The Shifting Present and Written Images of the Mongols

The Shifting Present and Written Images of the Mongols

By Donald Ostrowski

Paper given at Uses of the Past Slavic Symposium, University of Pennsylvania (2008) 

Introduction: The relationship of the Mongols with Rus’ is one of those controversial topics that finds no consensus among scholars. On every major point and most of the minor ones, there is ardent and passionate disagreement. Yet, one interpretive framework, for metahistorical reasons, has tended to dominate the historiography. In this paper, I discuss first what I consider to be the evidentiary basis of Mongol-Rus’ relations. Other historians with different views would no doubt emphasize different evidence and would dispute the importance of the evidence I present, but it would be incorrect to say that such evidence does not exist. Then I discuss eight main paradigms that I see as having been applied to explaining Mongol-Rus’ relations. Finally, I draw some conclusions that are applicable to the present and future of studying those relations. In the process, I hope to provide the reader an understanding of why such divergent opinions exist in the scholarly literature.

Historical Background: The Mongols first made their appearance in the western Eurasian steppe in 1222. Following the death of the defeated Khwarezmshah Muhammed on an island in the Caspian Sea, the pursuing Mongol expeditionary force continued on around the west coast of the Caspian, through the Caucasus Mountains, and into an area that is also known as the Qipchaq steppe (Desht-i- Qipchaq). After wintering near the Crimean peninsula, this expeditionary force, which was commanded by Jebe and Sübe’etei (two of the Mongols’ leading generals), captured Sudak in the Crimea. In 1223, they encountered and defeated a combined Rus’-Polovtsian army on the Kalka River, north of the Black Sea. Leaving the Qipchaq steppe eastward, they fought a battle against the Volga Bulgars and crossed the Volga River on their way back to their homeland in the eastern steppe.

Following two other campaigns against the Bulgars, one in 1229 (including Saksin and the Polovtsians), the other in 1232, the Mongols returned to the western steppe fourteen years after their first visit. An army commanded by Batu (the grandson of Chinggis Khan) and Sübe’etei during the winter of 1237–38 took Riazan’, Moscow, Vladimir, Suzdal’, and a number of other Rus’ towns, but turned back before reaching Novgorod, possibly because the Novgorodians agreed to pay tribute. In December 1240, the Mongols conquered Kiev before heading further west where, in April 1241, they defeated a combined Polish and Teutonic knight army at Liegnitz and a Magyar army at M´ohi.

Returning to the area north of the Black Sea, Batu established the Jochid Ulus, which lasted until 1502 when the last remnant of it was conquered by the Crimean Tatars. It survived the longest of any of the four original ulus (khanates) distributed by Chinggis Khan to his sons. Among the successors to the Jochid Ulus, the Kazan’ Khanate lasted until 1552; the Astrakhan’, until 1556; the Sibir’, until 1587; the Kasimov, until 1681; and the Crimean, until 1783.

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