‘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.

The Coming Multipolarity, or, ‘Damn it Feels Good to be a Horder’

Yes, I meant ‘Horder’ as in Horde and not ‘Hoarder’.

So in my last post I mentioned in passing how freakish unipolarity actually is as a part of talking about how the people in American foreign policy circles who advocate constant interventions, lest they confront a decline, are actually the ones causing said decline. The once and future restoration of multipolarity, whether it comes in a decade or a century-I know not the time scale- is actually a subject that interests me even more than what I wrote about last time. To talk about it, I am going to do something a bit dangerous in IR-if only because there is a sad lack of historical knowledge in many quarters of the discipline-I am going to make a historical analogy to what I think approximates the future of return to multipolarity and great power behavior. I am going to talk about the Golden Horde.

Mongol warrior rearing

If anyone knows the artist please let me know so I can give credit and find more of their work! It is just such a cool image.

Now studying this topic is kind of my bread and butter, I did write a book on the influence of nomadic people in Eurasian geopolitics after all. It is, however, a niche topic and after dealing with it explicitly in graduate school and in book adaptation form you are only going to get the summary here. But I have to say that I think the strategies enacted by nomadic people are an interesting pre-modern analogy to what we might see in the future, albeit in an obviously different form.

Previously on this blog I have talked on multiple occasions about my affinity for Neoclassical Realism and regime survival theory. According to scholars such as Beckwith the primary political arrangement of the Eurasian steppes was a type of enlightened despotism with high levels of mutuality and dependency of the ruler with his in-group elite. Depending on the example, this in-group could be anything from family members, military leaders, adopted foreign administrators, and in some cases all of the above. The Mongol Empire was one of those ‘all of the aboves’. More importantly to the theme we will be examining here though, is how it viewed self/other relations on the international stage. In other words, their approach to International Relations. Now, the Empire was large and diverse, and after a couple of generations it split into several increasingly different kingdoms. Though all of these states shared many attributes we will be looking over, it is ideal for brevity to pick the best successor state for looking at the messy world of multipolar relations. This is the Golden Horde, also known as the Kipchak Khanate and the Ulus of Jochi.

When the Mongols invaded Russia to stay they broke all that Basic History Bro received wisdom of never attacking Russia in winter. In a large land filled with poor-to-nonexistent roads which was often forested or swampy in much of the year and where cities lied almost exclusively upon rivers, this made sense. The cold-adapted Mongols used the frozen rivers as highways to hit city after city, which fell to their rapid mobile horseback armies backed by the new acquisitions of Chinese siege techniques and the new (to Russia) technology of gunpowder explosive. It was a remarkable campaign which further added to the laurels of the general Subotai Bahadur’s already amazing reputation, and ensured that Batu, son of Jochi, would have an impressive inheritance.

But Batu Khan was not just some spoiled scion of the Mongol royal family riding the coattails of their greatest general, but rather a keen politician. This was good, for his domain of the empire began with unique challenges and required more autonomy than was yet normal due to its distance and remoteness to Mongol power bases. A small number of nomads now had to control a territory that did not always favor them as well as greatly larger numbers of subject people. Their advantages were in speed and intelligence, not numbers, and their distance from the Mongolian core (and integration already of many other Turkic people into their system as they moved west) meant their position was different.

Batu, like other Mongols, believed in the efficiency of indirect rule. But he would take it further then the rest of them yet had. He allowed all Russian princes who surrendered to keep their lands, and those who never fought against him in the first place could get elevated positions in his hierarchy. Rather than stretch his forces out or occupy places, he relied on the threat of his rapidly moving horsemen to serve as the stick to the carrot that was being integrated into the booming Mongolian trade network. To top it all off the Mongol Empire gave freedom of religion and tax exempted clergy as well as administered a postal service. It offered an attractive package especially when the alternative was punishment expeditions which could result in enslavement or utter destruction.

The Horde constructed a wall of these buffers, many of them willing, to bolster its frontier with the large and then very powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Reaping the taxes of its subjects without the costs of occupation and even being able to ‘offshore’ some of the fighting was a good deal. An empire made by sudden conquest essentially turned to become a remarkably defensive player. Attacks served only to weaken foes or secure pasturage. To put it in World Systems Theory terms, the core exploited the periphery due to their unique military and trade managing advantages. Only in this case the core were the smaller amounts of ‘less advanced’ (by settled societies’ standards) nomadic people and the periphery were the cities and farmers.

Batu and his descendants spend most of their time on the steppe, they even built what became two of the wealthiest cities in the world for that era off of the Volga. Cities of which little remains due to the later campaigns of Timur, though which many records of travelers speak of their immense multicultural settings and wealth.

So why is this relevant to the future of multi-polarity? Well, for one thing since at least the Second World War if not the rise of steam powered naval vessels, speed and rapid deployment of multi-functional forces has returned to world political and military calculations in ways not seen since the impressive medieval armies of Inner Eurasia. Indeed, it now far surpasses them. Another factor is the rise of transnational trade and resource extraction networks, which pillage on a scale Chinggis Khan could never have dreamed of, but remain vulnerable to geopolitical breakup just as his did. If Mongolian trade networks suffered with the collapse of the empire, then they must have been partly a product of unipolarity. So too are the shipping lanes and grand trade deals of the United States no- doubt temporary artifacts of its own power. Like the Mongols, the United States uses a smallish elite military capable of immense speed of deployment to keep such a system open. Like anyone, past present or future, this system cannot last forever.

In a non-unipolar world all powers must tread lightly with each other but also have the luxury of being quite brutal with smaller powers in their respective zones of influence. Repeated failures and some extremely expensive successes with things like peacekeeping and anti-guerrilla warfare was made most leery of directly occupying places. And yet in a world with several competing power-poles there will be no one else to do the dirty work of securing economic hegemony for powers towards their own periphery. They will have their own markets, their own needs, and wildly divergent internal structures. Rather than seek to impose these structures on each other or even their ‘vassals’ they will simply seek to support their own regimes however they can at home while getting what they can abroad. When two power-poles enter conflict it might be over proxies or even entirely *through* proxies. Either way, the wonders of modern technology enable plausibly deniable warfare to be fought abroad without necessarily increasing war fatigue at home.

All of this means that special forces and elite columns will matter more than mass armies-at least as long as the conflict remains peripheral and doesn’t break out in total war (always a possibility in any multi-state system). But even a big breakdown bringing back conventional war using today’s (or the future’s) technology would be one prioritizing speed and firepower over numbers, as things currently stand anyway. A Subotaiian force deployment, if I can coin an awkward new phrase, adds on to this levels of utilizing organized crime backchannels and cyber warfare and you have yourself a 21st Century recipe for whatever the new equivalent is of ‘Golden Hordeing’ by living large on the steppe with occasional shows of force abroad.

If this does come to pass, and it already seems to be manifesting in the early stages in regards to Russian policy towards Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Tajikistan, you might see more of the continuation or exploitation of frozen conflicts so that larger powers can project their influence without directly invading anyone. Although increasingly a specialty of the Kremlin, this is hardly unique to Russia these days. From South Pacific islands and Taiwan between the US and China to France in many parts of western Africa and increasingly other powers there as well, it seems the best way of building a protection network is for technologically or logistically advanced nations to insert themselves as arbiters in perpetual conflict zones. Now imagine that without a stabilizing power. So, the princely states between Lithuania and the Golden Horde in the 13th Century seem suddenly relevant.

I do not know if this arrangement, should it come to pass, will be an overall improvement or a downgrade. I can see certain issues and peoples losing out and others gaining. As typical in the humanities it would most likely be a mixed bag with people’s reactions coming from where they are geographically and in terms of economic station. The good news is that there won’t be a drive to impose a uniform socio-economic vision on everyone else (always a quixotic and ultimately disastrous cause which the Mongols were astute enough to avoid except in rhetoric). But, the bad news is of course that there could be more conflict, and that with looming ecological disaster waiting in the wings such division might finally occur right when we need collective policies the most. Of course, one look at human history shows that when the chips are down people turn against each other when resources are on the line most of the time. So one could always hold out hope that the divergence of geopolitical blocs beyond what we have now might create new creative policy dynamism to confront ecological degradation, leading ultimately to a type of ‘survival of the greenest’ which in the end might help in dealing with the problem.

But if history has any lesson-a statement one should always be dubious to make-it is that history has no linear path like the hard sciences. Politics and philosophy is basically the response to conditions which arise from resources, conflicts and deals struck about them and the physical world we live in. It is adaptation, and like natural selection while all branches might die in the end, some will fair better than others in particular moments of crisis. Whatever those adaptations may be, any breakdown in multipolarity is going to go through a phase which is at least Golden Horde-like for the more powerful countries which may exist at that time.

And even in the unlikely event of one unipolarity giving way directly to another through unexpected catastrophic collapse concurrent with canny rise (say USA to China) this has just delayed the inevitable. Unipolarity, as I said, is a freakish occurrence. And much like a supercontinent, it is a temporary arrangement between cycles of greater division. One day great powers (whoever they may be) will find themselves hoarding smaller countries to create their own little NATOs all over the world. Some arrangements may be nice to their clients, others cruel, most a mix of the two, but in a world so used to only one or two true superpowers it is good to occasionally remind people that you can look at Imperial Rome all you want as a glorified example of past and present analogy, but its the various Hordes who people might be studying in the transitional future. It sounds apocalyptic, but for all we know it might be awesome. Or both, whatever. The tides of history know no morality either way. And I just want to examine as many strategically relevant things in the past and present as possible. And listen to Tengger Cavalry of course.

For further reading on these specific topics I recommend Dilip Hiro’s ‘After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World’ and Charles J Halperin’s ‘Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History.’