The Scourge of God: The (in)Visibility of Mongols in Russian History and Memory

Abstract: Despite having a long and fascinating national history, there is a two-hundred year period that is regarded by the Russian people as a horrendous and humiliating black mark upon their nation’s past. This was consequently titled (by Russians) as the Mongol Yoke. Why is it that Russians continue to carry an eight-hundred year old grudge, rather than accept that the Mongol conquest directly contributed to the rise of the powerful Russian Empire? It is this question that this paper will attempt to answer.

By Katherine A. Maximick

Preteritus, Vol 1 (2009)

Introduction: The role of the Mongol conquest of Russia in the thirteenth century is an interesting one in Russian history and collective memory. The degrees of brutality and swiftness adapted to form this vast, pagan and ‘infidel’ Mongol Empire resulted in the negative exaggeration of this experience in Russian national history. The stereotypes and myths surrounding Chingis (or Genghis) Khan and his Mongol army are the theme of this paper, and I will examine the perceptions and acceptance of the Mongols in Russian history and collective memory. What makes Russia’s experience unique from that of China, India, and Central Asia is its geopolitical positioning between Europe and Asia. As a Eurasian nation, Russia has struggled throughout the centuries to be a “civilized” and “progressive” Western nation despite its empire being three-quarters Asian. As such, Russian sentiment towards their Asian past has been rife with contempt and humiliation. The memory of the Mongol invasion inspires feelings similar to those evoked by remembrance of Russia’s embarrassing loss to Japan in 1905. Given these sentiments, the Russians have dismissed and downplayed the two-hundred year Mongol conquest of their country. Whenever they could not avoid admitting to this defeat, they over-emphasized the severity of the invasions, and savagery of the Mongols. I will not, by any means, attempt to deemphasize the horrible atrocities committed by the Mongols across their empire. However I wish to remind the reader that the use of extreme violence in warfare was not a uniquely Mongol characteristic. In fact, some of history’s most disturbing atrocities were carried out by so-called Western, Christian crusaders.

Around the year 1197, a nomadic warrior by the name of Chingis Khan became the leader of a small confederation called Mongols. By favouring the promotion of humble war chiefs of other various tribes, Chingis garnered loyalty and authority from Central Asian tribes and united them under the single designation of Mongols. By establishing a highly regimented military organization as well as a system of customary Mongol laws called The Great Yasa, Chingis created one of the most efficient and effective war machines of the middle ages. The Great Yasa gave structure and diplomacy to the Mongols, encouraging them to embrace and respect various religions, to respect innocent people, to grant envoys diplomatic immunity and punish those of their own people who did not abide by these rules. Although this may come as a surprise to those accustomed to tales of Mongol savagery, the Mongols invaded Russia and the rest of the Mongol Empire under these guidelines and followed them closely for hundreds of years.

Following a concept similar to the United States’ Manifest Destiny, the Mongols expanded their empire, believing that they were preordained to establish order on earth. By 1223, the Mongols reached the steppes of Hungary – it was here that the Mongols entered the Russian historical record. By this time, Chingis Khan had died, leaving his vast empire to his sons to divide amongst themselves. One of them, Batu, had been granted lands to the farthest west of the empire’s edges, and was told that whatever land he conquered would be his new kingdom, or khanate. In this Western campaign, the Mongols were originally warring with the nomadic Polovtsy, and sent envoys to Kiev requesting that the prince remain neutral. The Kievan prince slaughtered the Mongol envoys which went against steppe custom and was an immediate declaration of war. A brief but bloody battle ensued between the Rus’ and the Mongols ending, predictably, in the defeat of the Rus’; however, as suddenly as they arrived the Mongol army disappeared East again. As much as the Rus’ preferred to claim that their military prowess forced their flight, the Mongol’s sudden departure was due to the poisoning of Greath Khan Ugedei, Batu’s older brother, who supposedly died at the hands of an aunt. The Mongols would never attempt to invade Europe after this withdrawal, thus, as one historian pointed out, “This woman, whoever she was, must be considered the saviour of Western Europe.”

Click here to read this article from the University of Victoria


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