In this massive monograph, the prolific Aleksandr Iurchenko of the St. Petersburg Branch of the Institute of the Orient (Vostok), Russian Academy of Sciences, continues his examination of the ideology of the Mongol Empire begun in his Imperiia i kosmos: Real’naia i fantasticheskaia istoriia pokhodov Chingis-khana po materialam frantiskanskoi missii 1245 goda [The Empire and the Cosmos: The Real and Fantastic History of the Campaigns of Chinggis Khan on the Basis of the Material of the Franciscan Mission of 1245] (St. Petersburg: Evraziia, 2002) and numerous articles. The key word in the title is “myth,” because Iurchenko treats much of what was written about Chinggis as mythology, but the adjective “world” best encapsulates the volume’s scope, which employs sources from China to Western Europe, North Africa to India and Tibet, in short, the entire “world” conquered by or affected by the conquests of the Mongols.
Iurchenko’s “Exposition” (7-22) adumbrates several key themes. The myth of Chinggis and the divine mission of the Mongols to conquer the world arose not in Chinggis’ time but only later, particularly during the reign of his grandson Möngke, twenty, thirty or fifty years after Chinggis’ death. The retrospective image of Chinggis created by these sources was an ideal, not a reflection of reality. Carpini’s mythic depiction of an all-powerful Mongol emperor was written during an interregnum. In passing, Iurchenko notes that the requirement that Europeans bow to a statue of Chinggis is attested only in non-Mongol sources such as the legendary vita of Prince Mikhail of Chernigov (Chernihiv) and therefore problematic.
Part 1 on the construction of the Chinggis myth contains 38 chapters (23-322). Iurchenko analyses sources either individually or thematically, providing extensive Russian translations of relevant passages. He reinterprets events in the narrative of Mongol expansion in light of Mongol beliefs. The extermination of the population of cities during whose defence members of Chinggis’ family (by birth or marriage) were killed reflected neither Mongol cruelty nor ignorance of nor aversion to urban life, but an attempt to punish evil and restore order to a universe that Tenggeri had granted the Golden Kin. Iurchenko repeatedly criticises the majority of historians who have studied these sources for their positivism (462), for neglecting the sources’ mythic context in their search for “real” historical details (271).
Part 2, consisting of nine chapters (323-496), addresses what Iurchenko considers a parody of the rise of the Mongol Empire, a literary inversion of the Mongol view of their rise, an attempt to desacralise the Mongol Empire, the “Romance (roman) of Chinggis Khan” proposed by Painter in R. A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston, and George D. Painter, The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (1965), first translated into Russian in Khristianskii mir i “velikaia Mongol’skaia imperiia:” Materialy frantsiskanskoi missii 1245 goda [The Christian World and the “Great Mongol Empire:” Materials of the Franciscan Mission of 1245] (St. Petersburg: Evraziia, 2002), for which S. V. Aksenov and Iurchenko provided the translation, and Iurchenko, who in 1990 and 1991 made two intercontinental excursions reproducing Carpini’s itinerary, the introduction and commentary. Iurchenko extracts the content of that “Romance,” which has not survived, indirectly from Carpini and directly from Benedict the Pole as contained in the “Tartar Relation” authored by “C. de Bridia.” Iurchenko emphasises the fantasy elements of this anti-myth, in which the Mongols are either defeated by or ignore mythological creatures and beasts ranging from dogs (not men with dogs’ heads) with human-form wives to men with one arm and one leg to men who live underground. Here Iurchenko employs his Aleksandriiskii “Fizilogo”: Zoologicheskaia misteriia [The Alexandrian “Physiology”: A Zoological Mystery] (St. Petersburg: Evraziia, 2001) and Tigritsa i grifon: Sakral’nye simvoly zhivotnogo mira [The Tigress and the Griffon. Sacred Symbols of the Animal World] (St. Petersburg: Azbuka-Klassika – Peterburskoe vostokovedenie, 2002). Iurchenko observes that Mikhail of Chernigov refused not to walk between two fires but to bow to a statue of Chinggis, which, if it existed, would have been in Karakorum, not in the Volga Horde. Moreover, Mikhail’s refusal to walk between two fires was not a capital offense, although it would have aborted Mikhail’s audience with Batu. That Mikhail was executed for religious reasons is a Russian legend. Only Carpini records that Chinggis died from a thunderbolt.
After Part 2 comes a Latin text and Russian translation of chapter 5 of Carpini on the origin of the Mongol Empire and the authority of the Mongol Emperor (497-518), book end-notes (519-581), Bibliography (582-633), Bibliographical Abbreviations (634-635), and Abbreviations (636-637). The volume lacks a conclusion or an index.
Obviously Iurchenko’s conclusions were already in print. The weakness of Part 1 is the lack of any discernable structure to the chapter sequence. The strength of Part 1 is the detail and insightful observations of each chapter and their astonishing thematic breadth, from medieval flame-throwers to the hair and clothing styles of foreigners entering Mongol service, and the cumulative weight of Iurchenko’s approach. It is refreshing to see in Russian the “saving” of Europe from Batu explained by the death of Ögödei and not the severe casualties inflicted on the Mongols by the “heroic” resistance of the Russians (or Qipchaqs). Iurchenko’s answer to the question of why the Mongol Empire did not become Christian — because the Mongols already had a religion, which they would hardly have abandoned for a religion of their conquered subjects — is persuasive as far as it goes, but he does not discuss the conversion of three Mongol successor states, the Juchid ulus, the Ilkhanate and the Chagatayid khanate, to Islam. Equally noteworthy is Iurchenko’s proposal that Chinggis, who did create a civilisation but was not the founder of a world-religion, be compared not to Muhammad, as Khazanov did, but to Alexander the Great, a suggestion Iurchenko does not pursue. (Iurchenko also criticises Khazanov for describing the Mongols as “pagans.”) It is not necessary to accept Iurchenko’s criticism of the majority of previous scholars for neglecting mythology in order to appreciate Iurchenko’s contribution to the elucidation of Mongol mentality. Historians did not need Iurchenko to remind them of the commonplace of the critical study of sources that “objective historical compositions [i.e., sources – CJH] do not exist” (197).
The shorter Part 2 possesses a greater thematic unity and is distinguished by Iurchenko’s grasp of the fantasy world of mythical beasts and races shared by European and Asian peoples during the mediaeval period and beyond. The precision with which he compares different versions of the same myth is particularly valuable. To call his discourse on how the Mongols fought elephants fascinating would be an understatement. To nitpick, Iurchenko repeats quotation, both within chapters and in different chapters. Although there are very few typographical or formatting errors, the reference to Kuznetsov’s article on the “Tale of Barlaam and Joasaph” in end-note 270 cites the wrong issue of TODRL, 32  should be 33 ; the Bibliography does not contain this item. The Bibliography (despite its length!) does not contain all publications cited in the notes. There are regrettably no illustrations save one on the book cover.
Pace Iurchenko, the Mongol law code, the Yasak, did not apply only to the World Mongol Empire and showed remarkable staying power in successor states with established religious and political traditions such as Iran. Mikhail of Chernigov, who was absent from Kiev in 1240, did not order the Mongol envoys to Kiev killed, a later interpolation found only in the sixteenth-century Nikon Chronicle. We may know what the Samoyeds called themselves, at least according to the English traveller Giles Fletcher, who says he met some, Samoie, “themselves.”
In conclusion, Iurchenko has made a major contribution to our understanding of the Mongol Empire. Unfortunately not all his books are equally accessible in U.S. libraries. It would be particularly helpful to specialists who do not read Russian if the results of his research could be presented in a systematic fashion in English.