The Steppe Restoration and Global History

I first went to Mongolia in 2010, as part of an effort to transform the country’s cultural heritage management system from a centralized Soviet system to a more inclusive and localized one. I knew little about Mongol Empire, and what I knew (or thought I knew) was of a ruthless people who had rode out of the steppe and conquered most of Euroasia with surprising speed only to fall apart just as quickly.

Mongolians view their history differently. To them, the Mongol Empire was a tremendously successful world power built on ingenuity, innovation, and an unequaled horse technology and culture. Its founder, Chinggis Khan, is seen not as an evil tyrant, but as a pragmatic ruler, who knew how to wield power, terror, and benevolence, proportionately and as needed.

I took this narrative initially to be an example of a post-Soviet nation rewriting history as they threw off the yoke of Soviet domination. The more I read, however, the more I realized it wasn’t just Mongolians who viewed their history this way. As detailed this week in the article, The Mongol Hordes: They’re Just Like Us, by Manvir Singh in the New Yorker, over the last few decades a raft of historians are leading what Singh refers to as the steppe restoration in which the Mongol Empire is viewed less as a ruthless rabble than an organized power that had a lasting influence over most of Eurasia.

While Singh does an excellent job summarizing and reviewing recent treatises on the Mongols, his main target is historiography. As he writes, “The steppe restoration shows the strength—and the limitations—of the resplendent new discipline of ‘global history.’” The strength of global history is to move beyond a Eurocentric view of history, whereas its weakness is to reaffirm that the only significant historical processes are those that help explain the rise of the west. In Singh’s words, “Steppe peoples are most noteworthy, they [historians] seem to assure us, when they look like rich, settled societies. They have a role in “world history” insofar as they affect the rise and fall of sedentary, often European, polities. And so the steppe restoration ends up affirming the standards it set out to challenge.” For Singh, the promise of global history is not that it will explain the rise of the west but that it will allow us to imagine historical processes which led to, and could still lead to, a whole new set of societal outcomes.

I found much of Singh’s analysis compelling. What is lacking, however, is any thought of collaborative research. Historical analysis remains, at least to Singh, the domain of the lone scholar. Even worse, it appears to be the exclusive domain of western scholars. It’s as though no scholar from Mongolia is interested in topics related to the Mongol Empire. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Since the fall of Soviet domination, there has been a flowering of historical and archaeological research led by Mongolian scholars. One can only imagine how much more insightful the steppe restoration would be if these individuals were included in the research and how much more we would all benefit from a global history that is truly inclusive.

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