Pagans and Patriarchs: Russian Orthodoxy and the Mongols in the Thirteenth Century

The Mongol tide that swept much of the civilized world in the thirteenth century played an integral role in shaping the history of Asia and Central Europe, and few nations maintain as strong a legacy to this day as Russia. During its history under the rule of the Rus princes, the Orthodox Church was a mainstay institution of society, but it truly flourished under the Mongols. Protection from tax collectors, land redistribution, and the ability to pass judgement on any crimes in their holdings gave the Church a next-to unheard of degree of political influence and flexibility. Indeed, juxtaposed against the barbaric slaughter the Mongols perpetrated in the Novgorod Chronicle, their degree of autonomy seems almost impossible in the light of their earlier behavior.

The Chronicle presents the introduction of the Mongols into Rus as a nigh-apocalyptic event issued forth from Hell to extract payment from the Rus for their sins. While the reality was much more mundane, it was nevertheless a major check on princely power throughout the lands of Rus. Unwilling to band together against a common threat, Rus princes presented little more than a token resistance. In the face of the unchecked invasion many princes took to hiding underneath the spiritual bulwark of their local churches, leaving their villages and holdings to suffer the consequences of their short-lived defiance. The churches themselves did little to protect their erstwhile lords, standing against the fire and sword of the invaders as well as a series of wooden walls can be expected to.

It seems odd, then, given their early disregard for the sanctity of the local churches, that the Mongols saw fit to afford the Church institution as a whole so much power. The aptly named Immunity Charter granted the Church protection from land forfeiture, the indenture and enslavement of church affiliated laymen, and tax and tribute gathering. In light of their paganism and evidently savage behavior, why did they see fit to not only spare, but also empower the Church? Was it some dogmatic shift between the initial invasion and the middle ground of the occupation? Or perhaps merely a pragmatic attempt to ingratiate their tribute collectors to a powerful local organization, making resistance to their rule less intense?

One thought on “Pagans and Patriarchs: Russian Orthodoxy and the Mongols in the Thirteenth Century

  1. I believe the Mongols empowered the church to control disobedience and use the church as a governing tool. It’s obvious that the people of Rus’ were not happy about being ruled by foreign pagans and in lack of better terms, they threw them a bone to keep them paying their taxes. It’s also been know that the Mongols were great at taking over people but horrible at ruling them, so perhaps the church was used as a governing body to keep the people in check.

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