‘The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World’- a Book Review

English language books having to do with the Golden Horde, the Mongol successor state that ruled most of Russia as well as parts of Siberia, the Balkans, and northern Central Asia and some of the Caucasus, are not uncommon. These do, however, tend to be divided between extreme specialist niche works on specific elements of the horde and general histories that focus more on the Russian experience as subject peoples rather than the Horde itself. A general audience yet still scholarly caliber work on Batu Khan’s empire with the focus on the Turco-Mongolian ruling elite rather than the Slavs under it was needed. And thankfully, Marie Favereau delivers.

In the past decade and a half, starting with Jack Weatherford’s book retelling the history of the Mongol Empire from a more positive direction, there has been a welcome re-engagement with the historical states of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples. (Fun Fact, I actually briefly met Weatherford when I was in Mongolia and before he wrote said book). The history field was moving in this direction, but with the release of the excellent ‘The Comanche Empire’ in 2008 there has been a larger and larger push to re-examine so-called barbarians as strategic actors capable to every bit as much planning, foresight, and civic sense of political projection as agrarian or industrial people. I myself got into the action with my own book, though this was from an overtly geopolitical and international relations perspective rather than a purely historical one. It is my plan to make at least one more such book along similar lines for indigenous North America when time permits and have already begun the archival and personal research to start the process.

But the book I speak of here is ‘The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World.’ Despite the title, which implies another general history of the Mongol Empire, Marie Favereau’s focus is overwhelmingly on the what is commonly known today as the Golden Horde, though it is also called The Kipchak Khanate, the Ulus of Jochi, and in this book simply ‘The Horde.’ She begins with a summary of the founding of the Mongol Empire, its unique quasi-constitutional form of government, and the expansion that brought Mongols and their allied nomadic subjects as far away from their homeland as the Danube and Anatolia. We see the rise of a unified empire that would not be surpassed in terms of scope until the 19th Century British and never surpassed anywhere in terms of speed of conquest on such a scale. For two generations after the death of Chinggis Khan, it would stay together despite the small population base of the Mongols and their nomadic allies compared to the people they conquered. But it is in the division of the empire into at first autonomous sub-khanates and then into fully independent and sometimes mutually hostile states that we really see the focus of Favereau’s narrative.

The Golden Horde was always the outlier. The given inheritance of Chinggis Khan’s eldest son Jochi (who may have actually been fathered by another man from the hostile Merkid tribe), it was mostly unconquered land that would be taken by Jochi’s son Batu in his lightening conquest of Russia and parts of Europe in the 1240s. Located the furthest from much of the rest of the empire in terms of space, and made up of the highest percentage of non-Mongols in the army (politically assimilated Turkic peoples), Batu Khan pulled off a wintertime invasion of Russia as the Mongols actually preferred that as their campaigning season in order to avoid mud and knowing many of their enemies were not prepared to fight in such a season. Russia’s lack of good roads actually made frozen rivers the most effective highway to those who had the capacity to use them, and a Mongol army all on horseback with a contingent of Chinese siege weapons and early gunpowder capabilities could roll from one river-side city to another, destroying those who resisted and getting new vassals from those surrendered.

It has long been my contention that Batu Khan is one of the greatest political leaders in history. His conquests are striking, but partially if not primarily belong to his top general Subedei Bahadur (who I consider the greatest general in history), but his political acumen was on par with his grandfather the Great Khan. Batu was not interested in direct rule of non-nomadic people, and having created Europe’s most powerful empire since the collapse of unified Rome, he constructed an imperial edifice where settled people were taxed and occasionally conscripted, but otherwise left alone. The vast spaces of his domain even led to autonomy between eastern and western nomads. The Mongols stayed on the steppe and controlled the trade routes, which was their source of income. The settled subject people lived in small principalities and had their disputes managed by The Horde. The Yasa, or Mongol law, set the tone for how the Khan governed. His subjects had a guaranteed postal service and freedom of religion. In terms of his vision of state, Batu really was the most faithful to Chinggis Khan’s vision of an empire where the nomads stayed nomads and unified the steppe and kept protection rackets of comparatively light touch over their other subjects. Even so, The Golden Horde built Sarai on the Volga, a city made by nomads where all could come and trade, even if the Khans usually didn’t live there. At the height of the state, it would be the biggest boomtown in Europe. Merchants flocked there from all across Eurasia and scholars would set up shop there as well.

The irony was of course that as much of the rest of the empire was centralizing and even partially assimilating to its conquered peoples. This would mean that Batu’s Horde, the most faithful branch of the empire structurally, would be the most renegade successor state. Batu himself clearly sensed this, and began increasing his autonomy while the empire was still united. Though he had a claim on the throne after the death of the second Khan, Ogedei, he did not push it, preferring to stay in Russia, use diplomacy to slowly increase his regional power, and play kingmaker from afar. His influence would be felt in Mongolia, but indirectly. To modify a modern day IR term, he was an off-steppe balancer focused on defensive survival and autonomy maximalization. A true neoclassical realist, one could say.

Shortly after Batu died, his brother Berke came to the throne and here is were Favereau’s narrative really picks up. She tells the story of how The Horde became hostile to Hulegu’s Ilkhanate based in Iran and Iraq over unequal splitting of territories between them in Azerbaijan, and how the two western branches of the empire became enemies. The Ilkhanate won the first round, but the Horde would generally have the advantage after this, its subtle and flexible diplomacy winning it foreign allies across Europe and North Africa. It used its diplomacy (and military supremacy north of the Caucasus) to gradually siphon off trade from the south, enriching itself with surprisingly little military effort. While the post-Hulagu Ilkhanate, great patrons of art and astronomy that they were, found their more blunt force diplomacy counterproductive as the Golden Horde in the north and the Mamluk Sultanate to their west hemmed them in and prevented further expansion. Whether in the near abroad of eastern Europe or the far abroad of the Middle East and East Asia, Batu’s state would always show a flexible and dynamic diplomatic agility that enabled it to outlast the other successor states and many of its rivals.

After informing her audience of the various political and cultural events of the Golden Horde, Favereau takes us through the eventual decline and splitting of the horde due to several overlapping factors. Ozbek Khan’s over-centralization of a regime that worked best when decentralized (to say nothing of him making it an officially Islamic state which kind of sabotaged its multicultural nature-though thankfully only partially), coupled with a brief revival under Toqtamysh Khan* which was then immediately self sabotaged due to his falling out with the extremely successful Central Asian conqueror Timur Leng. The subsequent wars that the Golden Horde lost to him led to a fracturing of the state into smaller khanates. But even so, many of these successor states would remain governed by the same principles and would survive for centuries more. The Crimean Khanate (which Favereau does not cover but could be a sequel book to this work on its own) would last until the 1780s and even merge nomadic steppe land power with naval power in the Black Sea. Eventually of course, Russia, based off of leadership from Moscow-the once most loyal and Mongol-patronized city of the Rus, would take over all of these successor kingdoms. Of course, modern Russians often like to downplay how the old Muscovy state played up its legitimacy by touting connections with the old Khans. Then there is the….unique…way they depict Batu in media.

Volga, Crimean, and Lipka Tatars still exist today. Descendants of various peoples who were part of the Hordes nomadic core. And the Kazakhs are also one of the Golden Horde’s successor peoples, fully sovereign on territory that once was an integral part of that old empire. One could say Kazakhstan is the still remaining successor state to Batu’s empire. And I just have to add, when you compare where that country is today vs where it was in 1991, it is the most successful post-Soviet state by far.

My only bone to pick with Favereau, and this in minor and only comes up in her conclusion, is that she digs at my boy Ibn Khaldun for assuming nomadic people always assimilate into settled people and how The Horde disproves this. Contextually speaking this is a fair criticism, but Ibn Khaldun largely knew most about North African experiences with Turks, Arabs, and Berbers and not how the Mongols, Khitans and others of the northern steppe never gave up nomadism. If anything, The Horde shows how group solidarity takes much longer to break down when the conditions that gave rise to it are kept and the ruling elite are interconnected through a vigorous lifestyle, which I would say does in fact validate his theories indirectly. And considering that Khaldun approved of tightly knit groups who could rule with a light touch and were patrons of prosperity, The Horde would likely have met with his approval if he could have seen its internal dynamics. As it was, Khaldun praised the Mamluk Sultanate, the long time allies of the Horde, as an example of a state whose internal organization was trying to grapple with the issues he raised.

It seems likely to me that due to ecological concerns we will have to one day reinvent how we see things like progress, state structure, and commerce. Keeping this in mind, alternate state models from history are worth learning about. Not because they should be replicated in our present times where the context is too different to work, but because it expands our minds about what a state is, can be, and how to be flexible and adaptable and fit with the geographic context one finds themselves in. As someone who myself has always championed the value of learning about non-agrarian and unconventional political entities as an extremely interesting and useful aspect of human history, I can only commend Favereau for doing such an excellent job contributing to this cause. Her book is a great addition to the cause of studying political history that lies outside of that which is often talked about in conventional circles.


*Toqtamysh will likely be a future entry in my long-running historical trickster post series. He is just too much of a troll not to cover at some point. It was originally my plan to do an entry on him years ago but it never happened.

7 thoughts on “‘The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World’- a Book Review

    • If you want me to give details that would probably have to become its own blog post. But roughly (and counting admirals/naval commanders because I have no idea why people never count them) it stands now as:

      1. Subedei Bahadur
      2. Yi Sun Shin
      3. Chinggis Khan
      4. Thomas Cochrane
      5. At this point its hard to rank specifically what rounds out the spot, I would consider Nader Shah, Tamerlane, Hayreddin Barbarossa, and Scipio Africanus all valid entries to finish the list.

      Liked by 1 person

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