Mongol Cultural Influence

Perhaps this will be an overly and overtly charged blog; however, the two readings from Reinterpreting Russian History: Reading 860s-1860s present an excellent example of how historians can use the same sources but generate two very different narratives. In his article, “Interpreting the Mongol Yoke: The Ideology of Silence” Charles Halperin examines the variety of influences that the Mongol empire had on Russian society: its culture, politics, and economy. He challenges the popular notion that Mongol control only resulted in negative impacts on Russian culture. ((Kaiser, Daniel H., and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings 860-1860s. New York: Oxford, 1994. 105.)) While he does not deny that the invasion and occupation had its set of drawbacks – mainly economic – he also highlights some of the militaristic, political, and economic gains. ((Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 105.)) Furthermore, he argues against the popular historical narrative on the Mongol empire, a narrative upheld by A.M. Sakharov in his article “The Mongols and Cultural Change.” Drawing from the chronicles, Sakharov argues that the Mongol invasion crippled Russian culture and set it back hundreds of years. ((Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 138.)) However, Sakharov makes exceptionally broad an sweeping statements that at many points seem to contradict themselves. In any article, one should be healthily skeptical when an author writes that something “is an indisputable historical fact” as Sakharov does in his argument that “The Mongol-Tartar invasion was a terrible calamity for Russian culture.” ((Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 138.)) Very few historical facts exist outside of the date and place of an event, and discrepancies often surround those as well. Furthermore, Sakharov recognizes the continued prosperity of northern cities such as Novgorod while arguing that all of Russian culture suffered under Mongolian rule. ((Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 139.)) His mention of the development of Russian culture and its apparent refinement (i.e. actually gaining a collective identity) at the end of the 14th century also contradicts his argument that the Mongol rule was entire detrimental to Russian culture.

How and why do you think historians – these two in particular – draw create such different narratives on the same event?

Halperin, Sakharov, and Silence

There is debate among scholars about the quality and quantity of change the Mongols imposed on society in the Rus’.  Much of this has to do with the ideology of Silence, in this context meaning the general notion of omitting any positive achievements the Mongols brought to the Rus’ from historical documentation.  Historians Charles Halperin and A. M. Sakharov are good examples of both sides of the Mongol argument.

Even in the development of their arguments, one can see differences form from the way both writers view the subject.  Sakharov focuses more on what actions the Mongols took, while Halperin instead focuses on the actions taken by the peoples of the Rus’.

Halperin’s main argument is that the early Russians adapted certain historical achievements brought by the Mongols, while they ignored and denied the Mongolian culture. Here it is important to note the main reasoning behind the picking and choosing what aspects of Mongolian society were adapted to the Rus’ was mainly due to religious differences.  Because the Mongols had no opposition to the Church in the Rus’ (and rather supported it because it helped instill Mongol authority), the Church in turn flourished from the thirteenth on, and this is from where much of early Russian culture emanated.  Halperin also discusses the ideology of Silencing here, explaining that much was censored by Church documentation because to raise any positive attention to the Mongols, who by the later half of their power of the Rus’ were Muslim, could raise one to question the authority of Orthodoxy.  So while at this time, the tangible aspects of Mongol society were adapted, like military and administrative advances as well as political ideology, the larger, theological and other-worldly questions were left to the Church.  What this led to was a negative tone toward the Mongol invaders in the chronicles, because while theses great advances did occur, Halperin does not deny that the Mongol invasion indeed led to a lot of destruction and steep economic repercussions.

On that note, Sakharov almost explicitly argues that the Mongols were destructive to Rus’ culture, which differs from Halperin’s argument of the Mongols leaving the cultural aspect of Rus’ alone.  Sakharov mentions because the Mongols killed off and took away master craftsmen, the styles of art and architecture not only disappeared, but when they reappeared, they were of significantly lesser quality.  For example, when the Mongols took away master masons, the styling of carved buildings went away after the thirteenth century, and also the methods of building were weaker (ie. making stone buildings instead of stone buildings with brick).  Additionally, Sakharov notes because the Rus’ was adapting more to the East, they were cut off almost entirely from the Western world, which excluded the Rus’ from joining their European counterparts in the Renaissance and the Reformation.  The exclusion from these two movements would serve as markers that would forever isolate Russia from connecting fully with the West, contributing in a debate over Russian identity which still exists today.

While Halperin’s argument is more valid, both he and Sakharov are not wrong.  While the Mongols were passive in the cultural aspects of Rus’ society later on, initially when they invaded Rus’ their path of destruction deprived the Rus’ of the cultural advances they were achieving on their own.  Also Sakharov does not take the factor of Silencing into account, meaning his argument is less valid.  Sakharov himself exhibits Silencing in a way by not better clarifying the advances the Mongols did bring to the Rus’ to better his argument of what the Mongols took away from the Rus’.  What one needs to take away from learning about the Mongol yoke is what the Mongols changed for better or for worse in Rus’ from the thirteenth century onward.

The Mongol Yoke

The excerpts from Halperin and Sakharov are drastically different. Halperin’s article, Interpreting the Mongol Yoke: The Ideology of Silence, sheds a harsh light on the church, and those who seek to discredit any innovation the Mongols might have brought to Rus. Evidence demonstrates that the Rus people borrowed from nearly all aspects of Mongol life, with the one exception being religious culture. Rus princes married Mongol princesses, and the conquered peoples borrowed Mongol political and military institutions, as well as adopting the postal network of the Mongols. On the other hand, Sakharov’s article suggests that he blames Mongols for a lack of craftsmanship during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He claims that the Mongols destroyed a “vast number of artifacts of the written world” (137). Sakharov goes on to blame the Church for blocking Moscow’s connections with the Western world during the second half of the fifteenth century, which he perceived to be the time period of a ‘pre-Renaissance.’

Upon closer reading, Sakharov seems as if he’s grasping at straws while simultaneously making sweeping generalizations. He takes the Chronicles as complete fact, citing a few stories about destroyed books as an indicator of “how seriously Russian writings suffered from the onslaughts of the Mongol-Tatars” (137). His entire excerpt completely slams the Mongols, deciding that nothing good could have come from the Mongol-Tatar Yoke.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that his article, entitled The Mongols and Cultural Change, comes from a larger book entitled Soviet Studies in History. Most likely, Sakharov wrote his article with a tremendous bias. It seems unlikely that the Soviet Union would admit that anything good came from the Mongol Invasion, let alone a political system or military institutions (which would have been pivotal to society during the thirteenth century).

What kind of bias was Sakharov writing with? Is there more evidence of his bias? Was he even biased at all?