The provenance and meaning of the title “white prince” or “white tsar” applied to the Muscovite and Russian rulers by the Turkic and Mongolian peoples of Central Eurasia have long been the subjects of scholarly discussions. In this article, a distinguished Moscow-based scholar of the Russian and Eurasian history takes upon the prevalent interpretation of the title, which connects its origin with the traditional Chinese symbolic colour scheme where the white represented the west. Borrowed by the Mongols, this colour scheme accounted for the designation of the westernmost part of the Western Mongol Empire (more generally known by its conventional name of ‘Golden Horde’) as the White Horde. It has been suggested that the title as applied to the rulers of the Muscovite state and Russian Empire signified their recognition by their Turko-Mongolian subjects and neighbours as the de facto heirs to the khans of the White Horde.
V. V. Trepavlov sets out to review the evidence of the usage of the title in Turko-Mongolian documentary sources and folklore. He points out that the term begins to appear in the sixteenth century with the earliest instances found in the diplomatic correspondence sent to Moscow from the Ottoman fortress of Azaq (Azov) in the beginning of the century. In the sixteenth-nineteenth centuries the title is attested in diplomatic and legal documents originated in the Noghai Horde, in the Siberian and Kalmyk Khanates, in the Muslim states of Central Asia and of the North Caucasus, and among the non-Muslim Mongolian and Turkic peoples of Inner Asia. It is also found in folklore sources of most of the above, as well as of the peoples of Eastern Siberia. In V. V. Trepavlov’s opinion, the familiarity with the title throughout this vast territory was not likely to be a result of borrowing among the states and peoples mentioned, but must have been derived from some common source or, alternatively, must have reflected some shared characteristics pertaining to the culture and traditional mentality of all these peoples. The question of a common source inevitably suggests to the researcher the only two political entities ever to unite the territory in question under one rule, namely the Mongol and Russian Empires.
Leaving for the present the question of any Russian connections in the origin of the title (which possibility he deems sound), V. V. Trepavlov focuses on the Mongol connection as more popular in scholarship. He reviews the semantic range of the word white in Turko-Mongolian cultures dismissing most of the meanings one after the other as irrelevant to the issue at hand. Specifically, he considers the interpretation of the “white tsar” as “western tsar” forced, as it is doubtful that Russians would have borrowed the Turko-Mongolian designation of a part of the world to refer to their own ruler (here V. V. Trepavlov seems to veer off the line of his argument as the point of his discussion is the presence of the title in Turko-Mongolian, not Russian, usage). The author goes on to state that one cannot be justified in proposing just one specific source for the concept of the “white tsar.” He suggests that the image of the white ruler may have been present in the cultures of the peoples of Eurasia long before the Russian territorial expansion, as the folklore recorded over the last two centuries does not always identify the “white tsar” with the Russian ruler ― the feature V. V. Trepavlov takes as possibly indicative of an archaic semantic layer.
In the last part of the article, the author returns to the hypothesis of the title’s White Horde connections. He critically reviews some key points in favour of the hypothesis, including those put forward by N. I. Veselovskii, V. V. Bartol’d, G. A. Fedorov-Davydov, and Maureen Perrie, deeming them erroneous or conjectural. Specifically, he points out that no Russian or “eastern” source of the period of the Mongol Empire and the Golden Horde he perused identifies the Muscovite ruler with the White Horde. (One cannot but point out a certain fallacy of this argument, as it seems more feasible to expect such connections to be made following the dissolution of the Golden Horde.) In conclusion, V. V. Trepavlov suggests, as a possible further venue of investigation, that the Turkic usage may have been derived from archaic Mongol terminology (presumably, unconnected with the identification of the white with the west). V. V. Trepavlov returns to the issue in his 2007 monograph, “White Tsar”: The Image of the Monarch and the Perception of Submission among the Peoples of Russia of the 15th-18th cc. (in Russian), where he also explores the hypothesis of an independent Russian origin of the term, yet refrains from supporting any of the hypotheses discussed over the others thus leaving the question of the provenance and meaning of the title open. The two inquiries by Professor Trepavlov and his thought-provoking insights into this dauntingly complex and complicated issue are bound to reinvigorate scholarly discussions over it.