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A Visit to The Horde: Russia's Asian Past

Mongol Soldiers


Book Review:


The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World

By Marie Favereau




ISBN 9780674244214

Publication Date: 04/20/2021

384 pages

Harvard University Press Belknap Press



Marie Favereau is the author of The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World. The Islamicization of Russia is what inspired Favereau's interest. Her fascination produced a masterwork that gives the reader a new narrative of Russia's Asian past.


The Russian Horde was the furthest west of the lands where Mongol ponies had ridden. It was conceived of as the attack wing of the empire. The Horde invaded Europe and established a massive trading hub between Europe and Asia centered on the Lower Volga River and on the trading city of the Black Sea known as Sudak.


The Horde is the political entity created by the eldest son of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, Jochi, and his sons Batu and Orda. Favereau has created a new concept for our understanding of history by redefining the term Horde. This sweeps away the old preconceptions of the barbarian hordes, demons from hell. 


Favereau's research took twenty years--she labored for another five years to write the book. Scholars of the Mongol Empire are familiar with the great Gobi of research--the materials are vast and exist in many languages. Of no small importance to her endeavor was a supportive spouse, whom she credits in her acknowledgements.



By focusing on the dynamics and workings of The Horde, Favereau has created something new. She gives the general reader an understanding of the patterns of nomad leadership, a moveable culture, nomad institutions and nomad organization of trade. This is original, it is not a classic model of either East or West and offers a new understanding of the past.


Favereau describes in detail how the collection of wealth and its redistribution works. It is an important contribution to the knowledge of human institutions. It destroys the old image of disorganized marauding barbarians bent on conquest. In fact, the sedentary civilizations were not the object of Mongol arms. The Mongols sought to defeat the steppe tribes of nomads, on the Russian steppes, the Kipchaks whose women went to war and who dressed in elaborate costumes for war. The sedentary civilizations had the misfortune to be the neighbors next door. The agriculturalists got in the way of those mounted on horseback.



Favereau's great contribution is her focus on the relationship of The Horde with the Islamic powers. In moving into the Middle East, the Mongols created an ethnic and cultural frontier with the West. They became minor actors in the rough politics and warfare of the Crusades. The Mongols brushed with Europe and Islam in the Middle East. The war and diplomacy with Islam is of interest to Favereau. 


Who knew that a Mongol khan rode into Damascus with three Crusader Kings and offered them an alliance against the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem? The Crusader Kings rejected the alliance, for the record.


Who knew that in 1248 Mongol envoys met with King Louis IX of France, the sainted monarch, as Louis was docked in Cyprus preparing for the Seventh Crusade? Louis was looking for an ally against the Muslims. The Mongols were willing to help him regain control of Jerusalem, but Louis demanded that they convert to Christianity, and the alliance fell apart. This was before Louis found himself imprisoned in an Egyptian jail.


Favereau paints the portrait of a world of mobility and adaptation, of the Mongol incorporation of peoples into The Horde with a view to taxation. This is a much different enterprise than bloody conquest.


(One must not gloss over the dark side of Mongol rule, but as some have pointed out, this was standard in the warfare of the time, certainly between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades.)


Of even greater importance, Favereau has outlined what has gone overlooked, a legacy that survived the fall of the empire and its revival in smaller political entities: she details the nomad organization of trade. This, after all, is what had the most lasting effect. This was the way Europe financed the rise of the West, the beginning of modernity.


She documents the interest of the khans in penetrating the Muslim exchange, the existing system of trade. Insinuating their way into the Arab exchange meant eventually replacing it--this is where the story of modern global exchange begins. It is why the action has the feel of modernity.




The current interest in global history has led to a new exploration of the Mongol Empire, the first chapter in global history.


The rise of one man as political master of Asia, Central Asia, and beyond into Russia where the empire blended into the trading system of the West marks the first extended contact between China and Europe since antiquity.


The Mongol conquests were vast, from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, from Siberia to the jungles of Burma. They lasted for two centuries. The mystery was, how  could the  barbarians manage to rule China and Persia, the most advanced civilizations on earth?  


The expansion of Chinggis Khan's system of trade marks the end of the Muslim dominance of the international system of trade and finance.


Capitalism in Europe was in its infancy, with regional markets still recovering from the fall of the Roman Empire. With the expansion of the Mongol Peace, the way across the world opened. One system of laws guaranteed the security of the system.


Europeans entered the trade between China and Asia. The fortunes that financed the Renaissance, meaning the rebirth of science in the West, were built in the overland trade.


This has caused the generations of scholars to revisit and re-evaluate the history of Chinggis Khan and his successors. The old stereotype of the Mongols, from the founder, his successors, and heirs, down to the demise of the empire, was that of the barbarian bent on conquest.


The image is familiar from Hollywood films such as Conan The Barbarian, featuring  superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger as a scantily clad alpha male warrior killing enemies without a shred of conscience.


The postwar generations of scholars such as Favereau have created a new image, that of the aristocratic horse culture. The model of governance is that of consultative rule, best exemplified by the khuriltai, the gathering of the nobility to decide matters of succession and strategies for war.


The Mongol conquests brought vital exchange throughout the system from superiors to inferiors, and distribution of wealth, peoples, technology and talent throughout a vast empire. The recognition of talent, and the distribution through employment throughout the system is a hallmark of government. It is a system based on mobility and adaptation, on networking, on transport and communication. It is a preview of modernity.


The older model of institutions comes from the sedentary world, from cities. As such, this portrait, in our age of technology and global travel, has a modern feeling.  


As Favereau remarked in an email interview, "I became interested in the Mongol Empire almost 20 years ago. I was studying History at La Sorbonne University in Paris and I wanted to work on the Islamization of Russia. I started reading books on the 'Golden Horde' and I was amazed when I discovered that the Mongols played such a key role in Russian History. It was a completely new field for me, I had never heard of it before and I became immediately fascinated."


Most scholars working in this field are linguists, comfortable in a multilingual environment. How many languages did she use? As she says, "Russian first; then I learned Arabic and Turkish. I also use Latin and Medieval Italian."


What was the biggest surprise for her? "There were two big surprises: one was the crucial role of the North, and more precisely of what I call the 'northern road', in the booming Pan-Eurasian trade network of the fourteenth century; and the other one was the importance of rivers, that I would describe as the highways of the steppe, for both nomads and sedentary people."


No one does a book alone. Favereau is in good company, among scholars who travel like the nomad khans to international conferences such as the one held in 2017 at the Villa I Tatti, Harvard's Renaissance Center in Florence.


Florence embodies the Italian Renaissance as no other city. The scholarly gathering resembles nothing so much as a modern khuriltai, a gathering of the Mongol nobility for consultation.


Like the aqa and ini, elder and younger siblings of the ruling imperial family, these scholars travel from their universities to present the latest scholarship from works that are redefining our understanding of the beginnings of modernity.


The lineup includes, among others, Peter Jackson, Chris Atwood, and the trailblazer, the Supreme Khan, Morris Rossabi. At this gathering, there was a remembrance of one of their number, now departed, the scholar of the mobility of people, technology and talent through the empire, the recently deceased Thomas Allsen. His portrait of the most able ruler after Chinggis Khan, his grandson Mongke Khan, is a monumental work of scholarship.


(The scholar who has generated the most popular interest in Chinggis Khan is the anthropologist Jack Weatherford, with his three international best-sellers, but he is not present at the I Tatti. His discipline is not history, the field represented at the Florence conference. Besides, Weatherford is at work on a new book, another book that breaks the mold of the stereotypes of the past. Look to this blog in the future for the breaking news and an early review.)


The I Tatti conference was titled "The Mongols and Global History" and posed the question: What is at stake in framing the Mongols as harbingers of modernity?



Previous scholarship has not focused on Russia's Asian past and its importance to Russian history. The Mongol destruction of Kiev, the capital of the medieval state of Rus, was an earth-shattering event, because Kiev was the Mother of Russian Cities. It was the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church and had the most important cathedral, the Church of the Holy Virgin. The Mongols burned it to the ground.


The support of the Horde for Moscow created the rise of Moscow as the political center of Russia. The title of tsar was even adopted from one of the Horde's titles for the khan.


Favereau has not written a tome. As a matter of style, she moves from the epic sweep of the history to details of commercial exchange, a lively narrative.


As she states, "The most difficult part of the work? To put together so many different kinds of sources--as they don't complement one another but often contradict one another!"


The concept of mobility as an organizing principle of a state is unique to nomad culture. The mechanics of the so-called Mongol Exchange, the market for talent, goods, money gives us a new understanding of capitalism in its infancy.






The question must be asked: What did Russia think of The Horde? After all, the coming of The Horde had a traumatic impact on their civilization.


As the Chronicler of Novgorod said, "For our sins, unknown tribes came, none knows who they are or whence they came--nor what their language is, nor of what race they are nor what their faith is--God alone knows who they are and whence they came out.


Chinese historians could explain the Mongol conquest as the workings of the Mandate of Heaven. This stands in stark contrast to the history of Russia. Russian "bookmen"--historians, scribes, copyists--were accustomed to the view of Russia as being under the protection of the Russian Orthodox Church.


Alexander Nevsky, the Prince of Novgorod, defeated the Teutonic Knights in the historic Battle on the Ice on the Neva River. This is the same Prince Nevsky portrayed in the Sergei Eisenstein film.


The prince, while still a youth, saved Mother Russia from a Crusade against Russia because the Pope of the Church in Rome wished to bring Russia back to the fold of the One True Church. Nevsky chose the protection of The Horde because the Horde was famous for religious toleration. There were churches and mosques in Batu Khan's massive camp at Sarai on the lower Volga River.


The question for Russian historians was this: What did it say about the church if the nomads won? There was no way to explain it or justify it. The defense of the historians was silence. 


The history was especially problematic when Berke Khan converted to Islam at the turn of the fourteenth century. With the conversion of his followers, The Horde entered the mainstream of Christian-Muslim relations at the ethnic and cultural frontier of both Christianity and Islam..


The American writer Olga Andreyeva Carlisle was a member of an esteemed Moscow literary family that had emigrated to Paris during the Bolshevik days, but who maintained the literary life among Russian emigres in Paris.


She was the translator of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot and the author of anthologies of Russian poetry. She married an American editor and moved to New York, where she moved in the circle of the literary scene in the 1970s. George Plimpton invited her, when she was still a young writer, to go to Moscow and interview dissident writers for The Paris Review.


Solzhenitzyn knew her brother--she was trusted. This was the beginning of a major literary adventure. She recounts bringing some of the Gulag Archipelago out, the work that exposed the Soviet prison system. She was to play a role in preparing it for publication in the West. When published, the book caused a sensation and resulted in the deportment of Solzhenitzyn out of the USSR This was the beginning of a quarrel, recounted in her book Solzhenitzyn and the Secret Circle.


I interviewed Carlisle in her living room overlooking San Francisco Bay, for a book that I had written about the Chinese prison system. (She had been a mentor of mine in a writing program in Squaw Valley).


When we completed the interview, I did a reading for Olga from my book Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde. By the time the reading ended, Olga was in tears. "This is the story from the other side," she said.


Then she told me of the poem of Alexandr Blok, the Russian Symbolist poet, "On Kulikovo Field", the battle where the Russian princes at last defeated The Horde.


Favereau describes a lengthy period after the defeat of the Horde, when relations between the Horde and the Muscovite princes remained friendly. After all, the rise of Moscow as the center of Russian political life was due to the Mongols.


Centuries later, the dominant narrative about the Mongols turned to the negative and described the defeat of The Horde as "casting off the Tatar yoke." Favereau attributes this to the development of a nationalist narrative.


A Russian woman of letters had never heard the story of The Horde's importance in Russian history because the narrative did not exist. That is no longer true. No one has told the story of The Other Side better than Favereau. This book is a tour de force.


Postscript: Worth the price of the book is Favereau's recounting of the role of the fur trade under the Mongols in the spread of the Black Death. In our time of pandemic, it is a reminder of humanity at its most vulnerable, a time that was the stuff of nightmares.


In the current pandemic, there has been a great deal of suffering and death, and one does not want to be insensitive to the experience of suffering. 


Of particular interest in Favereau's book is the role of the marmot, desired for its fur and scandalously, for its deliciousness. The Mongols were famously wide eaters. To the modern world: Beware the bat and the marmot!






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