I was going to deal with this today but a number of pressing business issues came up leaving me with very little time. The answer to this question is more than just a question of history. Of necessity, I’m going to provide a sketch of events and circumstances that have a bearing on the issues surrounding the Ukraine of the here and now.
Some of these views may be controversial, but what the hey!
Before Russia, Belarus and Ukraine was Kievan Rus. Kievan Rus was the centre of the East Slavs. It was destroyed by the Mongol hordes. Much that the Mongols destroyed was ever rebuilt and for a long time that place was a sparsely settled waste. Gradually Cossacks appeared and little by little serfs fled there to be free. It was called the Wild Fields and was a buffer between what was left of the East Slavs and the Golden Horde, and later the Ottoman Empire and their client Crimean Tatar khanate…
What is Zaporozhian?
Literally: the land beyond the rapids (of the Dnieper). The Zaporozhian Sich appeared around 1471 – not long after the fall of the Byzantines. The sich was a fortress that acted as a headquarters for the Zaporozhian Host (or army). It and other siches, was peopled by Cossacks and by the free.
Who were the free?
Those who fled serfdom to the wilderness of that place; the Wild Fields. Some symbols resonate through the ages. Zaporozhian has been synonymous with conquest, valour and freedom in the minds of the East Slavs – Russian, Ukrainian and Belorusian.
What were the Wild Fields?
The Wild Fields were once Kievan Rus. At its height, the capital Kiev had a population of 50,000 and was the political and cultural centre of the East Slavs. In time Kievan Rus might have become a significant East European nation.
That wasn’t to be; its cities and towns were destroyed by the Golden Horde, vassals of the Mongols. Much of Kievan Rus was reduced to wilderness and its principalities were added to Mongol dominions.
This event split the East Slavs, pulling what was to become Russia into a close relationship with their Mongol overlords. Smaller towns such as Tver and Moscow (in the principality of Smolensk) survived under the Mongol yoke for several centuries. The Belorusians became aligned with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which later came to include the Cossacks.
Origins of Russia (Rossiya)
The Mongols were savage and brutal, but they were also highly organised. From their conquest of Jin and their ongoing campaign against the Sung (both now form part of present day China) they brought the concept of a regular census; a new thing for the East Slavs. The Romans had undertaken censuses but the East Slavs had never come under Roman rule. The main swathe of Mongol destruction was in an arc from Khwarezm through to the Jin & Sung empires (approximate slaughter: 90 million).
Moscow, Tver and other smaller settlements came under the Golden Horde. These were vassals of the Mongols, who ruled from Sarai, a purpose built city by the river Volga, close to the Caspian Sea. Their dominion covered about 4 million square miles of West Eurasian steppes.
Politics continued, even under the yoke of an oppressive conqueror; in 1326 Moscow joined forces with its Mongol overlords and brutally suppressed a rebellion in Tver. Moscow had manoeuvred itself into the good books of its masters and at the same time, cemented its ascendancy in the fledgling state of Russia. The Russians had their origin.
Russia lay under the yoke of the Mongols for a long period, 250 years, and were the most significant of the conquered races to take on board Mongol culture. In the 15th century, Vasily II was accused of excessive love of the Tatars, as representatives of the Golden Horde were known. The Tatar language was fashionable in his court. Many military and commercial loan words were adopted. In the 17th century over 15% of Russian nobles had Tatar or oriental origins. Unlike their Eastern Slav neighbours they don’t remember the Tatar yoke as harsh and oppressive; they are ambivalent. The Golden Horde eventually fragmented into competing khanates. As it weakened, Russia swallowed up its domains and became the de facto successor state to the Mongol dominions. Yet they also remember that they were once part of a greater East Slav presence whose heart lay in Kiev. Possession of Kiev would give Moscow another mantle, but that was for the future.
The lands around Kiev became the Wild Fields.
What about the Wild Fields?
These lay within the dominion of the Golden Horde, but on its western edge. Settling in these lands was very risky. The Golden Horde were fearsome nomads who treated peasants as bounty. The men were potential cannon fodder and slaves, the women were there to be humiliated (i.e. raped) by visiting warriors, and the old and the sick were slain. Towns and villages in that place would attract the Golden Horde like flies to rotting meat. They had already crushed the adjacent empire of Khwarezm. The Golden Horde vigorously discouraged the city dwellers from rebuilding what was lost. They became known as the Kazakh.
Kazakh, in Turkish has the same root as Cossack. It’s worth dwelling on the Kazakhs. Kazakh, just like Tajik (city dweller) has become an ethonym. The Kazakhs were originally the Golden Horde and thus vassals of the feared Mongols; confusingly, these were called Tatars by Moscow.
When the Golde Horde arrived in what is now Kazakhstan in the thirteenth century, they found the nomadic peoples known to the Kievan Rus as Polovtsy, i.e. Cumans and Kipchak. Present day researchers believe these to be blond haired, blue eyed with an admixture of mongoloid features.
South of the Polovtsy was the highly civilised empire of Khwarezm. This was also more densely populated. Its cities were on the old Silk Road and some had populations in the hundreds of thousands. The people of Khwarezm were known as Tajiks (literally ‘city dwellers’). The Golden Horde eliminated the inhabitants, a task conducted with absolute ferocity. Tajiks are descended from survivors of that butchery. The ruins of those cities still dot that part of the world. Most of what was lost was never rebuilt.
So were the Golden Horde just Mongols?
Initially they were a mix of Mongols and Turks. When the Mongols conquered a city they usually butchered everyone. Mongols used their elite soldiers sparingly. As casualties in the vanguard were always high, it needed to constantly be replenished. Fortunately there was plenty of human capital in the ranks of the conquered… sometimes defeated soldiers were given the option of joining the shock troops of the Mongol army. This was a baptism of fire. Survive or die. Those who survived became just like the Mongols and so were assimilated. The Golden Horde came to include Kipchaks, Cumans, Volga Bulgars and Khwarezmians, and smaller contingents of Finno-Ugrians, Sarmato-Scythians, Slavs and Caucasians.
What happened to Kievan Rus ?
The only regional power broker, Khwarezm, had been knocked out and was in ruins. The Polovtsy were subjugated. The Ottomans were yet to be, Byzantium had just been sacked by the Crusaders, Europe was a squabbling patchwork of petty realms and no match for the implacable aggression of the Mongols. Next was Kievan Rus. Estimates place that slaughter at around 1 million (out of a total of 7.5 million) between 1237 and 1240. That was peanuts to the 30 million butchered in Khwarezm. The Mongols intended to push all the way to the Atlantic but family politics prevented this; the Great Khan, Ögedei, died in 1241. Although Kievan Rus was shattered, operations in Europe were paused. East Europe was defeated, West Europe was saved.
What about Kiev?
The civilisation of Kievan Rus was a fading memory; it became the Wild Fields. The Wild Fields attracted serfs and Cossacks. Eventually the Golden Horde succumbed to infighting; Slavs and others slipped away from the ranks of the Horde into that sparsely settled waste. The Hosts formed, founded on nomadic principles, complete with the famous military discipline of their former Mongol masters. Serfs fled there to be free.
Why were the Cossacks Important?
The fighting prowess of the Cossacks was legendary, and why not, it was learned from the Mongols. The Cossack Hosts were emblematic of valour, courage and freedom; the Zaporozhian Host was the first Host to form and was formidable. For hundreds of years the Cossack Hosts occupied the steppes, a buffer for East Europe / Russia against the Ottomans – to be more specific from Crimean Tatars, who were slave traders allied with the Ottomans. They also played a pivotal part in the history of East Europe. Initially the Cossacks were allied with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the Seventeenth Century the Cossacks broke with Poland-Lithuania and allied with the Russian Empire. In so doing, they triggered the Deluge which led to the marginalisation of Poland and ultimately its partition between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary.
The facts can’t always be hidden. The Cossack Hosts can be traced back to the Mongol era. Ukraine is peopled by the descendants of: the survivors of the Mongol atrocities; those who braved the Wild Fields; and the Cossacks that split from the Golden Horde.
The Wild Fields became the Ukraine and the Cossacks are part of Ukrainian self-awareness. Yet when Crimea was conquered and the threat of Ottoman raids eliminated, the Russian Empire abolished the siches and disbanded the Cossack Hosts.
But that was all a long time ago. Surely, it’s just a load of Rat’s Cojones now?
This issue is much bigger than the Ukraine and won’t go away. Simple nationalism is no answer. The East Slav split is historically recent; it occurred at time when Europe were militarily incompetent. Russia believes Kiev belongs to them. A historical perspective suggests the reverse. The EU is neither politically viable nor militarily competent, yet they naively believe that union with them can solve the issue. In effect they said, “We know we’re bumbling bureaucrats, so come on, humiliate us in front of the Americans. While you’re at it, could you make us look stupid?”
This was Putin’s green light. Just because he’s a power monger doesn’t mean there’s no genuine connection. Kiev is a symbol that reaches back further into East Slav history. Possession of it would be a great achievement and must consume the minds of those who look back.
And yet there is tension. The facts aren’t in day-to-day consciousness of your average Ukrainian, yet Moscow will be tainted by its long quisling status; it is a usurper that only has its position by making a deal with the Devil. It accepted the Cossacks as long as they were convenient. The Cossacks fought for them and did all the daring work. Moscow then chipped away at their freedoms and ultimately disbanded them.
What did the Russians Learn at the Mongol Knee?
Crush; with thinly veiled savagery. Take what’s left. If it’s fragile, it’s worthless.
What was lost stays lost… yet symbols have power. The Zaporozhian Sich lies in East Ukraine…
I might do a map or two later