The Secret of the Russian Character: What the Horde Taught Us…

NEW – January 22, 2023

Some reading material, food for thought, a topic of debate for those who like to think in macro-categories of a civilisational scale. Today I propose to try to understand the formation of Russian statehood with the centre in Moscow through the prism of relations with the “collective Horde” of Genghis Khan’s uluses. And the counterbalance is the mutual influence of Western European states on each other. To see fundamentally different endpoints of the historical path.


After the collapse of the USSR, the stability of independent Russia was given by the “Horde heritage” from the key territories of Siberia, the North Caucasus and the Volga region, and the Far East. Moreover, these lands are (in comparison with the indigenous principalities of “Rus”) dominant in area. The civilisational experiment of the last Ruriks with the Volga region, who managed to build here the first multi-ethnic region in the Moscow Kingdom, later yielded the fruits of Russia’s advance to the East and South. With a model of the special management of a multinational society with the preservation of national cultures.

A rare case for the late Middle Ages, when the bloody enmity of the ruins of the Great Horde with each other suddenly began to fade, and sometimes stop for many decades. And the Tatars, dozens of other nations, Great Russians first looked closely at each other, and then got along within the framework of a single statehood. The historiography of Russia has always paid little attention to this aspect; the topic turned to the “European identity” of Russia at the behest of the Imperial House of Romanov, who were shy about “Asiaticity” and relations with the Horde.

Most of the damage was caused by kamlanie around the term “Tatar-Mongolian yoke”. With complete oblivion of the fact that it (in the first place) did not exist. And secondly, it was precisely the rubbing of settled Russians with the nomads of the Great Steppe that became the main factor of imperial Russian statehood. Only a brief period of the second half of the 13th century can be recognised as a “yoke”, then the process went along the path of building a single state with the centre in Moscow, with the difficult dismantling of the old Russian forms of the former social organisation.

The path up to 1480 was successfully completed, and the real Russia was forged with its special economic, political and spiritual life, administrative system and military organisation. It is precisely due to the close relationship with the Horde. It became the first strict teacher of foreign policy, mistakenly substituted for the “struggle of the Russian people for independence”. Yes, sometimes relations sparked, punitive expeditions of steppe people attacked Russia, but they were isolated.

(illustration from open sources)

For the rest of their peaceful co-existence, Russians were not focused on squabbling with their steppe neighbour, but rather on resisting the creeping German and Lithuanian expansion. The struggle was conducted not so much by force of arms, it flared not even politically, but more on the cultural front. The horde here was a stabilising factor, its existence forced the careless Ruriks to strengthen their individual power, to become stronger. In order to receive the Horde approval for the governing body, Sarai did not like to talk to the weak, but to the high‒born, preferring such – insolent and non-noble at times.

The “divide and rule” policy of the steppe people worked perfectly until the end of the 14th century, the princes only in the Horde could find justice and a lawful (or thoroughly corrupt) court. Moreover, it was constantly necessary to seek protection from the threats of the breakaway South-Western Rus, which fell under the wing of Lithuania and Poland. That is exactly why North-Eastern Rus launched unification processes with great speed, centralisation was of a military nature to protect against external enemies. And the spears of the steppe people, with whom it was necessary to get along and negotiate almost every year, pricked my back.

(illustration from open sources)

The result was an unusual feudal relationship between the principalities and their short-term or situational alliances. With a complete alignment of social and economic “horizontals”, even when there were no political and economic grounds for cooperation. This model of survival saved Russia from military defeat and absorption by a more aggressive “western neighbour”. The people are accustomed to live in a state of eternal threat and always face a more numerous opponent.

Then there was the unnoticed everyday news of the “Stand on the Ugra”, the Horde forever lost its right to vote in the domestic and foreign policy of the future Moscow Kingdom, twenty years later the accumulated energy in 1502 overturned the remnants of the former greatness of the Great Horde, the tight spring straightened out and Russia rushed “to sunrise”. This was the longest and largest territorial expansion of a single state in the history of mankind. For 150 years, it reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Not a bad result after “yoke”, don’t you think?

But the point is not in the expansion itself: Russia is the only modern power that has invaluable experience in the almost painless integration of a Great Neighbour that has been a deadly threat for centuries. It is precisely this antagonism that has become the core of building a special type of sovereign statehood. When huge nomadic hordes came to the service of the Russian tsar, starting with the “loyal Tatars” of the tsar’s son Kasym. And then the process already acquired a large-scale character.

(illustration from open sources)
Formation of Russia’s territory

The uniqueness of the expansion of Russia is the fact that there are no even temporary borders with the former Horde, it was erased only once under Ivan III and was determined by eye, not having time to grow strong with fortresses, guards or the Great Abatis Line. As soon as peaceful life seemed to have come, and the steppe people had another conflict, got ready for a march, started moving further East. And where it is, that notorious “civilisational border” … even the tsar-father does not know. Wherever the Russian came, they became a factor of stability and a unifier without problems of mutual integration.

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Another world

Old Europe did not know any “yoke” in its own history, except for a brief moment (711-718) when the Arabs conquered all of Spain. Then came the long-lasting status quo, as step by step the Spaniards reclaimed their lands, securing them by forcibly Christianising the Muslim and Jewish populations. And after the fall of the Emirate of Granada in 1492, the construction of a modern nation-state began, Gibraltar divided two huge civilisational worlds.

The rest of the Europeans were more fortunate, they did not have to deal with the extermination of historical opponents on their own land. To draw a parallel to Russia and the Horde, how not to remember the Hundred Years War for understanding. England and France did not manage to absorb each other, as they did not abut. And the Slavic peoples of the Balkans failed to assimilate Turkish rule organically, and when the Ottomans weakened, they staged ethnic cleansing and mutual beatings in Greece, along the Danube and Asia Minor. Russia and the Horde have never faced such a religious or ethnic divide.

The attempt to present the “Great Run to the Sun” on the part of the Russians as a kind of religious war with the Besermens and Basurmans does not find historical confirmation, the expansion went on without the slogans “stand up for the Christian faith”. But in relations with the West, since the time of Ivan III, there has been a clear ideologeme that was not used in the East: we are a God-chosen nation, power is also from God, and in general, after the fall of Byzantium, “Moscow is the Third Rome, there won’t be a fourth”.

(illustration from open sources)

It was in this slightly strange civilisational model that Russia entered into a centuries-old rivalry with the West and the Ottoman Empire. With the inner core of the mobilisation of all forces, forged in the time of the Horde. With a logic incomprehensible to the West: Russia has never been “neither subordinated nor subjugated”, although it was for a long time in a dependent position on Sarai.

It was the steppe people who taught the Russians to manage their own destiny independently with the constant threat of capture. The population of cities and towns, villages and hamlets, the church and the aristocracy (with all their mutual claims) considered themselves the “Russian nation”. And when it became unbearable from external trials, they always continued to fight and always won.

Let’s talk

The days of the daredevil princes with their “I’m coming for You” in the open field ended in burned-out Ryazan, ravaged Vladimir, Kiev taken on the Tatar spear. There came a re-examination of the catastrophe of the defeat by Batu Khan, an understanding: such a force cannot be broken in direct battle, the numerical advantage is too great, and the Horde is too powerful with resources. This is how the “Russian character” and statehood began to take shape. The alloy of readiness to yield indefinitely to a superior enemy and go on the offensive at the first opportunity.

The Horde kindly gave Rus enough time for the social forges to forge a new Russian person, from the last smerd to the Grand Duke and schemer. And when the Uzbek Khan accepts the state religion of Islam in the Golden Horde, the assimilation of the Russian elite into the Horde seriously stalled. But this fact did not prevent after the collapse of the “yoke” to include the Tatar aristocrats in the Russian nobility. From the wisdom acquired over the centuries, no less.

At first, North-Eastern Rus hung in the balance, for almost 120 years it was doomed to prepare itself for martyrdom, the khans of the Golden Horde could easily enter into a conspiracy with the main opponents of the Russian principalities, and the combined efforts of the landsknechts of the Papal Throne and the steppe cavalry to solve the “Russian question”.

(illustration from open sources)

From generation to generation, being between a rock and a hard place first formed a general sense of moral superiority with a bright religious connotation of the martyred people, and then came the realisation of their own weaknesses. In first place came the ability to use the sword and diplomacy equally successfully, to look for contradictions between the powerful of this world.

Nothing prevented the princes from raising the nation to an armed fight against the Horde looters, destroying their armies to the last stable boy. And then quietly go to Sarai, conduct formal conversations with the Great Khan, get approval for reigning and return home with impunity. The ability to continuously fight with different uluses of the Golden Horde and at the same time negotiate with the rest of the Genghises became an essential element of Russia’s relations with the Horde during the century after Batu’s invasion. In this way the invaluable experience of patience was gained.

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After the rise of the Moscow Principality at the end of the first quarter of the 14th century, the period of deaf defence of Russia ends, Russian diplomacy in the “golden period” of the Horde’s history with the Great Khans Uzbek and Janibek promoted Simeon the Proud and Ivan the Red to the leaders among other Ruriks. And the Battle of Kulikovo was the centenary period of Russia’s transition to a counteroffensive. Without sudden movements, in a delicate balance of power and diplomatic techniques. With the frequent purchase of steppe sabers for solving foreign policy problems in the West or inside Russia.

Step by step, getting rid of the already formal Horde dependence (transferring power directly to their sons without kneeling trips to Sarai), reducing the size of the “Horde exit” or appropriating it for themselves, the Moscow Grand Dukes reached victory on the Ugra River. And after the unification of the Great Russian lands after the annexation of Novgorod, Pskov, Tver and Ryazan, the flywheel of Russian military expansion and diplomacy launched a series of wars with the West and the Ottoman Empire, ending with the attachment of Crimea by Catherine the Great.

If there were terrible pogroms during the Livonian War, the Great Troubles and the beginning of the reign of Peter the Great, then in the East things went steadily and stubbornly forward. As if the Russians couldn’t stop “gaining independence” from the Horde that was defeated in 1502. The main Horde lands became part of Russia during the first hundred years after the “Stand on the Ugra”, only Crimea, cut off by the waterless Great Steppe, still drank Russian blood with ruinous raids for two centuries.

(illustration from open sources)

But its fate was sealed, the Russian Grand Dukes, tsars and later emperors gained experience in the complete absorption of the former metropolis. Beginning with the settlement of Tatars on the south-eastern borders of the Grand Duchy of Moscow under Vasily II, then the absorption of the Kazan and Astrakhan khanates, the conquest of the Siberian and Nogai Horde. And when the problem of the Crimeans was solved, the last Uluses of the Horde fell, in the 18th–19th centuries Russia came to the Kazakh steppe and oases of Central Asia. With the former Horde Volga region and Siberia firmly embedded.

Are we brothers?

Well-read people are waiting for me to remember Georgy Vernadsky and Lev Gumilyov. They had an original point of view on such a rapid development of the Horde lands, carried out with unprecedented thoroughness and organic integration of the Tatar aristocracy into the Russian nobility. Indeed, it was a phenomenon. The mentioned scientists believed that there is a common Eurasian root of the Russian and steppe (Horde) civilisations. It appeared after the campaigns of Batu in the framework of exchanges with the Golden Horde, or the “Tatar-Mongol yoke” did not exist in the form taught by traditional historiography.

Gumilyov’s concept is interesting and even scandalous, he was sure of the strong pre-Horde foundation of relations between Ancient Russia and the Great Steppe. That is precisely why the departure of the Great Khans from the arena became absolutely imperceptible for the former Ulus of Genghis Khan, the emergence of the Russian state did not cause rejection among multinational subjects, the long-standing symbiosis of the Horde and Russian aristocracy was taken for granted.

It’s possible to even agree if to look at the European path of historical development. The old lady did not have such experience, there the Reconquista and any expansion was bloody and cruel, “woe to the vanquished” in full growth. The subjugated experienced the full extent of repression and genocide. And the attempt to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in the Middle East was drowned in blood because of fanatical crusaders.

(illustration from open sources)

The strange Russians did without blood, allegedly turned the irreconcilable struggle “for independence from the Horde yoke” with a snap of their fingers into a massive transition of the steppe aristocracy to their service, their lands were organically included in their own power and thanks to this they were able to get a huge human and material resource to sort out relations with the West and the Ottomans.

As Ivan III kindly reported after the “Stand on the Ugra” to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1490, offering to help with military force against the muddying Poles and Czechs. So Russia got involved in the European showdown as an independent player. And it became the only state where the resettlement of Great Russians outside the historical lands did not require the expulsion of “foreigners”, there was enough land for everyone.

The powerful steppe peoples, who had been a deadly threat to Russia for at least a hundred years, did not stand the test of time”, became corrupted and decomposed from the inside, undermined by small but frequent defeats on the battlefield. Having scratched under malahais, they calmly passed under the arm of the bearded “foresters”. Something similar only occurred in Antiquity, when the former satrapies of Persia were quietly transferred to the Hellenes of the diadochs of Alexander the Great.

God’s chosen ones

In ancient times, people proceeded from mystical considerations, believed in the God-chosen winner. It seems that the Russians did exactly the same. Batu’s invasion was perceived as “God’s punishment” for the civil strife and injustice of numerous princes, and having overcome with long-suffering a more powerful and dangerous enemy … they believed in their own complete redemption, which became a historical experience. Without planning exactly how and in what time frame foreign policy tasks of a gigantic scale can be solved, let God rule.

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That is exactly why the entire foreign policy of Russia for centuries was “one step behind”, buying a ticket for the departed train. Historical experience itself has predetermined this, why bother, you need to wait and it will form itself. Even a lazy movement towards a certain goal does not imply setting clear and understandable priorities for the people, which allowed the European Minich to make an accurate diagnosis:

“Russia is ruled directly by the Lord God. Otherwise, it is impossible to imagine how this state still exists.”

I agree unconditionally, but I will carefully set aside divine intervention. But I’m willing to bet a litre of scotch that as soon as Russia faces an insurmountable wall that cannot be broken through by force, some deep-seated mechanisms of “denying the current reality” are activated. And the toggle switch automatically clicks into “nothing is impossible” mode in the long run. Let’s be patient, let’s crawl away into the deep windbreaks with “Scythian tactics”, and there we’ll think about how to clean the enemy’s snout until it bleeds. Even if the God-fighters are inveterate, let’s repent just in case.

When did Russians start thinking of themselves as “special” without saying it out loud? Maybe after Kulikovo Field, as Soviet historians claimed. Or maybe after the final consolidation of land around Moscow after the internecine war of the late 15th century. But most likely, after the Ferraro-Florentine Council of 1438-1445 and the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Then there was a phenomenon called “ideology” today.

Having tried on the tiara of the “third Rome”, having overcome the internal schism of Orthodoxy, the Moscow state receives a real philosophical foundation. There is an intellectual explosion, hundreds of texts of Christian, philosophical and secular literature are being translated into Russian, monasteries are busy writing chronicles, trying somewhere to correct, and somewhere to re-comprehend the heritage of Ancient Rus.

And the Grand Dukes and first tsars demand greater historical legitimacy. Deriving their own God-chosen nature from Vladimir Monomakh, who allegedly received the royal crown from the Byzantine Emperor. The Horde is already viewed through the prism of just such legitimacy of the Genghises and obvious usurpers, who were appointed by tümen Mamai or the Horde Khan Akhmat. And the famous message of Vassian in 1480, the confessor of the Grand Duke of Moscow, is already an instruction: war with the Horde is necessary, since their power is “not from God”. Even the Batu clan is called an impostor, such is how it happened.

(illustration from open sources)

So the Russian army left for the Ugra River like for a holy war. Opposing the Horde, the true tsar became the God-chosen defender of the Christian faith. A few years later, a certain ideal of an Orthodox Christian state with its centre in Moscow is being formed. The image becomes so attractive to Christians and even Muslims that Tatars and Russian freemen [groups of the population from various social strata (mostly runaway serfs) who settled on the outskirts of the Moscow state and claimed independence – SZ] flow like a river under the arm of Ivan III.

Are we a Horde?

No, of course not. But it was the close cooperation with it that became the reason for the emergence and foundation of Russian statehood. It outlined the contours of Russia’s centuries-old foreign policy culture. In order not to talk at length, I will try to formulate the main features of the so-called Russian World as compactly as possible:

  • No one is an enemy of the Russian state, but a neighbour of varying degrees of danger;
  • The Russian is able to recognise their own temporary weakness and be able to retreat. Even the fall of the capital (always fatal for Europeans) it is not a reason to admit defeat, as long as the people are ready to fight;
  • The Russian state barely distinguishes between the diplomatic and military components of any confrontation, and is easily able to forgive even a deadly enemy strictly according to Christ’s commandments;
  • Russians never set foreign policy goals based on a strict analysis of the current balance of power and resources, preferring to get into a fight and then let “God rule”;
  • The Russian state never knows where to stop, because the concept of “civilisational border” does not fit into the head after the complete integration of the Horde, Russian-Turkish wars, foreign campaigns and the fall of major European capitals before the power of Russian weapons;
  • Russians are convinced of their own exclusivity and God’s choice, but they categorically reject the concept of Messiahship
  • Despite the formal construction of any model of organisation of society, whether it is a cosplay from the West or a civilisational experiment of the Bolsheviks, in any incomprehensible or threatening situation, Russians return to their former ideas, notions, traditions and habits of social centralisation and belief in the invincibility of the entire nation.

Thanks to the Horde, as is said…

Historical Thimbles

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