Echoes of Nomadic Imperialism: How A Long-Dead Steppe Empire Affects Eurasia Today

The Mongol Empire, founded by Genghis Khan in Mongolia around 1206 before expanding rapidly across vast swathes of Eurasia, is the largest continuous land empire in history. The longevity of its successor khanates ensured that it left its mark on the political structures, cultures, and institutions of the nations that lived under its yoke. By taking as my source Neumann and Wigen’s (2015) The Legacy of Eurasian Nomadic Empires: Remnants of the Mongol Imperial Tradition, I will aim in this article to elucidate how the culture and traditions of the Mongols, and those of the steppe empires that succeeded them, still influence the political systems and administrative processes of Eurasia today. 

How does a long-dead empire continue to affect the political cultures and administrative structures of modern Eurasian states? Neumann and Wigen (2015) use a variety of examples situated in a range of geographical contexts to explore this question. In Afghanistan, voters utilize democratic elections as a way to confirm and profess their loyalty to the most powerful political figures, in much the same way as the Mongol kuriltay confirmed the most powerful khan as khagan. In Turkey, the Turkic tradition of ruling in the name of popular state founders was carried on by the Kemalists’ invocation of the charisma of Mustapha Kemal as a justification for their rule. Even the practice of identifying oneself through the use of politiconyms such as Putinist, Stalinist, and Kemalist can be traced back to Turkic and Mongol steppe traditions, derived directly from the names of the offspring of Genghis Khan. Additionally, as Neumann and Wigen (2015) point out, ‘another key feature of Eurasian nomadic-emergent polities is their lack of attachment to cities and particular capitals’, exemplified in Turkey by frequent changes of capital, from Bursa in 1312 to Adrianople in 1365 to Constantinople in 1453, then to Erzurum and later to Ankara when Constantinople was occupied by the British in 1918. In Russia, it was reflected by the readiness to abandon Moscow in wartime. 

Post-steppe Eurasian states are also characterized by a ‘lack of distinction between an economic and a political sector’, and by a system where politicians hire people ‘on the basis of political and personal loyalty’ and ‘distribute privileges to their supporters’. In these states, economic spoils ‘are divided by the political leader and given to middlemen according to their loyalty to the political leadership’. Furthermore, particularly in Russia but also in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and other Eurasian and post-Soviet states, patrimonial cults of personality derived from the imperial steppe tradition are still very much in vogue. As a case in point, ‘would-be chiefs and middlemen in today’s Russia must pledge allegiance to the man on the top (Vladimir Putin)’ or risk political alienation. In these ways and more, the legacies of the Mongol, Timurid, Il-khanid, Ottoman, and Yuan empires make themselves manifest. 

It is also possible to argue that the Turko-Mongol tradition gave birth to a new tradition of state-building, indeed, it can be said that the Turko-Mongol tradition was the progenitor of the state itself. Certainly, it can lay claim to a major ideal of state-building: the Eurasian ideal, characterized by a nomadic pastoralist mode and low differentiation of production, a lack of attachment to capital cities, a patrimonial center-periphery system where loot and gifts are distributed from the leader to their supporters, a class of middlemen serving as military commanders in service to the ruler, personal religion, intra-dynastic succession, and loyalty to the ruler rather than to the polity. However, there is a contending ideal of state-building that can contest the claim of being the origin of the state. That is the European ideal, characterized by an agricultural mode and a high differentiation of production, established capitals, law-based center-periphery relations, administrative middlemen, inter-dynastic succession, and loyalty to the polity rather than to the ruler. 

It is therefore clear that the Mongol Empire and the numerous steppe polities that succeeded it still exert an inordinate yet subtle influence on the politics, institutions, and political structures of the post-steppe nations of Eurasia. Consequently, no analysis of the politics of these states can be complete without an understanding of the influence of the legacy of the Mongol Empire on their political cultures, institutions, and structures of government. Whether it be in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Iran, or any other Eurasian state with Turko-Mongol heritage, the Turko-Mongol imperial tradition is alive and well. It is necessary to understand this tradition and its legacy if one wishes to obtain a more thorough understanding of Eurasia’s states.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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