Robert Bedeski

University of Washington, Jackson School of International Studies

The Mongol impact on state formation in Russia: From polycentrism to subordination to hyper-centralism

Prior to the Mongol conquest, the principalities of Russia could be termed a polycentric system, despite nominal rule by Kiev. State-introduced Christianity, elements of feudalism, trade with Hanse in the north and Byzantium in the south, and even beginnings of democracy in the veche were evidence of European orientation with a probability of evolving into full membership in the medieval and post-medieval Western community of Christendom. The Rus fought and traded and intermarried with non-European tribes for centuries, but the Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century were unprecedented in fury and destruction. Conquest of Russia expedited Mongol passage to Eastern Europe, where further victories ensued. Only the death of the Great Khan halted the armies poised to destroy the cities of Western Europe.
The Mongols remained in Russia for two and a half centuries and were pushed back into Asia at the Battle of Kazan, an event followed by the Russian imperial thrust across Central Asia to the Pacific. The Russians were ruled not merely by a tribal conglomeration, but by a fairly sophisticated Mongolian nation-state which had evolved under harsh conditions and which was almost the personal creation of Chinggis Khan.
Under tutelage of the Mongols, the rulers of Muscovy accumulated wealth and power and a model of government that ruthlessly centralized power and skipped the phase of landed feudalism which had shaped state-building in Western Europe. Moreover, the Mongol Yoke also had the effect of firewalling Russia from the Renaissance and Reformation, and from the ages of exploration and scientific revolution – developments which shaped the modern world and European hegemony. This left Russia in a relative condition of knowledge backwardness and Asiatic orientation until the eighteenth century.
Perhaps the most important result of Mongol captivity was to impose an Asian mode of governance on Russia, becoming a powerful Asianized state demarcated from Western and Eastern Europe. Although Russia could never be considered “Asian”, Asiatic characteristics were imposed and adapted during the medieval period, systematically reduced during and after the reign of Peter I, and possibly resuscitated by Lenin and Stalin.
If we trace the geneology of totalitarianism in Asia, we find the earliest evidence in the Qin state which unified China in 221 BC under the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Qin’s Legalist philosophy gave rise to a highly centralized monarchy and administrative system with a powerful army and anti-feudal agricultural production.
How did the Hegemonic Executive Power of the short-lived Qin empire plant itself in the Russian state? The answer may be found in the Mongol period. The Mongol nation-state itself was a confederation of tribes and clans established by Chinggis Khan, and should be defined as a Limited Executive Power. However, rule by the Golden Horde imposed a hegemonic regime which was designed, more or less, by Chinese advisors, to rule over the Russias. The effect was a colonial relationship between Mongol overlords and the Russian princes, in which the Russian elite – including churchmen – served as agents of the Khanate in collecting taxes and maintaining order. 

The Ellison Center
REECAS Program
Box 353650
203B Thomson Hall
Seattle, WA 98195
(206) 543-4852 phone
(206) 685-0668 fax
reecas@u.washington.edu