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  • MHoll@xxx.xxx
    I received this review on H-RUSSIA, an excellent professionnal list. It looks like the kind of book we could use either as an introduction or as a summary, or
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 2, 1999
      I received this review on H-RUSSIA, an excellent professionnal list. It looks
      like the kind of book we could use either as an introduction or as a summary,
      or both, to the Muscovite world.


      Published by H-Russia@... (November, 1999)

      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.
      Tables, stemmata, addendum, glossary, chronology, notes, bibliography,
      and index. $ 59.95 (cloth) ISBN 0-521-59085-x.

      Reviewed for H-Russia by Russell E. Martin, <martinre@...>,
      Department of History, Westminster College.

      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

      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 (6 through 10) 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 3, "Seclusion of Elite Women"). "The historiographical
      tradition of attributing Russian autocracy to Mongol despotism is a
      long one" (Chapter 4, "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 5, "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 H-Net@....
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