The Mongol Legacy in Russia

Fanghong [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book:

By the time the Mongols first invaded in 1223, the Kiev Russian territory had degenerated into rivalries between princes who lorded over around “a dozen or so” independent areas which resulted in disorganized rule (Szamuely 1974). 

Subsequently, the Mongols were able to burn, sack and massacre virtually all cities and towns of the territory in short order.  Around two thirds of the population perished and many survivors retreated into the forests, taking solace in their Orthodox faith (Massie 1980).  They eventually migrated further out to less vulnerable areas, closer to Moscow.  As Tibor Szamuely described in The Russian Tradition, these Russian refugees migrated to form:

…thousands of tiny, self-contained, scattered peasant communities existing largely in isolation, using their primitive implements to clear small patches of subsoil amidst the great forests, and, having exhausted them, moving on again along the banks of numerous rivers (Szamuely 1974).

The Mongols reigned over the land through the 13th and 14th centuries, forcing the surviving Russians into complete subjugation.  They were able to impose their centralized and absolutist rule on the scattered Russians who had lost their complex Slavic tribal bonds in the process (Szamuely 1974).  Massie describes an important aspect of this rupture of bonds among the Slavs who’d constituted Kiev Rus:

Earlier as the Slavs had expanded and absorbed the land, they had fallen into two natural divisions:  the Great Russians in the north and the Little Russians in the south.  After the Mongol invasion, the Little Russians were cut off from the Great Russians.  While the Great Russians became vassals of the Mongols, the Little Russians, who were later known as Ukrainians, were taken over by the Poles and the Lithuanians (Massie 1980).

The Mongols, for all of their viciousness, did have a socio-political ideology.  It required absolute submission to the power of the Khan, who embodied the state.  This Khan owned all of the land and had unqualified authority over his subjects.  Land might be temporarily given to others to be overseen at the pleasure of the Khan who could withdraw the privilege at any time.  The overall objective was to create an empire that, after quick and dirty wars of conquest, would be ruled over by the Khan as a “worldwide social order based on justice and equality,” living in eternal peace (Szamuely).  The price for this security and justice was perfect submission.  

The efficient rule of the Mongols, which lasted for almost 250 years, was achieved by re-establishing a form of national unity from the top, delegating responsibility at the local level for maintaining peace (with quarreling princes, no less), collecting tribute (taxes), and enforcing the law to those princes and those among their entourage who showed trustworthiness.  Faithfulness to the Khan/state was rewarded through a system of seniority among the princes (Szamuely 1974).  

The basic principles of Mongol rule – security and justice in exchange for submission to an absolute central authority – would influence Russian governance into the 20th century. 

The one city that was spared was Novgorod.  Due to a combination of fortuitously bad weather that prevented the invaders from penetrating the city and the continual payment of tribute by its ruler, Alexander, Novgorod remained intact.  Alexander also fought off a Swedish invasion instigated by an opportunistic pope who hoped to capture Novgorod and convert it to Catholicism (Massie 1980).

As Russians fled from Kiev and surrounding areas, Moscow – once considered a small and unimportant “trading post in the wilderness” (Massie 1980) – gradually developed into a prominent city that was influenced by the Mongols instead of the west and by a mystical rather than scholastic emphasis by the Orthodox Church (Billington 1970). 

The princes of Moscow collected tribute from their subjects which they, in turn, used to pay tribute to the Mongols.  In exchange, the Mongols gave the local princes liberty to administer their domain however they wished (Massie 1980).

The Moscow princes expanded the city mostly through annexation, increasing its power and wealth.  It’s location between major river routes, which enabled communication, travel and trade, contributed to its growing success (Szamuely 1974).  The leader of the Orthodox Church, called the metropolitan, moved from Vladimir to Moscow in 1326, adding to the city’s importance (Massie 1980).  Moscow developed in a series of concentric rings around the center as churches and villages sprang up on the periphery. 

The Moscow prince who founded the dynasty that would rule Russia after the Mongols and through the 16th century was Ivan I, also known as Kalita.  Ivan was ruthless when it suited him to get rid of rivals and in the service of his Mongol bosses who rewarded his subservience with increased power and prestige within his fiefdom.   In 1327, the Mongols conferred upon Ivan the title of “Great Prince” (Billington 1970).  He was granted exclusive judicial authority and right of tax collection over all the other princes after he brutally put down a rebellion initiated by another prince attempting to overthrow Mongol rule (Szamuely 1974). 

Wars were a major feature of the next three centuries, including wars of aggression and expansion as well as wars of defense and of internal conflict.  There were six wars with Sweden and twelve with Poland-Lithuania alone (Szamuely 1974).  Much of this martial conflict was driven, at least in part, by Russia’s geographic situation between Europe and Asia. 

When the Golden Horde’s dominance eventually faded, the Tartars based in the southwestern area of Crimea, terrorized Russia with constant raids on horseback that killed or captured Russians, selling the victims into slavery in surrounding territories.  This only ended when Catherine the Great annexed the area in the latter 18th century. 

Due to the Tartar aggression, Russian men were conscripted from Spring through late Autumn every year to defend against the violent incursions.  The situation also forced Russia to focus its colonization efforts on the harsher areas to its north and east. 

Szamuely asserts that, from a psychological standpoint, when it came to their long conflict with the Muslim Tartars, Russians believed that they’d invested their blood, sweat and tears not just in defending their own land and people, but in preventing Tartar expansion further into Europe, enabling the Europeans to develop more rapidly as a result of their relative period of peace and stability (Szamuely 1974).  

Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible (or “Ivan the Formidable” in Russian) finally defeated the last of the Mongol-controlled areas of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia in the 1550’s.


Massie, Suzanne.  Land of the Firebird:  The Beauty of Old Russia.  HeartTree Press.  Blue Hill, ME.  1980.

Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. Vintage Books. 1970.

Szamuely, Tibor. The Russian Tradition. Fontana Press. 1974.

One thought on “The Mongol Legacy in Russia”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.