Reviews

The 800th anniversary of the Great Qurultay of 1206, famous as the starting point of Mongol expansion all over Eurasia (proclamation of Temujin as the supreme sovereign, Genghis Khan) has considerably increased public and scientific interest in this epochal personality and in the colossal polity that he created. However, the analytical language utilised to describe this historical phenomenon has never been analysed itself. The authors question the methodological foundations of the denoting of Genghis Khan’s power by the term “empire” which has emerged in a different cultural context, and has been applied selectively enough by the European political tradition. Recapitulating all the variety of possible causal explanations for the rise of a transcontinental nomadic empire (climatic change, nomads’ bellicosity, overpopulation of the steppe, growth of productive forces and class struggle, impulses of ethnic integration, etc.), the authors proceed to careful scrutiny of diverse factors, which brings them to state that the interpretation of the Mongols’ stunning success still oscillates between “scientific” scenarios (e.g., E. Wallerstein’s core-periphery scheme) and the belief in the unique role of the heroic personality (“as old as . . . history-writing itself,” p. 93). Parting from the typical concept of an empire as a form of statehood based on large territories of dependent entities (core and periphery), the authors propose to distinguish the mixed agricultural and pastoral empires and quasi-imperial nomadic state-like formations from classical nomadic empires. For the characteristics of the latter, the following typological precisions are suggested: a ubiquitous multistage hierarchy of social organisation, dual and triadic principles of administrative structure, a mostly decimal military division, a network of post communications, specific systems of power inheritance and relationships with the sedentary world. Here, the authors proceed to isolate three main models of exercising supremacy by steppe superpowers: the coexistence of mobile pastoralists and crop growers in which the former exploit the latter by way of organised, non equivalent trade; the dependence of agriculturalists on nomads expressed in the form of tribute; conquered agrarian societies in which nomads migrate subjecting them to regular taxation. Dealing with the patterns of social regulation and with the nature of orders that determine them, the authors draw attention to crucial details such as the following: the rights issued from the will of the ruler; the absence of statute-book elaborated by professionals on the basis of an established practice; the inexistence of fixed court ceremonial; the personal character of all the known abstracts of Yasa inadequate for defining foundations of social life and the oral type of legal procedure.

Having considered the process of formation and functioning of the Mongol Ulus from ecological, demographical, economical, political and anthropological viewpoints, N. Kradin and T. Skrynnikova agree that the term “empire” is altogether applicable to Genghis’ state. At the same time, they show that many peculiarities of this structure which could be accepted as having affinities with other empires (internal hierarchy of authority, character of governance on subject territories, expansionism, etc.) take their roots in a way of life specific to nomadic societies, and differ radically from ancient or modern imperialism. Noticing the fact that for most scholars the statehood of the Chinggisid uluses is beyond doubt, the authors tend to be restrictive: They assume that this problem should be approached from two angles ― viz., the possibility of existence of political system (1) among the Mongols themselves, and (2) in the framework of their universal empire. They prefer to characterise the former as “potestary” (pre-state), but at the same time they underline the existential dilemma faced by nomadic societies when overtly and violently confronted to their sedentary neighbours: (1) destroying towns and converting arable surfaces into pastures, or (2) complicating their own governing bodies, placing the ruling élite in the cities, creating bureaucracies, and introducing written language and office work according mostly to the Chinese model. This process of radical modification of the machine of coercion leads to the crystallisation of “super-complex chiefdoms” possessing such features as a high rate of centralisation, social stratification, inchoate forms of urban and monumental construction, and even their own script. Several factors potentially worked to enhance the structural instability of such polities: (1) external sources of income combining economically autarchic tribes into a united confederation; (2) the mobility and armament of the tribesmen making the supreme power balance in search of consensus among disparate groups; (3) the specific province and tanistrial order of inheritance; (4) polygamy among the élite preparing ground for dynastical anarchy and recurrent internecine bloodshed. This observation undermines the explanatory potential of the notion of “empire” as a self-evident universal model independent from the concrete historical and cultural circumstances.

Timur Koraev, Moscow State University
CER: II-3.1.B-119