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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


Book cover: Muscovy and the Mongols

Author's response


Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, 1304-1589

Donald Ostrowski
CUP, Cambridge
ISBN: 052159085X; pp. 345, 1998

Will Ryan

Warburg Institute, School of Advanced Study, University of London

Will Ryan has written a thoughtful, positive and, therefore, from my point of view, perceptive review of Muscovy and the Mongols. The few 'criticisms' he offers I take less as complaints than observations. It's true I 'exclude[d] other possible additional dimensions' by, among other things, not devoting any attention to the Lithuanian émigrés or discussing much about the Novgorod-Moscow (a.k.a. Judaizer) heresy. As I indicated in my Preface (p. xiv), the reason is, and here I might take small issue with Ryan's suggestion that the book is mistitled, I tried to maintain the focus of the book on the Mongol influence on Muscovy and the Muscovite Church's response to that influence. In that sense, I argued that the secular authorities tended to have an orientation toward the steppe heritage, while the religious authorities tended to have an orientation toward the Byzantine heritage. So the phrase 'Cross-Cultural Influences' in the subtitle may not be entirely inappropriate. Although most of the influence was toward Muscovy, I hypothesised, much against the advice of one of the Press's outside readers, that the diplomatic terminology of metaphorical kinship, such as 'elder brother', 'younger brother', 'son', and so forth, did emanate from Muscovy as a kind of reverse influence on the Tatar khanates (p. 100).

These few quibbles aside, I should point out that Professor Ryan begins his review with a crucial point. The lay person's understanding of Muscovy and its relationship with the Mongols is a sharply circumscribed and largely erroneous view, a view reinforced and disseminated by World History and Western Civilisation textbooks. In brief, the main points of the textbook accounts are that the Mongol conquest isolated Muscovy from the West and created widespread and long-term economic devastation, which was only relieved by Ivan III's overthrow of the Tatar Yoke in 1480, so that Muscovy could adopt the position of becoming the Third Rome. I must admit that this conventional view was ever present in my mind when I was writing the set pieces that make up the book. In trying to maintain the focus on steppe influence and Church response, the 'balance of relevance,' as Ryan termed it, I excised large sections of text, most of which has now been published in article form, and tussled with whether to continue to include the chapter on Third Rome. The more one accepts the argument of that chapter that Third Rome had little or nothing to do with Muscovite policy, either Church or state, and that the 'Third Rome' idea had little influence in Muscovy at all, the less it seems to fit in with the rest of the book. On the other hand, if one has in mind, as I did, the conventional textbook accounts, then it very much does belong, if only as an attempted refutation of those accounts.

As for the 'hollow laugh' from Slavists under siege in regard to adequate language training for scholars of Muscovy, my plea may indeed be as naive as Ryan suggests. Much more naive, however, was my getting into Muscovite studies in the first place without preparation in a number of languages that I would eventually need. At the university where I was a graduate student, the history department eliminated all language requirements for its Ph.D. candidates. Fortunately, my thesis advisor, S. V. Utechin, insisted that the candidates under his supervision learn four languages in addition to English for research purposes. If we had been prescient, we would have realised that four was not enough for what I would eventually wind up doing. Although Ryan may be right that we cannot expect departments to formally demand that Ph.D. candidates acquire broad language training, we can make known to the candidates in the Muscovite field that they may need to familiarise themselves on their own with additional languages and cultures, especially those to the east and south of Muscovy.

Since Prof. Ryan leaves me little else to disagree with in his review, I ask the reader's forbearance while I acknowledge certain comments by other reviewers and colleagues, something I have not been able to do in a public forum until now. Criticisms have ranged from irrelevant and incorrect, on the one hand, to constructive and helpful, on the other. In the latter category, I would place Prof. Ryan's comments as well as those of the following examples. I was aware of the complaint of some German historians that we Anglophones tend to overlook their publications. So I made sure I included references in the footnotes and bibliography where appropriate to works by German scholars. The way I included them, however, allowed one reviewer to point out another fault among Anglophone historians - the tendency to misspell German titles. Oops!

Another criticism, raised by a couple of reviewers, concerns the brevity of the Glossary (pp. 251-253), especially given the numerous unfamiliar terms employed in the work. What I tried to do was to include those terms in the Glossary that appeared several times in different places in the text, while defining in the text those terms that appeared in only one place. No doubt I should have incorporated a note to this effect. Finally, more than one reviewer has remarked about the absence of maps. Although the back of the jacket cover does have a detail of a map of the area from the early sixteenth century (a detail of the detail appears on the front jacket cover), I could certainly have included some cartographical relationship of the principal cultures being discussed. What I now have in mind would be one with an Asio-centric focus that would not include western Europe and would show Byzantium way off to the side. Such a map might help to give the reader a better understanding of the geo-cultural position Muscovy found itself in before the sixteenth century.

Remarks from colleagues have also been generous and helpful. One colleague pointed out a real 'howler' in my statement that the Stepennaia kniga was composed in the 1580s (p. 193). Obviously my assertion is wrong since the earliest manuscript copies date to the 1560s. Even though additions and interpolations appear in the published version of the SK, these can be dated to the 1570s at the latest, and, in any case, they are not relevant to the point I was trying to make in the book. Chalk that one up to what a friend of mine calls 'a brain cramp.' Another colleague questioned my statement that mixed Tatar and Rus' armies fought on both sides at Kulikovo (p. 155). Although I was able to cite the Short Chronicle Tale that Oleg of Riazan' sent forces to assist Mamai, I could not for the life of me find any source that says Tatars fought on the Rus' side. In short, carried away by the force of my own rhetoric, I went beyond what the evidence tells us about the ethnic makeup of the opposing armies.

Despite such shortcomings, the Press tells me that the book is selling well for a monograph of this type (even requiring a second printing), and the response from the field in general has been much more favourable than I could have ever hoped. All this is gratifying to be sure. But I realise the true test will come down the road when researchers decide whether my interpretation is helpful to them in understanding the evidence they encounter, and whether my contentions are in any way perceptive, from their point of view.

September 2000

Original review

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