‘Scratch a Russian’: The Influence of the ‘Mongol Yoke’ on Russia


“Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar.” This famous aphorism playing up the relationship between Russians and the steppe peoples who once lorded over them under the auspices of the Golden Horde has been used to denigrate or dismiss Russia in comparison to Western Europe for centuries. But does this maxim contain a grain, or more, of truth? The debate over this important question has been raging for longer than the Horde control over Russia lasted, and it has no conclusive end in sight. According to Charles Halperin, “Most specialists in medieval Russian history have described the Mongol influence as negligible or entirely deleterious” (Golden Horde vii), but more recent scholarship has challenged these age-old conclusions. In a lively discussion in the pages of the journal Kritika, scholars Halperin, Donald Ostrowski, and David Goldfrank litigate this issue with gusto; these debates exemplify the diverse positions that can be plausibly argued given the available evidence.  In the case of the ‘Mongol Yoke’, clear evidence is unfortunately lacking. Due to the sack of the Golden Horde capital of Sarai by the warlord Tamerlane around 1395, we are entirely lacking any archival records of the Tatar[*] administration of Russia. Russian sources are far more prevalent, but as will be discussed later, are also heavily biased against the Tatars and any possible positive influence they had on their Russian successors. Given this evidentiary challenge, falling on either side of a binary on the question of the impact of the ‘Mongol Yoke’ seems somewhat absurd, yet many scholars take these positions. The true answer likely lies deep in the gray area between the two poles. This paper will argue that the ‘Mongol Yoke’ had a distinct, significant impact on its direct successor state of Muscovy, as well as future Russia, but that the new state did not necessarily see itself as a direct continuation of the Tatar legacy nor did it adopt Tatar institutions wholesale. Evidence of the Tatar impact, or lack thereof, in the areas of economics, military matters, the administrative state and its institutions, religion, and culture will be examined.

Economic Life

The Tatar influence on Russian life, and on the immediate successor state of Muscovy, is readily apparent in the evidence of economic changes and adoption, with adaptations, of useful Tatar institutions. During the initial depredations of the Mongol invaders in the mid-13th century, much of the former territory of Kievan Rus’ was destroyed and depopulated. Narratives like the Tale of the Destruction of Riazan depict this carnage in writing, and it is clear that the initial economic impact of the Mongol invasions was extremely negative. After this, however, during the period of Golden Horde control over Russian lands, the Russian economy improved and may have even exceeded its heights in the pre-Mongol era.

One of the largest economic impacts the ‘Mongol Yoke’ had on the Russian territories was the radical change in the dynamics of regional trade fostered by the Tatars. In fact, with respect to commerce, the ‘Mongol Yoke’ was far more of a Pax Mongolica. According to Halperin, “the Mongols were solicitous of trade,” and despite not engaging in commerce directly they “protect[ed] the merchants who actually conducted the trade and extract[ed] profits through customs taxes” (Golden Horde 80). The Horde’s complete control over the vast majority of the Russian river basins, the key arteries for regional trade, allowed for safe passage and vastly reduced the costs associated with long distance commercial activity. Prior to the Mongol invasions, Russian merchants who wished to sell their wares in distant lands, especially in Constantinople, would have to navigate a treacherous gantlet of nomadic warriors who patrolled the riverine transit routes and either pay them off with fees or bribes, sell directly to these middlemen, or risk a violent confrontation. The risk inherent in making the journey from Russia to its external markets created a sizable barrier to trade and the free flow of goods and specie. Once this risk was reduced, or in the case of the steppe raiders removed entirely, commerce became far more accessible, leading to longer-distance transport of merchandise as well as a broader trade in non-luxury goods. In this way, the relative stability the Tatars brought with them was a welcome change. Besides the general atmosphere of increased safety for traveling merchants, the Tatars relocated trade routes for their own reasons, which often redounded to the benefit of various Russian cities. For instance, “The Mongols shifted the Urals fur trade route, which had run east and west through Novgorod, to run north and south, channeling furs through Ustiug and Moscow to Sarai” (Halperin, Golden Horde 80). This new influx of trade and coinage greatly increased the wealth of these areas and contributed to the rise in power and prestige of Moscow. The loser in this specific route change was the nominally autonomous city-state of Novgorod. Still, other Tatar policies directly advanced the commercial interests of that Baltic city. Novgorod had a strong connection with the German Hanseatic League, a loose, commercially-focused confederation “which crystallized around 1350 and dominated Baltic and north European trade” (Evtuhov et al. 88). The Golden Horde, not wishing to miss out on this opportunity for increased tribute and customs taxes, granted “tax exemptions to Hanseatic merchants entering Russia through Novgorod and passing through Suzdalia” (Halperin, Golden Horde 81), explicitly promoting this western trade and enriching Novgorod in the process. The fruits of both western European and eastern Oriental trade were not only enjoyed by the elites, but also by the masses, albeit to a far lesser degree. Archaeological evidence has shown that even smaller Russian villages had their share of everyday items traded from the Orient, including silks and glass vessels (Halperin, Golden Horde 81). This broad-based commerce with both western and eastern neighbors, as well as the safety engendered by the Golden Horde’s control of trade routes, increased the material prosperity of Russians of various social standings.

Tatar economic control also led to adoption of certain Horde practices by Russian princes, specifically the assessment and collection of tax and tribute. Golden Horde taxation, and the Mongol tax system generally, was extremely efficient at raising large amounts of money from its domains. The tax burden imposed by the Tatars was initially collected by a series of Muslim tax farmers, but they were incredibly unpopular and were expelled in the mid-13th century. After this problem was settled, the Tatars contracted the collection of tax and tribute revenue to the local Russian princes, including the Muscovites. “By adopting the Tatar model the Muscovite grand princes were able to extract more revenue than ever before and integrate and exploit acquired lands to yield maximum income” (Halperin, Golden Horde 89). This new system also allowed Russian princes to allocate the burden of taxation more favorably for themselves by exempting some of their lands and property; the Tatars did not care who paid the tribute, as long as it was paid in full and on time. Even after the decline of the Golden Horde, Muscovy’s princes continued the full tribute collection, massively increasing their wealth and ability to construct magnificent new churches and palaces. One of the reasons we know that Muscovite taxation schemes were essentially the same as the Golden Horde’s system is “through [the Muscovite adoption of] such Turkic terms as bakshei (public servant), dengi, kazna, kazna- chei, kostka (a per capita toll tax), tamga (a seal or stamp and a type of customs duty), and tamozhnik (customs official)” (Ostrowski, “Mongol Origins” 534) for their own purposes. This explicit borrowing of important economic terminology exhibits the reliance of Muscovy on the Tatar taxation system for its own revenue generation.

Despite the incredible human and economic devastation wreaked by the initial Mongol invasion of Russia, the period of Golden Horde control was crucial to the economic growth of the future Russian state. The institutional borrowing of revenue-generation systems by Muscovy and the easing of trade and commerce throughout the Horde’s domains laid the foundations for the growth in prosperity and eventual unification of the Russian lands.

19th century painting of the Muscovite prince Dmitri Donskoi at the 1380 Battle of Kulikovo.

Military Affairs

The impact of the Golden Horde on Muscovy and the future Russian state was also significant in military matters. Tatar influences can be found in everything from cavalry tactics and battle formations to weaponry, organizational systems, and strategy.

For centuries prior to the Mongol invasions of the 1220s and 1230s, Russian armies periodically clashed with their steppe neighbors. These battles and skirmishes are littered throughout the Kievan Rus’ chronicles and stories, most notably in The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, which detailed “Prince Igor’s unfortunate campaign against the Kumans in 1185” (Zenkovsky 167), ending in said Prince’s defeat and capture. Other important military campaigns against steppe clans were undertaken, especially under Prince Sviatoslav in the late 10th Century, who eschewed the Byzantine-focused orientation of his predecessors for a purely steppe outlook and pushed Rus’ conquest east into the lands of the Khazars and the Volga Bolgars, utterly demolishing the former. Sviatoslav also copied the personal style of his steppe neighbors; “On his bald head, he had a single lock of hair, in the style of the steppe warriors of his time” and he often “wore a gold earring” in the steppe fashion (Evtuhov et al. 12). Although Muscovite princes did not join Sviatoslav in adopting steppe dress, they did borrow steppe tactics.

The Russian princes were intimately familiar with Tatar strategies and tactics, both from having fought against them in various raids and from having fought with them on far-flung campaigns against enemies of the Horde. This familiarity was used by Muscovite princes to excellent effect, especially in the pivotal 1380 Battle of Kulikovo Field, in which Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoi defeated the armies of the Emir Mamai near the Don River. According to Halperin:

The site Moscow’s generals chose in 1380 for the Battle of Kulikovo Field shows their awareness of the Mongols’ style of fighting essential to the survival of Russian troops. The Muscovites precluded the Tatar cavalry’s favorite flanking maneuver by positioning themselves with rivers at their backs and forests on both sides. (Golden Horde 91)

This well-executed tactical positioning led to a stunning victory for the Muscovites and presaged the decline of the Golden Horde in Russia. Muscovy also copied Tatar cavalry formations, which took the form of a compass, with advance (forward), left, right, and rear guards; due to the focus on the right side in Tatar animist religion, their armies were always overbalanced towards that side. Muscovite “armies took the field in the same formation [as the Tatars], even to the point of having the right guard dominant” (Halperin, Golden Horde 91). This evinces a more than passing familiarity with Tatar tactics and formations, as Muscovy’s intelligent adaptation and borrowing exhibit intimate knowledge of the Tatar system.

The Tatar influence on Russian military affairs was not solely limited to battle tactics and formations; both Tatar military organization more broadly and specific weaponry used by the Tatars were adopted by Russian princes. The clearest example of this institutional borrowing comes in the way that Muscovy chose to organize their military and tax systems. According to Halperin, “we know the military chain of command for the Mongol Empire and the Qipchaq Khanate very clearly: the decimal commanders of ten, 100, 1000, and 10,000 men” (“Muscovite Political Institutions” 252). This efficient and scalable base-ten system was also used by the Golden Horde to assess taxes and tribute among the populace. Ostrowski believes that “The system of tens for both taxation and military purposes … developed in the fourteenth century in Muscovy” (“Mongol Origins” 534-535), due to interactions between Muscovite princes and the Khans at Sarai. Specific weaponry and gear were also adopted from the Tatars for use by the Muscovite armies. Not only did Muscovite tactics correspond to Tatar analogs, “the Muscovites also copied Mongol weapons, armaments, horse equipage, and formations” (Halperin, “Muscovite Political Institutions” 239). This borrowing, especially of gear and weaponry, continued through the 16th century, after the end of the Golden Horde.

The Russian tradition of steppe borrowing in military matters, exemplified in the story of Sviatoslav, continued unabated throughout the years of the Golden Horde’s domination and remained after their decline, as Muscovites used Tatar tactics, strategies, weapons, and organizational systems.

Administration and State Institutions

Perhaps the most controversial area of possible Tatar influence on Russia deals with the development and growth of Muscovite administration and state institutions. This issue is characterized by vigorous, sometimes inflammatory, debate between eminent scholars including Charles Halperin and Donald Ostrowski. Both believe that Tatar influence existed, but they differ on the extent and pervasiveness of that impact. Specifically, they come down on opposite sides of the coin when it comes to whether Muscovite political institutions were direct copies of Tatar systems; Halperin says they are not, while Ostrowski claims that they are. Both perspectives are well-argued and replete with evidence, and they will be broken down in more detail. First, however, the areas of agreement and obvious borrowing need to be addressed.

Multiple Russian state institutions, practices, and systems originated within the steppe, whether from pre-Mongol tribes, the world Mongol Empire, or the Golden Horde. The most notable and long-lasting of these institutions was the Tatar post system, known as the yam. The yam “was the fastest communications system across the Eurasian continent that had ever been known” and “was not surpassed until the development of modern technology” (Halperin, Golden Horde 93). This system comprised a sprawling web of stations and riders that carried messages on horseback or, when terrain was unsuitable, by foot. Riders and horses were kept fresh at each station, which allowed for rapid transmission of messages and envoys over long distances. This scheme was imposed by the initial Mongol conquerors of Russia, was continued by the Golden Horde, and “survived in Muscovy well into the seventeenth century” (Ostrowski, “Mongol Origins” 535). Its ability to quickly move important people, letters, and news over vast swathes of territory helped the Golden Horde run its central bureaucracy from Sarai, farther away from the Russian heartlands it governed; these attributes also greatly aided Muscovy in administering and controlling the new areas that would come under its sway in the coming centuries.

Another direct borrowing from the Tatars came in the realm of diplomacy. According to Ostrowski, “Muscovite diplomatic ceremony reflected Mongol practice until the sixteenth century when a pseudo-Byzantine ceremonial practice replaced it” (“Mongol Origins” 534). Halperin agrees here, stating that “Muscovy drew upon Tatar diplomatic practices in establishing its own,” and that “Muscovite diplomatic protocol was essentially Asian” (Golden Horde 92). These ‘Asian’ diplomatic practices included the ritual exchange of gifts and envoys, elaborate ceremonies, and a large amount of what we would call ‘small-talk’ before getting down to business. An interesting practice which was adopted from the Tatars was the requirement to enter into diplomacy completely unarmed; this constituted a “serious problem for sword-bearing Western nobles” (Halperin, Golden Horde 92), who were accustomed to wearing their weaponry as a symbol of their status and power. In fact, Russian diplomatic protocol was so foreign to Western counterparts that “in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Muscovy and the Ottomans communicated with a facility neither could achieve in dealing with Europeans” (Halperin, Golden Horde 92).

Muscovite bureaucratic practice and ideology may have also been influenced by the Tatars, especially as the Russian state began to coalesce around a strong central power in Moscow. Some academics suggest that “the language of Muscovite bureaucracy was a kind of meta-Turkic … which is often linguistically meaningless without recourse to the Tatar originals” (Halperin, Golden Horde 92). Some features of esoteric Muscovite bureaucratic jargon may stem from Tatar equivalents, including direct use of “such Turkic terms as bumaga, defter, zhikovina, [and] karandash” (Ostrowski, “Mongol Origins” 534). The documentation of administration and diplomacy may also have been influenced by the Tatars; Halperin sees this in the Muscovite use of “scrolls called stolbtsy or stolby, that is, documents sewn together in rolls rather than stored in files” (Golden Horde 92). Ostrowski states that the Muscovite use of scrolls for record keeping likely originated with the Uighur people of Central Asia and traveled to Muscovy via the Qipchak Khanate and refugee Tatars (“Muscovite Adaptation” 295). The intense centralization of the Golden Horde, who administered a vast area of forest land from its steppe capital at Sarai, may have impacted the eventual Muscovite drive towards centralization in the centuries to come. One of the biggest issues in pre-Mongol Kievan Rus’ was the succession of princes and the division of lands; both were often infused with brutal internecine violence, as seen in the martyrdom tale of brothers Boris and Gleb. That the Tatars were able to effectively unify the Russian lands under a single nominal sovereign and keep significant control for over two hundred years must have made an impression on the Muscovite princes that served them.

The controversy that simmers in this area of Tatar impact revolves around the idea, most famously espoused by Donald Ostrowski, that “fourteenth century Muscovite government was overwhelmingly influenced by Mongol political institutions and practices” (“Mongol Origins” 526). He argues that Muscovite borrowing of Tatar institutions began far earlier than most recognize, namely during the 14th Century, as well as that Muscovy consciously set up their administrative apparatus on explicitly Tatar lines. He shows significant evidence, although generally indirect, for this, including creating eerily similar organizational charts depicting the Muscovite and Qipchak systems of dual administration (Ostrowski, “Mongol Origins” 531). His argument rests on linguistic evidence, supposition, and extrapolation from a wide variety of texts, mostly non-Slavic in origin. He relies heavily on the principle of uniformity, which “means we can extrapolate from non-East Slavic sources in order to analyze Muscovite governmental and administrative positions because that is the same method by which our conclusions about the other borrowings, the ones we already agree upon, were reached” (Ostrowski, “Muscovite Adaptation” 296). According to Halperin, “Ostrowski implies that the secular Muscovite court saw itself as a continuation of the Qipchaq Khanate” (“Muscovite Political Institutions” 237), and this is a reasonable inference from the content of Ostrowski’s arguments. In a rebuttal to Ostrowski’s arguments, Charles Halperin states that the “argument that the administrative structure of 14th-century Muscovy duplicates that of the Qipchaq Khanate … might be summarized by the cliché saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (“Muscovite Political Institutions” 254). Halperin takes issue with many of Ostrowski’s more far-reaching conclusions, especially the parallel organization charts showing what seem like clear Tatar and Muscovite equivalencies. He also takes a drastically different approach to the meager sources which characterize this era in that he tends to focus on what is directly confirmable in the relevant Slavic sources, while Ostrowski uses the principle of uniformity to extrapolate and infer from less directly relevant sources originating in the Ilkhanate, Yuan China, and more. This difference in perspective on the most critical question underlying the entire issue of Tatar influence, how to use contemporary sources, serves as the foundation for essentially all of Halperin and Ostrowski’s disagreement. This paper will not evaluate the relative contentions of Halperin and Ostrowski on specific evidentiary matters such as translations, but it seems that both scholars have some facts to back their ideas.

In this dispute, Halperin and Ostrowski are on opposite ends of a spectrum; as in most cases in life, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. It is unlikely that Muscovy consciously modeled their entire state and institutional apparatus on that of the Golden Horde or that they saw themselves as the direct successors of the Khans, but it is equally improbable that the significant connections between Muscovite and Tatar systems were a complete coincidence and no administrative borrowing occurred. More likely than not, some Muscovite institutions were borrowed from the Tatars, transliterated to the Russian political and cultural context, and massaged to fit specific Muscovite needs of the period.

The Trinity Cathedral at the Monastery of St. Sergius, founded during the age of the Golden Horde.

Religion and the Church

The impact of the ‘Mongol Yoke’ on Russian religion generally and the Orthodox Church specifically was immense, but not in the way one might assume. Contrary to what the churchmen and religious writers of the period said, Russian Orthodox Christianity absolutely flourished under the dominion of the Golden Horde. The Church’s institutional power grew exponentially during the 240-year Tatar rule and Christianity firmly entrenched itself in the previously unconverted rural hinterlands.

Across the world Mongol Empire, religious toleration was the norm; the initial round of conquering Mongol warriors were animist pagans and largely did not care which gods their subjects worshipped. This continued in the Russian domains of the Tatars, even after “Islam became the state religion of the Golden Horde” (Halperin, Golden Horde 29) under the Khan Uzbek. Despite Islam being a universalizing faith akin to Christianity, the Golden Horde allowed great autonomy to the Russian Orthodox Church. There were only minor asks of the Church in return for toleration, specifically “that it pray for the health of the khan” (Halperin, Golden Horde 113) in regular services.  Not only was autonomy granted by the Khans, but the Church was specifically both protected and privileged through “the yarliki, or patents, guaranteeing the Russian Orthodox Church immunity from taxation … including the postal tax (yam), the customs tax (tamga), and tolls (myt’)” (Halperin, Golden Horde 77). As taxation and tribute payments were by far the biggest drain on the overall Russian economy (see the section on Economic Life above), the avoidance of these burdens was a boon to the Orthodox Church. Halperin states that the “immense tax privileges the khans granted the Church enabled it to recover from the losses suffered during the invasion and subsequent raids and prosper as never before” (Golden Horde 113). The ability for the Church to escape taxation on their large landholdings enticed rural peasants to settle and work on Church lands, further enriching the institution and spreading Orthodoxy among the poor masses.

With this wealth and power came a ‘Golden Age’ of Russian Orthodoxy, as construction of stone churches reemerged and monasticism greatly expanded. The relative prosperity of the Church and the economic growth fostered by the Pax Mongolica “meant that masonry churches went up more frequently than before 1240,” and cities like “Novgorod, Pskov, and Moscow experimented with new types of church roofs” (Evtuhov et al. 93). The building of these masonry churches began anew in the 1280s, but Ostrowski states that “the 25-year period 1313–1337 is when we begin to see significant numbers [of new constructions] in northeastern Rus’” (“Muscovite Adaptation” 298). Stone churches were not the only religious buildings to go up in increasing numbers during the Tatar period, as monasteries became popular and sprang up throughout the Russian lands. Some of the most revered saints in Russian Orthodoxy were monks or abbots from this period, including Saint Sergius of Radonezh who “became the holy patron of Muscovite Russia” (Zenkovsky 259). Sergius founded the famed Trinity Monastery near Moscow and “shone as an outstanding, charismatic example of personal poverty and nonresistance to evil” (Evtuhov et al. 94). Monasteries were centers of charity, dispute resolution, literacy, commercial activity, and, of course, prayer and religiosity. The monks of this time “also copied hundred of books devoted to ethical themes and spirituality” (Evtuhov et al. 94), many of which were passed down through the ages and make up the evidence through which we analyze this period.

Tatar dominion did not just affect the organizational hierarchy of the Orthodox Church, it also made a drastic impact on rural Russian peasants. According to Halperin, “It was, by most estimates, during the fourteenth century that Christianity first made decisive inroads into the previously largely pagan countryside” (Golden Horde 114). These inroads were fostered partially by Tatar religious toleration, but mostly by the Church’s increased wealth and power provided by the Golden Horde’s yarliki. Rural peasants, whose lands were ravaged by the depredations of the initial Mongol invasions and continuing Tatar raids, began to migrate to safer, tax-exempt Church lands. This gave the Church ample opportunity for the conversion of souls to Orthodoxy and the expansion of Christianity more broadly. The foundation of monasteries also accelerated the acceptance of Christianity in the rural hinterlands; the eastern tradition of asceticism pushed Russian monks to found their monasteries in remote areas with little in the way of resources. These monasteries preached to the local populace, increased book culture and literacy through the copying and promulgation of manuscripts, and led to economic growth in these formerly destitute areas.

The ‘Mongol Yoke’ was hardly burdensome for the Russian Orthodox Church, as it benefited momentously from the religious toleration of the Golden Horde and the freedom from the heavy taxation the Tatars imposed everywhere else. New masonry churches and monasteries spread throughout the Russian land as the Church increased its wealth and power. The Tatar era cemented the hold of Russian Orthodox Church on the general populace and that foundation still stands today.

Cultural Works

One of the few areas of Russian life which did not experience direct Tatar influence was the Russian culture. Much of this was due to what Halperin calls “the ideology of silence” (Golden Horde 5), which described the basic inability of religious writers to discuss any form of cultural or institutional borrowing from so-called ‘infidels’. The ideology of silence characterized the general atmosphere of the medieval religious frontier, which was any area where people or states of different faiths overlapped or abutted, and it is extremely applicable to Russia during the Golden Horde period. Russian bookmen, almost exclusively religious writers or monks, chose to ignore the total conquest of their nation and instead continued the prior Kievan method of relating to steppe tribes, that of continual raiding. Although this did not at all accurately summarize the Russian situation after the Mongol invasions, it was tacitly understood that the fact of nomadic conquest simply could not be spoken of. If the Tatars were mentioned, it was inevitably as barbaric infidels with no positive characteristics to speak of. This approach, as well as the distant Horde governance from Sarai, led to a continuation of a Kievan-type culture and a total lack of cultural exchange with the Tatars.

Writing continued to evolve and spread during this time, in similar forms to the pre-Mongol era as well as in newer, more literary genres. Chronicle writing continued unabated under the Golden Horde, and we have excellent examples of the genre from Novgorod, Pskov, Tver, Smolensk, and perhaps most importantly, Moscow (Evtuhov et al. 96). Other literary genres also flourished, including depictions of the lives of Orthodox saints and their miracles, often in the form of panegyrics. The Lives of Saint Sergius, Saint Stephen of Perm, and Kirill of Beloozero are all exemplars of this style of writing. Stylistic flamboyance also grew in this period, especially “an elaborate writing style known as word-weaving” (Evtuhov et al. 93), which was essentially a flowing painting of ornate phrasing which often used repetition in creative ways.

Art, particularly religious iconography, grew in prominence and beauty during the 14th and 15th Centuries as well. The expansion of the Russian Church’s wealth and power and the construction of new masonry churches led to a larger focus on iconography and graphic expression of holiness, mirroring the artistic elegance of the Byzantine Church. Possibly the most famous and talented of the religious artists of the time was a native Russian, Andrei Rublëv, who worked in the late 14th and early 15th Centuries. He “tried to combine the outer beauty of classical traditions and the inner beauty of perfected souls and Christian divinity” (Evtuhov et al. 95), and excelled in the use of color. His Trinity icon is seen as an incredible example of the religious iconography of the period.

Although the Tatar influence was felt in the vast majority of later Russian institutions, culture was largely unaffected. The ideology of silence on the medieval religious frontier made it impossible for Russian writers and artists, almost exclusively engaged in religious pursuits, to borrow the cultural institutions or ideas of those they considered infidels. Still, the Golden Horde period was characterized by the expansion and innovation of Russian high culture, particularly in spiritual matters.

Russian religious art flourished under the Golden Horde; this famous Trinity icon by the Russian artist Andrei Rublëv is one of the masterpieces of the era.


What was the extent and impact of the Tatar period on Muscovy and later Russian history? Negative impacts were clearly felt, as the initial invasions and repeated raids deeply injured the average Russian. Cities were razed, lands were made fallow, peasants were killed or enslaved, and the burden of taxation was heavy indeed. In spite of that destruction, the ‘Mongol Yoke’ is certainly a misnomer with respect to the economic, military, administrative, and religious growth which occurred in Russia under the Golden Horde. Muscovy directly adopted a number of Tatar systems and ideas, from the collection and assessment of taxation to the yam structure of posts; from Tatar cavalry tactics and weapons to the Asiatic diplomatic practices favored by the Golden Horde. Russian life was also positively impacted in less direct ways, including the growth of the Church due to Tatar tax exemptions and the expansion and securing of trade routes under the Pax Mongolica. Still, Muscovy did not directly adopt Tatar administrative structure and institutions in a wholesale manner, nor did it see itself as a direct continuation of the Golden Horde. So, in the end, what do you find when you ‘scratch a Russian’? Not a Tatar, nor a direct offspring of Kievan Rus’, but something in between: a Muscovite.


Evtuhov, Catherine, et al. A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

Halperin, Charles. “Muscovite Political Institutions in the 14th Century.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, vol. 1, no. 2, 2000, pp. 237-257.

—. Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History. Indiana University Press, 1985.

Ostrowski, Donald. “Muscovite Adaptation of Steppe Political Institutions: A Reply to Halperin’s Objections.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, vol. 1, no. 2, 2000, pp. 267-304.

—. “The Mongol Origins of Muscovite Political Institutions.” Slavic Review, vol. 49, no. 4, 1990, pp. 525-542.

Zenkovsky, Serge A., editor. Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. Meridian, 1974.

[*] This paper will be using the term ‘Tatar’ to denote the steppe peoples administering Russia during the Golden Horde period, as the term ‘Mongol’ generally only applies to those people coming from Mongolia proper. ‘Mongol’ will be used when quoting any other sources which utilize it or when it is the more accurate term.

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