Charles J. Halperin – Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History

Charles J. Halperin – Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History

Halperin focuses more on the Russian side than on the Golden Horde. These Mongol descendants of Genghis and Batu Khan left behind comparatively few written sources, but Halperin still gives them plenty of attention.

The big picture periodization of this era of Russian and Central Asian history goes roughly like this: Russia had its first post-classical flowering in the Kievan Rus period, which lasted from roughly the 9th to 13th centuries. This came to an end with the 13th century Mongol invasions. After Genghis Khan, Mongol conquerors split into a number of different groups. The one that ruled over most of Russia from about 1240-1480 was called the Golden Horde. Other Mongol dynasties reigned in India (Mughal; note the resemblance to “Mongol”), Yuan China, which displaced the comparatively liberal Song dynasty; and much of the Middle East.

The Golden Horde ruled over Russia more than two centuries, surviving even the late-1300s wrath of Tamerlane attacking them from the south. They lasted until about 1480, when the tsarist government began to assert itself in earnest under Ivan III (his grandson was Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible). This 1240-1480 period is Halperin’s primary focus. There was not a single clean-line event when the Tatars ceded power to the tsars, which is why the periodization is not precise. The handover was a gradual process, and happened to different degrees and at different times in different places. Both cultures may well have been unaware of their trajectories at the time, which is a common theme in history.

Halperin shows a keen eye for how to interpret sources. One of the key concepts of written Russian sources of this period is the ideology of silence. Basically, there was a taboo among Russians against acknowledging that Mongols had ever conquered them. They used linguistic workarounds, which Halperin dissects, omitted important events only revealed by other sources, and emphasize smaller events and puff up minor victories.

One price of this was that they also had to downplay the big victories that eventually led to Russians shedding the Tatar yoke, which ordinarily would become the stuff of legend. This was apparently a price chroniclers were apparently willing to pay.

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