Kievan state cooperated in symbiotic fashion; indeed, Orthodox Christianity provided much of the cultural glue that held the decentralized Kievan principalities together. Nicolai Petro has suggested that the early relationship between church and state could be considered one of "harmony," with the Church acting as moral conscience and supporter of the state. This symbiotic relationship ended with Peter the Great's subordination of the Church to the state early in the eighteenth century. From then on the Russian state dominated and regulated Church affairs; in turn, the Orthodox Church promoted the idea that the tsar was God's direct representative on earth.

Kievan culture at this time was heavily influenced by Byzantium through the Greek Orthodox Church connection. Kievan Russia accepted Byzantine Christianity uncritically. Russia's Orthodox clergy stressed the ritualistic and physical aspects of worship: the beauty of religious icons, the splendor of golden cupolas, and the joyousness of ringing bells. As James Billington notes in The Icon and the Axe, Russian Orthodox services feature the interdependence of sight, sound, and smell, in the form of icons, religious hymns, and incense, much as in the pre-Vatican II Catholic ritual.

The visual nature of Russian Orthodoxy was reflected in the primary artwork of the period, Russian forms of the Byzantine icon. These twodimensional paintings of tempera on wood depicted saints such as Boris and Gleb, Kievan princes who were cruelly murdered by their brother Sviatopolk (called "the Damned," who ruled 1015-1019), and various historical and religious themes. Icons were daily reminders of the presence of God in all aspects of life; their pictorial representation of spirituality was especially important for average Russians, who could neither read nor write. Icons decorated the interior of every Orthodox church and, from the earliest Christian times, Russian families kept icons on their walls or in a special corner of the house. Many early icons have survived; some of the best examples can be found at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, the cathedrals of the Kremlin in Moscow, and the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery in Sergiev Posad (formerly Zagorsk), outside of Moscow.

Russian Orthodoxy differs from other branches of Christianity in that it did not develop a rational or inquisitive theology. There was, for example, no Russian counterpart to the Western Jesuit tradition of critical scholarship, and attempts at innovation were strenuously resisted by the faithful. Orthodox teachings stressed uncritical obedience to political and religious authority and did not hold science or secular learning in high esteem. The Church's influence reinforced strongly conservative tendencies in Russian society and inhibited scientific and technical development.

Russian literature of the time, like that in medieval Europe, was strongly religious. The introduction of a written alphabet by the Byzantine monks Cyril and Methodius, by way of what is now Bulgaria,  was intended as a means of spreading Christianity to the Slavs. Written works were therefore to serve a purpose, to reinforce belief in God. The earliest Russian writings consisted of collections of readings from the Gospels, lives of the saints, and sermons. Secular literature as we know it did not exist. However, some works such the Kievan chronicles, including the Primary Chronicle, blended history and politics with religion and myth. These early chronicles are valuable partly as historical records, and partly for their insights into the culture and political struggles of the time. Church Slavonic served as both the written and spoken language of worship for medieval Russia, and was intelligible to all worshippers, unlike the use of Latin in Catholic masses of the same period.

One notable example of historical narrative from the late twelfth century is the Lay of the Host of Igor. Not overtly religious, the Lay is an account in verse of an unsuccessful Russian campaign against the Polovtsy, a Turkic people who first invaded Kievan territory in the mideleventh century. In addition to written works, medieval Russia also possessed a strong oral tradition. Secular epic poems (byliny) that recounted the partly mythical, partly real adventures of ancient Russian bogatyri (heroic warriors) were very popular among the people. These byliny and other songs would be sung at festivals and weddings by bards, who would also recount magical Russian folk tales for their audience.

The most prominent examples of medieval Russian architecture were likewise religious. While most Orthodox churches built of wood did not survive, there are a number of impressive stone churches that have been preserved. Among the most notable examples are the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev, the St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod, and the Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir. Russian churches are quite different from the massive Gothic cathedrals of medieval France, England, and Germany. Some are virtually square; others may resemble a pile of building blocks of various shapes. Most are distinguished by oriental cupolas (onion domes) surmounting one or more drums, with a cross at the very peak. Mosaics, frescoes, and icons decorated the interiors. While Gothic cathedrals inspire awe, Russian churches strike the observer as whimsical and colorful on the outside, exotic and warm on the inside.




          The half-century following the death of Iaroslav the Wise in 1054 saw a period of constant civil wars among his less able sons Iziastav, Sviatoslav, and Vsevolod. Next came a period of political fragmentation, de- centralization, and dynastic struggle among the northern princes, from about 1100 to 1237, called the appanage period in Russian history. The term comes from the custom of Russian princes dividing their territories among their sons, granting each an appanage (udel). The appanage period witnessed the proliferation of princely families and of the boyars who served as their retainers. The immunities and privileges granted to the boyars, such as the power to collect taxes and administer justice, eroded the peasants' social and economic position. The peasantry, who had been largely free landholders during the Kievan era, were gradually transformed into renters during the appanage period, and finally became serfs tied to the land by the end of the sixteenth century.



This proliferation of small principalities greatly weakened the political unity of Russia and made the land vulnerable to foreign conquest. The Polovtsy, a Turkish people, were one of the major forces threatening the Kievan state from the latter part of the eleventh century to the middle of the thirteenth. Grand Prince Vladimir Monomakh, an able ruler ( 11131125), and his son Mstislav ( 1125-1132) fought the Polovtsy and enacted some progressive domestic measures (for example, Monomakh's social legislation to help the poor), but Kiev was clearly in decline relative to other major Russian cities by the middle of the twelfth century.

Factors often cited as contributing to this decline include the weak and decentralized nature of the Kievan political system, debilitating political and social conflicts, external aggression, the decline of trade, and perhaps most important, the uncertainties of princely succession. Scholars are divided on whether Kiev declined in absolute terms, or only relative to other emerging Russian city-territories like Vladimir, Novgorod, Rostov, Suzdal, Chernigov, Periaslavl, and Smolensk. Whatever the truth, the various Kievan states were unable to present a unified defense against outside forces.

Following the death of Grand Prince Iaropolk II in 1139 the Kievan state's luster faded, and two regional centers--Volyhnia and Galicia in the southwest (present-day western Ukraine and Belarus), and VladimirSuzdal in the northeast--emerged as prominent states in the century preceding the Mongol invasion. Prince Iaroslav Osmomysl ( 1153-1187) developed Galicia into a strong state, to the point where he defended Kiev against the Asian nomads of the steppes. Prince Roman of Volyhnia ( 1197-1205) united his territory with Galicia, defending his lands against the threat of nomads, Lithuanians, Poles, and Hungarians.

The emergence of the northeast was linked in large part to the migration of peoples from the Kiev area in the twelfth century. Although agriculturally less fertile, this area to the east of Moscow, between the Volga and Oka Rivers, was sufficiently removed from the feuding princes and nomadic marauders to provide a measure of security. One of the most powerful Rostov princes was Iurii Dolgorukii ( "Long Arm," 1149- 1157), son of Vladimir Monomakh. Prince Iurii waged a ten-year struggle for control of Kiev, a position from which he could establish a claim to political supremacy over the south.

The city-state of Novgorod had the reputation of being prosperous, fiercely independent, and proud--its full title was "Lord Novgorod the Great." According to the Primary Chronicle the Varangian prince Riurik, founder of the Kievan dynasty, first came to Novgorod in 862. Not only was the city one of the main trading partners of Kiev, it also served as a prominent commercial link between the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples along the Baltic Sea and the Asiatic Bulgars of the Volga region. Located northwest of Moscow, at its height Novgorod controlled a huge area from Russia's far north east to the Ural Mountains.


Novgorod citizen, as depicted on a 12th century icon


Novgorod also stands out as a city-state in which strong constraints were put on princely authority. The city's veche evolved into a strong institution in the late eleventh/early twelfth century, circumscribing the authority of the mayor (posadnik) and the archbishop, and asserting its right to appoint the city's prince. The veche frequently appointed princes who were outsiders, and then required them to reside outside the city proper. The veche decided issues of war and peace, mobilized the army, proclaimed laws, and levied taxes. In addition, a Council of Notables, presided over by the archbishop and consisting largely of boyars and local officials, constituted Novgorod's aristocratic assembly.

During the twelfth century there were frequent clashes between the Rostov-Suzdal princes and their boyars, who resisted the princes' costly foreign policy adventures. Iurii Dolgorukii's son Andrei Bogoliubskii ( 1157-1174) sought to control the key city of Novgorod. He also attacked and sacked Kiev in 1169, ending decisively that city's central position in early Russia. Andrei chose to rule from the northern city of Vladimir rather than Kiev. The high point of northeast rule was achieved under Andrei's younger brother Vsevolod ( 1177-1212), who subordinated the southern lands to Vladimir-Suzdal rule.

The recurring conflict between boyar nobility and princes in late Kievan Russia was not unlike the disputes between King John I and the English nobility at about the same time. However, while political struggle in early thirteenth-century England resulted in signing the Magna Carta and introduced the principle of limited royal authority, in Russia he conflict weakened the state and facilitated the Mongol conquest. Kievan Russia was not an easily defended island, like England, but a vulnerable, open territory located at the intersection of powerful military forces.

Had Russia's geographic position been more favorable, perhaps those elements of democratic government and limited authority might have been reinforced. As it was, the Mongol invasion and two centuries of foreign oppression highlighted the need for unchallenged centralized authority and domestic repression to protect the Russian state. It was a lesson that Russia's rulers would use to justify over seven hundred years of authoritarian governance.






In 1223 a fierce group of Asiatic warriors swept into Russia through the passes of the Caucasian Mountains, defeated a combined force of Russians and Polovtsy at the Kalka River, and then disappeared. The Mongols, or Tatars as the Russians called them, had under the great Genghis Khan ( 1167-1227) conquered northern China and Central Asia, and on their return to Mongolia briefly engaged the Russians in battle. Fourteen years later the Mongols would return to Russia, this time determined to subjugate the territory as part of their campaign to conquer Europe. From 1236 to 1238 the Mongols attacked and defeated the Volga Bulgars, destroyed Russian Riazan, and conquered Vladimir and Suzdal. Novgorod, surrounded by dense forests and treacherous bogs, escaped annihilation, but the city was forced to pay tribute to the Mongols.


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A Mongol warrior as depicted on a Chinese miniature



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The Mongols renewed their Russian campaign in 1240-1242, conquering Kiev and subduing Hungary, Galicia, and southern Poland. Their sophisticated military tactics, highly mobile form of warfare, and extensive military experience made them a formidable foe. The Mongols trained their young men to fight from an early age through hunting. In their military campaigns they employed an advanced system of communications, using scouts and a system of signal flags and messengers. They adroitly employed enveloping movements and feints, and readily adapted foreign technologies, such as Persian siege machines, to the Mongolian style of attack. Kievan military practices, by contrast, resembled those in Europe, and consisted largely of heavily armored cavalry (the prince and his druzhina), usually augmented by poorly armed peasant conscripts. Although the Russians fought fiercely, they were no match for the Mongols.

 As many historians have noted, the constant feuding and division among Russia's principalities, and their consequent inability to unite and resist the invaders, made them easy prey. The 1236 attack on the Volga Bulgars, located directly east of Vladimir-Suzdal, should have alerted the Russian princes to the Mongol danger. Perhaps they believed that the Mongols posed no greater threat than the Pechenegs or Polovtsy, who engaged the Russians in sporadic battles along the frontier, while trading and even intermarrying with the Russians. In any case, they were woefully unprepared for the swift and thorough destruction visited on them by the Mongol warriors.

Russia was not the Mongols' sole objective, but rather one stage in their drive to conquer Europe. However, just as the Mongols were poised to launch an assault against the rest of Europe and fulfill Genghis Khan's dream of a drive "to the last sea," the Great Khan Ogedei died in Karakorum and the campaign was called off. The feared assault on western Europe would not be resumed. The Russian lands became the westernmost part of the Mongol empire, with Batu Khan establishing the headquarters of his Golden Horde (large tribal group) at Sarai on the lower Volga River. Sarai served as the Mongol capital of the Golden Horde, to which Russian princes were obliged to make periodic journeys to pay tribute and pledge their loyalty.

Although the Mongols were skillful conquerors, they did not have enough administrators to rule Russian territories directly. Instead, the khan at Sarai granted a patent (iarlyk), or official appointment, to the various Russian princes, giving them the right to rule certain domains. In exchange the princes would provide tribute to the Mongols. Initially, this was one-tenth of everything in the principality--livestock, food, and population. In this way the Mongols obtained troops and horses for their army, along with slaves, furs, silver, and other goods. Later, as Mongol control weakened, the khans delegated primary responsibility for tax collection to the prince of Moscow, thus elevating him to the status of grand prince and contributing to Moscow's emergence as the premier Russian city.

In Novgorod, Prince Aleksandr Nevskii cooperated with the Mongols, apparently reasoning that since resistance was futile, it would be better to strike a favorable arrangement with Batu Khan in the south. This would free Novgorod to consolidate its authority in the north. Aleksandr had acquired the nickname "Nevskii" when he surprised and routed a Swedish invasion fleet along the Neva River in 1240. This bold warrior conducted a series of campaigns against the Lithuanians, Swedes, and Germans, his Christian neighbors to the west. In 1242 his forces defeated the German Teutonic Knights on the ice of Lake Chud, in present-day Estonia, a battle immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film Aleksandr Nevskii. This work by the Soviet Union's greatest director was sanctioned by the dictator Joseph Stalin, who valued the film's skillful use of early Russian history to mobilize Soviet patriotism against the looming threat from Hitler's Germany. Eisenstein's film was pulled from public circulation after Germany and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact in August 1939, but was shown again after the German invasion in June 1941.

Mongol rule lasted for about one century in the western part of Russia, and nearly two centuries in the eastern region. The impact of the Mongol invasion on Russia has been subject to dispute among scholars. Certainly they visited enormous destruction on the Russians, laying waste to many cities and slaughtering people by the thousands. But some major cities escaped destruction ( Novgorod, Tver, Iaroslavl, and Rostov), and other areas recovered fairly quickly.

Some prominent Russian observers--the nineteenth-century poet Aleksandr Blok, and the twentieth-century historian George Vernadsky, for example--asserted that Mongol rule had a major formative impact on Russian culture. These "Eurasianists," as they were called, claimed that the Mongol experience had made Russia an Asian nation, or at least a nation of mixed Asian and European characteristics. This explained, they claimed, the Russian preference for a simple rural society over dehumanizing industrialization, for emotion over reason, for spiritual values over materialism. Europe was the land of reason and enlightenment, Asia and Russia lands of mysticism and sentimentality.

For Blok, a nobleman committed to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Russia had been corrupt Europe's shield against Mongol depredations. His poem "The Scythians," penned early in 1918, derides a Europe immersed in war and celebrates the new world of socialist revolution. For emigré Eurasianists writing from Paris in the 1920s, the central Western value alien to Russia was Marxism, the philosophy of a German Jew imposed on their homeland by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. After the collapse of communism, these arguments on the national essence of Russia--was it a mainstream European country, was it a unique blend of Asia and Europe, or was it something else entirely?--would resurface as Russians searched for a post-communist identity.

Another impact of Mongol rule, as the British historian Robert Crummey has observed, was to strengthen the office of the grand prince and enhance the influence of Russian Orthodoxy as a source of cohesion and identity within Russia. Mongol support for Moscow's grand princes conferred an important advantage in the city's rivalry with Novgorod and Tver. And the Orthodox religion provided the cultural and ideological glue to bind together Russia's dispersed communities, however tenuously, until political reintegration was accomplished.


Map depicting major Russian lands as part of the Golden Horde also known as the Kipchak khanate


The indirect nature of Mongol administration and the tolerance and even special privileges granted to the Orthodox Church suggest that the Mongols probably did not have a lasting impact on Russian political institutions. They were few in number, and concentrated largely in the south around Sarai. David Morgan, in his very readable history The Mongols, points out that the Golden Horde was more generally called the Khanate of Qipchaq, in recognition of the heavy concentration of Qipchaq (or Polovtsy) Turks in the area. If the Mongols were quickly assimilated by these Turkic peoples in the region where they were most densely concentrated, as Morgan claims, it seems doubtful they would have greatly influenced the Russians in the northern and western regions, where few Mongols had settled.

Mongol rule decisively ended Kiev's position as the leading Russian principality. As the Golden Horde's grip over Russia weakened in the latter part of the fourteenth century and early fifteenth century, the northern principalities of Novgorod, Tver, and Moscow emerged as Russia's cities of consequence. Of these three, rulers of the previously obscure principality of Moscow would assume the tasks of "gathering" the dispersed Russian lands, defending an expanding Russia from its external adversaries, and firmly establishing Moscow as the center of Russian political and religious authority.



CHARLES E. ZIEGLER is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisville. He is the author of Foreign Policy and East Asia ( 1993), Environmental Policy in the USSR ( 1987), and dozens of scholarly articles and book chapters.