The Effects of the Mongol Empire on Russia

Mongol invasion of Ryazan

The history of Russia has always been a relatively sad and tumultuous one wrought with wars, power struggles, and abrupt changes. These changes have often been forcibly thrust wholesale upon Russia, rather than evolving through gradual, measured methods as in most peoples’ histories. From an earlier time, in which we know Russia as ‘Kievan Rus,’ the princes of the various cities (such as Vladimir, Pskov, Suzdal, and Kiev) constantly battled and bickered for power and control of the small semi-united state. Under the reigns of St. Vladimir (980-1015) and Yaroslav the Wise (1015-1054), the Kievan state was at its highest point and attained relative peace in contrast with years past. However, as history went, once the reigning rulers died, a power struggle ensued and wars once again flared.

It was perhaps the decision of Yaroslav the Wise before his death in 1054 to assign princedoms to his sons that set the future of Kievan Russia for the next two hundred years. Following this decision, civil wars between the various sons ravaged much of the Kievan confederation, draining it of essential resources it would later need. As the princes incessantly fought with each other, the confederation of cities known as the Kievan state slowly decayed, declined, and lost its former glory. Further weakened by the incursions of steppe tribes such as the Polovtsy (aka Cumans/Kumans or Kipchaks) and previously by the Pechenegs, eventually the Kievan state was ripe for a takeover by more powerful invaders from distant lands.

Yet before this, the Rus had a chance to change their fate. It was around 1219 when the Mongols first entered the areas nearest Kievan Russia in a move against the Polovtsy, who, in turn, asked for the assistance of the Rus princes. A council of princes convened in Kiev to consider the request, an act which worried the Mongols. According to historical sources, the Mongols declared that they had not attacked the cities or people of the Rus nor attacked their lands. The Mongol envoys requested peace of the Russian princes. Yet the princes did not trust the Mongols, suspecting that the Mongol advance would continue into Rus. Subsequently, the Mongol emissaries were promptly killed and any chance for peace was destroyed at the hands of the princes of the fractured Kievan state. Within twenty years, Batu Khan marched from Mongolia with an army of 200,000 men. One by one, Russian principalities such as Ryazan, Moscow, Vladimir, Suzdal, and Rostov fell to the Batu and his armies. The armies looted and razed the cities, slaughtered the people, and took many as prisoners and slaves. The Mongols eventually captured, sacked, and destroyed Kiev, the symbolic center of Kievan Russia. Only outlying northwesterly principalities such as Novgorod, Pskov, and Smolensk survived the onslaught, though these cities would endure indirect subjugation and become tributaries of the Golden Horde. Perhaps a decision by the Russian princes to make peace could have averted this. However, that was not the case and for their miscalculations, Russia would be forever changed in terms of its religion, art, language, government, and political geography.

The Orthodox Church

With the initial Mongol onslaught, many churches and monasteries were looted and destroyed while countless adherents to the church and scores of clergy were killed; those who survived often were taken prisoner and enslaved (Dmytryshyn, 121). The mere shock of the force and size of the Mongol army was devastating. The distress was just as political and economic in nature as it was social and spiritual. The Mongol forces claimed that they were sent by God, and the Russians believed that the Mongols were indeed sent by God as a punishment for their sins. The Orthodox Church would become a powerful beacon during the “darker” years of the Mongol subjugation. The Russian people would eventually turn inward, seeking solace in their faith and looking to the Orthodox Church for guidance and support. The shock of being conquered by this steppe people would plant the seeds of Russian monasticism, which would in turn play a major role in the conversion of such people as the Finno-Ugrian tribes and the Zyrianians (now known as the Komi), as well as the colonization of the northern regions of Russia (Vernadsky, 379).

The humiliation suffered by the princes and the town assemblies caused fragmentation of their political authority. This loss of political unity allowed the Church to rise as an embodiment of both religious and national identity while filling the gap of lost political identity (Riasanovsky, 57). The unique legal concept of iarlyk (pronounced ‘yarlīgh’), or charter of immunity, also contributed to the strengthening of the Church. With the reign of Mönke-Temür, a iarlyk was issued to Metropolitan Kirill for the Orthodox Church in 1267. While the church had been under the de facto protection of the Mongols ten years earlier (from the 1257 census conducted under Khan Berke), this iarlyk formally decreed protection for the Orthodox Church. More importantly, it officially exempted the church from any form of taxation by Mongol or Russian authorities (Ostrowski, 19). And permitted that clergymen not be registered during censuses and that they were furthermore not liable for forced labor or military service (Hosking, 57).

As expected, the result of the iarlyk issued to the Orthodox Church was profound. For the first time, the church would become less dependent on princely powers than in any other period of Russian history. The Orthodox Church was able to acquire and consolidate land at a considerable rate, one that would put the church in an extremely powerful position in the centuries following the Mongol takeover. The charter of immunity strictly forbade both Mongol and Russian tax agents from seizing church lands or demanding any services from the Orthodox Church. This was enforced by a simple penalty – death (Vernadsky, 377).

Another prominent reason the church developed so quickly laid in its mission – to spread Christianity and convert those still practicing paganism in the countryside. To strengthen the internal structure of the Orthodox Church, metropolitans traveled extensively throughout the land to alleviate administrative deficiencies and to oversee the activities of the bishops and priests. Moreover, the relative security (economic, military, and spiritual) surrounding hermitages lured peasants from the countryside. As this heightened urban development within the periphery of church properties destroyed the peaceful atmosphere the hermitage was originally established to give, members of the monastery would move further out into the wilderness to establish a new hermitage, beginning the process anew. This system of founding religious settlements continued for some time and contributed to the augmentation of the Orthodox Church (Vernadsky, 377-8).

One last significant change that occurred was the location of the center of the Orthodox Church. Before the Mongols invaded Russian lands, Kiev was the ecclesiastical center. Following the destruction of Kiev, the Holy See moved to Vladimir in 1299, and eventually to Moscow in 1322 (Hosking, 72), helping to bolster the importance of Moscow significantly.


While the arts in Russia first suffered mass deportations of its artists, the monastic revival and the focus of attention that turned toward the Orthodox Church led to an artistic revival. What defined the Russians – at this crucial moment when they were without a state – was their Christianity and ability to express their devout beliefs. During this Time of Troubles, such great artists as Theophanes the Greek and Rublev came into play (Figes, 299-300).

It was during the second half of the Mongol rule in the mid-fourteenth century that Russian iconography and fresco painting began once again to flourish. Theophanes the Greek arrived in the late 1300s. He decorated and worked on various churches throughout the land, especially in Novgorod and Nizhniy Novgorod. In Moscow, he painted the iconostasis for the Church of the Annunciation as well as worked on the Church of the Archangel Michael (Martin, 233). A few decades after Theophanes’ arrival, Rublev would become one of his most aspiring and important students. Iconography came to Russia from Byzantium in the tenth century, but the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century cut Russia off from Byzantium.


While the linguistic effects may seem at first trivial, such impacts on language help us to determine and understand to what extent one empire had on another people or group of people – in terms of administration, military, trade – as well as to what geographical extentthe impact included. Indeed, the linguistic and even socio-linguistic impacts were great, as the Russians borrowed thousands of words, phrases, other significant linguistic features from the Mongol and the Turkic languages that were united under the Mongol Empire (Dmytryshyn, 123). Listed below are a few examples of some that are still in use. All came from various parts of the Horde.

  1. амбар                          ambar                                    barn
  2. базар                          bazar                                     bazaar
  3. деньги                        den’gi                                     money
  4. лошадь                       loshad‘                                    horse
  5. сундук                        sunduk                                   truck, chest
  6. таможня                      tamozhnya                              customs

One highly important colloquial feature of the Russian language of Turkic origin is the use of the word давай which expresses the idea of ‘Let’s…’ or ‘Come on, let’s…’ (Figes, 370-1). Listed below are a few common examples still found commonly in Russian.

  1. Давай чай попьем.              Davai chai popem.             ‘Let’s drink some tea.’
  2. Давай выпьем!                    Davai vypem!                   ‘Come on, let’s get drunk!’
  3. Давай пойдём!                    Davai poidyom!                 ‘Come on, let’s go!’

In addition, there are dozens of place names of Tatar/Turkic origin in southern Russia and the lands of the Volga River that stand out on maps of these areas. City names such as Penza, Alatyr, and Kazan’ and names of regions such as Chuvashia and Bashkortostan are examples.

Administration and Institutions

Images of totalitarianism spring to mind when one at first ponders that which is Russia: from the current times of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, to when the Soviet Union was still a nation, and even before to Imperial Russia. However, in Kievan Rus, a form of democracy did exist. Comprised of all free male citizens, the veche (вече) was a town assembly that met to discuss such matters as war and peace, law, and invitation or expulsion of princes to the veche’srespective town; all cities in Kievan Russia had a veche. It was essentially a forum for civic affairs to discuss and resolve problems. However, this democratic institution suffered severe curtailment under the Mongols.

By far the most influential of the assemblies were in Novgorod and Kiev. In Novgorod, a special veche bell (in other towns, church bells were ordinary used for this purpose) was created for calling the townspeople together for an assembly, and in theory, anyone could ring itIn the times after the Mongols had conquered the majority of Kievan Russia, veches ceased to exist in all cities except Novgorod, Pskov, and others in the northwestern regions. Veches in those cities continued to function and develop until Moscow itself subjugated them in the late fifteenth century. However, today the spirit of the veche as a public forum has been revived in several cities across Russia, including especially Novgorod.

Of great importance to the Mongol overlords was census tabulation, which allowed for the collection of taxes. To support censuses, the Mongols imposed a special dual system of regional administration headed by military governors, the basqaqi (баскаки), and/or civilian governors, the darugi (даругы). Essentially, the basqaqi were given the responsibility of directing the activities of rulers in the areas that were resistant or had challenged Mongol authority. The darugi were civilian governors that oversaw those regions of the empire that had submitted without a fight or that were considered already pacified to Mongol forces (Ostrowski, 273). However, the offices of the basqaqi and the darugi, while occasionally overlapping in authority and purpose did not necessarily always rule at the same time.

As we know from history, the ruling princes of Kievan Russia did not trust the Mongolian ambassadors that came to discuss peace with them in the early 1200s; the princes regrettably put the ambassadors of Genghis Khan to the sword and before long paid dearly. Thus, in the thirteenth century the basqaqi were stationed in the conquered lands to subjugate the people and authorize even the day-to-day activities of the princes. Furthermore, in addition to ensuring the the census, the basqaqi oversaw conscription of the local populace (Martin, 150). 

Existing sources and research indicates that the basqaqi had largely disappeared from the Rus’ lands by the mid-fourteenth century, as the Rus more or less accepted the Mongol overlords. As the basqaqi left, the darugi replaced them in power. However, unlike the basqaqi, the darugi were not based in the confines of the lands of the Rus; in fact, they were stationed in Sarai, the old capital of the Golden Horde located not far from present-day Volgograd. The darugi functioned mainly as experts on the lands of the Rus’ and advised the khan accordingly. While the responsibility of collecting and delivering tribute and conscripts had belonged to the basqaqi, with the transition from the basqaqi to the darugi these duties we actually transferred to the princes themselves when the khan saw that the princes could complete such tasks (Martin, 151).

The first census taken by the Mongols occurred in 1257, just seventeen years after their conquest of Rus’ lands. The population was divided into multiples of ten, a system that had been employed by the Chinese and later adopted by the Mongols who extended its use over the entirety of their empire; the census served as the primary purpose for conscription as well as for taxation. This practice was carried on by Moscow after it stopped acknowledging the Horde in 1480. The practice fascinated foreign visitors to Russia, to whom large-scale censuses were still unknown. One such visitor, Sigismund von Herberstein from Hapsburg made note of the fact that every two or three years, the prince conducted a census throughout the land (Wittfogel, 638). Census taking would not become widespread in Europe until the early 19th century. One significant observation that we must make is that the extent to which the Russians so thoroughly conducted the census was not achieved elsewhere in Europe for another 120 years or so, during the Age of Absolutism. The impact of the Mongol Empire at least in this area was obviously deep and effective and helped to create a strong central government for Russia.

One important institution that the basqaqi oversaw and maintained was the yam (a system of posts), which was constructed to provide food, bedding, horses, and either coaches or sleds, according to the season (Hosking, 89). At first constructed by the Mongols, the yam allowed relatively rapid movement of important communiqués between the khans and their local leaders, as well as a method of quickly dispatching envoys, local or foreign, between the various principalities across the vast the empire. Each post had horses ready for use by authorized persons as well as to replace tired horses for especially long journeys. Each post was usually located about a day’s ride from the nearest post. The local people were obliged to maintain the posts, to feed the horses, and to meet the needs of emissaries traveling through their posts.

The system was quite efficient. Another report by emissary Sigismund von Herberstein of the Hapsburgs stated that the yam system allowed him to travel 500 kilometers (from Novgorod to Moscow) within 72 hours – much faster than anywhere in Europe (Wittfogel, 639-40). The yam system helped the Mongols to maintain tight control over their empire. During the twilight years of the Mongol’s hold on Russia in the late fifteenth century, Prince Ivan III decided to continue the use of the idea of the system of the yam in order to keep an established system of communication and intelligence. However, the idea of a postal system as we know it today would not come into existence until after the death of Peter the Great in the early 1700s.

Some such institutions brought to Russia by the Mongols transformed to meet Russian needs over time and lasted for many centuries after the Golden Horde. These greatly augmented the development and expansion of the intricate bureaucracy of the later, imperial Russia.

The Rise of Moscow

Founded in 1147, Moscow remained an insignificant town for more than a hundred years. At that time, the location lay at the crossroads of three major roads, one of which connected Moscow to Kiev. The geographic location of Moscow merits attention, as it sits on a bend of the Moscow River, which connects to the Oka and Volga River. Via the Volga River, that allows access to the Dniepr and Don Rivers, as well as the Black and Caspian Seas, huge opportunities for trade and commerce with distant lands have always existed. With the Mongol onslaught, droves of refugees began to arrive from the devastated southern portion of Rus, namely Kiev (Riasanovsky, 109). Moreover, the actions of the Muscovite princes in favor with the Mongols helped Moscow’s rise as the center of power.

Leading up to the point that the Mongols granted Moscow the iarlyk, Tver and Moscow were constantly struggling for power. The major turning point surfaced in 1327 when the populace of Tver started to rise in rebellion. Seeing this as an opportunity to please the khan of his Mongol overlords, Prince Ivan I of Moscow took a huge Tatar contingent and quashed the rebellion in Tver, thereby restoring order in that city and winning the favor of the khan. For his show of loyalty, Ivan I was also granted the iarlyk and with this Moscow took yet another step towards prominence and power. Soon the princes of Moscow took over the responsibilities of collecting taxes throughout the land (and in doing so, taking part of these taxes for themselves) and eventually the Mongols gave this responsibility solely to Moscow and ended the practice of sending their own tax collectors. Yet Ivan I was more than a shrewd politician and exchequer of good judgment: he was perhaps the first prince to replace the traditional lateral line of succession with the vertical line (though this would not be fully achieved until the second Prince Vasilii’s reign in the mid-1400s (Hosking, 71-2)). This change brought more stability to Moscow and thus strengthened her position within the realm. As Moscow grew wealtheir through being the main tax collector of the lands, its authority over several principalities became greater and more consolidated. The lands that Moscow gained equated with more taxes and more access to resources, and thus more power.

During the time that Moscow grew wealtheir and more powerful, the Golden Horde was in a state of general decay, wrought with rebellions and coups. Prince Dmitrii decided to attack the Kazan khanate in 1376 and was successful. Not long after, one of the Mongol generals, Mamai, sought to create his own horde of sorts in the steppes west of the Volga River (Hosking, 79) and he decided to challenge the authority of Prince Dmitrii on the banks of the Vokha River; Dmitrii defeated Mamai, exciting his Muscovites and, naturally, angering the Mongols. However, Mamai chose to fight again and organized a contingent of 150,000 men; Dmitrii matched this number and their two armies met near the River Don at Kulikovo Pole (Kulikovo Field) in early September of 1380 (Dmytryshyn, 140). Dmitrii’s army, though suffering losses of some 100,000 men, defeated Mamai; Tokhtamysh, one of Tamerlane’s generals, soon captured and executed the general. Prince Dmitrii became known as Dmitrii Donskoi (of the Don). However, Moscow was soon sacked by Tokhtamysh, and once again had to pay tribute to the Mongols.

Yet the great battle of Kulikovo Pole in 1380 was a symbolic turning point. Even though Moscow suffered retribution for attacking Mongol armies, the power that Moscow welded would continue to grow and its influence over other Russian principalities would continue to expand. Novgorod finally succumbed to future capital in 1478, and Moscow soon shed any allegiance to the Mongol and Tatar overlords thus ending over 250 years of Mongol control.


As the evidence stands, the effects of the Mongol invasion were many, spread across the political, social, and religious facets of Russia. While some of those effects, such as the growth of the Orthodox Church generally had a relatively positive effect on the lands of the Rus, other results, such as the loss of the veche system and centralization of power assisted in halting the spread of traditional democracy and self-government for the various principalities. From the influences on the language and the form of government, the very impacts of the Mongol invasion are still evident today. Perhaps given the chance to experience the Renaissance, as did other western European cultures, the political, religious, and social thought of Russia would greatly differ from that of the reality of today. The Russians, through the control of the Mongols who had adopted many ideas of government and economics from the Chinese, became perhaps a more Asiatic nation in terms of government, while the deep Christian roots of the Russians established and helped maintain a link with Europe. It was the Mongol invasion which, perhaps more than any other historical event, helped to determine the course of development that Russian culture, political geography, history, and national identity would take.



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About the Author

Dustin Hosseini

Dustin Hosseini holds bachelor’s degrees in Russian and Spanish from the University of Texas, Arlington. Mr. Hosseini is a current SRAS participant in Moscow.

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