The Mongols have had a lasting effect on Russian culture since their original conquering of the Duchy of Muscovy in the 13th century. Not only did they leave an indelible mark on the Russian language in terms of Turkic “borrow-words” for currency and military terms, but the Mongols also left cultural influences that still resonate in the current debate about Russian identity. Russian identity is seen to have endured and hardened as a result of the shared burden imposed by the mongol yoke. Napoleon was said to have famously remarked: “Scratch a Russian, find a Tatar,” but this connotation of Russians with Tatars is not entirely negative (Gerasi, 2). For centuries Russians have been debating the relative benefit of belonging to the West or the East, and their unique place in the world as a country stretching over Asia and part of Europe.
The Tatar Yoke, a period of Mongol rule over Muscovy occurring from the early 13th century to the late 15th century, had a significant impact on Russia, both developmentally and culturally. At that time, Rus’ was ruled by a number of warring princes who controlled their separate principalities and city-states; when the Mongols invaded using superior techniques taken from their battle experience in China, including divisive, steppe warfare tactics, Muscovy was put under the control of a foreign, Asian power (Hosking, 51-2).
Russian and Soviet historians alike have interpreted the Mongol Yoke as problematic, both benefiting and detrimentally affecting Russia. While demanding regular tribute (iasak), the distant Mongol rulers did not impose their own religion or administrative units upon the Russians, preferring instead to elect the nobility and boyar class to collect tribute and impose justice on their behalf (Hosking, 50). Indeed, “the princes and boiare collaborated with the Mongols, opposition to Mongol rule came from the Russian people (narod) . . . during the fourteenth century Russia benefited from Mongol political and military support” (Halperin, 308). With their established caravan routes, the Golden Horde opened up new trading possibilities for the Russians, but life for the ordinary people was negatively affected by forced conscription and taxation (Hosking, 54-55). The Mongols deeply affected the economy and were the cause, it has been argued, for Russia’s “retardation of art and architecture” (Halperin, 308), as well as its difficulty in keeping apace with the development of Europe.
Following the internal collapse of the Mongol Empire after Genghis Khan’s death and his predecessor’s inability to maintain its borders, Russia became autonomous, and khanates in Central Asia broke off to form their own principalities. These “successor sates began to compete for the inheritance of the immense empire [of the Golden Horde]” (Kappeler, 23). The fact that these states had all at one time united under Mongol rule was used rhetorically by the imperial Russian authorities to justify their own expansionist policies. The Grand Duchy of Muscovy, after unsuccessfully having attempted to expand westwards, thus turned its eyes upon “gathering the lands of the Golden Horde.” After conquering the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan, Muscovy also took over Siberia (Kappeler, 33). Largely, this was accomplished by through indirect policies of rule and temporary alliances that the Mongols themselves had used. Thus, by using steppe techniques originally employed by the Mongol Empire against Muscovy, Muscovy was later able to appropriate these very lessons to expand their own borders and create a long-lasting empire out of disparate peoples and cultures.
In fact, the influence of Mongol rule on the Russian people extended beyond the existence of the Russian Empire itself. In Soviet Russia, entire ethnic groups were deported from their traditional homelands to Central Asia and Siberia after World War II. Along with German Russians, Kalmyks, as a “Buddhist Mongol” people, along with the Crimean Tatars, were deported to Central Asia by the Soviet government as punishment for having collaborated or merely for having had their territories occupied by the Germans (Williams, 331-2; Kriendler, 391). Interestingly, however, these groups in fact had little, if any, relationship to their supposed predecessors, the Mongols of the Golden Horde. This absence of any “real” connection of these modern-day groups to the Mongol Horde underscores how tenuously Soviet policy had connected these groups in order to punish them for past wrongs.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted that “the memory of the Tatar yoke in Russia must always dull our possible sense of guilt toward the remnants of the Golden Horde‘” (cited in Kriendler, 388). In fact, the Crimean Tatars have actually no connection to the Mongols of old other than the fact that they, too, had been ruled over and assimilated into the Mongol Empire. Actually, they were “Tatarized Goths” in the Crimea, “Islamized and Turkified in a cultural and linguistic sense during the period of the Mongol Horde” (Williams, 326). The connection in the eyes of the Russians has remained, however, most likely due to the use of ‘Tatar’ in the Crimean Tatars’ name. “A 19th century foreign observer of Russia even characterized the conquest of Crimea as ‘an act of vengeance against the last empire of the Tatars, who had enslaved Russia for so long'” (Kriendler, 388). Indeed this enmity lasted into the 20th century when great opposition was raised against the revanchist Crimean Tatars’ desire to return to their former homeland because of the common Russians’ conception of “ancient hatred” against the Tatars.
Despite lingering feelings of anger toward the treatment of the Russians under the Mongol Yoke and their revenge against the Mongols’ perceived successors, the Crimean Tatars, Russians sometimes express pride at their ancient connection to the Mongol Empire. They themselves employed the policies of the Golden Horde in order to consolidate their lands, and Russian borrows many words from Turkic for economic, martial, and culinary terms. While at the same time resenting the Mongols as former oppressors, the Russians recognize that the cultural and trading stock from the Mongols was invaluable. The mongols could even be credited with establishing certain institutions that the Russians later modeled their administration after. Moreover, cultural exchanges and intermarriages with the Mongols contributed to the valued uniqueness of Russia. By reclaiming a part of their Eastern heritage, Russians identify themselves as better than the West.
- Robert Geraci, Window on the East (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001).
- Charles J. Halperin, “Soviet Historiography on Russia and the Mongols,” Russian Review 41, no.3 (1982), 306-322.
- Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
- Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire, ed. Alfred Clayton (New York: Longman, 2001).
- Isabelle Kriendler, “The Soviet Deported Nationalities: A Summary and an Update,” Soviet Studies 38, no.3 (1986), 387-405.
- Brian Glyn Williams, “The Hidden Ethnic Cleansing of Muslims in the Soviet Union: The Exile and Repatriation of the Crimean Tatars,” Journal of Contemporary History 37, no.3 (2002), 323-347.