Another superbly-written piece by Roussinos, and he seems to have made good use of Ball’s research. Some of these arguments are completely uncontroversial when applied to the Asian neighbours of the Eurasian steppe in the early modern period: the Ottomans, the Safavids of Iran and the Qing all made use of Chinggisid and TImurid political repertoires in building their states alongside other elements (Byzantine heritage for the Ottomans, the existing Chinese imperial tradition in the Qing case, Sufi religious charisma for the Safavids). The Mughals were of course actually of Timurid (and in the female line of Chinggisid) descent, and it was at the core of their dynastic ideology in India. However the steppe political tradition seems to have produced ever larger polities in Asia, which makes it hard to explain why it would instead produce political fragmentation in western and Central Europe – I think that part of Ball’s argument is a bit overstretched.
The Muscovite example seems to fit the Asian pattern better, and Roussinos is spot on in saying that it was the willingness of the Princes of Moscow to act as particularly loyal and effective satraps and tax collectors for the Golden Horde that allowed what had previously been a minor Rus’ princedom to rise to pre-eminence. However we need to be clear about what it was that Muscovy took from the Mongols: it was largely bureaucratic structures linked to taxation or communication. This why key Russian words such as kazna (treasury), den’gi (money) and yam (postal service) are of Mongol origin. On the cultural side the ruling ideologies of the state were all to do with Orthodox Christianity and the semi-mythical link to Byzantium (the ‘Third Rome’), which was what Ivan IV (the Terrible) was evoking when he took the title of Tsar (Caesar) – he may have added the title of khan for good measure but this was largely for the purposes of communication with steppe peoples. Many Tatar nobles of Chinggisid descent did become incorporated into the Muscovite aristocracy after the fall of Kazan in 1552, but you need to be careful about 19th and 20th-century claims to this ancestry, which are often bogus (it was fashionable at the time). In the case of Akhmatova it was her nom de plume (she was born Anna Gorenko – in fact a Ukrainian name). In any case Chinggisid descent did not give you any kind of claim to the throne of Muscovy, which had its own dynastic legend in the Rurikids. A better guide to the relationship between Muscovy and the Mongols than Ball is Donald Ostrowski.
There is also a bit too much cultural determinism in all of this to my liking – it suggests that neither Russia nor Ukraine can ever shake off this bloody past etc. etc. Nowhere in the world is simply a prisoner of its past. What is happening now is a result of very specific political choices made by Vladimir Putin and Russia’s ruling elite. Their thinking is rooted partly in their reading of 19th-century Russian historians (who first came up with the idea that Russians and Ukrainians were the same people), vicious forms of anti-semitic Russian nationalism of the early 20th century and the emigration (the Black Hundreds, Ivan Il’in), a particular, tendentious interpretation of both Soviet history and their own memories of the Soviet collapse. What is perhaps more relevant is that this steppe past means that most of southern and eastern Ukraine was only relatively recently settled – not just by Russians and Ukrainians, but by the whole range of peoples of the empire (Greeks, Jews, Bulgarians, Armenians…probably also some Ossetians). They are certainly not ‘ancient Russian lands’ as Putin has claimed, but they are part of Ukrainian territory under international law and the Budapest memorandum assuring the country’s territorial integrity which Russia signed.
A couple of other corrections – the Buryats are not a steppe people, they live East of Lake Baikal. I am a bit queasy about the implication that they and the Kalmyks are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the Russian army because of their ‘savage’ steppe nature – it is simply because these are some of the poorest parts of the Russian Federation, and because the Russian regime is very deliberately trying to avoid recruiting troops from metropolitan regions of European Russia whose families might cause political trouble or have ties to Ukraine. The ethnic Russians who are fighting are also disproportionately from Siberia or the Altai. The regiment which committed the atrocities at Bucha was from Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, and its commander appears to have been originally from Karakalpakstan. Most Ossetians speak Russian these days, and have long identified with Russian rule.
A good piece though – not many outlets would allow as thorough and as thoughtful a review of a work on Eurasian History.
An excellent critique, no more need be said, thank you.
One more thing, actually: To talk about the origins of France and Denmark without even a single mention of Germanic tribes — who also lived on or near the steppes and we’re pressured westward by Turkic and Mongol groups like the Huns, Avars etc. — is bizarre. Otherwise very interesting.
Excellent response indeed. Certainly an overstretch to trace national states , mostly 19 c phenomenon, to the Kingdom of Bulgars of a few centuries earlier.
Also collective punishment were not invented by Mongolians ( Rome comes to mind)
Also it’s a pervasive Russian “westerners” narrative since late 19 century that the pristine Kievan “European“ Russia was contaminated by the Mongolian Eastern mentality resulting in slavery-like serfdom. Needless to say the Nomads were by definition by far more egalitarian societies than any settled communities.
Yes, this (a-)historical determinism reminds one a bit of the “ancient hatreds” explanation for the Yugoslav wars, which essentially concluded that they were not really quite like us, and so sadly nothing could be done: completely overlooking the role of Germany in that country’s history.
I didn’t expect to enjoy this article as much as I did. My congratulations to the author.
Yes, fascinating. I was once given my own private tour of the Scythian contents of the Hermitage, arranged by friends in the early 1990s when I was a regular visitor to Russia.
Excellent and very educational.
After reading that it is clear that the best solution by far would be a diplomatic solution that allowed the region that has been wanting independence to vote on it.
It is clear from the article that Ukraine is a construct in the same way as Yugoslavia was. NATO actually assisted some ‘countries’ to breakaway in that region, so why in this case are we (particularly the UK) so determined to prevent a diplomatic solution and instead throw in billions of dollars worth of weapons (who knows where they really end up) that result in horrific loss of life?
The people of Donbas have been getting killed by Ukrainians since 2014 in a conflict that seems to have been whitewashed from Western media. Why can’t the Donbas region have a free and fair election on whether they want to be an independent nation, part of Ukraine, or part of Russia?
Maybe the UK and USA (the two who seem to be running the show) have reasons to be so pro war and so anti diplomacy. Maybe war is very profitable for those countries. Maybe they have something to hide. Maybe it would be hugely embarrassing for them if the world got a chance to see the people of Donetsk and Luhansk celebrating their independence from Ukraine. Who knows.
To be clear. I am totally against all wars. I just don’t get why we (particularly the UK and USA) can’t manage to reach a diplomatic solution ever, and as a result continuously end up involved in multi-decade conflicts in far flung places.
Barring the present interlude, the only time that the ‘Ukraine’ has experienced anything like independence in recent history, was courtesy of the German Army and Max Hoffman in 1918.
30 years is a very big “interlude.”
Moreover, Russia is not a valid state.
Only Ukraine has had a number of genuinely democratic elections.
According to ‘Transparency International’s’ Worldwide Corruption League, out of 180 contestants, Ukraine came in at 122, Russia even worse at 136.
Doesn’t say much for either of ‘em does it?
Nice attempt to avoid the issue of one being a democracy and the other a totalitarian state.
And is it surprising that Ukraine is corrupt when it adjoins one of the most corrupt industrialized states on the planet?
One word: Money.
Alas, I am ever more sure you are right about that Alison. 20 years ago I would have said ‘don’t be crazy’ but after two decades of Afghanistan I now have a less naive view of the economics of war.
So did the West force Putin to invade–so they could then expend tens of billions of dollars/pounds to arm Ukraine, and thus harm their own economies in the process?
The idea of “Merchants of Death” as the cause of modern wars actually resembles the Witch Craze of the 17th C.
People invariably resort to the irrational in times of great stress.
With power being the ultimate goal.
As I understand it, in 1992 there was a free and fair election, in which even the Donbas etc voted to be in Ukraine rather than Russia. Now, how can there be one when millions (? – or however many) have fled West, and many thousands (ditto) have been abducted East?
“I am totally against all wars”.
Of course. But have you learned nothing from this essay or from history in general? War is built into human DNA. Since the very beginning. It would be like saying, “why must humans eat food?”
A fair and just diplomatic solution requires honest and constructive parties and not precluded by an invasion and destruction of towns, cities and the civilian population. The weapons are needed to even the score, and even then the dishonest and barbaric party needs to be taken down a number of pegs. Clear your head of the brain fog.
Well said. So much should be obvious, but that it needed saying is itself problematic. That the mass and indiscriminate killing and torture of civilians can be passed over as somehow a failure of the US & UK to allow a diplomatic solution is unconscionable.
Every missile that strikes an apartment block in the Ukraine is a war crime for which no amount of words can be used to obfuscate.
Great article by the author, and some very knowledgeable comments, by the way.
You watch too much feel-good, fake news Western propaganda. The killing and torture of civilians has been done by the Azov Ukrainians, all planned and funded by the US/UK war machine, not the Russians. The West, under British training, learned long ago that you get much more control over a society by reducing it to internal turmoil and chaos rather than law and order. You do this by stealth and media manipulation, while lying through your teeth in public. The West has softened up Ukraine for chaos and takeover for twenty years now, all anticipating their forcible regime change of Russia. The pro-Western puppet Zelensky is all part of the setup. The Russians are rescuing Ukraine from the West and from itself, they are the holy defenders. And protecting their own borders in the process, to which NATO is getting uncomfortably close. Only a fool would fall for this same old Western provocation game, and Putin is no fool. The TV-watching masses are truly ignorant for not seeing this. As for Russia’s internal problems, they are really none of our business. You dont tell a bear in the woods how to live its life, you leave it alone.
The Russo-Japanese War, the death of the Czars, the Russian “revolution”, WW1 & 2, betrayal by Hitler and then the Allies, the Cold War, and now Ukraine were probably all Western plots and provocations. The West, or more specifically the British and their Elite financier friends, have been trying to capture or co-opt Russia unsuccessfully for at least a century. Hitler was a US/UK creation. The US lost 50 thousand in WW2, Russia lost 30 Million. The Russians, and they alone, can claim to have “won” WW2, and they had a right to be a little crazy afterwards. Ukraine is just the last in a long line of attacks by the West.
Next will be an attack by NATO, and Russia will be forced to invade Europe, and finally the US itself, surprisingly soon. The global elites are now planning this, with much complicity by corrupt and extorted Western leaders, because they have always wanted to get rid of the democratic West. Their time has now come since the Western economic system is exhausted, and Russia is being provoked and prepared to finish the job. Europe is ready to fall, and the O’Biden administration is now softening up Americas defenses and reducing its society to internal chaos, following the same old plan. Its all part of what they mean by the Great Reset, and most of us are falling for it.
“Hitler was a US/UK creation” ….. I mean, the Germans themselves had no agency in that?
You ascribe too much foresight, intelligence, and singlemindedness to the western elite, which according to you has decided on collective suicide.
The US/UK also killed the Czar and his family, dontcha know?
If only Donbas would have had a free and fair referendum…
Sadly, the Minsk Accords were specifically designed to prevent that. Putin’s Russophile parties in Ukraine had lost credibility with most voters. They were almost as weak as the far right.
So Putin HAD to keep Donbas inside Ukraine, or the rest of the country would have broken entirely free of Russia. Any replication of the Crimean annexation would mean a strong, prosperous Ukrainian state focused on the West.
None of us can fathom the depth nor the scope of Putin’s great vision. As he well knows, geniuses must follow their own lonely path to greatness.
Usually accompanied by their nation’s collapse.
The suggestion that the US/UK/NATO warmongers are looking for peace or much less democracy in Ukraine is laughable. They want only one thing – forcible regime change in Russia, Iran, China. They want only to steal the natural resources of every other state on earth, or make them willing vassals. As such, they will resort to any conceivable lie, stealth and subterfuge they can concoct, using the captive world media as their mouthpiece. Russia is the persecuted victim and hero in all this, as in most of the 20th century, they have every right and reason to once again defend their borders. If you look at the map of NATO expansion, you can see clearly the aims and intentions to invade Russia. This is the same old play, provoke your target mercilessly, then when he finally reacts, use it as an excuse to “intervene” militarily in some proxy country. The ground in Ukraine was carefully prepared for years in advance by color revolutions promoted by the West, and by cultivation of chaos and rogue Nazi elements. Azov is functionally the same as Isis, AlQuaeda and the Mujahideen, all US/UK creations. Yes, its about money, and embarassment and things to hide, all of the above, but also simply about world dominating ambitions, of the West, not of Russia. Anyone who believes the pure media propaganda about evil Russia and noble democratic Ukraine is utterly a helpless, unthinking stooge of the Empire.
You are completely ignorant of history of Ukraine.
There was referendum in 1991 in which over 90% of Ukrainians voted for independence.
Donbass region voted over 80% for independence.
Crimea voted 54% for independence.
So all this claims that people of Donbass want to be part of Russia is just Russian propaganda, sorry.
Blaming USA and UK for not reaching diplomatic solution is just a sick joke.
It is Russia which invaded Ukraine.
Ukraine is nothing like Yugoslavia.
Soviet Union was like Yugoslavia and that is why they both had fallen apart.
Constituent parts did not want to be subjugated any longer by psychopaths with delusions of destiny and grandeur.
While I agree that we are fed a very one-sided account of the current conflict, which marvellously avoids comparison with the US-UK attack on Iraq, for example, you go far too far to the other side.
Generally, the west has nothing to gain and much to lose from the destruction and disruption to global trade.
Indeed, the criticism I would make of our leaders is that they allowed this conflict to happen by having an ambiguous approach to Ukraine’s hypothetical NATO membership, while not making it clear to Putin what would be the consequences of war in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, due to these mistakes, we now find ourselves essentially in a state of war with Russia, a disaster on a par with Munich 1938. As we all know, starting a war is easier than ending it. Our Government (UK) is culpable failing to prepare the country for what may lay ahead.
Clearly a free and fair election is not possible in Ukraine whilst Russia occupies Crimea and parts of the Donbas.
You may be against all wars but when your country, your people and your family are subjected to an invasion from another there simply is no other choice.
If Ukraine hadn’t responded militarily to the Russian invasion then the Ukrainian land grabbed by them would have been lost forever
I am with Ukraine …mealy mouthed statements like ‘I am totally against all wars’ are irresponsible and trite.
Fascinating article, to which I’ll add the following little bits and pieces:
Ever since I have become interested in the Czech Republic and trying to learn the language, my best friend (Slovakian, from Bratislava) has taken to knowledge-bombing me with info about Slovakia. Not that they should be forgotten in favour of their Czech brothers! The parts about the battle for the recognition of written Slovakian is especially interesting.
2) The mention of the Kalmyks made me think of this:
The “Kalmuck” jackets (“Janker” = a jacket forming part of traditional costume) traditionally worn in the winegrowing region of Lower Austria in towns like Retz and the Wachau (UNESCO World Heritage) can be traced back to materials brought by Mongolian tribes who were trading their wares right across to Western Europe. The material was originally used by the Kalmyk horsemen to make saddle cloths. However, because of its durability and warmth, it became a hit among the workers in Austria’s vineyards who needed clothes to protect them against their rough working conditions. They’re still worn today, but as more of a festive thing…and for the tourists, obvs.
Really eye opening and informative article about a subject of which I knew very little. Super!
I always thought those despicable Russians were Mongol hordes. Turns out they were actually the whores of the hordes. That explains it, doesn’t it?
Thank you for this wonderful history class!
Mr Curlin’s contribution is clearly ‘hate speech’ and dissemination of that hatred should not be facilitated by Unherd.
BTW My understanding is that hate speech is now a criminal offence.
Hate speech isn’t hate speech when it is directed towards Russians. QED.
Seriously? On Unherd? Looking forward to seeing more of your ‘helpful’ contributions to free speech.
It isn’t very nice to crybully.
It is well written, as always by the author but there are some really dubious claims in this article.
For a start, while it is true that Polish gentry (szlachta) claimed ancestry from Sarmatians and dressed in particular clothing, it is just a myth which has no relevance to political and legal culture of Poland.
Claiming that Hungarian desire for equal status in Austrian Empire has anything to do with their steppe origin is another delusion.
Cossacks were not Russians. It is another myth.
When Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth dominated what is now Bielorussia and Ukraine in 16th and 17th century, Cossacks were independent people with their own political system (Sicz Zaporoska).
After Pereyaslav treaty between Poland and Russia they were supposed to maintain their privileges under Russian Tzar but eventually they were subjugated by Russia.
There are some smaller inaccuracies (so Kursk was tank battle but not Stalingrad).
The history of Muscovy is really well outlined and explains why people who claim that Russia is European state in any meaningful sense are naive (or dishonest).
“Cossacks were not Russians” …. As far as I can see, they developed in the borderlands of Muscovy, Poland-Lithuania, and Crimean Khanate, from a mix of peoples and individuals, in a time and region when ethnic identity was fluid. There can hardly be any doubt that Cossacks were partly Russian in origin, and became more Russified over the centuries, so saying that their being Russians is a myth is overstated, in my opinion.
“Perhaps it is not mere coincidence, then, that the Azov Regiment’s torchlit ceremonies in the southern steppe city of Mariupol took place beneath three giant swords embedded in the ground, a striking symbol that has now become the group’s emblem.”
I couldn’t disagree more. That is not the origin of that group’s emblem, and I suspect the author knows damn well that it is not.
I’m not sure what you are referring to, but they look rather like the three swords on the hill outside Stavanger, commemorating Harold Fairhair’s 872 AD victory over the other to kings which gathered all of Norway under one crown
So what is the origin of that emblem? It’s a bit much to say the author is wrong and then to not offer an alternative theory
No reply yet, says it all.
Russia is indeed a “steppe” civilization.
But as such, it is a CENTRAL ASIAN power, not a European or even “Eurasian” power.
If Putin had been intelligent, he would have allowed immigration from Central Asia to augment his plummeting population. A Russia that then combined its still extant European technology with the skills of the newcomers would have been a formidable nation-state. Indeed, by now it would have easily surpassed Germany.
Instead, Putin took as his model the aggressive imperialism and Mercantilist economics of the defunct Petrine state. Quite understandable, since like the majority of Russians, he is ignorant of any other alternatives.
This alluring but very problematic model has, and will only create insoluble problems for Russia.
We now see them every day.
But in fact there is substantial immigration from Central Asian ex-Soviet republics into Russia.
I learned so much. Thank you!
Great article. Ball’s book sounds like a book worth reading – just bought it.
Very interesting article. Of course it makes sense that there has been Asian influence in Europe. The Mongols made it as far as central Europe.
There is also dna evidence that the original inhabitants of Western Europe originated in the Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Western Russian areas of the Eurasian Steppe.
Russia is particularly interesting. Its a mix of a massive number of civilisations. In sheer size it includes areas in Central Europe (Kaliningrad), North Eastern Europe, South Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and East Asia. It’s a vast empire, similar to the British and French empires but contiguous. That may be what’s held it together (so far). The Chechens may well go after Kadyrov does.
“Without the Mongol-enforced primacy of Muscovy, the land that is now Russia may well have remained a series of disunited kingdoms and city states, just like medieval Italy or Germany” – well, this would have been a far better outcome than the rise of Muscovy.
While informative, the piece lacks Aris’ own insight, instead drawing entirely on Ball’s work. I expect more from Unherd writers.
Beneath the author’s name it says
Summer reads 2022
Our contributors choose books to make sense of a chaotic summer
He could have mentioned Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads. When I read that I was amazed at how many hegemonising cultures have swept out of Central Asia to attack Europe.
Perhaps not enitrely relevant to this discussion, but curious nonetheless. The first president of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, made Elista – the capital of said federal republic – one of the premier locations for chess tournaments due to his penchant to said game, with a huge complex called Chess City with facilities for players and students of the game