The Mongol invasion of the Russian lands was a significant event in the history of the Russian people but the significance of that event is debated among historians. After their initial encounter at the Battle of Kalka River in 1223, the Mongols maintained a presence in Russia for over two hundred years until the Standoff at the Ugra River in 1480. Some historians feel that the invasion and further occupation cut off Russia from the West. This isolation created a backward society that lacked the benefits of Western modernity. Furthermore, this need for Russian autonomy lead to the casting off of the “Mongol yoke” but in turn created an autocracy that would plague the Russian people for centuries to come. In contrast, other historians feel that the occupation of Russia allowed for the Russian people to develop independently without Western influence and in fact benefitted from Mongol rule. These historians hold that the Mongols brought institutions to the Russian people that they lacked, allowing them to develop as a unified nation after the fall of the Mongol empire. This development would allow Russia to develop as a powerful nation in future European and World history. The turbulent times of the invasion of Rus’ by the Mongols have been interpreted differently by a variety of historians as to whether or not the invasion benefitted the Russian people or rather laid the groundwork for centuries of suffering.
Medieval Russia was not a quiet or tranquil place, but rather the lands of Russia were in a constant state of feuding by various princes at the beginning of the 13th century. John M. Thompson describes that the general practice of inheritance by princes lead to a weakening of many Russian states in his work Russia and the Soviet Union. Whereas a many monarchial societies bequeath the entire holdings of the Ruler to one heir, in Russia, the holdings were each evenly distributed among male heirs. In other words, instead of one unified holding by the oldest male, there were multiple lesser holdings with each prince claiming power. This led to subsequent generations receiving even less land and power than before. One can imagine the chaos that this sort of system would result in. This general disunity made a multitude of lesser princes vying with one another for more land, and in turn, more power. According to Thompson “the Kievan [Russian] state system was inherently unstable” as a result of this practice. This disunity and disempowerment would play into the Mongols’ hands as they expanded their empire into the Russian lands.
The Mongols have played a very distinctive role in world history as holding the world’s largest empire. Under Chingis Khan, the Mongols conquered huge swaths of Asia and eventually Russia. A nomadic people, they lived by tending flocks and moved from pasture to pasture. Charles J. Halperin describes them as “a tribal confederation of various Uralo-Altaic peoples, many of them Turkic… held together by the nomadic clan-tribal system.” This nomadic lifestyle kept them to large pasture areas. Halperin’s use of the words “tribal” and “confederation” denote not so much a unified state but a collection of independent peoples under one flag. The Mongol military was based on the Tumen system with each Tumen consisting of ten thousand men and then broken down into divisions of one thousand men, one hundred men and lastly ten men. This division system would later be implemented in Russia. When looking at the Mongol Empire it is easy to discern that the lands the Mongols conquered were fertile pasture land that could support their army’s herds. Dr. Alexander Semonyof theorizes that Russia would be the next logical land to conquer as it lies upon what he called the “steppe corridor.” This corridor begins in modern day Mongolia and ends in the Russian heartland. It is characterized by large swaths of pasture land that the Mongols could use to graze their herds and horses. These pasture lands would be needed to feed their mobile nation which needed to be in a constant state of movement. The conquering of sedentary people only helped create a more powerful Mongol people. They were able to conquer such a large area by having a highly mobile army that relied heavily on the horse archer and other cavalry units. The horse archer was the most pivotal part of the Horde. It was light, mobile, and able to harass enemy armies with arrows before the opposing army would even lay a sword upon the Mongols. The most powerful aspect of these archers was the unique design of their bows. These bows were made of layers of wood, bone, and horn, glued together. These interlocking layers allow for great force with a smaller bow. These bows could easily pierce the various types of armor presented by their enemies. The steady, accurate stream of arrows rained down by the Mongols would weaken their enemies. These weakened troops were then set upon by Mongol heavy cavalry. This cavalry was not much unlike European heavy cavalry and could be considered equals in terms of strength and armor. This Horde had used these troops and tactics in conquering most of Asia. Also, along the way the Mongols were not hesitant to incorporate new technologies from their conquered subjects. Chinese siege weapons would play a pivotal part in subduing the fortified Russian city states. But first, the Russian armies would have to face these formidable foes at their first encounter at the Battle of Kalka River.
The Battle of Kalka River marks the first time that the Mongols and Russians ever encountered each other, the beginning of a two hundred year relationship. News of the impeding Mongols was brought to the Russian’s attention by their neighbors, the Polovstians. Khan Köten of the Polovstians, after being defeated by the Mongols, took refuge with his son-in-law Prince Mstisislav Mstislavich and pleaded for help. Köten postulated to the Russian Prince that once the Mongols defeated the Polovstians, they would continue and conquer the Russian lands. This plea was made by other Khans to other Princes and in 1223 the Russians and Polovstians would face the Mongols jointly in the Battle of Kalka River in 1223 (Nicolles and Shpakovsky 205). Prior to the battle, the Mongols sent emissaries to the Russians requesting that they leave and let the Mongolians destroy the Polovstians. The Russians, in turn, slaughtered the emissaries, sealing their fate as enemies of the Mongols. Therefore the Russian princes marched their troops, along with their Polovstian allies, towards the Mongol encampment at Kalka River.
It is here that the same disunity pointed out by Thompson would become apparent as the Princes could not decide on a comprehensive battle plan and were subsequently routed by the Mongol Horde. Some princes wished to cross the river and engage them in battle, confident that God will protect them. In contrast, others felt that they should fortify their position and await the Mongols to cross the river to them. The result consisted of half of the Princes crossing the river and the others staying behind. This divided the army making an easy target for the Mongols. The initial encounter is summarized by the Novgorod Chronicle and captures the utter lack of knowledge the Russians had of the Mongolians. “No one knows accurately who they are…, what their language is, or race, or faith…God alone knows.” Latter accounts though would paint a much more personal association with the Mongol people. Historians of the day would cite many Mongol rulers and beurocrats by name showing a close tie between the future Mongol and Russian people.
The Mongols after this battle left the Russian lands and were not heard of again for over a decade though when the Mongols did return in 1237, they would bring about a rule that would place Russia under the Mongol Yoke for the next two centuries. During this time one would expect the Russians to have fortified themselves against what is now seen as an eventual invasion but no such actions took place. Our knowledge of the Mongols at this time comes not from the Russians but rather from Catholic emissaries. John of Pian de Carpine describes the Golden Horde ruler Batu Khan as understanding of the Christian West.
The Mongol invasion leads to the destruction of much of Russia, crippling it for future years. The Russian Chronicle paints a vivid picture of the utter destruction of Riazan at the hands of the Mongols: This widespread loss of life and property would later be used by Soviet historians to help plead their case as to the destructive and negative effects of the Mongol invasions. “On December 21,  the Tartars took the city of Riazan, burned it completely, killed Prince Iurii Igorevich, his wife, slaughtered other princes, and of the captured men, women, and children, some the killed with their swords, other they killed with their arrows and [then] threw them into the fire; while some they captured they bound, cut and disemboweled their bodies.” Passages such as these appear frequently throughout the various chronicles of the period. It would be safe to assume that the Russian chroniclers would want to paint their invaders in the most negative light possible. By far the worst way the chroniclers could portray the Mongols negatively was through their religion. At this time the Mongols were still a shamanistic culture. They would later adopt Islam as their religion after the death of Chingis Khan. But regardless of the religious beliefs of the Mongols they were not Orthodox Christian and for the very religious society in medieval Russia this was simply unacceptable. Throughout the chronicles it is common to see negative portrayals of the Mongols followed by terms such as infidel, Muhammadean, and the godless. It was also common to record any instance in which the Mongols killed Russians. Russia’s defeat by the Mongols ended with the victors fully asserting their dominance in Russia by 1240. This influence would last over the Russian people for the rest of their nation’s history.
Mongol administration greatly changed the Russian governmental system. As a primarily feudal system, each Prince more or less maintained completed control over their lands free from outside interference but this was greatly altered by the Mongols. The Mongols, though, did not desire to manage the day to day affairs of the Russian people as they lacked the man power to implement such a strategy over their immense empire spanning from China to the Ural Mountains. Therefore each prince was allowed to keep control of their realm if they pleaded loyalty to the Mongol Khan. The journey would begin by traveling to the Golden Horde’s capitol of Sarai. There, the Prince would bow before the Khan and offer him gifts and other bribes in order to obtain a “yarlyk,” which was a title to maintain control of his lands in the name of the Khan. After claiming loyalty to the Khan, the Prince would have to pay regular taxes to him based on the number of people in his domain. This would require a census, a task never carried out by the Russian Princes. Such a task would be overseen by Mongol administrators with the help of local Russians. One example is of Alexander Nevskii’s census of Novgorod in which he was accompanied by both Russian and Mongol troops. These troops ensured that everything was carried out peacefully.
Some Russian princes refused to partake in the ceremonies associated with receiving the yarlyk, as it would conflict with their orthodox Christian values. A prime example would be the martyrdom of Mikhail of Chernigo as he refused to submit to the “heathen” ways of the Khan. The prince made the travel with his son Fedor in 1245 in order to obtain the yarlyk. There he was told he would have to walk between two flames, a Mongol purification custom, as well as bow down to Mongol idols. The prince refused and was subsequently tortured and beheaded.
Though despite some hesitancy by the Russian princes, many Mongol institutions made their way into the Russian system. Some examples manifest themselves in thedetermination and collection of taxes over the Russian people. A Baskik, or Tartar aristocrat, would go to each region and utilize the local authorities in order to obtain a relatively reliable head count to which taxes would be attributed. This was the first time in which the Russian people were taxed on a statistical scale. Previously, the local prince would ride around with his retinue to each town and village demanding sufficient tribute. This collection would be taken haphazardly at best and did not result in a steady stream of income for the prince. Thomas Allsen calls this collection as “Mongol tribute” and notes that taxes were only on male members of a society. He goes on to note two other types of taxes, the first being on agricultural goods. These were basically a collection of any excess foodstuffs harvested by the Russians to be taken back to their headquarters in Sarai. The second being tax would be collected on trade revenue. Later during the Mongol rule, the Baskik system would change to the Darugi system. Some attribute this possibly to a revolt that took place in Tver but it seems unlikely due to an over fifty year difference from the revolt to the implication of the new system. Darugi were emissaries from Sarai who would instruct the local Princes when and where to take a census and collect taxes. This was probably a means of keeping cost low as the Russians learned how to govern themselves in the name of the Khan. This knowledge would continue after the Mongols left, allowing the Russians to effectively regulate their income from their peasant workers. This would help the Russian state grow under the Grand Princes of Moscow. Lastly, the Tuma system was also enacted in Russia. Previously the Tuma system was a mean of dividing the Mongol armies into manageable units of ten thousand men. It is believed, though, that Tuma was used as a term to divide Russian lands into more manageable parts and is not to be taken literally as a count of ten thousand men. This system would later be used by Russian Princes to collect their own taxes.
It would be unfair to state though that the Russians were taxed exorbitantly. A study of the number of stone buildings built show that many were built under Mongol rule. As stone structures were quite expensive to build this would indicate that there was economic growth while the Mongols were in power. Studies such as these would later be used to show that the Mongol period was not as terrible as some historians thought it to be. This study provides vital information as it uses one of the view measurable factors to evaluate Mongol rule. But controversy has arisen over the extent of Russian barrowing of Mongol systems. This debate has centered between two historians of medieval Russia, C.J. Halperin and Donald Ostrowski.
Halperin and Ostrowski both agree that the Russian’s adopted Mongol ruling practices but in the words of Ostrowski “Halperin thinks I go too far in seeing pervasive institutional barrowing while I think he doesn’t go far enough.” One point of contention is in the role of the Boyars in the Russian government. Otrowski sees the Russian form of boyar rule much to that of a constitutional monarchy in which the Grand Prince needed the approval of the Boyars in order to pass substantial legislation. He notes that this come from the Bey system of the Turkic Mongols who had up to four Beys who the Khan would have to consult in order to pass law. Otrowski feels that this was adopted by the subsequent Russian Tsars while Halperin disagrees. Otrowski notes the Oath of 1606 in which the new Tsar “Vasilii Shuiskii took when he became tsar whereby he swore due process of law through ‘regular trial with my boyars’ for all Orthodox Christians.” This is in direct contrast to Halperin who feels that this process was internally developed. Otrowski then cites numerous other occasions to which the tsars would attribute their rule to their boyars. Otrowski also asserts the “those who want to argue that the grand prince ruled without the official approval of ‘the boyars’ can so do only by continuing to dismiss all the evidence to the contrary.” He further notes that he could not find any evidence of this boyar ratification in pre-Mongol Rus’. He also asserts that this form of government must have been ascertained through the grand princes’ continual trips to Sarai, the Golden horde capitol. It is also relevant to note that the Russian Princes carried out many of the administrative tasks for the Khans as stated earlier. It would seem unbeneficial for the Princes to completely forget everything they had been doing for the last two hundred years and develop a whole new way to run a system that was already working for them. These institutions, despite their conflicting origins would have to be adapted after liberation. But first, the Russians would have to cast of the Mongol Yoke and obtain freedom from the Khan’s rule.
The liberations of the Russian lands were as haphazard as its conquering. Despite minor uprisings throughout Mongolian rule, a united effort by all Russians to cast off the Mongol yoke was not evident. Most of these earlier uprisings were easily quelled and order restored. In some cases, Princes would convince their Mongol overlords of a suspected uprising in a rival prince’s domain. This would allow them to weaken their neighboring rivals and use Mongol auxiliary troops to aid them in that endeavor. The earliest unified effort by the Russian people was under Grand Prince Dmitry at the Battle of Kulikovo Pole (snipe’s field) in 1380. Though the Russian Chronicle greatly exaggerates the precise number of troops present at the battle, the resulting victory for the Russians was significant. After the battle Dmitrii would earn the surname Donskoi or “of the Don” and would even be immortalized on Russia’s Millennial Monument standing over a cowering Tatar in 1989. This battle can be seen as the first turning point in which a European power defeated the Mongols in open combat. But, it may be theorized that the Russians did not plan at all to be freed but rather had fate smile upon them. Though not the best way to be freed of Mongol power, Poland-Lithuania conquered Galicia-Volhynia. Sadly this basically exchanged one foreign ruler for another, though this was not the case in all of Russia. Prince Vasilii II (known as Vasilii the Dark after being blinded by his brother while vying for the Moscow throne ceased paying tribute though he did not formally denounce the Mongols as their sovereign people. When no alarms went off, the Russians ceased paying tribute and taxes all together. Ivan III (also known as Ivan the Great) completely cut off ties with the Khans as Grand Prince in 1476.
Ivan would then begin to collect Russian lands and make them loyal to the Grand Prince of Moscow. This process in generally referred to as “the gathering of lands.” This unification under the Moscow banner would lay the foundation for the future of the Russian Empire. It is interesting to note that throughout the various chronicles, the Mongol Khans were referred to as tsar (царь), the Russian word for Caesar. It would be later under Ivan IV’s (the Terrible) rule that the Grand Prince would take the title of tsar. In essence it appears that the Russian autocracy would wish to associate themselves with the Mongol rulers who once dominated them. Following the progressing decline of Mongol power, the Russians would have to face off one last time against their Mongol oppressors. This standoff would end in 1480 at the Great Stand on the Ugra River and once again put the future of Russia in Russian hands.
Now that a time line has been produced one must look at the historigraphical analysis of the subject matter. Simon Franklin brings the topic of revisionist history in a post soviet era by creating what he calls his rule of modern Russian historiography. It states “the extent to which a change is attributable to the collapse of the Soviet Union tends to be in inverse proportion to its scholarly value.” This is summarizing the amount of new theories that have been created following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of its archives and archeological sites to Westerners.
For decades the archeological sites of Russia were off limit to Western intellectuals. This greatly hampered any western attempts to write a conclusive history of Russia without being slanted by the difficulties presented by the Soviet government. Even to this day it is difficult for western historians to attain access to Russian archives. Western historians and archeologists have now begun to reexamine accepted Russian accounts of Russian history following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. With this new influx of intellectual energy, the Mongol invasion has become a topic of hot debate.
Marlies Bilz-Leonhardt has summarized these conflicting views in his work in the Central Asian Survey. He shows that historical sources note the Mongol invasion as being the “Tatars” invading from the East and brutally bringing their rule over the Russian people. While historians agree that the invasion caused a terrible loss of life and property, he asserts that the interpretation of these events have varied by the political implications it would entail for the respective historian’s ethnic group. This bias in historical sources can largely be attributed that the only major sources being used are the ones written by those who were conquered. Russian historians of the period seemed hesitant to show any positive interactions between them and their conquerors. This could be possibly due to the religious beliefs of the Mongols. They being non Orthodox Christian it would be in the best interest of the Christian establishment to paint any pagan people in a negative light.
Bilz-Leonhardt notes four significant points of view in modern historical analysis of the Mongo invasion of Russia. The first is the Western perspective. This perspective has been the point largely utilized in this work due to the language barriers imposed on the author. Western historians have depicted a positive exchange between the Russians and Mongols. This can be influenced by the thought of modernization prevalent in much Western histories. This viewpoint asserts that the Mongol invasion brought new modern administrative institutions to the predominantly backward Russians. Western historians are clear to state that without the Mongols, the Russians would still be a backward society without such things as taxation, census, and a national army, though it would be a game of what if to assert that this would be the ultimate outcome without Mongol Occupation. On this train of thought, the Mongols, despite wreaking great havoc in the Russian economy through heavy taxation, as well as a substantial loss of live and enslavement, brought modern institutions that helped Russia in the long run.
Bilz-Leonhardt’s second viewpoint is the Soviet perspective. This historical timeline is heavily influenced by Marxist ideology. Soviets stressed that Russian history was a timeline from rural backwardness to a perfect communist society. This historical approach is inherently flawed in that it applies modern ideologies to an historical time period that had no knowledge of the present. This historical depiction largely follows Stalinist history that portrays all non modernized sedentary people, i.e. nomads, as inherently evil. Stalin would even base his ideologies on the nomadic Siberian people, cultural neighbors of the Mongolians of which many still live a nomadic lifestyle to this very day.
The soviets painted the Mongols in an entirely negative light. They used artistic license to gloss over any positive effects of the Mongol rule. Bilz-Leonhardt cites Soviet historian Kargalov’s description of the liberation of the Russian people occurring as “the self-awareness of the Russian people increased, united by the great historical goal – to overthrow the hated Horde yoke and to attain national independence.” This viewpoint makes an effort to show that the conquerors were inherently evil and that the Russians united as a single people, much like how Stalin wanted to rule a united Russia, in order to overthrow their oppressors. This statement shows that Kargalov looked at history as a linear march towards the present day. He fails to take into account that the medieval Russians had no concept of a “united” Russia as each region was ruled by individual princes. This viewpoint glosses over the fact that princes would work side by side with their overlords to achieve their goals. This point is no more clearly presented than in the rise of Moscow through its acquisition of the yarlyk described earlier. Moscow used this to grow in size and strength and eventually rule all of the Russian lands and create the powerhouse that their successors the Soviets used as their capitol. These perspectives would be challenged after the fall of the Soviet Union by two ethnic groups in Russia: the Non-Tatar and Tatar scholars.
Non Tatar Russians have made it their goal to break down the alleged myth of a Tatar Yoke. Some modern Russians historians assert that the cooperation between the Russians and their Mongol overlords helped create the modern Russian state. They assert that without such a union that the Russians would have developed differently than they have by falling prey to western influences. These historians challenge that despite the great loss of life described earlier, the benefits outweighed the detriments of Mongol rule. This viewpoint is more in line with Western historians.
Modern Tatars are hoping to use the historical implications of Mongol rule to help bolster their national identity. Tatars in Russia are largely considered the ancestors of the Golden Horde and have sometimes been painted in a negative life based on the Soviet perspective of medieval history. The city of Kazan, a former Tatar Khanate, has become a hotbed of positive Mongol-Russian history. Following the fall of the USSR, modern Tatars used caution when applying the term Tatar to their peoples as they feared the negative connotations it could entail. But presently, the Tatar people are looking to be classified as an ethnographic group within Russia and are developing a newfound pride in the terminology Tatar. These Tatar historians are more in line with Western historians in that they wish to paint the Mongol occupation as a largely positive event in order to sway public opinion. These historians are largely in line with their Western counterparts.
A common tern used to describe the Mongol period of Russian history is the “Tatar Yoke.” This term arose outside of the historical sources and would therefore entail placing modern terminology to a historical event, which would paint the reader’s interpretation of the events. It would not be in the best interest of eliminating bias to use this term but it appears in many works. In fact, Charles J. Halperin uses it in the title of his book “The Tatar Yoke.” In this case he substitutes the term Tatar for Mongol which is common place in this field of history as they were considered one people by the Russians. Hopefully future works on this topic will begin to shy away from the concept of a “yoke” as it denotes a slave like condition of the Russian people that has been shown to not exist.
When all viewpoints are taken into consideration it must be concluded that the Mongol occupation, despite the loss of life and property, was a largely positive experience. Time and time again, each historian points to the positive impact that the Mongol’s had on Russian autocracy. These new institutions allowed Russia to become a united nation under the rule of the Moscow Grand Princes. The new institutions brought in by the Mongols helped the Russian people develop as an independent people. Also, the burdens that the Mongol rulers placed on the Russian people such as taxes and census were used by the Princes in order to benefit their individual territories. Without playing the game of what if or could it, it is safe to assume that the Mongol invasion brought institutions that might not have internally grown inside the Russian state. This viewpoint has been upheld by much of the historical community and despite arguments to the various degrees of influence the majority agrees that the Mongol Conquest was a largely positive experience for the Russian people. Lawrence Langer succinctly notes the newly liberated Russians “created a government that was neither Mongol, Western, nor Byzantine, but was, instead, uniquely Muscovite.” This uniquely Muscovite society would continually grow for the following centuries. It would become the world’s largest nation and a leader in the modern international community. Also, it would be a unique civilization as a society that straddles the eastern and western land masses creating a people unlike any other nation. Though one can never discount the loss of life that the Mongol Horde wrought upon the Russian people it is safe to assume that this was a necessary step in the development of Russia. To quote an old soviet adage “one must break a few eggs in order to make an omelet.” This mentality would serve the Russian people for the following centuries of autocracy, through the Soviet era, and into the Modern age.