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Feature Story July 25, 2002
Missing the Mongols
By John Dolan Browse author Email
"The Russian heads fell beneath the swords of the Tatars as grass beneath the scythe." -- Novgorodian Chronicles, 1238 a.d.
Anciet mongol with a dog and hunting falcon

We miss the Mongols. We need to talk to them. We go to the steppes, but they don't seem to be home.

We need them, because they were the only nuclear power before the twentieth century. They were not human, as we, after 1945, are not human--much though we try to be, cowards that we are.

The Mongols are our only ancestors. What little we know about them is charged with a terrible and beautiful alienness.

They poured molten silver in the eyes and ears of traitors--a visual joke.

They could be compassionate: when Genghiz Khan captured Jamukha, his closest friend, he did Jamukha the honor of killing him by rolling him up in a carpet and crushing him with boulders, so that the blood would remain in the body.

They had their own sense of righteousness: when the small Slavic town of Kozelsk, near Kaluga, resisted them for months, they dubbed it "the wicked town." So upset were they with the scandalous behavior of Kozelsk that they not only killed all the inhabitants (which went without saying), but drowned the child-prince, Vladimir, in human blood. That'll teach'em to be wicked!

Only water could stop them. Only two of their campaigns failed: the attacks on Java and Japan. The Mongols were inland creatures--centaurs, four-legged archers; they had to rely on mere humans to transport them across the sea. Like witches, they lost something of their power when crossing water. The Japanese were saved twice: once by a lucky typhoon, the kamikaze or holy wind invoked by suicide bombers in the last stages of WW II, and once by the confusion among the Mongols as they tried to disembark: the Samurai attacked and destroyed the invaders before they could mount their ponies.

Once on the pony, bow in play, the Mongols were invulnerable; they danced just at the edge of bow-range, dispatching humans until it was time to go among the dead and collect one's arrows, burn the villages and move on to the next days work of planet-cleansing.

When the Russians first encountered the Mongols, it happened the way the Tasmanian Devil appears in a Looney Toons cartoon: first all the animals in the forest come rushing past, fleeing together, lion and rabbit and squirrel no longer afraid of each other, sharing the far greater terror of what's behind them. Then the Devil himself appears.

It was their old enemies the Polovtsi, who warned the thirteenth-century Russian princes of the Mongols. The Polovtsi came to beg the Russians' help against this new terror from the East. The Polovtsi explained things simply: "They have taken our country; tomorrow they will take yours." The Southern Russian princes, for once, behaved sensibly--at first. They acknowledged their common peril and formed an alliance among themselves and with the hated Polovtsi against the Mongols.

The Mongols appeared, quiet and uncanny, to make the Russians another offer. Their ambassadors said "We have come against our slaves and grooms, the accursed Polovtsi. [The Mongols always thought in horsey terms. "slave" equals "groom."] We have no quarrel with you; be at peace with us." Rarely did the Mongols give anyone a chance like that. And, just like the last of the reckless Russian princes, Nicholas II when the Germans warned him not to destroy his people on behalf of the French, the Russian princes chose not to listen. A foolhardy chivalry ruled them from the moment they took the non-career-enhancing step of murdering the Mongol envoys.

But they still could have won, if they hadn't been ruled by the same suicidal chivalrous recklessness. For once, all the princes of Southern Russia were united. They made a huge and formidable army, which advanced into the steppes in 1224 to find the Tatar horde. Encountering the Mongols on the Kalka, near the sea of Azov, the princes' cavalry charged without even informing the Kievans who made the bulk of the army. They were destroyed; then the Mongols went about methodically destroying the disorganized Kievan forces. At least 10,000 Kievans died, and the Southern Russian forces were broken. The surviving princelings reverted to form, making private deals with the Mongols--but the Mongols, faced with such "wickedness," were not in a generous mood any longer. Mstislaf, Prince of Kiev, was holed up in a fortified camp on the Kalka. The Mongols offered him his, his sons' and his retainers' lives if they surrendered. They did; the Mongols massacred the garrison and then crushed the Prince and his two sons-in-law under planks. In the Slavic view, this was a refinement of cruel treachery; but the Mongols thought in their own, very alien and idiosyncratic ways. To them, this might have been an honorable death, which kept the blood in the body--and to them, the blood was the life.

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