SRC Winter Symposium Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Changes in the Slavic-Eurasian World ( English / Japanese )

Defining Territories and Empires:
from Mongol Ulus to Russian Siberia1200-1800

Stephen Kotkin
(Princeton University)

Copyright (c) 1996 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.

The Russian empire's eventual displacement of the thirteenth-century Mongol ulus in Eurasia seems self-evident. The overthrow of the foreign yoke, defeat of various khanates, and conquest of Siberia constitute core aspects of the narratives on the formation of Russia's identity and political institutions. To those who disavow the Mongol influence, the Byzantine tradition serves as a counterweight. But the geopolitical turnabout is not a matter of dispute. Where Chingis Khan and his many descendants once held sway, the Riurikids (succeeded by the Romanovs) moved in. *1

Rather than the shortlived but ramified Mongol hegemony, which was mostly limited to the middle and southern parts of Eurasia, longterm overviews of the lands that became known as Siberia, or of its various subregions, typically begin with a chapter on "pre-history," which extends from the paleolithic to the moment of Russian arrival in the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries. *2 The goal is usually to enable the reader to understand what "human material" the Russians found and what "progress" was then achieved. Inherent in the narratives -- however sympathetic they may or may not be to the native peoples -- are assumptions about the historical advance deriving from the Russian arrival and socio-economic transformation. In short, the narratives are involved in legitimating Russia's conquest without any notion of alternatives.

Of course, history can also be used to show that what seems natural did not exist forever but came into being; to reveal that there were other modes of existence, which were either pushed aside or folded into what then came to seem irreversible. Suppose, in that light, one tried to understand Eurasia during, say, the period 1200-1800, without knowing that in the nineteenth century a railroad would be built and millions of Slavic settlers would be moving in. Rather than projecting nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideas and outcomes backward, suppose one sought instead to conceptualize types of political power as they existed over a long time, albeit within a deliberately chosen limited area. One could begin such an inquiry by questioning commonly used conceptual categories, and by making horizontal comparisons as well as long duree juxtapositions. Such is the goal of this tentative essay. *3

Many previous commentators, taking off from suggestions in the "source materials" generated over the centuries, have compared Siberia's part in Russia's imperial rise to the European discovery and conquest of the New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, *4 and to the nineteenth-century westward spread of the United States across North America. *5 In other words, Siberia, or north Asia, has been viewed as combining the experience of external colonial conquest with that of a (moving) internal frontier. Siberia was thus a "colony" in the dual sense of the term: someone else's territory to be exploited and a (new) place to be settled. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Siberia remains an integral part of Russia, but also a place apart, with its own distinct, if vague, identity. *6 Traces of the former Mongol ulus and its offshoot khanates also animate the land. What precisely is involved in imagining that the Mongol ulus across Eurasia came to be supplanted by the Russian entity known as Siberia?

Mongol Ulus 1200-1400

In the early thirteenth century, in the forests around Lake Baikal and the steppe of the northern Mongolia, various tribes that had been warring among themselves were molded into a fighting force that went on to conquer the rest of the Mongolian plateau, the oases of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Persia, the Caucasus, the various principalities of Rus', and China -- all within the span of a single lifetime. Unlike previous nomadic incursions into settled areas, the rise of the Mongols was sudden and spectacular, and covered a vast area, from the Pacific to the Adriatic. *7

During the reign of their celebrated "unifier," Chingis Khan (c.1155-1227), the Mongols acquired a writing system by adopting the Uighur script, but they left behind a modest primary record. From the thirteenth century only the texts that comprise the so-called "Secret History" survive (preserved in a Chinese transcription). *8 Most of what we know about the Mongols comes from Chinese, European, Armenian, Syrian, Persian, and Arabic secondary accounts, which contain first-hand observations as well as passages from Mongol writings that have been lost. *9 There are also a few examples of Mongol diplomatic correspondence with Pope Innocent IV and King Louis IX, *10 and some archaeological evidence associated with burial sites and towns, though on the whole nomads build few monuments to posterity. Accordingly, interpretations of the yeke Mongghol ulus (great Mongol ulus) have been inordinately dependent on what non-Mongols of the time chose to record. Representatives of the Medieval Arab and Persian civilizations, for example, emphasized the unprecedented destruction that the Mongol "barbarians" wrought, and for the longest time the prevailing image of the Mongols was narrowly martial and negative. Not until Henry Howorth's great-game inspired multivolume study in the nineteenth century did a more balanced view emerge of the Mongols as also facilitators of cross-cultural contacts and trade. *11 And not until the Soviet Oreintalist Boris Vladimirtsov's analysis of social organization did it become possible to understand what internal circumstances permitted the Mongol rise. *12 With regard to Mongol political organization and its evolution, however, to this day there are many problems of interpretation.

Beyond dispute is the fact that the greater ulus formed by Chingis, and bequeathed to his sons, was founded on kinship. The great khan or chief of the amalgamated ulus, as well as the heads of major ulus within the whole, was by law a direct descendant of Chingis (the wives were often Turkic speakers). The Chingisid principle, or "golden" lineage, was laid down in the great khan's laws (iasa), the fictive legal code created after Chingis's death and attributed to him. *13 The texts of the "Secret History" were written and compiled to justify Chingisid rule. *14 Even the fourteenth-century upstart Tamerlane did not try to violate this rule by having himself named Great Khan. *15 Kinship allowed Mongol conquest to be converted into political relationships, though it could also be manipulated by ooutsiders. A second unassailable point is that the Mongol modus operandi was to demand complete submission by anyone they encountered in their roaming, wherever that took them. They tolerated no other sovereigns (though they sometimes failed in an attempt at conquest). Those who offered resistance were usually annihilated, while those who submitted willingly were incorporated into the expanding ulus (and ranked according to the sequence of their submission, with the Uighurs the first and highest). *16 All subjects were made to contribute to Mongol prosperity, usually by performing labor and/or paying tribute. Resist and be crushed, submit and serve, or try to flee -- these were the options for all who found themselves in the Mongols' path.

Inquiring into the motivations behind the Mongol conquests, however, presents certain difficulties. Examining the papal correspondence, Eric Voegelin has argued that the Great Khan's rule was said to be derived from "God," and as such afforded theoretical dominion over the entire "world." Thus, word of the existence of hitherto unknown peoples would elicit a Mongol demand for submission and instructions on how to do so. If the newly discovered people obeyed, they would join the empire, usually retaining their internal organization. If they disobeyed, the Mongols sent a punitive expedition, an act not of God, as it were, to enforce divinely ordained rule. Since ever more peoples were being "discovered," the Mongol realm was an Empire-in-the-Making (imperium mundi in statu nascendi). *17 Felicitous as it is, Voegelin's formulation begs the questions of what the Mongol's understood by the notions of "God" and "world." Igor de Rachewiltz, noting that in the Secret History Chingis Khan is said to be descended from "heaven" (as well as from a bluish wolf), glosses the references as signifying both the supreme sky-god of the shamanistic Turco-Mongol peoples of Inner Asia and the Chinese Son of Heaven, a notion absorbed indirectly from Sinicized Turks (Orkhons) and directly from Chinese advisors. Invocation of heaven-sanctioned rule, Rachewiltz concludes (echoing Voegelin), implies an idea of universal rule and a "mandate," indeed a duty, to conquer the earth. In ostensible support of this view, foreign visitors to the Mongols came away convinced that they held notions of universal empire. *18

That representatives of Islam and Christendom, both aspirants to universality, should have looked on the Mongols' successful expansion as driven by a desire for universal rule could be misleading. At least initially, the Mongol "conquests" may have arisen out of the nomads' need for extensive and protected grazing lands, followed by a grasping for Chinese and Muslim wealth. *19 The Mongols' expansion along the great caravan routes underscores their opportunism. But besides the logic of steppe existence and the temptations of sedentary wealth, there does appear to have been a sense of mission in the Mongols' expansion, which was cast as a Mandate of Heaven. The idea that Chingis Khan and his descendants had a coherent cosmology and welcomed the efforts of Turkish and Chinese advisors at court to legitimate Chingisid rule through Chinese ideas of universalism seems credible. What the Mongols understood to be "the world," however, remains problematic. Despite a certain evolution, Mongol leaders may not have come to think in terms of an empire or state with a territory, but continued to think in terms of winter and summer quarters, military recruitment, tribute, plunder, and control over trade routes. In the Mongol language an ulus was the term for a variety of kin groups united by allegiance to a chief; Chingis Khan was proclaimed lord "of all the peoples dwelling in felt tents." The territory used by an ulus was known as nutug (yurt). An ulus referred to people. *20 The Mongols' "world" may have been unbounded, stretching as far as their armies could reach, but it does not appear to have included the concept of demarcated territory.

None of the above is intended to underestimate Mongol administrative abilities. They were able to conduct a census of their subjects from China to Central Asia, Persia, and Rus, an enumeration, instituted by Ogedei (Chingis Khan's successor) that served as the key to facilitating the mobilization of the human (and financial) resources of their subjects. Numerous taxes were collected. *21 Mongol postal stations were established over astonishing distances, forewarning the khans of attacks and providing other intelligence. *22 The military aspect was prominent (even in China Mongol rule resembled a huge military encampment). *23 But it has been said of the European state during the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries that it was "a war state, which expand[ed] its administrative and taxation mainly in order to be able to wage war." *24 The Mongol efforts to create an administration and regularize taxes appear as an impressive example of a general pattern.

Already by the late fourteenth century, however, most vestiges of the greater Mongol ulus, including the national dynasties in China and Persia, had been "overthrown." What accounts for this impermanence? One scholar has argued that Mongol rule could not last indefinitely because it did not generate an internal surplus. She notes that the only way for Mongol rulers to increase revenue was to raise levees on existing tribute-payers -- thereby perhaps "killing the goose" -- or by ever-new conquests. Mongol rule was thus inherently unstable. *25 Others have noted, however, that even though the Mongols proper traded little of their own goods within the vastly increased commercial activity their Pax Mongolica made possible, the wealth that they were able to tax or plunder was extraordinary. In fact, what undermined Mongol rule, especially in China and Persia, was precisely the absence of sufficient pasture lands to support a Mongol-style existence. All inner Asian nomadic political entities, as Charles Halperin has noted, faced a dilemma: to control sedentary peoples they had to establish urban garrisons, but the garrisoned troops could not practice the way of life that enabled them to refine their horseback archery and thus maintain their superiority over sedentary armies. In China, the Mongols could not even feed the vast supply of horses necessary for cavalry warfare and the strategic postal system. *26 Far from being the "achilles" heal of Mongol rule, therefore, pastoral nomadism was its underlying strength. Among the largest "fragments" of the greater Mongol ulus, the one known as the ulus of Juji, which retained its predominantly nomadic way of existence, lasted the longest. *27