Russia eText - Chapter XIV - The Mongol Domination

Chapter XIV - The Mongol Domination

The Tartar invasion, with its direct and indirect consequences, is a subject which has more than a mere antiquarian interest. To the influence of the Mongols are commonly attributed many peculiarities in the actual condition and national character of the Russians of the present day, and some writers would even have us believe that the men whom we call Russians are simply Tartars half disguised by a thin varnish of European civilisation. It may be well, therefore, to inquire what the Tartar or Mongol domination really was, and how far it affected the historical development and national character of the Russian people.

The story of the conquest may be briefly told. In 1224 the chieftains of the Poloftsi--one of those pastoral tribes which roamed on the Steppe and habitually carried on a predatory warfare with the Russians of the south--sent deputies to Mistislaf the Brave, Prince of Galicia, to inform him that their country had been invaded from the southeast by strong, cruel enemies called Tartars*--strange-looking men with brown faces, eyes small and wide apart, thick lips, broad shoulders, and black hair. "Today," said the deputies, "they have seized our country, and tomorrow they will seize yours if you do not help us."

* The word is properly "Tatar," and the Russians write and pronounce it in this way, but I have preferred to retain the better known form.

Mistislaf had probably no objection to the Poloftsi being annihilated by some tribe stronger and fiercer than themselves, for they gave him a great deal of trouble by their frequent raids; but he perceived the force of the argument about his own turn coming next, and thought it wise to assist his usually hostile neighbours. For the purpose of warding off the danger he called together the neighbouring Princes, and urged them to join him in an expedition against the new enemy. The expedition was undertaken, and ended in disaster. On the Kalka, a small river falling into the Sea of Azof, the Russian host met the invaders, and was completely routed. The country was thereby opened to the victors, but they did not follow up their advantage. After advancing for some distance they suddenly wheeled round and disappeared.

Thus ended unexpectedly the first visit of these unwelcome strangers. Thirteen years afterwards they returned, and were not so easily got rid of. An enormous horde crossed the River Ural and advanced into the heart of the country, pillaging, burning, devastating, and murdering. Nowhere did they meet with serious resistance. The Princes made no attempt to combine against the common enemy. Nearly all the principal towns were laid in ashes, and the inhabitants were killed or carried off as slaves. Having conquered Russia, they advanced westward, and threw all Europe into alarm. The panic reached even England, and interrupted, it is said, for a time the herring fishing on the coast. Western Europe, however, escaped their ravages. After visiting Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Servia, and Dalmatia, they retreated to the Lower Volga, and the Russian Princes were summoned thither to do homage to the victorious Khan.

At first the Russians had only very vague notions as to who this terrible enemy was. The old chronicler remarks briefly: "For our sins unknown peoples have appeared. No one knows who they are or whence they have come, or to what race and faith they belong. They are commonly called Tartars, but some call them Tauermen, and others Petchenegs. Who they really are is known only to God, and perhaps to wise men deeply read in books." Some of these "wise men deeply read in books" supposed them to be the idolatrous Moabites who had in Old Testament times harassed God's chosen people, whilst others thought that they must be the descendants of the men whom Gideon had driven out, of whom a revered saint had prophesied that they would come in the latter days and conquer the whole earth, from the East even unto the Euphrates, and from the Tigris even unto the Black Sea.

We are now happily in a position to dispense with such vague ethnographical speculations. From the accounts of several European travellers who visited Tartary about that time, and from the writings of various Oriental historians, we know a great deal about these barbarians who conquered Russia and frightened the Western nations.

The vast region lying to the east of Russia, from the basin of the Volga to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, was inhabited then, as it is still, by numerous Tartar and Mongol tribes. These two terms are often regarded as identical and interchangeable, but they ought, I think, to be distinguished. From the ethnographic, the linguistic, and the religious point of view they differ widely from each other. The Kazan Tartars, the Bashkirs, the Kirghiz, in a word, all the tribes in the country stretching latitudinally from the Volga to Kashgar, and longitudinally from the Persian frontier, the Hindu Kush and the Northern Himalaya, to a line drawn east and west through the middle of Siberia, belong to the Tartar group; whereas those further eastward, occupying Mongolia and Manchuria, are Mongol in the stricter sense of the term.

A very little experience enables the traveller to distinguish between the two. Both of them have the well-known characteristics of the Northern Asiatic--the broad flat face, yellow skin, small, obliquely set eyes, high cheekbones, thin, straggling beard; but these traits are more strongly marked, more exaggerated, if we may use such an expression, in the Mongol than in the Tartar. Thus the Mongol is, according to our conceptions, by far the uglier of the two, and the man of Tartar race, when seen beside him, appears almost European by comparison. The distinction is confirmed by a study of their languages. All the Tartar languages are closely allied, so that a person of average linguistic talent who has mastered one of them, whether it be the rude Turki of Central Asia or the highly polished Turkish of Stambul, can easily acquire any of the others; whereas even an extensive acquaintance with the Tartar dialects will be of no practical use to him in learning a language of the Mongol group. In their religions likewise the two races differ. The Mongols are as a rule Shamanists or Buddhists, while the Tartars are Mahometans. Some of the Mongol invaders, it is true, adopted Mahometanism from the conquered Tartar tribes, and by this change of religion, which led naturally to intermarriage, their descendants became gradually blended with the older population; but the broad line of distinction was not permanently effaced.

It is often supposed, even by people who profess to be acquainted with Russian history, that Mongols and Tartars alike first came westward to the frontiers of Europe with Genghis Khan. This is true of the Mongols, but so far as the Tartars are concerned it is an entire mistake. From time immemorial the Tartar tribes roamed over these territories. Like the Russians, they were conquered by the Mongol invaders and had long to pay tribute, and when the Mongol empire crumbled to pieces by internal dissensions and finally disappeared before the victorious advance of the Russians, the Tartars reappeared from the confusion without having lost, notwithstanding an intermixture doubtless of Mongol blood, their old racial characteristics, their old dialects, and their old tribal organisation.

The germ of the vast horde which swept over Asia and advanced into the centre of Europe was a small pastoral tribe of Mongols living in the hilly country to the north of China, near the sources of the Amur. This tribe was neither more warlike nor more formidable than its neighbours till near the close of the twelfth century, when there appeared in it a man who is described as "a mighty hunter before the Lord." Of him and his people we have a brief description by a Chinese author of the time: "A man of gigantic stature, with broad forehead and long beard, and remarkable for his bravery. As to his people, their faces are broad, flat, and four- cornered, with prominent cheek-bones; their eyes have no upper eyelashes; they have very little hair in their beards and moustaches; their exterior is very repulsive." This man of gigantic stature was no other than Genghis Khan. He began by subduing and incorporating into his army the surrounding tribes, conquered with their assistance a great part of Northern China, and then, leaving one of his generals to complete the conquest of the Celestial Empire, he led his army westward with the ambitious design of conquering the whole world. "As there is but one God in heaven," he was wont to say, "so there should be but one ruler on earth"; and this one universal ruler he himself aspired to be.

A European army necessarily diminishes in force and its existence becomes more and more imperilled as it advances from its base of operations into a foreign and hostile country. Not so a horde like that of Genghis Khan in a country such as that which it had to traverse. It needed no base of operations, for it took with it its flocks, its tents, and all its worldly goods. Properly speaking, it was not an army at all, but rather a people in movement. The grassy Steppes fed the flocks, and the flocks fed the warriors; and with such a simple commissariat system there was no necessity for keeping up communications with the point of departure. Instead of diminishing in numbers, the horde constantly increased as it moved forwards. The nomadic tribes which it encountered on its way, composed of men who found a home wherever they found pasture and drinking-water, required little persuasion to make them join the onward movement. By means of this terrible instrument of conquest Genghis succeeded in creating a colossal Empire, stretching from the Carpathians to the eastern shores of Asia, and from the Arctic Ocean to the Himalayas.

Genghis was no mere ruthless destroyer; he was at the same time one of the greatest administrators the world has ever seen. But his administrative genius could not work miracles. His vast Empire, founded on conquest and composed of the most heterogeneous elements, had no principle of organic life in it, and could not possibly be long-lived. It had been created by him, and it perished with him. For some time after his death the dignity of Grand Khan was held by some one of his descendants, and the centralised administration was nominally preserved; but the local rulers rapidly emancipated themselves from the central authority, and within half a century after the death of its founder the great Mongol Empire was little more than "a geographical expression."

With the dismemberment of the short-lived Empire the danger for Eastern Europe was by no means at an end. The independent hordes were scarcely less formidable than the Empire itself. A grandson of Genghis formed on the Russian frontier a new State, commonly known as Kiptchak, or the Golden Horde, and built a capital called Serai, on one of the arms of the Lower Volga. This capital, which has since so completely disappeared that there is some doubt as to its site, is described by Ibn Batuta, who visited it in the fifteenth century, as a very great, populous, and beautiful city, possessing many mosques, fine market-places, and broad streets, in which were to be seen merchants from Babylon, Egypt, Syria, and other countries. Here lived the Khans of the Golden Horde, who kept Russia in subjection for two centuries.

In conquering Russia the Mongols had no wish to possess themselves of the soil, or to take into their own hands the local administration. What they wanted was not land, of which they had enough and to spare, but movable property which they might enjoy without giving up their pastoral, nomadic life. They applied, therefore, to Russia the same method of extracting supplies as they had used in other countries. As soon as their authority had been formally acknowledged they sent officials into the country to number the inhabitants and to collect an amount of tribute proportionate to the population. This was a severe burden for the people, not only on account of the sum demanded, but also on account of the manner in which it was raised. The exactions and cruelty of the tax-gatherers led to local insurrections, and the insurrections were of course always severely punished. But there was never any general military occupation of the country or any wholesale confiscations of land, and the existing political organisation was left undisturbed. The modern method of dealing with annexed provinces was totally unknown to the Mongols. The Khans never thought of attempting to denationalise their Russian subjects. They demanded simply an oath of allegiance from the Princes* and a certain sum of tribute from the people. The vanquished were allowed to retain their land, their religion, their language, their courts of justice, and all their other institutions.

* During the Mongol domination Russia was composed of a large number of independent principalities.

The nature of the Mongol domination is well illustrated by the policy which the conquerors adopted towards the Russian Church. For more than half a century after the conquest the religion of the Tartars was a mixture of Buddhism and Paganism, with traces of Sabaeism or fire-worship. During this period Christianity was more than simply tolerated. The Grand Khan Kuyuk caused a Christian chapel to be erected near his domicile, and one of his successors, Khubilai, was in the habit of publicly taking part in the Easter festivals. In 1261 the Khan of the Golden Horde allowed the Russians to found a bishopric in his capital, and several members of his family adopted Christianity. One of them even founded a monastery, and became a saint of the Russian Church! The Orthodox clergy were exempted from the poll-tax, and in the charters granted to them it was expressly declared that if any one committed blasphemy against the faith of the Russians he should be put to death. Some time afterwards the Golden Horde was converted to Islam, but the Khans did not on that account change their policy. They continued to favour the clergy, and their protection was long remembered. Many generations later, when the property of the Church was threatened by the autocratic power, refractory ecclesiastics contrasted the policy of the Orthodox Sovereign with that of the "godless Tartars," much to the advantage of the latter.

At first there was and could be very little mutual confidence between the conquerors and the conquered. The Princes anxiously looked for an opportunity of throwing off the galling yoke, and the people chafed under the exactions and cruelty of the tribute- collectors, whilst the Khans took precautions to prevent insurrection, and threatened to devastate the country if their authority was not respected. But in the course of time this mutual distrust and hostility greatly lessened. When the Princes found by experience that all attempts at resistance were fruitless, they became reconciled to their new position, and instead of seeking to throw off the Khan's authority, they tried to gain his favour, in the hope of forwarding their personal interests. For this purpose they paid frequent visits to the Tartar Suzerain, made rich presents to his wives and courtiers, received from him charters confirming their authority, and sometimes even married members of his family. Some of them used the favour thus acquired for extending their possessions at the expense of neighbouring Princes of their own race, and did not hesitate to call in Tartar hordes to their assistance. The Khans, in their turn, placed greater confidence in their vassals, entrusted them with the task of collecting the tribute, recalled their own officials who were a constant eyesore to the people, and abstained from all interference in the internal affairs of the principalities so long as the tribute was regularly paid. The Princes acted, in short, as the Khan's lieutenants, and became to a certain extent Tartarised. Some of them carried this policy so far that they were reproached by the people with "loving beyond measure the Tartars and their language, and with giving them too freely land, and gold, and goods of every kind."

Had the Khans of the Golden Horde been prudent, far-seeing statesmen, they might have long retained their supremacy over Russia. In reality they showed themselves miserably deficient in political talent. Seeking merely to extract from the country as much tribute as possible, they overlooked all higher considerations, and by this culpable shortsightedness prepared their own political ruin. Instead of keeping all the Russian Princes on the same level and thereby rendering them all equally feeble, they were constantly bribed or cajoled into giving to one or more of their vassals a pre-eminence over the others. At first this pre-eminence consisted in little more than the empty title of Grand Prince; but the vassals thus favoured soon transformed the barren distinction into a genuine power by arrogating to themselves the exclusive right of holding direct communications with the Horde, and compelling the minor Princes to deliver to them the Mongol tribute. If any of the lesser Princes refused to acknowledge this intermediate authority, the Grand Prince could easily crush them by representing them at the Horde as rebels. Such an accusation would cause the accused to be summoned before the Supreme Tribunal, where the procedure was extremely summary and the Grand Prince had always the means of obtaining a decision in his own favour.

Of the Princes who strove in this way to increase their influence, the most successful were the Grand Princes of Moscow. They were not a chivalrous race, or one with which the severe moralist can sympathise, but they were largely endowed with cunning, tact, and perseverance, and were little hampered by conscientious scruples. Having early discovered that the liberal distribution of money at the Tartar court was the surest means of gaining favour, they lived parsimoniously at home and spent their savings at the Horde. To secure the continuance of the favour thus acquired, they were ready to form matrimonial alliances with the Khan's family, and to act zealously as his lieutenants. When Novgorod, the haughty, turbulent republic, refused to pay the yearly tribute, they quelled the insurrection and punished the leaders; and when the inhabitants of Tver rose against the Tartars and compelled their Prince to make common cause with them, the wily Muscovite hastened to the Tartar court and received from the Khan the revolted principality, with 50,000 Tartars to support his authority.

Thus those cunning Moscow Princes "loved the Tartars beyond measure" so long as the Khan was irresistibly powerful, but as his power waned they stood forth as his rivals. When the Golden Horde, like the great Empire of which it had once formed a part, fell to pieces in the fifteenth century, these ambitious Princes read the signs of the times, and put themselves at the head of the liberation movement, which was at first unsuccessful, but ultimately freed the country from the hated yoke.

From this brief sketch of the Mongol domination the reader will readily understand that it did not leave any deep, lasting impression on the people. The invaders never settled in Russia proper, and never amalgamated with the native population. So long as they retained their semi-pagan, semi-Buddhistic religion, a certain number of their notables became Christians and were absorbed by the Russian Noblesse; but as soon as the Horde adopted Islam this movement was arrested. There was no blending of the two races such as has taken place--and is still taking place--between the Russian peasantry and the Finnish tribes of the North. The Russians remained Christians, and the Tartars remained Mahometans; and this difference of religion raised an impassable barrier between the two nationalities.

It must, however, be admitted that the Tartar domination, though it had little influence on the life and habits of the people, had a considerable influence on the political development of the nation. At the time of the conquest Russia was composed of a large number of independent principalities, all governed by descendants of Rurik. As these principalities were not geographical or ethnographical units, but mere artificial, arbitrarily defined districts, which were regularly subdivided or combined according to the hereditary rights of the Princes, it is highly probable that they would in any case have been sooner or later united under one sceptre; but it is quite certain that the policy of the Khans helped to accelerate this unification and to create the autocratic power which has since been wielded by the Tsars. If the principalities had been united without foreign interference we should probably have found in the united State some form of political organisation corresponding to that which existed in the component parts--some mixed form of government, in which the political power would have been more or less equally divided between the Tsar and the people. The Tartar rule interrupted this normal development by extinguishing all free political life. The first Tsars of Muscovy were the political descendants, not of the old independent Princes, but of the Mongol Khans. It may be said, therefore, that the autocratic power, which has been during the last four centuries out of all comparison the most important factor in Russian history, was in a certain sense created by the Mongol domination.