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Book Review


Ostrowski, Donald. Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-Cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, 1304-1589 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). 329 pp, $43.00.

     The Mongols' influence on primordial Russia has often been portrayed in negative terms, particularly that dark era of most direct Mongol/Rus' contact commonly referred to as the Tatar yoke. Although most historians would still admit that Chinggis Khan's immediate impact on many pre-modern societies was quite devastating, many now argue that the era of the Chinggisid successor states was prosperous. For example, Janet Abu-Lughod in Before European Hegemony: the World System A.D. 1250-1350 argued that the Mongols helped bring about a century of unprecedented economic cohesion across Eurasia. In a similar vein, Donald Ostrowski in Muscovy and the Mongols discusses the influence of one Mongol successor state, the Qipchaq Khanate (also commonly referred to as the Golden Horde), on the political life of the pre-Russian state of Muscovy. In this impressive study, Ostrowski questions predominant historiographical assumptions that Moscow derived most of its societal influences from the second Rome in Constantinople. He finds that most of the Byzantine influences were instead confined to the ecclesiastical sphere and only superficially extended to temporal affairs, which exhibited a marked Qipchaq influence.

     Both the title and the subtitle of this book are not appropriate labels of its contents. The book is not concerned strictly with Muscovy's relationship with "the Mongols," but primarily with this Muslim successor state that consisted of many non-Mongol peoples and influences, particularly Turkic and Islamic ones. The title also overlooks the still-prominent role in Ostrowski's study of the Byzantine state to Muscovite organizational foundations. The subtitle is also inappropriate given that this is not a truly cross-cultural study in the vein of Masao Miyoshi's classic As We Saw Them: the first Japanese Embassy to the United States or Jerry Bentley's Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. In both of these works, cross-cultural interactions imply a two-way exchange of ideas and cultural information. The focus in Muscovy and the Mongols is instead on which cultural influences were accepted and which discarded by Muscovite society from these two outside sources.

     The introductory section highlights the various interpretations of foreign influences on Muscovy's cultural and political life. Ostrowski divides Eurasian and Russian historians into five main historiographical schools of thought based on the influences that Muscovy received and from whom. These groups include those who argue that Muscovy's society was "spontaneously generated" (or "indigenously Russian"); those who see Rus' as deriving exclusive influence from the Byzantine; a third group of "Eurasianists" who see Muscovy as a sedentary deviation from steppe nomads or Mongols; a fourth group who view this as a combination of Byzantine and nomadic influence; and lastly those who see the Muscovites as a variant of European-modeled states. Ostrowski argues that the most productive way of approaching this issue is to avoid these five existing totalizing models. Instead, these models should be both synthesized and given more case-by-case attention. He further aims to portray Muscovy in a global context, rather than through the lens of national histories, finding that Muscovy has for too long been studied "'as a mere record of events occurring in isolation,' rather than ‘as an integral and important part of world history.'"(27)

     The heart of Muscovy and the Mongols consists of two parts. Part I, titled "Mongol influence: what's what and what's not," examines a number of facets of Muscovite society for Qipchaq influence, non-influence, or the influence of others. The first area of interest was the administrative, political, and military influence of the Mongols on Muscovy. Ostrowski finds that the land-for-service administrative structure (called pomest'e) that the Muscovites used was likely a cultural borrowing from the Qipchaq, who had a similar conception derived from the Islamic iqta (land-grant system). Military borrowings were also common, including the incorporation of composite bows and Turkic short stirrups for the Muscovite cavalry. Ostrowski argues that the seclusion of women in Muscovy was likely derived from Byzantine influence rather than the Turkic Qipchaq state, though he admits that the source information for the direct cultural transfer of this practice is sketchy at best. He further dissociates Karl Wittfogel's oriental despotism concept from Muscovy on two grounds: one being that there were established limitations on the ruler's power in both Muscovy and the Qipchaq, and secondly that the concept itself should be discredited "as a means of criticizing other governments (that historians) did not like." (107) Finally, Ostrowski tackles head-on the concept of the Tatar yoke; the idea that Muscovite Rus' fell into an economic malaise following Mongol domination that led to long-term economic woes. He argues that this concept gained currency among both Russian nationalist scholars and Marxist historians. Russian nationalists have latched onto this theory in order to create an oppositional ‘other' for Russia to overcome, while Marxists have used the term to cast Rus' in a feudal stage of economic development. Ostrowski emphasizes instead that the Mongol policing of trade routes and the Pax Mongolica brought direct economic benefit to Moscow's trade, making Muscovy a prominent commercial power by about 1450 CE.

     Part II is titled "Development of an anti-Tatar ideology in the Muscovite Church" and is peripheral to the main discussion of this book, but is a nonetheless interesting study. In this part, Ostrowski traces the historical development of ideas like the Tatar yoke and of other disparaging views towards the Mongols and finds that these ideas developed quite late, amidst the decline of the Qipchaq and the rise to prominence of Muscovy. In fact, the Muscovite church accepted the Qipchaq Khanate as their overlords from 1252-1448 and even saw "the Tatars (as) a benevolent rather than an oppressive force." (145) Administration in the Muscovite church did not initiate attempts "to vilify the Tatars and portray them as ‘the enemy'" until the middle of the fifteenth century. (141) Development of an anti-Tatar line in Muscovite ecclesiastical circles coincided with their creation of a "virtual past" that established Muscovy as the historical and political successors of both the Kievan Rus' and Byzantine states, thus distancing themselves from their earlier-recognized Qipchaq roots. This historical propaganda was carried out post-1448 in the portrayal of the Qipchaq khan, whom one church official referred to in 1480 as "this godless and evil one who calls himself a tsar." (164) Anti-Tatar propaganda intensified as the Muscovite church strove to both distance itself from the Mongol khanate and establish a historical heritage tied to the Byzantine state and their basileus (emperor). The final two chapters of the book refute elements of the "Third Rome" theory and the myth of the Tatar yoke, both of which Ostrowski finds to be theories manufactured as part of a Muscovite anti-Tatar propaganda campaign and products of radical historical revisionism.

     Muscovy and the Mongols has a lot to offer those specializing in this interesting period in Eurasian history, or those with particular interest in Russia, the Byzantine, or the Golden Horde. However, many world historians may find its use limited in terms of student accessibility, though it could be utilized in graduate seminars or as lecture preparation material in Russian or Central Eurasian history courses. The book could prove useful to instructors particularly for its discussion of historical concepts like the Tatar yoke, the Third Rome, and oriental despotism, all of which deserve closer historical scrutiny and invite a range of opinions and interpretations. This highlights one of the main weaknesses and strengths of the book: it reads as a collection of highly-focused and insightful individual essays in need of more organic unity worthy of its promising title.


Scott C. Bailey
University of Hawaii at Manoa


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