Sunday, December 28, 2014

Steppe Warriors

The mounted horsemen of steppe played crucial parts in global history, perhaps especially between the end of the Western Roman Empire and the Fifteenth Century, conquering Central Asia, China, Eastern Europe, and much of India and the Middle East at one time or another. The empires they created were seldom durable, usually perishing within a few generations of the founder. Tamerlane was perhaps the last of the breed of these nomadic, mostly illiterate, warrior tribesmen to conquer the agricultural world.

After his time, the rise of gunpowder armies and modern state institutions sapped the power of the mounted bowmen. In a short period the small, formerly weak state of Muscovy swept them aside and conquered most of northern Asia.

... Despite the drama of this steppe imperialism, it would be unwise to exaggerate its immediate significance. There was no treasure trove of minerals to finance the building of a great imperial superstructure, although Moscow merchants (and the Muscovy state) may have profited from easier access to trade with Iran and Central Asia.47 The Volga lands were opened up to Russian peasant colonization. But beyond the river corridor Russian control was unsure, and the Volga remained a violent frontier region.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 71). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Escape from nomadic depredations came at a cost, at least for some.

In a poor agricultural economy, the burden of taxation and service to sustain Muscovy’s military effort could be borne only if the landed class enjoyed close control over peasant communities hitherto mobile, free and often rebellious.50 The counterpart to the fixing of boyar loyalty was the bonding of peasant labour through the institution of serfdom, enforced by a ruthless combination of state authority, noble power and Church influence. As the eastern vanguard of European expansion (rather than a weak buffer state between Poland and the steppe), Russia became a Eurasian Sparta, deploying an army of over 100,000 men by the end of the century.51 But threatened to the west by wealthier European states, and harried to the south by its still open steppe frontier, Muscovy’s transformation into ‘Russia’ or ‘Rossiya’ (‘Greater Russia’) was painful and traumatic. Its course was marked by internal terrorism (Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichnina) and the ‘Time of Troubles’ (the anarchy preceding the Romanov accession to the tsardom in 1613). Moscow was overrun by Polish armies in 1605 and again in 1610.52

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 72). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.