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(2)

Stephen Kotkin
(Princeton University)

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

Ulus of Juchi 1240-1560s

Juji died even before his father Chingis, so the bequeathal passed (in left and right wings) to Juji's sons Orda and Batu. After rampages through the southern principalities of Rus beginning in 1223, conquest of Rus (1237-40), and a foray into Europe from the Hungarian plain, Batu withdrew his rightwing forces in 1242 back to the "wild steppe" between the Dnieper and the Altai. *28 His dominant half of the ulus eventually set up a winter base at Sarai (1250s) on the Volga River. During the 1260s hierarchical ties to the Mongol "metropole" -- by then transferred from Karakorum (on the Orkhon River) to Khanbalik or Peking -- became a formality, and Juji's descendants set about incorporating other steppe peoples and exercising suzerainty over the principalities of Rus to the north.

Batu did not directly occupy or garrison Rus. None of the Rus principalities (subdued in a mere three years) could compare in wealth to Persia or China. *29 Most of Rus lay amid timberland and bog, its towns being clearings separated by thick forests and swamps (reclaimed land was ploughed). But south of the forests was the forested steppe, and farther south lay the pure grasslands, drained by great rivers -- territory ideal for nomads, who moved up and down the river systems according to the season. In other words, Batu's ulus did not reside in a land with an ancient and highly developed settled civilization, but in the Pontic and Caspian steppe. One of Batu's successors, Berke, imported skilled artisans from Byzantium and Egypt, while another, Uzbeg, adopted Islam (in the fourteenth century). Partly under the influence of Islam, a new capital, also called Sarai, was built (1330s) with palaces, mosques, caravansaries, baths, and a "bureaucracy." *30 But everyone outside Sarai still roamed.

When Tamerlane of Transoxania sacked and destroyed New Sarai in the 1390s, the documents burned, so that what we know of Batu's ulus and its relations with sedentary peoples comes largely from archaeological evidence, numismatics, and foreign commentators, especially the Russian chronicles. And among the most striking aspects of the Russian treatment of Juji's ulus has been the designation of its inhabitants as "Tatars." Were the Mongols Tatars? What lies behind this term?

First it is necessary to clarify the origins of the name "Mongol," about which opinions differ. According to Chinese annals, this was the name of Chingis Khan's tribe. But Isaac J. Schmidt, a nineteenth-century Moravian missionary who learned the Mongol language, argued that because Chingis Khan brought together different tribes, he had adopted the term Mongol to impart a sense of unity. Schmidt added that the etymology of Mongol signified "brave, fearless, excellent," a prideful appellation. A subsequent researcher, accepting Schmidt's supposition, has slightly modified his reading of "Mongol" to mean the "secure backbone" of Chingis Khan's power (i.e. his soldiers or people). *31 Such a reading, which seems plausible, betrays nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions of how "states" are held together -- i.e., as a "nation." The "Mongols" were everywhere far outnumbered by their subjects (one researcher estimates the thirteenth-century "Mongol" population at 700,000 -- at a time when Mongol-controlled China had at least 75 million people *32). Rather than a nation the Mongols were a ruling caste in the broader ulus. The Chingisid principle was the "unifier," not nationhood. Flowing out from the Chingisid principle was the military organization of society, or, to put it another way, the convertibility of civilian into military existence. That in turn was founded on a way of life, nomadism.

The category of "Mongol" is further troubled by the evident assimilation of Mongol speakers. According to one scholar, Batu commanded 370,000 people, of whom maybe one-third were "Mongols." *33 Another scholar acknowledges, however, that the number of Mongols proper remains a mystery. *34 Indeed, the great Russian orientalist Vasilii Bartol'd emphasized that the majority of Mongol speakers probably returned to the traditional lands of Mongolia (for example, once Batu's European campaign was halted in the 1240s). In addition, Bartol'd concluded, "those Mongols who stayed behind in the conquered countries quickly lost their nationality," as the language of the "empire" underwent Turkification in the steppes and Central Asia. *35 Logically, such assimilated Mongols might then merit the designation "Tatar," which would seem to signify Turkified Mongols as well as other long-ago Turkified peoples the Chingisid-led troops incorporated. The Tatars proper were not Turks, however, but a tribe or group of Tungusic tribes who lived in northeastern Mongolia and fought incessantly with the Mongols (Chingis Khan's father appears to have been ambushed and killed by a Tatar). The Mongols never called themselves Tatars. It was the Chinese who used the name "Tatar" to refer to all their northern neighbors, and it seems that the European travelers to Mongol-ruled China, as well as Arab and Persian visitors, adopted and spread the generic Chinese designation. *36 Note that the term Tatar was rooted in an opposition -- the barbarians north of China; the non-sedentary, nomadic peoples. It was in this oppositional sense that the west Europeans and Russians adopted "Tatar." The term Tatar, no less than "Mongol" or "Turk," expresses political relations.

An imposition that expressed fear and condescension, "Tatar" as a name implied a sense of unity and cohesion within the Mongol realm. Juji's ulus was never a unified or integrated entity, however. Rather, it was made up of various semi-independent ulus led by Batu's brothers and other relatives. *37 At no point did all the parts unequivocally recognize the superordinate authority of Sarai, even if they sometimes stopped short of going to war. By the second half of the thirteenth century, internal wars became endemic. Tamerlane applied the coup de grace. Sometime thereafter, the ulus "fragmented," meaning that even nominal allegiance to a single khan ceased. This produced, in the east, various components independent of Sarai (and the object of contention among Kirghiz and Uzbegs), and in the west, several so-called "khanates" (Kazan, Astrakhan, and Crimea), as well as other offshoots, among which was the Siberian "khanate." The "fragments" had always been fragments; what changed was the appearance, and to an extent the practice, of allegiance to a single authority.

Exactly when Muscovy ceased paying tribute to the Mongol-Tatars cannot be established, because the grand prince continued to collect it from his own people and no chronicle ever mentions that the payments to the ulus had stopped. Most analysts take the military date of 1480 (the so-called Stand on the Ugra). *38 Such a dating is entirely retrospective, as is the very name of the entity from which Moscow would later declare itself "liberated." In the 1370s the Russians did not call the inhabitants of Kazan Tatars, but Kazanites. The inhabitants of Kazan became "Tatars" in the course of Moscow's struggle to conquer them, following the downfall of Sarai. Similarly, although some Russian chronicles of the thirteenth century did occasionally refer to a "Horde" (orda), just as often they wrote of Tataria. The use of the designation Horde became more frequent by the end of the fourteenth century, yet it was not definitively established until the so-called Kazan chronicle (Kazanskaia istoriia) written after Ivan IV took Kazan. In that sixteenth-century text we encounter for the first time the expression Golden Horde (zlataia orda). *39 During the "Golden Horde's" existence, it was named variously in foreign sources and even in its own diplomatic correspondence -- but never the Golden Horde. Sometimes the reference would be to a specific ruler and his "Tatar" peoples. Sometimes the designation Tatar would be used to indicate a geographic location, as for example on extant Italian and Spanish maps of the fourteenth century where we find "Tataria." (Marco Polo wrote only of the "western" khan).

For a long time Russian sources wrote of the Tatars without directly acknowledging their subordination. By a close reading of extant sources, Charles Halperin has demonstrated that Muscovy and other principalities were deeply familiar with Tatar politics and society. Russian princes, nobles, clergy, and merchants visited often. Russians rulers and clerics had to be expert in Chingisid dynastics as a condition of their power. They invoked the Chingisid principle when it was to their diplomatic advantage, and could not help but be impressed by earlier Mongol success in forging an empire. The Russians adapted many institutions, including the jam (postal network), tamga (tribute system), kazna (financial or budgetary system), organization of the field army, diplomatic etiquette and procedures, and bureaucratic organization. But subordination to the Mongols had no place in Muscovite ideology, which invoked Orthodoxy and autocracy, both of which were traced back to Kievan Rus.

Halperin adds that "the Muscovite state, though it depended heavily on institutions borrowed from the Tatars, did not come to resemble the Mongol state." Russia remained Christian and agricultural. *40 At the same time, however, Russia became multiconfessional. Muscovy had conquered and acquired various "Russian" principalities, many of which long retained specificities of their own (Novgorod, for example, kept its own currency). But the taking of "Tatar" Kazan served as a turning point, incorporating peoples professing faith in a powerful and distinct religious tradition. This confrontation, between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, provided Moscow an opportunity to articulate a providential mission (most ambitiously expressed in the notion of the Third Rome). It also enabled Moscow to turn the tables: among the more important dimensions of Moscow's justification of its conquest of Kazan was the assertion of its right of investiture of the khans -- the exact reverse of Muscovy's relationship with the Golden Horde. *41 Eventually, Moscow would admit the period of its own subordination. The phrase "Tatar Yoke" (tatarskoe igo), however, does not appear before the seventeenth century. *42 By then, references to "the Golden Horde" had become a means to glorify Muscovite expansion.

Scholars have not been able to fix the "borders" of the Golden Horde, or have done so only very vaguely using geographical information supplied by Arab sources in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (there is also a Chinese map from the fourteenth century). *43 On European maps of Asia, various political entities are duly noted, but there is no effort to indicate the "borders" separating them. Nonetheless, one historical geographer has pressed forwward, noting that the Mongols signed agreements with Riazan recognizing episcopal spheres and the right to collect church duties (divided among the Sarai and Riazan metropolitans), and that they seem to have maintained guards at some kind of "border" with the Rus principalities. At the same time, however, this scholar admits that many steppe peoples migrated, seeking to create "neutral zones" between themselves and the Mongols, a process the Mongols welcomed. *44 All of this suggests that the effort to establish the Golden Horde's borders is anachronistic because they had no such concept. As Howorth wrote, "among nomadic races, territorial provinces are not so well recognized as tribal ones. A potentate distributes his clans, not his acres, among his children. Each of these has of course its camping ground, but the exact limits are not to be definitely measured." *45

Juji's ulus, notwithstanding its Islamicization, was less a state with borders than a perpetual standing army, an agglomeration of peoples for whom military and civilian life were not clearly distinguished. There were notions of extremities and of lands that were located beyond those that were conducive to pastoralism, but no fixed state boundaries. The ulus was "nonbounded." Its rule, although nominally exclusive, did not preclude multiple sovereignty (some peoples levied by the Horde could wind up paying tribute to others). There were intermediate zones of interaction, what in the case of the American Indians has been called "middle ground." *46