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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 1.2 (2000) 237-257

Muscovite Political Institutions in the 14th Century
Charles J. Halperin
303 East 8th Street, Apt. 16
Bloomington, IN 47408-3572 USA

The role of the Mongols in the rise of Moscow to a position of political preeminence in 14th-century Russia remains a sensitive and controversial topic in Russian historiography. Those scholars who have concluded that the Mongols did contribute to Moscow's ascension point to two primary areas of Mongol influence: first, the intervention of the Golden Horde (the anachronistic name for the Tatar state centered on the lower Volga river, now commonly described as the Qipchaq Khanate) in the political affairs of the East Slavic principalities;1 and, second, Muscovite borrowing of Mongol institutions to enforce and expand its rule. Both considerations of Great Russian patriotism and a Europocentric aversion to "Asiatic barbarians" have greatly inhibited scholarly consideration of the merits of the case that the Mongols either altered the course of medieval Russian history or provided models for Muscovy's political order.

Recently, Donald Ostrowski has advanced new and ambitious conclusions about the extent of Muscovite borrowing of Mongol institutions.2 Although admitting that there is no direct evidence to corroborate his theory,3 nevertheless he argues forcefully that the 14th century represents a major institutional rift in Muscovy's development, a rift in which Muscovy turned overwhelmingly to Mongol rather than Kievan or Byzantine models on which to construct a new political structure. Muscovite institutional borrowing from the Mongols was so pervasive, Ostrowski implies, that the secular Muscovite court saw itself as a continuation of the Qipchaq Khanate. Furthermore, the secular court was so [End Page 237] perceived by the Byzantine-influenced Muscovite Orthodox Church, which sought to replace Muscovy's Tatar ancestry with an invented virtual past of Byzantine Orthodox provenance, and even to eliminate Muscovite institutions of Tatar derivation.4

It is impossible within the confines of a single article to address the numerous issues raised by Ostrowski's research. This essay will analyze critically the evidence for a series of Ostrowski's assertions about the origin of Muscovite political and administrative institutions in the 14th century. If these theories are found unpersuasive, then Ostrowski's larger contentions about the relationship of the secular court to the Mongols and the perception of that relationship by the Church should lose some of their persuasive power.

There are serious methodological problems in evaluating the possible Mongol origin of Muscovite institutions beyond the meagerness of the sources on both sides of the steppe-sown frontier. Both Muscovite and Horde institutions may derive from multiple sources, the former from Kievan Rus', Byzantium and the pre-Mongol steppe, the latter from the eclectic common heritage of the world Mongol Empire or its successor states, especially the Mongol Ilkhanate with its Iranian and Islamic forms. Moreover, both Muscovite and Horde institutions might have evolved in response to changing circumstances. Finally, Muscovy might have adapted those Mongol practices it did assimilate, complicating identification of their steppe origin.

It was endemic on the medieval religious frontier not to admit consciously that one had borrowed institutions from conquered or conquering peoples of a different religion. This was true of Crusader Valencia in 13th-century Spain about Islamic Moorish institutions, of the Arab Umayyad dynasty from the 7th century or the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century about Byzantine institutions, and of the French Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem from the 12th century about Islamic institutions.5 In general the most reliable evidence of the foreign origin of an institution was its name: calques or loan-words betray borrowed institutions even in the absence of admissions of borrowing, even, it must be added, when there is confusion or disagreement about the nature of the borrowed institution itself. In other cases sufficient credible and contemporary evidence about the institution substantiates the reality of borrowing. Despite the objections of hypersensitive Russian historians, there is a compelling case that Muscovy did indeed borrow a...


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