Aleksandr Dugin, Russian philosopher and proponent of the idea of ‘Eurasianism’ has often highlighted the difference of what he considers ‘land based powers’ and ‘sea based powers’. In Dugin’s mind, the new war between Russia and the West is really an extension of an extremely old conflict between these two systems.
The original conflagration was started perhaps by the Huns, but the Mongols who created the largest land empire in history brought it to its apex. At its apogee the Mongols controlled land from the sea of Japan to Vienna and from the Sinai to the Molucca Islands. From the catastrophic storms off Japan to the Javanese resistance to Mongol naval advances, the Mongols were stopped only by the seas. From their origins in the Altai mountains around Mt. Burkhan Khaldun, Genghis Khan’s Mongols conquered the world.
But not only did they conquer, they unified, integrated and brought order. They set up a paper-currency system, established one of the largest trade zones in history, introduced the idea of diplomatic immunity, set in place freedom of religion, streamlined public administration and introduced an educated bureaucratic class, and harmonized laws and punishments while reducing their brutality. Order from chaos. Regional autonomy, local systems of public administration overlaid by Mongol order; which was probably the most significant benefit of the Mongols to the world. A Pax Mongolica which lasted for more than a hundred and fifty years and rivaled the Pax Romana or even the Pax Americana; the last a Pax which ended by the advance of the nouveau Eurasianists.
Russian historians study the Mongols. Dugin’s imagination is occupied by them and the empires of the steppes much more than the Westphalian stories of modernity, of contained nations with their boring public servants. Lev Gumilev, one of Russia’s most significant historians who has gained popularity recently for his analysis of Eurasianism and his books on the ethnographies of the people of the steppes talks about the idea of ‘passionarity’ as being one of Russian sacred values. Of sustained super-effort in search of a goal (or, perhaps, Russia’s unique ability to withstand suffering as its contribution to world order). These, Russia got from the steppe tribes, mostly from the Mongols.
“Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford is an excellent introduction to the Mongols and their 700 year civilization. He does well in describing some of their origins and their efforts at order through conquest. It is a tale of tremendous violence and brutality. Not that the stories of Napoleon or Mehmet or Saladin or Hitler or Stalin are not. The Mongol conquests were brutal, and their control short-lived. Unlike Rome, which lasted for more than a thousand years, the central Mongol empire was over quickly; perhaps a hundred. The Pax of Kublai Khan, made famous by Marco Polo. But that does not make their story any less remarkable.
Back to Russia today, and the reason I am reading about the Mongols. History has returned. Vladimir Putin has decided that it is again the time to attempt ‘passionarity’ at the service of world order. Armies are again on the move, marked by the brutality of war. It has only just begun. From the time when Genghis Khan became Great Khan in 1206 to when Kublai his grandson built a Eurasian empire in 1260 was just over fifty years – fifty years of war. We are in our first six months.
There is one more interesting analogy; one more overlap. In 1328 in Shangdu (north of Beijing) the Mongol empire began its rapid collapse. The reason, the outbreak of the Black Plague. Just like that Eurasian Empire was ended by a pandemic, Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian project began with one. History does not repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme. How will the ‘sea based’ powers now respond?