Genghis Khan has always had a bad rap in Russia. He has been blamed for most of the unpopular features of government, like cruelty, totalitarianism and taxation. But then many Russians blame the Americans for the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jews for setting it up, and the Germans for making it possible by supplying so many unbending Tsars. Russians love to ascribe their own problems to the machinations of others. So perhaps it is time to reassess the image of Genghis Khan. This is what Professor Jack Weatherford, who holds Doctorates from both the University of California and Chinggis Khaan College in Mongolia, has done.
In fact, he has gone further, and reconsidered Genghis Khan’s contribution to the modern world generally. It has been said of quite a few people, from Adam Smith and James Watt through to Lenin and Elvis Presley, that they were the “makers of the modern world”. But perhaps the most surprising object of such a claim is Genghis Khan.
Professor Weatherford says: “Genghis Khan’s empire connected and amalgamated the many civilisations around him into a new world order. At the time of his birth, in 1162, no-one in China had heard of Europe and no-one in Europe had heard of China. By the time of his death in 1227, he had connected them with diplomatic and commercial contacts that still remain unbroken.”
In doing so, he “smashed the feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth” and “built a new and unique system based on individual merit, loyalty and achievement.” He took “the disjointed and languorous trading towns along the Silk Route and organised them into history’s largest free-trading zone.” He also gave tax-fee status to medical and educational institutions, established a regular postal system and, most significant of all, he created international law and invented the concept of diplomatic immunity.
Chaucer wrote about Genghis Khan in the Squire’s Tale, saying he was “noble”, “wise and rich”, that he “kept his law” and was “just”. Yet Pushkin, the Chaucer of Russia, wrote that the Mongols were “Arabs without Aristotle and algebra.” Actually both were right, as I shall explain below.
It is true that the Mongols killed the rich and powerful in societies which opposed them, and took many of the skilled craftsmen from settled communities back to Mongolia to work. But they were only more systematic than Moscow was with Novgorod three hundred years later, or the USSR was with Germany four hundred years after that. Genghis Khan was ferocious but without being sadistic. By contrast, his contemporary, Frederick Barbarossa, mounted a campaign against Cremona in Lombardy during which he catapulted captured children over the walls into the besieged city.
The Mongols were never hostile to those who accepted their over-lordship, unlike Stalin who, just before a more recent Operation Barbarossa, killed 14,000 Polish officers and gentry without any provocation at all. Such Mongol cruelty as there might have been was often matched by that of their enemies. For example, we learn that four hundred Mongol captives at Isfahan, in 1228, were tied behind horses and dragged through the streets as a form of public entertainment, after which their corpses were fed to the city’s dogs.
Genghis Khan never mutilated his victims. In fact he outlawed both slavery and torture. His preferred method of punitive execution was to order the victim to be wrapped in a carpet and kicked to death.
Running right through this fascinating book are comparisons like these. Professor Weatherford takes the story right up to the present as he wants to show how Genghis Khan’s innovations worked their way into the fabric of world history. “Paper was the most potent weapon in Genghis Khan’s arsenal,” he says. As the empire grew, record-keeping expanded. Genghis Khan introduced both an alphabet and writing to his people. His successors brought paper from China to Europe, which had hitherto relied on parchment for document production. Without this new material, Gutenberg’s invention of movable-type printing would not have been possible.
Genghis Khan introduced the concept of religious tolerance, which was completely new in the middle ages. The Christian west persecuted the Jews, slaughtered Muslims, burned heretics alive and later invented the thought police in the form of the Catholic Inquisition. By contrast, the Mongols became Buddhist, Muslims or Confucians. Genghis Khan had Christian relatives. Fifty years after his death, the emissary sent to meet King Edward I of England, Rabban bar Sawma, was himself a Christian.
But the greatest gift Genghis Khan gave to his people was the rule of law. At about the time of the Magna Carta (1215), which formally subjected the King of England to the laws of the land, Genghis Khan “made it clear that his Great Law applied as strictly to rulers as to everyone else.” Sadly, as Professor Weatherford notes, “his descendents proved to be able to abide by this for only about fifty years after his death before they discarded it.”
In that sentence is the key to the hatred of the Mongols which has disfigured so much of Russian,
and European, historiography. They never matched up to the standard set by their founder. The sins of the sons have been visited on the father, quite unjustly.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Three Rivers Press $15.00
For Genghis, it was not just a bad rap, it was a Dad rap.
‘Absurdistan’ by Gary Shteyngart
Let me introduce Misha Vainberg. A self-confessed incorrigible ‘Snack Daddy’, son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia, and holder of a degree in multicultural studies from Accidental College, USA, he is an American stuck in a Russian’s body.
Disillusioned with life in St. Leninsburg, ‘where neoclassical buildings sink into crap-choked canals’, he longs to return to New York. However, despite his living there eight years like an exemplary American, spending $2 million on legally purchased goods and services, his dream seems impossible. The problem lies in his father’s assassination of an Oklahoman businessman, a reason the Immigration and Naturalization service cites in all nine visa refusal letters. A glimmer of hope lies in his friend and American he likes to call Alyosha-Bob, whose contacts in a tiny, oil-rich nation called Absurdistan will sell Misha a Belgian passport.
Faithful manservant Timofey in tow, Misha sets off on an unforgettable journey to the ‘Norway of the Caspian’. As a Jew ‘by nationality’, he is, much to his delight, treated like royalty upon arrival. When civil war breaks out between the Svani and Suvi people, who cannot seem to agree on which way the footrest should point on the Orthodox cross, ‘Little Misha’ is appointed Minister of Multicultural Affairs.
Written from the Mountain Jew community of Davidovo, Misha chronicles his story of love – too much love by his own admissionand his fight for survival. With an incredibly funny narrative voice, Absurdistan is a fiery satire which is wonderfully written and pure pleasure to read. Easy to follow, and highly resonant for those who have already been immersed in Russian culture, I would recommend Absurdistan to both new arrivals and old timers.