Monthly Archives: October 2014

A Keyword Retrieval System for Historical Mongolian Document Images

Hongxi Wei1   and Guanglai Gao1  (1)School of Computer Science, Inner Mongolia University, Hohhot, 010021, China

Hongxi Wei (Corresponding author)


Guanglai Gao

Email: 14 April 2012

Revised: 8 January 2013

Accepted: 11 February 2013

Published online: 26 February 2013


In this paper, we propose a keyword retrieval system for locating words in historical Mongolian document images. Based on the word spotting technology, a collection of historical Mongolian document images is converted into a collection of word images by word segmentation, and a number of profile-based features are extracted to represent word images. For each word image, a fixed-length feature vector is formulated by obtaining the appropriate number of the complex coefficients of discrete Fourier transform on each profile feature. The system supports online image-to-image matching by calculating similarities between a query word image and each word image in the collection, and consequently, a ranked result is returned in descending order of the similarities. Therein, the query word image can be generated by synthesizing a sequence of glyphs when being retrieved. By experimental evaluations, the performance of the system is confirmed.

Keywords Kanjur  – Word spotting  – Profile features  – Discrete Fourier transform  – Query image synthesis

Source: see full text:

Rabi Rashidi (Rashidi Quarters): a late thirteen to early fourteenth century Middle Eastern Medical School

Feridoon Abbasnejad1, Mohammadali M. Shoja1, 2, 3, Paul S. Agutter4, Farid Alakbarli5, Marios Loukas6, Ghaffar Shokouhi7, Majid Khalili1 and R. Shane Tubbs2

(1)Tuberculosis and Lung Disease Research Center, Tabriz University of Medical Sciences, Tabriz, Iran

(2)Section of Pediatric Neurosurgery, Children’s Hospital, Birmingham, AL, USA

(3)Division of Neurological Surgery, Department of Surgery, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA

(4)Theoretical Medicine and Biology Group, Glossop, Derbyshire, UK

(5)Institute of Manuscripts of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, Baku, Azerbaijan

(6)Department of Anatomical Sciences, School of Medicine, St. George’s University, Grenada, West Indies

(7)Medical Philosophy and History Research Center, Tabriz University of Medical Sciences, Tabriz, Iran

Mohammadali M. Shoja

Email: amohadjel@yahoo.comPublished online: 20 July 2012



Following the Mongolian invasion of the Middle East in the thirteenth century, a regional power called the Ilkhanid emerged and was ruled by the heirs of Temujin from Mongolia. Embracing present-day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, areas of Russia, Turkey, and Pakistan, and nearby Middle Eastern territories, the Ilkhanid state patronized medicine and various other professions. Centered in Tabriz (Tauris), a city in the northwest of present-day Iran, was a non-profit-making educational and medical complex founded by Grand Minister Rashid al-Din Fazlollah Hamadani.


This paper reviews the literature regarding the rise and fall of the thirteenth century university and the Rabi Rashidi, emphasizing the structure of its medical school.


The background training of Rashid al-Din and his keen interest in science turned this complex, Rabi Rashidi (literally meaning the Rashidi Quarters), into a cosmopolitan university that freely trained medical scholars nationally and internationally. The possibility that Rashid al-Din was inspired by university developments in Europe is discussed.

Keywords History  – Medicine  – Medieval  – University

Source: see full text:

Research Wild Plant Folk Nomenclature of the Mongol herdsmen in the Arhorchin National Nature Reserve, Inner Mongolia, PR China

Soyolt1, 2 , Galsannorbu2  , Yongping3  , Wunenbayar3  , Guohou Liu1   and Khasbagan2  (1)Ecology and Environment College, Inner Mongolia Agricultural University, Hohhot, 010019, PR China

(2)College of Life Science and Technology, Inner Mongolia Normal University, Hohhot, 010022, PR China

(3)Administration Bureau for Arhorchin National Nature Reserve in Inner Mongolia, Arhorchin, 025550, PR China



Folk names of plants are the root of traditional plant biodiversity knowledge. In pace with social change and economic development, Mongolian knowledge concerning plant diversity is gradually vanishing. Collection and analysis of Mongolian folk names of plants is extremely important. During 2008 to 2012, the authors have been to the Arhorchin National Nature Reserve area 5 times. Fieldwork was done in 13 villages, with 56 local Mongol herdsmen being interviewed. This report documents plant folk names, analyzes the relationship between folk names and scientific names, looks at the structure and special characteristics of folk names, plant use information, and comparative analysis were also improved.


Ethnobotanical interviewing methods of free-listing and open-ended questionnaires were used. Ethnobotanical interview and voucher specimen collection were carried out in two ways as local plant specimens were collected beforehand and then used in interviews, and local Mongol herdsmen were invited to the field and interviewed while collecting voucher specimens. Mongolian oral language was used as the working language and findings were originally recorded in Mongolian written language. Scientific names of plants are defined through collection and identification of voucher specimens by the methods of plant taxonomy.


A total of 146 folk names of local plants are recorded. Plant folk names corresponded with 111 species, 1 subspecies, 7 varieties, 1 form, which belong to 42 families and 88 genera. The correspondence between plant folk names and scientific names may be classified as one to one correspondence, two or three to one correspondence, and one to multitude correspondence. The structure of folk names were classified as primary names, secondary names and borrowed names. There were 12 folk names that contain animal names and they have correspondence with 15 species. There are nine folk names that contain usage information and they have correspondence with 10 species in which five species and one variety of plant are still used by the local people. The results of comparative analysis on the Mongol herdsmen in the Arhorchin National Nature Reserve and the Mongolians in the Ejina desert area shows that there are some similarities, as well as many differences whether in language or in the structure.


In the corresponding rate between plant folk names and scientific names yielded a computational correspondence of 82.19%, which can be considered as a high level of consistency between scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge in botanical nomenclature. Primary names have most cultural significance in the plant folk names. Special characteristic of plant folk names were focused on the physical characteristics of animals which were closely related to their traditional animal husbandry and environment. Plant folk names are not only a code to distinguish between different plant species, but also a kind of culture rich in a deep knowledge concerning nature. The results of comparative analysis shows that Mongolian culture in terms of plant nomenclature have characteristics of diversity between the different regions and different tribes.

Keywords Wild plants  – The Mongol herdsmen  – Folk nomenclature  – Arhorchin National Nature Reserve  – Inner Mongolia

Source: see full text:

Building of Database for Mongolists

With the expansion of Mongolia’s contacts with the rest of the world, the world of scholarship on Mongolian and Mongolian peoples world-wide has become wider and broader than ever. New fields are opening up regularly and new communities of collaborative scholars are forming. This situation offers an opportunity for those working in fields related to the Mongolian lands and peoples to find fruitful new areas of cooperation and mutual academic enrichment. To facilitate this type of exchange, The Mongolia Society has established a directory of scholars with an active interest in any field related to Mongolia and the Mongols. Our aim is to build a listing of scholars currently working on any aspect of the Mongolian lands and peoples, both to facilitate linkages between scholars who currently may not be aware of each others’ work and interests, and to identify areas that perhaps may not be receiving the attention they deserve.

The scope of this directory

This directory includes all scholars working on any aspect of Mongolia and the Mongol peoples. This includes are all fields from archeology to zoology, and from visual arts to women’s studies. The database not only includes those doing research on the independent State of Mongolia (formerly the Mongolian People’s Republic or Outer Mongolia), but also those studying Inner Mongolia in China, the Mongolian peoples in Russia, the Mongols and Tibet, and all the far-flung successor states of the Mongol world empire. Finally the database covers all time period from the prehistoric past to the present.

Including Your Name in the Directory

There are other listings of scholars involved in Central Eurasian Studies or Central Asian Studies with much valuable information. Our listing will be, however, the first database of scholars involved in Mongolian studies that is both comprehensive and complete listing of those interested in Mongolian studies. If you are a scholar involved in any aspect of research on Mongolia and the Mongols, we hope that you will take the time to help us and the world of scholars interested in Mongolian studies by filling out the following questionnaire, and by passing copies on to any colleague you may be aware of with an active interest in any field related to Mongolia.

Availability and Acknowledgments

This database will also be available in pamphlet form in the future. The Mongolia Society would like to thank the Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resources Center for providing funding that helped make this web-site possible. We would also like to thank our volunteers Namiko Fujii and Tsevegmid Tumentsogt for their generous gifts of time and expertise on this web site.

Questions and Corrections

Please direct all questions, corrections on any entry, and suggestions to


CALL FOR PAPERS, 2015 Annual Meeting of The Mongolia Society in Chicago, Illinois

Tue, 09/30/2014 – 21:44 — Kacey


2015 Annual Meeting of The Mongolia Society in Chicago, Illinois

The 2015 Annual Meeting of The Mongolia Society will be held in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) when it meets in Chicago, March 26-29, 2015. The exact date of the meeting will be announced at a later date.

The Mongolia Society is placing a CALL FOR PAPERS for the 2015 Annual Meeting and Panels in Chicago, IL. Please submit your abstract for consideration on

1) Mongolian Communities in the US

2) Mongolia’s Foreign Policy and Economic Development

3) Linguistic, Religious and Cultural Questions in Today’s Mongolia

The abstract must be received no later than February 25th, and contain the paper title, be no more than 300 words and have contact information, including email address. If your abstract is accepted, you will have 15 minutes to present your paper. After the paper presentations, there will be an open discussion with the audience. You must be a Mongolia Society member to present a paper. To join the Society, please either contact the Society office or go to our website

Please submit your abstract to Susie Drost, The Mongolia Society, 322 Goodbody Hall, Indiana University, 1011 E. 3rd Street, Bloomington, IN 47405-7005; Telephone and Fax number: 812-855-4078; E-Mail:; Web:



Traditional Mongolian Medicine: history and status quo

A. Pitschmann1, S. Purevsuren2, A. Obmann1, D. Natsagdorj3, D. Gunbilig4, S. Narantuya2, Ch. Kletter1 and S. Glasl 

Department of Pharmacognosy, University of Vienna, Althanstraße 14, 1090 Vienna, Austria

School of Pharmacy, Health Sciences University of Mongolia, PO Box 48/111, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Clinic and Training Centre of Mongolian Traditional Medicine “Manba Datsan”, “Otoch Manramba” Institute of Traditional Mongolian Medicine, PO Box 49/235, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Joint Laboratory for Chemical Ecology, Mongolian Academy of Scineces, Enkhtaivan Street 51, 13330 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
S. Glasl
Received: 18 March 2013Accepted: 17 August 2013Published online: 3 September 2013
Traditional Mongolian Medicine (TMM) plays an important role within the medical system of Mongolia nowadays. This medical system is rather unknown in the Western world, and detailed information can hardly be found in literature. In this article various aspects of TMM are highlighted. The eventful history of TMM is presented, and the centres which offer today’s traditional medical care are introduced. Institutions which provide education in TMM are outlined, and the latest developments in the national standard are highlighted, according to which the different institutions have to develop their curricula. Furthermore, an overview is given about herbal medicines in Mongolia and the health situation in this country. Finally, the international and Mongolian literature of Achillea asiatica, Dianthus versicolor, Euphorbia pallasii, Lilium pumilum, and Saussurea amara, which are all used in TMM to cure liver diseases, is reviewed.

Traditional Mongolian Medicine Education Herbal drugs Liver diseases Achillea asiatica Dianthus versicolor Euphorbia pallasii Lilium pumilum Saussurea amara

The image of Genghis Khan and ethnic identities in Post-Soviet Russia

Original Paper

The image of Genghis Khan and ethnic identities in Post-Soviet Russia

Dmitry Shlapentokh 

Department of History, Indiana University, P.O. Box 7111, South Bend, Indiana, 46634-7111, USA
Dmitry Shlapentokh
Published online: 18 September 2009
The recent rise of Asia as a global geopolitical center has led to renewed interest in Asian history, not just by Asians but by Europeans as well. Genghis Khan is one of those figures who attracts attention, and several movies on him have recently been created. One of them was made in Russia and has led to broad public response. These responses have made it possible to gauge the views of the Russian public on the role of Russia in the global community and the relationship between Russians and ethnic minorities of the Russian Federation.

The proponents of postmodernism, Foucault for example, usually relate power with what they call “discourse,” ideology in the broad sense. They argue that those who control “discourse” hold the power. Actually, the opposite is usually true. Those who are in control, those who hold power, control the “discourse.” Power is attractive, and the image of power is “sexy” in the public mind. The same can be said about historical images: images of this or that civilization emerge or disappear in their connection to power—the geopolitical importance of the country or regime. This theory applies to Genghis Khan, who has been a subject of recent movies in several countries.
A movie about Genghis Khan in Mongolia has an easy explanation. He is seen as the founder of the Mongolian nation, builder of the biggest continental empire in history. The 800th anniversary of the foundation of the empire was celebrated in 2006 with great pomp. In China and Japan, movies on Genghis Khan are made for a different reason. China was conquered by the successors of the great Khan, and its approach to Mongol domination is ambivalent. For some Chinese intellectuals, the Mongols, creators of their own idiosyncratic dynasty, are positive figures. For others, they were barbarians from the North against whom the Chinese fought for millennia. Even less would the Japanese praise Genghis Khan. They were about to be conquered by the Mongol armada and were saved by a hurricane known as the “divine wind”—kamikaze. It is no accident that the suicide pilots of the Japanese planes in World War II had the same name; they tried to prevent the Americans from landing in Japan. Yet, movies on Genghis Khan have recently been produced in China and Japan. A major reason is that Genghis Khan and his empire have emerged as a symbol of Asia, the rising new global center.
Interest in the Mongols and other nomadic peoples of the past can also be seen in the former USSR. An article in Izvestia—a leading Russian newspaper—noted that interest in Genghis Khan can be seen in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, whose leaders dream of Kazakhstan as a major influence in post-Soviet space. The movie, by Kazakh cinematographers and introduced by president Nursultan Nazarbaev, deals with an ambitious Kazakh leader who unified his people and drove out their enemies. It has a direct relationship to the glory of the nomadic leaders of the past, but also indicates Kazakhstan’s ambition to be a leader in post-Soviet space.
In Russia, interest in Khan and the Mongol empire is strong and incorporated in the past, as seen in two current movies. As elsewhere, this interest is related in many ways to Asia’s rise. But the movies relate not so much to dominion over Eurasian space as to the interethnic/intercultural relationship inside the Russian Federation and the ethnic Russian role in global arrangements.

Dr Igor de Rachewiltz, an Italian historian and philologist specializing in Mongol studies

Dr Igor de Rachewiltz is an Italian historian and philologist specializing in Mongol studies. He graduated with a law degree from a university in Rome, pursued Oriental studies in Naples and received his PhD from the ANU where he is currently an emeritus Fellow. He has published a translation of The Secret History of the Mongols in eleven volumes of Papers on Far Eastern History (1971-1985). Dr Rachewiltz’s research interests include the political and cultural history of China and Mongolia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, East-West political and cultural contacts, and Sino-Mongolian philology generally.


Donald Ostrowski. Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-Cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, 1304-1589

New York and Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xvi + 329 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-59085-3.

Reviewed by Russell E. Martin (Department of History, Westminster College)

Published on H-Russia (November, 1999)

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue: Taking a Fresh Look at Muscovy and the Mongols

This is one of those books that happily comes along every once in a while that lets everyone know where things stand to date in a given field. It is one of those back-to-basics books–highly dependent on the secondary literature, immersed in the historiographical traditions, and offering new ways of looking at old problems and sources. These kinds of works tend to be read widely and they find their way into most bibliographies of specialized studies that appear in print afterward. But they also tend to be under-appreciated books. Their authors sometimes get taken to task for putting “old wine in new bottles.” These books tend to be assessed as creative but ultimately disappointing rehashings of what we already know about the topic. It’s frequently not true, but the criticism is all too common.

And especially in this case, sour reviews are not warranted. Ostrowski’s Muscovy and the Mongols is in fact an extremely valuable, well-researched book that, while not without some flaws, certainly ought to be required reading for anyone interested in Muscovite history, or, for that matter, topics in the history of Eurasia. Ostrowski argues that “no society arises ex nihilo. Outside influences contribute to the making of all societies,” including Muscovy (p. 14). He seeks to place Muscovy in the broader, more general narrative of world history and to identify what components of Muscovite culture, society and politics appear to have been borrowed from abroad, and the ways and extent to which Muscovites made these borrowings their own.

Muscovy was positioned on the burr of a cultural superhighway, where language, religion, cultural habits and political ideologies were exchanged among the peoples living in and around the Qipchaq Steppe and Black Sea basin. Placing Muscovite history in this broader context makes it possible to apprehend more fully the complexity, dynamism and adaptability of Muscovite society and culture. This broader perspective also allows for the debunking of some “myths” that run rampant in the historical literature, and for new insights into the origins of some of the more characteristic features of Muscovite society from the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries.

According to Ostrowski, Muscovite history can be broken down into three periods: early (1304-1448), middle (1448-1589), and late (1589-1722). This periodization is largely determined by the shifting proportions and directions of cross-cultural influences on Muscovy. In the early period, “high culture”–including religion but also art, architecture and written culture–was largely influenced by Byzantium, probably because the Rus’ Church was subordinate ecclesiastically to its Greek Mother Church. But in terms of the political structures and the military, Muscovy was drenched in Mongol influences, largely because of the political dependency of Muscovy on the Qipchaq Khanate. The Mongols were not then seen as villains and despoilers necessarily, in the way later Muscovite ideology would portray them. Mongols were merely one of the players in steppe politics, players that Rus’ princes either fought against or allied themselves with, depending on the changing fortunes of the times. This two-directional borrowing would remain a fundamental structural component of Muscovite society down even to the time of Peter the Great.

Middle Muscovy witnessed territorial expansion, increasing political autonomy from Sarai (in politics) and ecclesiastical independence from Byzantium (in Church affairs). The rise of an anti-Tatar ideology dates from this period, sponsored, says Ostrowski, by the Church. It is in this period that many of the characteristic features of Muscovite culture appear: the seclusion of elite women, the introduction of gunpowder and musketeer regiments, and the rise of serfdom. Middle Muscovy ends with the establishment of the independent Russian Church under its own patriarch in 1589, a crucial moment, according to Ostrowski, in the creation of a virtual past–a virtual past that would transform Mongols into the villains that they appear to be in much of the historical literature on the period.

Late Muscovy proceeds until 1722, when Peter the Great established the Table of Ranks, which “established a new system of social status and military rank” after the abolition of mestnichestvo in 1682 (p. 18). Ostrowski argues that this period is marked by the increasing importance of influences from Western Europe and the transformation of the Church into a department of the state. In all three periods, there is substantial borrowings; and the real difficulty in understanding the dynamics of this borrowing, Ostrowski believes, is sorting out where things come from and how they get Russianized.

Ostrowski tackles the key historiographical debates about the role of the Mongols in Russian history in turn, devoting a chapter to each of the major questions that appear and reappear in the scholarly literature. In Part I of the book (“Mongol Influence: What’s What and What’s Not”) he explores what administrative and military institutions were borrowed from the Mongols and makes a compelling case for a dual system of administration in early Muscovy, borrowed wholesale from the Mongols (the daruga and baskak–civilian and military governors, respectively). Ostrowski next looks at the seclusion of elite women and argues that, contrary to prevailing views, it was likely not borrowed from the Mongols, who had no such custom. A better speculation about the origins of seclusion, says Ostrowski, is that it was borrowed from the Byzantines, who did seclude elite women up until about the eleventh century. Seclusion, like royal bride shows, may have come to Muscovy centuries well after their extinction in Byzantium through the Orthodox “book culture” that served as a conduit of cultural borrowing.

He next debunks the notion that the economy of the East Slavic lands was adversely affected by the Mongol “yoke.” Instead, Ostrowski points to the findings of other scholars that speak of an initial downturn in economic life, but soon afterward an economic stimulation that might be credited to the Pax Mongolica. In Part II (“Development of an anti-Tatar ideology in the Muscovite Church”) Ostrowski examines ideology, particularly the questions of where the Muscovite autocracy originated, and what the “Third Rome theory” was. These chapters (Six through Ten) are in many ways the best in the book and reveal his command of the source base. For Ostrowski, Muscovy’s political ideology was more an adaptation of Byzantine monarchical and ecclesiological theory, rather than some assimilation of the lessons and models of Mongol rule.

There are other arguments, too, that deserve special mention. Ostrowski is one of the few specialists in this field to emphasize the role of Tatar immigrants in the Muscovite elite. Many of these families would become powerful regional players, and some would even make their careers in the court. His suggestion that pomest’ia (military land grants) originated as a means of providing support for some of these early Tatar immigrants serving in the Muscovite army is compelling. The topic deserves more space than could be given it in this book, but the evidence Ostrowski marshals in defense of his argument will likely be debated by specialists in this field for some time to come.

There are the rather detailed insights that Ostrowski offers about specific sources, like the texts of the Kulikovo cycle, the “Tale of the Princes of Vladimir,” and the various texts containing the Third Rome theory. Ostrowski has been working with these texts for years, and he takes the opportunity in this book to summarize the (sometimes very technical) scholarship on these texts and to offer his own insights as well. These textological offerings do sometimes disrupt the flow of the narrative overall in this book, but they are valuable just the same.

As useful and necessary as this book surely is, some things are problematic. First, it might be pointed out that the title of the book, however alliterate, seems not to be entirely descriptive. The title might suggest that the work is devoted only to the relationship between Muscovy and the Mongols and their successors on the Steppe and along the Volga. But in fact this book examines Muscovite borrowings in general, with about equal treatment of what came from the Qipchaq Khanate and what came from the Byzantine Empire. To be sure, the Mongols are on center stage here. But not all the “cross-cultural influences” mentioned in the title originated in the Steppe. Indeed, it is Ostrowski’s basic argument that, if Muscovy borrowed administrative practices, military land grants, and military technologies from the Mongols, they took at least as much in ecclesiastical culture and political ideology from the Byzantines. One would never guess that from the cover.

The organization of the book also raises some questions. At the outset, Ostrowski promises to examine Muscovite-Steppe relations in the context of world history, a refreshing and necessary (and new) perspective, to be sure (p. 27). But the book is organized around the major historiographical debates that have appeared in the historical literature over the past 150 years, which sometimes serves to divert the reader’s attention from this objective. Nowhere is this better seen than in the first sentences of some of the chapters. “One of the practices that has been most often associated with Mongol influence is the seclusion of women among the Muscovite elite” (Chapter Three, “Seclusion of Elite Women”). “The historiographical tradition of attributing Russian autocracy to Mongol despotism is a long one” (Chapter Four, “Oriental Despotism”). “The consensus view in the historiography is that Rus’ suffered long-term economic devastation as a result not only of the Mongol conquest but also of the oppressive taxation policies during the so-call ‘Tatar Yoke’” (Chapter Five, “Economic Oppression”). The later chapters (in Part II) are better on this count, but nonetheless this book sometimes reads more like a collection of articles than a synthetic work on a single subject.

But perhaps the major criticism that might be raised about this work is that Ostrowski sometimes seems to see cultural borrowings in places where a case could just as plausibly be made for indigenous origins. Ostrowski pledges to offer a more balanced view of Muscovite cultural borrowings than found in the literature presently. He warns that “to exclude outside influence altogether is to fall into a trap. To concentrate only on outside influence is to fall into another trap. Once can avoid these traps by considering fairly not only indigenous origins and development but also outside origins and influence” (p. 15).

He’s right, of course. But when Ostrowski discusses the spread of Muslim military land grants (the iqta) to Western Europe, Byzantium, the Ottoman lands, and Muscovy (pp. 48-54); or the role of China in world history (pp. 87-88); or the external (especially Swedish) influences upon Peter the Great’s reforms (p. 106), Ostrowski appears to reveal a preference for historical explanations that stress borrowings over indigenous innovations. This is not to say that Ostrowski falls into the “traps” that he rightly has identified in the historiography. His treatments of women’s seclusion (see especially pp. 79-84) and of the conventions of formal address in petitions to the sovereign (pp. 88-92) are models for even-handedness and balance of focus. But avoiding “traps” is hard; and though he succeeds by and large (a rare accomplishment worth our praise), he reveals his hand from time to time.

Then there are the smaller things. The book desperately needs maps–of northeastern Rus’, of the Qipchaq Steppe, of the silk route, of the relevant regions in China. This is a sweeping study that takes the reader across the length and width of Eurasia at sometimes dizzying speeds. A well-placed map here or there might help to orient the reader. Also, the glossary at the end (pp. 251-53) is wholly inadequate. A miniscule percentage (I would estimate less than 20 percent) of the terms used in the text that might be unfamiliar to non-specialists (and who else is a glossary for?) are actually included in it. Twenty-three terms on two and one-quarter pages is just not enough for a book that plunges the reader into so many different cultures and languages.

And finally, there are times when one might wish that some claims were supported with footnotes, like when Ostrowski says that “[t]hrough the Mongols and the Qipchaq Khanate, Muscovite rulers became familiar with the concept of the Mandate of Heaven” (p. 95). It should be said, however, that these moments when the reader seeks in vain for a citation are rare; this is a book that is generally well-documented. Indeed, the bibliography (actually, a works cited) is remarkably complete for titles is several languages on the various themes addressed in this book. Cambridge University Press ought to be applauded for printing it (it consumes 45 pages), especially at a time when some presses are omitting bibliographies altogether (a very distressing new trend, indeed).

Ostrowski is to be congratulated for offering a book that is both erudite and readable. He has taken on a well-worn topic and succeeded in delivering a fresh and insightful new treatment. Despite the flaws, Muscovy and the Mongols is the best place to go now for an examination both of the role of the Mongols in Russian history, and for a more general treatment of the problems of cross-cultural influences in the Eurasian space. This new bottle certainly contains lots of new wine.

Copyright (c) 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact


Kievan Rus’ and Mongol Periods

[Excerpted from Russia: A Country Study, Glenn E. Curtis, ed. (Washington, DC: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1996).

Historical Setting

EACH OF THE MANY NATIONALITIES of Russia has a separate history and complex origins. The historical origins of the Russian state, however, are chiefly those of the East Slavs, the ethnic group that evolved into the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian peoples. The major pre-Soviet states of the East Slavs were, in chronological order, medieval Kievan Rus’, Muscovy, and the Russian Empire. Three other states–Poland, Lithuania, and the Mongol Empire–also played crucial roles in the historical development of Russia.

The first East Slavic state, Kievan Rus’, emerged along the Dnepr River valley, where it controlled the trade route between Scandinavia and the Byzantine Empire. Kievan Rus’ adopted Christianity from the Byzantine Empire in the tenth century, beginning the synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures that defined Russian culture for the next thousand years. Kievan Rus’ ultimately disintegrated as a state because of the armed struggles among members of the princely family that collectively possessed it. Conquest by the Mongols in the thirteenth century was the final blow in this disintegration; subsequently, a number of states claimed to be the heirs to the civilization and dominant position of Kievan Rus’. One of those states, Muscovy, was a predominantly Russian territory located at the far northern edge of the former cultural center. Muscovy gradually came to dominate neighboring territories, forming the basis for the future Russian Empire.

Muscovy had significant impact on the civilizations that followed, and they adopted many of its characteristics, including the subordination of the individual to the state. This idea of the dominant state derived from the Slavic, Mongol, and Byzantine heritage of Muscovy, and it later emerged in the unlimited power of the tsar. Both individuals and institutions, even the Russian Orthodox Church, were subordinate to the state as it was represented in the person of the autocrat.

A second characteristic of Russian history has been continual territorial expansion. Beginning with Muscovy’s efforts to consolidate Russian territory as Tatar control waned in the fifteenth century, expansion soon went beyond ethnically Russian areas; by the eighteenth century, the principality of Muscovy had become the huge Russian Empire, stretching from Poland eastward to the Pacific Ocean. Size and military might made Russia a major power, but its acquisition of large territories inhabited by non-Russian peoples began an enduring pattern of nationality problems.

Expansion westward sharpened Russia’s awareness of its backwardness and shattered the isolation in which the initial stages of expansion had taken place. Muscovy was able to develop at its own pace, but the Russian Empire was forced to adopt Western technology to compete militarily in Europe. Under this exigency, Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) and subsequent rulers attempted to modernize the country. Most such efforts struggled with indifferent success to raise Russia to European levels of technology and productivity. The technology that Russia adopted brought with it Western cultural and intellectual currents that changed the direction in which Russian culture developed. As Western influence continued, native and foreign cultural values began a competition that survives in vigorous form in the 1990s. The nature of Russia’s relationship with the West became an enduring obsession of Russian intellectuals.

Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56) triggered another attempt at modernization, including the emancipation of the peasants who had been bound to the land in the system of serfdom. Despite major reforms enacted in the 1860s, however, agriculture remained inefficient, industrialization proceeded slowly, and new social problems emerged. In addition to masses of peasants seeking land to till, a new class of industrial workers–the proletariat–and a small but influential group of middle-class professionals were dissatisfied with their positions. The non-Russian populations resented periodic official Russification campaigns and struggled for autonomy. Successive regimes of the nineteenth century responded to such pressures with a combination of halfhearted reform and repression, but no tsar was willing to cede autocratic rule or share power. Gradually, the monarch and the state system that surrounded him became isolated from the rest of society. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, some intellectuals became more radical, and groups of professional revolutionaries emerged.

In spite of its internal problems, Russia continued to play a major role in international politics. However, unexpected defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 sparked a revolution in 1905. At that stage, professionals, workers, peasants, minority ethnic groups, and soldiers demanded fundamental reforms. Reluctantly, Nicholas II responded to the first of Russia’s revolutions by granting a limited constitution, but he increasingly circumvented its democratic clauses, and autocracy again took command in the last decade of the tsarist state. World War I found Russia unready for combat but full of patriotic zeal. However, as the government proved incompetent and conditions worsened, war weariness and revolutionary pressures increased, and the defenders of the autocracy grew fewer.

Early History

Many ethnically diverse peoples migrated onto the East European Plain, but the East Slavs remained and gradually became dominant. Kievan Rus’, the first East Slavic state, emerged in the ninth century A.D. and developed a complex and frequently unstable political system that flourished until the thirteenth century, when it declined abruptly. Among the lasting achievements of Kievan Rus’ are the introduction of a Slavic variant of the Eastern Orthodox religion and a synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures. The disintegration of Kievan Rus’ played a crucial role in the evolution of the East Slavs into the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian peoples.

The Inhabitants of the East European Plain

Long before the organization of Kievan Rus’, Iranian and other peoples lived in the area of present-day Ukraine. The best known of those groups was the nomadic Scythians, who occupied the region from about 600 B.C. to 200 B.C. and whose skill in warfare and horsemanship is legendary. Between A.D. 100 and A.D. 900, Goths and nomadic Huns, Avars, and Magyars passed through the region in their migrations. Although some of them subjugated the Slavs in the region, those tribes left little of lasting importance. More significant in this period was the expansion of the Slavs, who were agriculturists and beekeepers as well as hunters, fishers, herders, and trappers. By A.D. 600, the Slavs were the dominant ethnic group on the East European Plain.

Little is known of the origin of the Slavs. Philologists and archaeologists theorize that the Slavs settled very early in the Carpathian Mountains or in the area of present-day Belarus. By A.D. 600, they had split linguistically into southern, western, and eastern branches. The East Slavs settled along the Dnepr River in what is now Ukraine; then they spread northward to the northern Volga River valley, east of modern-day Moscow, and westward to the basins of the northern Dnestr and the western Bug rivers, in present-day Moldova and southern Ukraine. In the eighth and ninth centuries, many East Slavic tribes paid tribute to the Khazars, a Turkic-speaking people who adopted Judaism about A.D. 740 and lived in the southern Volga and Caucasus regions.

The East Slavs and the Varangians

By the ninth century, Scandinavian warriors and merchants, called Varangians, had penetrated the East Slavic regions. According to the Primary Chronicle , the earliest chronicle of Kievan Rus’, a Varangian named Rurik first established himself in Novgorod, just south of modern-day St. Petersburg, in about 860 before moving south and extending his authority to Kiev. The chronicle cites Rurik as the progenitor of a dynasty that ruled in Eastern Europe until 1598. Another Varangian, Oleg, moved south from Novgorod to expel the Khazars from Kiev and founded Kievan Rus’ about A.D. 880. During the next thirty-five years, Oleg subdued the various East Slavic tribes. In A.D. 907, he led a campaign against Constantinople, and in 911 he signed a commercial treaty with the Byzantine Empire as an equal partner. The new Kievan state prospered because it controlled the trade route from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and because it had an abundant supply of furs, wax, honey, and slaves for export. Historians have debated the role of the Varangians in the establishment of Kievan Rus’. Most Russian historians–especially in the Soviet era–have stressed the Slavic influence in the development of the state. Although Slavic tribes had formed their own regional jurisdictions by 860, the Varangians accelerated the crystallization of Kievan Rus’.

The Golden Age of Kiev

The region of Kiev dominated the state of Kievan Rus’ for the next two centuries. The grand prince of Kiev controlled the lands around the city, and his theoretically subordinate relatives ruled in other cities and paid him tribute. The zenith of the state’s power came during the reigns of Prince Vladimir (r. 978-1015) and Prince Yaroslav (the Wise; r. 1019-54). Both rulers continued the steady expansion of Kievan Rus’ that had begun under Oleg. To enhance their power, Vladimir married the sister of the Byzantine emperor, and Yaroslav arranged marriages for his sister and three daughters to the kings of Poland, France, Hungary, and Norway. Vladimir’s greatest achievement was the Christianization of Kievan Rus’, a process that began in 988. He built the first great edifice of Kievan Rus’, the Desyatinnaya Church in Kiev. Yaroslav promulgated the first East Slavic law code, Rus’ka pravda (Justice of Rus’); built cathedrals named for St. Sophia in Kiev and Novgorod; patronized local clergy and monasticism; and is said to have founded a school system. Yaroslav’s sons developed Kiev’s great Peshcherskiy monastyr’ (Monastery of the Caves), which functioned in Kievan Rus’ as an ecclesiastical academy.

Vladimir’s choice of Eastern Orthodoxy reflected his close personal ties with Constantinople, which dominated the Black Sea and hence trade on Kiev’s most vital commercial route, the Dnepr River. Adherence to the Eastern Orthodox Church had long-range political, cultural, and religious consequences. The church had a liturgy written in Cyrillic and a corpus of translations from the Greek that had been produced for the South Slavs. The existence of this literature facilitated the East Slavs’ conversion to Christianity and introduced them to rudimentary Greek philosophy, science, and historiography without the necessity of learning Greek. In contrast, educated people in medieval Western and Central Europe learned Latin. Because the East Slavs learned neither Greek nor Latin, they were isolated from Byzantine culture as well as from the European cultures of their neighbors to the west.

In the centuries that followed the state’s foundation, Rurik’s purported descendants shared power over Kievan Rus’. Princely succession moved from elder to younger brother and from uncle to nephew, as well as from father to son. Junior members of the dynasty usually began their official careers as rulers of a minor district, progressed to more lucrative principalities, and then competed for the coveted throne of Kiev.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the princes and their retinues, which were a mixture of Varangian and Slavic elites and small Finno-Ugric and Turkic elements, dominated the society of Kievan Rus’. Leading soldiers and officials received income and land from the princes in return for their political and military services. Kievan society lacked the class institutions and autonomous towns that were typical of West European feudalism. Nevertheless, urban merchants, artisans, and laborers sometimes exercised political influence through a city assembly, the veche, which included all the adult males in the population. In some cases, the veche either made agreements with their rulers or expelled them and invited others to take their place. At the bottom of society was a small stratum of slaves. More important was a class of tribute-paying peasants, who owed labor duty to the princes; the widespread personal serfdom characteristic of Western Europe did not exist in Kievan Rus’, however.

The Rise of Regional Centers

Kievan Rus’ was not able to maintain its position as a powerful and prosperous state, in part because of the amalgamation of disparate lands under the control of a ruling clan. As the members of that clan became more numerous, they identified themselves with regional interests rather than with the larger patrimony. Thus, the princes fought among themselves, frequently forming alliances with outside groups such as the Polovtsians, Poles, and Hungarians. The Crusades brought a shift in European trade routes that accelerated the decline of Kievan Rus’. In 1204 the forces of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople, making the Dnepr trade route marginal. As it declined, Kievan Rus’ splintered into many principalities and several large regional centers. The inhabitants of those regional centers then evolved into three nationalities: Ukrainians in the southeast and southwest, Belorussians in the northwest, and Russians in the north and northeast.

In the north, the Republic of Novgorod prospered as part of Kievan Rus’ because it controlled trade routes from the Volga River to the Baltic Sea. As Kievan Rus’ declined, Novgorod became more independent. A local oligarchy ruled Novgorod; major government decisions were made by a town assembly, which also elected a prince as the city’s military leader. In the twelfth century, Novgorod acquired its own archbishop, a sign of increased importance and political independence. In its political structure and mercantile activities, Novgorod resembled the north European towns of the Hanseatic League, the prosperous alliance that dominated the commercial activity of the Baltic region between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, more than the other principalities of Kievan Rus’.

In the northeast, East Slavs colonized the territory that eventually became Muscovy by intermingling with the Finno-Ugric tribes already occupying the area. The city of Rostov was the oldest center of the northeast, but it was supplanted first by Suzdal’ and then by the city of Vladimir. By the twelfth century, the combined principality of Vladimir-Suzdal’ had become a major power in Kievan Rus’.

In 1169 Prince Andrey Bogolyubskiy of Vladimir-Suzdal’ dealt a severe blow to the waning power of Kievan Rus’ when his armies sacked the city of Kiev. Prince Andrey then installed his younger brother to rule in Kiev and continued to rule his realm from Suzdal’. Thus, political power shifted to the northeast, away from Kiev, in the second half of the twelfth century. In 1299, in the wake of the Mongol invasion, the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church moved to the city of Vladimir, and Vladimir-Suzdal’ replaced Kievan Rus’ as the religious center.


To the southwest, the principality of Galicia-Volhynia had highly developed trade relations with its Polish, Hungarian, and Lithuanian neighbors and emerged as another successor to Kievan Rus’. In the early thirteenth century, Prince Roman Mstislavich united the two previously separate principalities, conquered Kiev, and assumed the title of grand duke of Kievan Rus’. His son, Prince Daniil (Danylo; r. 1238-64) was the first ruler of Kievan Rus’ to accept a crown from the Roman papacy, apparently doing so without breaking with Orthodoxy. Early in the fourteenth century, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople granted the rulers of Galicia-Volhynia a metropolitan to compensate for the move of the Kievan metropolitan to Vladimir.

However, a long and unsuccessful struggle against the Mongols combined with internal opposition to the prince and foreign intervention to weaken Galicia-Volhynia. With the end of the Mstislavich Dynasty in the mid-fourteenth century, Galicia-Volhynia ceased to exist; Lithuania took Volhynia, and Poland annexed Galicia.

The Mongol Invasion

As it was undergoing fragmentation, Kievan Rus’ faced its greatest threat from invading Mongols. In 1223 an army from Kievan Rus’, together with a force of Turkic Polovtsians, faced a Mongol raiding party at the Kalka River. The Kievan alliance was defeated soundly. Then, in 1237-38, a much larger Mongol force overran much of Kievan Rus’. In 1240 the Mongols sacked the city of Kiev and then moved west into Poland and Hungary. Of the principalities of Kievan Rus’, only the Republic of Novgorod escaped occupation, but it paid tribute to the Mongols. One branch of the Mongol force withdrew to Saray on the lower Volga River, establishing the Golden Horde. From Saray the Golden Horde Mongols ruled Kievan Rus’ indirectly through their princes and tax collectors.

The impact of the Mongol invasion on the territories of Kievan Rus’ was uneven. Centers such as Kiev never recovered from the devastation of the initial attack. The Republic of Novgorod continued to prosper, however, and a new entity, the city of Moscow, began to flourish under the Mongols. Although a Russian army defeated the Golden Horde at Kulikovo in 1380, Mongol domination of the Russian-inhabited territories, along with demands of tribute from Russian princes, continued until about 1480.

Historians have debated the long-term influence of Mongol rule on Russian society. The Mongols have been blamed for the destruction of Kievan Rus’, the breakup of the “Russian” nationality into three components, and the introduction of the concept of “oriental despotism” into Russia. But most historians agree that Kievan Rus’ was not a homogeneous political, cultural, or ethnic entity and that the Mongols merely accelerated a fragmentation that had begun before the invasion. Historians also credit the Mongol regime with an important role in the development of Muscovy as a state. Under Mongol occupation, for example, Muscovy developed its postal road network, census, fiscal system, and military organization.

Kievan Rus’ also left a powerful legacy. The leader of the Rurik Dynasty united a large territory inhabited by East Slavs into an important, albeit unstable, state. After Vladimir accepted Eastern Orthodoxy, Kievan Rus’ came together under a church structure and developed a Byzantine-Slavic synthesis in culture, statecraft, and the arts. On the northeastern periphery of Kievan Rus’, those traditions were adapted to form the Russian autocratic state.