On Wednesday, 21 September, Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz – Professor of History and the current holder of the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies – delivered the second brownbag lecture on the Intermarium, the subject of his forthcoming monograph. The title of the lecture was “Intermarium at Dawn: From Its Early History Through the Mongol Conquest,” a part of the series “Intermarium: Lands on the Edge.”
The prehistory of the Intermarium – defined as the Central-Eastern European lands between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas – is shrouded in mystery. Many waves of diverse peoples crisscrossed the region, and some eventually settled. Whether the Eastern and Western Slavs constituted the native population of what is today Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus is up to debate, stated Prof. Chodakiewicz. Such questions are by no means merely academic. In the Intermarium, like everywhere else throughout the world, myths of descent are politically highly-charged and are often crucial for national identity. It is also important to keep in mind that while most of the Intermarium peoples are Slavs, the region is also home to Ugro-Finnic Hungarians and Estonians, Baltic Lithuanians and Latvians, and the Romanians, who speak a Romance language.
The early Medieval Intermarium was divided between many indigenous power centers while simultaneously attracting hegemons from without, such as the Germanic and Byzantine empires. Of particular importance, especially for the Eastern Slavic lands to become Kievan Rus’, were the Scandinavian Vikings and the steppe nomads. The former, in their search for a route to Constantinople, eventually founded the Rurikovich Dynasty of Kievan Rus’.
Prof. Chodakiewicz emphasized that while the Ruthenian principalities certainly exhibited certain exotic features – from the perspective of Western Christendom – such as Byzantine Orthodoxy and the lack of property rights, a tolerable modus vivendi existed between Latin Christian Europe and Kievan Rus’ prior to the Mongol invasion. In particular, the political system of the Principality of Novogord the Great, a mixed democratic-oligarchical arrangement, seemed most compatible with Western Christendom.
Yet, it was the steppe nomads of Eurasia that left the greatest imprint on the eastern fringes of the Intermarium. The most ruthless and cruel of the steppe hordes, the Mongols, invaded Rus’ during the first half of the thirteenth century, thereby incorporating it into their realm – the largest contiguous land empire hitherto known to man. In spite of its bloodlust, some historians have nevertheless touted the Mongol Empire’s “tolerance.” Yet, as Prof. Chodakiewicz emphasized, this is a clear case of confusing “tolerance” with indifference. Tolerance, in our modern understanding of the term, is predicated upon understanding and enduring a phenomenon one finds objectionable. In the Mongol case, the khans merely exhibited an indifferent attitude towards institutions incomprehensible to them. In the context of Rus’, the Mongols “tolerated” Christianity but slaughtered and destroyed entire cities (including Kiev itself), making a decisive impact on the land’s political culture.
All are cordially invited to Prof. Chodakiewicz’s subsequent brownbag lecture on the period following the Mongol invasion, which shall be held on Wednesday, 5 October.