Dmitry Shlapentokh: The Russian remodeling of Genghis Khan

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles (2005). ]

Genghis Khan and his successors - the great conquerors who built the greatest continental empire in the world - have fascinated historians and writers for centuries. Still, in practically all countries that encountered Mongolian armies, Genghis Khan has almost never been seen in a positive light and none has tried to make him its own.

Russia, which had been swept by Mongolian hordes in 1237-1240 was no exception, at least throughout Russian modern history. Both tsarist and Soviet historians invariably presented the Mongols - called Tartars by the Russians - as a great evil; and the centuries-long struggle against them was lionized in public discourse. The situation has changed in the post-Soviet era where, all of a sudden, various segments of the elite in the Russian Federation have started to either directly or indirectly associate themselves with the great Mongolian warrior and his empire.

Surprisingly enough - at least at first glance - some ethnic Russians have begun to place the Mongolian conqueror in a positive light. And this, among many other things, has been manifested in the recently released Russian movie Mongol, which is dedicated to the Mongol conquest.

One, of course, could suggest that the interest in Genghis Khan, besides the picturesqueness of the movie's image itself, attracts Russian viewers by that fact that he represents the strong leader for whom the Russian public longs (which is one of the reasons for President Vladimir Putin's popularity).

Still, the Russian public does not need to be attracted to a Mongolian ruler. A strong man from Russia could well appeal to the Russian populace. Indeed, the filmmakers could have placed on the screen a native Russian ruler such as Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great, or even Stalin. Thus, the interest in Genghis Khan is not connected just with the Russian love of strong leaders but is also caused by other deeper reasons; the interest in the Mongols is due to an attempt to create an historical legacy for keeping together the various ethnic groups of the Russian Federation.

During the Soviet era, communist ideologists proclaimed that various ethnic groups of the USSR should live together mostly because of common social, political and ideological bonds. With the end of the USSR, the Communist ideology disappeared as a binding force. The Russian elite was in search of an ideological substitute that would provide justification as to why various ethnic groups of the Russian Federation still should live together. And here the doctrine of Eurasianism appears quite handy.

Eurasianism emerged in the 1920s among Russian emigres. The proponents of the doctrine proclaimed that Russians should not only have nothing to do with the West but not even with Slavdom. According to Eurasianists, Russians are a mixture of Slavic and Turkic blood and, as an ethnicity/civilization in its own right, is bound together with other similar people - the minorities of Russia/USSR.

And they are cemented in this quasi-nation/quasi-civilization of "Eurasia" by the great feat of the Mongol conquest. And, here, Mongols, in general, and Genghis Khan, in particular, had been transformed from bloody butchers into wholesome builders of the empire. There was actually no Mongol conquest in the view of Eurasianists but, rather, a healthy "symbiosis" existed between Russians and Mongols. Moreover, and this was most important in Eurasianist historiography, there was no liberation from Mongol/Tartar rule but Mongols simply passed to the Russians the leadership of the great Eurasian empire that the Mongols had built.

This direct connection between the Mongols and the great pre-revolutionary/Soviet Russia - and the dream that Russia's leading role in global history is not lost and could be brought back in the form of a great multi-ethnic empire of Russians and non Slavic minorities - explains the fascination with Genghis Khan and is the central theme of the movie.

Still, this attempt to enlist Genghis Khan in the cause of Russia's imperial greatness has been resisted by Russia's still numerous Russian minorities, whose members and influence have grown in the course of post-Soviet history. They have no desire to be Russia's "younger brothers", and have their own vision of Genghis Khan. Other movies on Genghis Khan are in the process of being created in Yakutia, the northern enclave in Siberia.

The movie's producer made it clear that Genghis Khan and his legacy had nothing in common with Russians but actually with Yakuts and other Turkic and Mongolian people (in his interpretation, Yakutia became a Turkic nation). The political implication of the movie is clear: Yakutia should, if not be absolutely independent, at least have broader autonomy in the Russian Federation and take control of Yakutia's rich natural resources.

The Russian elite strongly protests such an interpretation of Genghis Khan, and a commentator from Izvestia, made an ironical comment about transforming Genghis Khan in Yakutia. The author of the article mocked Yakutia pretensions of grandness, but this is more than irony about the Yakutian elite megalomania or even the Yakutia elite’s desire to control Yakutia’s natural resources.

It has much more serious implications: by recognizing the Yakuts' position, and that of other Turkic minorities of Russia, of being the sole successors of the Mongol empire, the implication is that Russians at best could be relegated here to the position of the "younger brothers"; and, quite possibly, Russians would have no place in this Eurasian arrangement at all. The author of the quoted article stated that, at present, Yakutia systematically tries to replace Russians in all the good jobs with Yakuts.

This increasing pressure of the minorities from the different parts of the Russian Federation has been reinforced by the fear of external non-Slavic emigration, mostly from Central Asia, the Caucasus, and, especially, China. It has become clear for increasing numbers of Russians that this pressure could not just relegate them to the position of "younger brothers" in any geopolitical arrangement but put an end to their very existence in Eurasia.

And this pushed the Russians to return to a vision of the Mongols, and Asiatics in general, as a vicious mortal threat for Russia and the rest of Europe. And, while in the Russian view, the West has been ungrateful and hostile to Russia, Russia is still by the logic of events the first line of defense of European Christendom, the role that it has played since the 13th century.

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/16/2007

<Russia is still the first line of defense of European Christendom>?
Ancient history...

First of all, by the logic of events, the European Christendom dissappeared about a century ago.

Secondly, the defense against whom? There is no <vicious mortal threat to Russia> and even less <to the rest of Europe> in the today's world. The combined technological and military strength of Russia, and Europe, and the latter's superpower ally - the US - is incomparable.

Thirdly, according to many polls around the world the most dangerous
country to the world's peace and the sovereignity of other countries (and to Russia, in particular) is considered to be the single superpower itself.