3. Mongol Occupation and the Slav Slave Trade: The "Harvesting of the Steppe"

Even after the Mongols’ often brutal two-century occupation came to an end, Russia’s wide-open terrain posed a terrible danger: the yearly “harvesting of the steppe” by slave raiders.

The Ottoman Empire had arisen on the other side of the steppes, the southern portion of which was dominated by ferocious Mongol descendants such as the Crimean Khanate. Much of their economy was based on abducting Russians and other Slavs to sell for export to Ottoman, Egyptian, and Iranian merchants in the international slave markets.

Ottomon history experts Gábor Ágoston and Bruce Alan Masters have noted that the rapid rise of Istanbul—becoming the largest city in Europe by the 16th century—probably would not have been possible without such a rich reservoir of Slav slaves.

Map identifying the Caffa slave market's relationship to the Ottomon Empire, Crimean Khanate, and Russia.
Map identifying the Caffa slave market's relationship to the Ottomon Empire, Crimean Khanate,
and Russia. Many Ottoman towns contained slave markets (Alan Fisher, A Precarious Balance).

Graphic courtesy Anne Bobroff-Hajal.


A glance at a map shows why Russia was so vulnerable to yearly attack. There was nothing but wide open steppe between Russia and the Crimean Khanate. Highly mobile, skilled raiders could pour across the steppes each summer, capture thousands of Russians, and head back to the slave markets a straight shot across the unobstructed plain.

If there had been a mountain chain between Russia and the Crimean slave markets, Russians would have been more protected. As it was, hundreds of thousands of Russians were sold into bondage until the threat of raids ended when Russia finally incorporated the Crimea into its empire in 1783.

Though many societies have had to periodically drop normal life to run inside their local castles and fortresses for protection, what was different about Russia was frequency. The “harvesting of the steppe” occurred not once every ten or 25 years, but every year. Every member of the Russian gentry was responsible for military duty at the frontier for one half of every summer to protect the expansive southern border against slave raids.

Sergey Vasilievich Ivanov's "At the Southern Border", 1907.
Sergey Vasilievich Ivanov's "At the Southern Border" shows Muscovites scouting
the Russian Empire's southern border as marauders approach in the distance.
Painted in 1907.

Graphic courtesy history.sgu.ru.

Michael Khodarkovsky, author of Russia’s Steppe Frontier, calculated the costs to Russia’s built environment of defending its southern frontier. By the first half of the 17th century, the cost for ransom alone of upper class abductees was the equivalent of constructing four small towns per year:

In other words, in the first half of the 17th century, Russia was short 1,200 small towns. That Russia was underurbanized in comparison to its Western European neighbors is an undisputed fact, but that this shortage of urban centers may, in no small degree, be related to the nature of Russia’s southern frontier is poorly understood.

The numbers of towns and cities not built and fields not plowed would present an even starker illustration of the nation’s stunted growth when one considers the full range of costs and resources diverted to the defense of the southern frontier: the lost manpower of those Russians who were captured and sold into slavery; cattle and various valuable items seized as booty; physical damage to villages and towns; presents, ransoms, and other payments to native elites; continuous construction of the new fortification lines (the “great Wall of Russia”); and the maintenance of the garrisons and auxiliary military.

Long after the disappearance of the Mongols, the existence of the southern frontier continued to debilitate the Russian economy in a variety of ways.

Map of the Russian Empire, circa 1912.
Sergey Vasilievich Ivanov's "Slave Trade in Early Medieval Eastern Europe".
Painted in 1910.

Graphic courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.





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