Fwd: REVIEW: MARTIN ON OSTROWSKI, _MUSCOVY & THE MONGOLS_
- 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.
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
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
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.
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