‘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.

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