The Christian Science Monitor recently put out a five-part series discussing changes within Russia and Siberia that will shape the future. One of these parts discussed legalizing the use of the name “Genghis Khan” and discussion of him as a public figure in the Republic of Buryatia, one of the many areas in Russia that functions as an autonomous republic within the nation:
In the south of Buryatia, near the present-day border with Mongolia, there is a mountain-sized rock outcropping known locally as the Merkit Fortress, which looks out over the arid, rolling steppe that gradually fades into the Gobi Desert a few hundred miles away.
According to legend, this formidable natural fortification was stormed more than 800 years ago by the forces of a young Mongol warlord who claimed his bride had been stolen by the Merkit tribe, which had made its home base here. He seized the rock, and went on to unite most of the nomadic Mongol tribes of northeast Asia, including the ancestors of today’s Buryats. Taking the name Genghis Khan, which means “universal ruler,” he flung his vast army of highly disciplined, horse-mounted shock troops to the south and west, conquering China, most of Central Asia and the Middle East, present-day Russia, and parts of Eastern Europe.
At its peak the Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous land empire in history, and it left its imprint everywhere. For the West its impact was mainly positive, because the Mongol-secured land passage to China – the fabled Silk Road – enabled travelers like Marco Polo to bring home Eastern wonders such as spices, silk, gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press.
But Russian historians have traditionally treated it as an unmitigated catastrophe. The first wave of Mongol invaders smashed the European-like Kievan Rus state in present-day Ukraine, sending the survivors fleeing into the northern forests, where they congregated around small statelets like Moscow. It took the Russians 200 years of hard struggle to unite themselves and throw off what they still refer to as the “Mongol yoke.” To this day Russian schoolchildren learn that the Mongol occupiers, known as the “Golden Horde,” brought nothing but pain, devastation, and humiliating subjugation.
But that view is being challenged by historians and other thinkers here in Buryatia, and even some in Moscow. They offer a more subtle interpretation that sees the Mongol occupation as the impetus that shaped the enduring Russian state, with its highly-centralized form of government dependent on an indisputable leader, its constant military-led expansionism, and its collective forms of social organization.
“Putin is a khan. What he says is done. This is in the Mongolian tradition, and it’s not a European one at all,” says Alexei Gatapov, author of several books about Genghis Khan and Buryat history. “What I say may be controversial in Moscow, but we can see that quite clearly.”
Heirs of the empire
Russia and China are both products of centuries of Mongol rule, which took them in very different directions from Western development. In their 20th-century efforts to modernize, both adopted forms of communism that might not be recognizable to Karl Marx, but would probably get a nod of approval from Genghis Khan.
Despite the demise of communist ideology in the past quarter century and the wholesale adoption of capitalism by both Russia and China, geopolitical tensions with the West have not gone away, and may even be intensifying. Buryat scholars say they can understand why that is happening.
“Russia and China were both part of the great Mongol Empire, and we see the persistence of Mongol influence on the Russian state, military, and political culture to this day,” says Timur Dugarzhapov, editor of Novaya Buryatia, an independent political journal. “When Vladimir Putin and Chinese leaders meet today and find common geopolitical language, and China talks of using its economic might to reestablish the old Silk Road, they are reaching back to that historical experience. It was totally different from the Western one, and it created societies that are very unlike the West right down to their political DNA.”
Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has embraced Western economic methods and also many other values, including a stated commitment to build democracy. But it remains founded upon a political system that Western critics now call “autocracy” in the same tone of voice they used to say “communism.” Those differences are not imaginary. China recently amended its constitution to allow Xi Jinping to remain president for life. Mr. Putin, recently elected to his fourth term in the Kremlin, is under quite a bit of pressure from below to do something similar.
The Mongol influence is particularly resonant in Buryatia. Buryats are descendants of Genghis Khan’s hordes who developed a separate identity after the Russian Empire conquered this territory and drew a border between them and the rest of Mongolia in the 17th century. Their lands were conquered by Russian Cossacks – the militarized colonists who spearheaded czarist expansion – and was later settled by Old Believers, religious dissidents exiled from European Russia in the 18th century.
Statues of a 160-ft. Genghis Khan and a 100-ft. Kublai Khan overlook statues of 800 Mongol troops at a scenic spot in Xilingol League, north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Genghis Khan was the founder of the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death.
Unlike American settlers who pushed westward across North America, the Russians tended to coexist with the native peoples they conquered, often intermarrying with them. Early Russian settlers to Buryatia brought agriculture to the river valleys, and developed an economic symbiosis with the cattle-breeding, nomadic Buryat tribes around them. That doesn’t mean it was always peaceful.
“We were taught in [Soviet] school that we joined Russia voluntarily,” says Mr. Gatapov. “But in the 1990s, when we had more freedom, we were able to study more widely. We learned that Russia conquered the Buryats in a decades-long war. So, Russian education lied to us. On the other hand, all the civilization we have is due to Russia, and the Russian language is our window on the world. So we have this strange ambivalence. But it does help to explain why you don’t find any aggressive Buryat nationalism here.”
The growing controversy about Genghis Khan and the Mongol heritage in Russia is equally vexed.
“Genghis Khan was always a folk hero among the Buryat people. But in Buryatia, even today, children learn the same history that’s taught in all Russian schools,” says Mr. Dugarzhapov. “I used to be a history teacher myself, and I would regale my pupils with tales of how terrible the ‘Mongol yoke’ was, how it set Russia back and was responsible for all sort of historic ills. Now we can explore new views.”
‘It all leads back to Genghis Khan’
Scholars say the Mongol influence is still visible in Russian political culture and military organization, and also in the Russian language itself. Though not many Russian words can be traced to the Mongol and Turkic tribes who made up the Golden Horde, those that do relate to administration, trade, and military organization. They include the Russian words for money, horse, customs, tea, and treasury.
“In Soviet times, any mention of Genghis Khan was forbidden, even in Mongolia [then a Soviet satellite] itself,” says Nikolai Kradin, acting director of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography of the Far-East, which is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Today, Mongolia is independent, and Genghis Khan is their national hero. In Buryatia, it’s a topic of discussion and even among Russian historians new interpretations are gradually being considered. We’re coming to a more complex view of the Mongol conquest and its historical ramifications. Yes, they overran and destroyed civilizations, they were ruthless, but they integrated Russia into a vast empire.”
He says that many historians now believe the technological, military, and political transformations Russia underwent in the 16th century, which put it on the path to becoming a global power, can be traced to its two-century-long immersion in the Mongol Empire.
“Russia today is a greatly modernized place, and it has adapted a great deal from the West. You can’t say that Russia is just the product of its Mongol heritage, because that’s just one among many influences,” says Dugarzhapov. “Here in Buryatia, we don’t see any future separate from Russia, but we do understand that we have a somewhat different identity. We all speak Russian, but we have our own language, culture, and history. Tradition is very much in demand among young Buryats these days, and it all leads back to Genghis Khan.” (source)
To Western and particularly, Americanized ears, the idea of discussing the legalization of a name itself would seem to be a ridiculous question. Objectively speaking, what is wrong with mentioning a historical fact or series of events? For that matter, why should somebody not be allowed to speak about what happened in the past, especially if it was centuries ago?
The Republic of Buryatia is 135,000 square miles, or just a little smaller than the state of Montana. While a part of Russia and today a majority Russian area, she has a large ethnic minority of Buryats and other Turkic peoples, and a very rich history going back to ancient times. During the days of Alexander the Great she was a Chinese territory, and for many centuries after that it was in her area that the Mongols based much of their culture and later world empire, including that of Genghis Khan. While colonized by the Russians in the 17th century during the period of Russia’s great eastward expansion to the Pacific Ocean, they brought Christianity, yet given the Shamanistic beliefs that are traditional to much of Mongolian culture, Shamanism has a strong presence in the region as well as Buddhism.
While the historical reality of the Mongols and Genghis Khan in the region are true, the danger is not in the admission of historical fact, but in the politicization of history as a means to leverage popular support for a contemporary movement using the past, or something that would challenge a currently held view meant to support a particular narrative used for political reasons.
When one thinks of history, one things of transmitting a series of facts and figures that tell a story about what was so one can learn about what may happen tomorrow by reading about what happened yesterday, today. This is history in the true and objective sense, and is what one should attempt to strive for.
However, one may have heard the saying “history is written by the winners,” and this is true, meaning that the perceptions of the series of events that lead to a certain consequences are often framed by those who won the conflict, and in so doing, the voice of those who lost it often is ignored or forgotten. This is common to all cultures, and can lead to a “one-sided” perspective on events.
To understand how this can happen in a very small way, simply ask a divorced couple about why they are divorced. The man and the woman will give often times very different reasons (in 70% of cases it is the woman who initiates the divorce in the USA), and because of this it is usually the children who have the most balanced perspective as to why their parents are separated.
The same is true with history, and it is by having a balance of perspectives that one can begin to forge a most accurate view of what happened, especially with controversial events. However, as mentioned above, history has an inherent political quality to it, and in doing so can pose a threat to the established political order.
In the Russian case, the threat is in the established pattern of Western governments using history to manufacture a historical narrative to lead to rebellion against the government. This has been a problem of note since the 19th century, when the British and the Germans worked with the government of Central Asia and the Middle East to create the concepts of “pan-Turkism” and “pan-Turanism,” which is the politicization of history to create an image of an ideal “turkic” past with a shared “consciousness” held by all people of the same ethnic or cultural links. The purpose for doing this was to stir the large number of Turkic and Turanian peoples living in the borders of Russia to rebel against the government, creating chaos so that the Germans and British can either seize Russian territory or cause Russia to contract so they can expand their influence to the detriment of Russia. All of the truth that may be spoken in this context is not oriented towards a better knowledge of history, but rather how to use history as a weapon against another people.
An excellent example of this in modern times is the “counter-jihad” movement, which was a post-September 11th outgrowth of a series of Cold War, anti-Soviet programs that made its first public appearance by associating itself with the work done by former Muslims and some Christians with an interest in Islam during the late 1980s and 1990s. The “counter-jihad” movement has said many true and accurate things about Islam, and has produced some good books and generated a necessary and healthy interest in the threat that Islam poses to the Western World and always has. However, as we have pointed out and exclusively shown through copious documentation, the , and many of those who were at the “head” of the movement, such as the Pipes family, actively promoted Islam for many years.
The only reason that such people who were in support of Islamization have now become “anti-Islam” is because the violence of Islam was always being used as a vehicle by these same individuals in order to advance ultranationalism. The “counter-jihad” movement did not care about Islam at all, but rather about using it in order to consolidate the financial, industrial, and eugenic desires of a cabal comprised disproportionately of American, German, and Jewish individuals and families with an Eden-like desire for power and to be recognized as “gods” among men. These people have an utter hatred of Christianity, and ultimately their actions suggest they do not care at all if Islam takes power or not, but rather care in so far that they can used the dysfunctional behavior or Islam to their benefit and without regard to the consequences of their actions for others.
This usage of history is commonplace and can be found in many more contexts, even in the USA. One only needs to look at the debates over the usage of the Second Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America and likewise the obsession on behalf of veritable “government worshippers” who want to erase the memory of the existence of the Confederate States of America to see such a controversy.
One cannot ignore history. At the same time, one must also be careful of the politicization of history for gain by what is often times a select few at the expense of the many, remembering that in some cases, restrictions on “free speech” do not necessarily mean a violations of one’s “rights,” and that in some cases, some things are better left unsaid because there is little good that can be said without causing adverse consequences. To ignore this is to risk failing to heed the famous words that, “those who forget the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them.”