A Mongol influence on Russia in the era of the Golden Horde was close to non-existent. A Turkic impact, both from the east and south was profound.
The Mongol rule was Mongol only during the first decades of their dominance over the eastern Russian principalities. The rest of the time it was the period of Turkic rule.
Russian territories enjoyed a great degree of autonomy because they were not very interesting for the Empire of Jochi economically. A combined annual tax used to be between 1–2 ton of silver, or grain enough to feed a force a 10–20 thousand men for a year. Much more important for “Mongols” were Russian troops for military expeditions to Europe and against their own Turkic neighbors.
Russian principalities, on their part, had a powerful ally in their wars against Germans, Lithuanians, and Poles. The centralized tax collection, introduced by Mongols, meant an end to internecine wars between Russians themselves. Russian merchants had permission to trade along the Volga river and its tributaries.
From the end of the 14th century, Muscovy took increasing control of the northern part of the Baltic-Caspian trade route and managed to turn the tables on their former masters in the Kazan. They remained, however, in the vassal relationship to the Crimean Khanate, and managed to achieve full independence first in 1700, thanks to Czar Peter the Great (Treaty of Constantinople). The total duration of the “Tatar yoke”, as Karl Marx called it, lasted, therefore, more than 450 years.
The Turkic influence was profound. It included:
The highly centralized absolutist government, pinned around the tributary taxation. Poll tax in Russia is a Mongol innovation. Census became neglected toward the end of their rule: rulers in Moscow didn’t lacked the government bureaucracy that could take care of that.
Turkic weapon systems and battleground tactics
The wide use of mercenaries as expeditionary troops and tax collectors (Cossacks)
Food. The plethora of Russian recipes for meat wrapped in dough, from pelmenito pirogi comes from our Turkic neighbors (meat was an exclusive feast in the old Russia).
Interiors and clothes. The trademark padded jacket of Russian troops is a descendant from the fabric armor of Turkic warriors. Turks also brought to us the elaborate and colorful floral designs from Iran. Tapochki (light heelless footwear) as something you need inside your home and shapka (warm headgear) you almost always need outside, including sauna.
“Russian soul” is defined by the sense of deep attachment to the family and closest friends that clashes with a longing for escape.
The “Russian soul” definitely exist. We may describe it in the same terms as “the Soul” of Afro-Americans:
One ever feels his twoness… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder… the history of this strive, this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.
In the case of Russians, this twoness comes from two powerful factors:
The generations-deep habit and joy of patriotically subjugating ourselves to Derzhava (Великая держава), the mighty Russian state, the essence of everything Russian. In addition, we feel a deep attachment to the close circle of family and friends who help us come hell or high water. Our State often uses this attachment in order to pin us down and make us whatever it wants.
The longing for escape, discovery, self-realization.
In Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, this dichotomy is represented by Platon Karatayev and Natasha Rostova. The former stoically accepts everything that fate throws his way. As to Natasha, remember the dance scene, where expresses her inner passion, her desire for being true to herself in her Russian dancing? She ends up as a self-sacrificing mother with no loyalty to anything but her family and her kids.
Below, an artist’s impression of a Cossack chieftain Stepan Razin. He was a leader of one of the largest uprisings in Russian history. Cossacks personified the Russian soul, in that they served Czars, but enjoyed the life of free men on the fringes of the Empire. If rulers were too hard on them, or life too boring, they always had the option of heading into the far steppes—or turning their weapons against the State.
During the XVIII century, Russia became transformed into the largest continuous land empire through a massive infusion of Western technologies and German administrative talent. In the painting below, Russia’s coming imperial destiny is represented by the kid in European clothes to the right, the Prussia-style troops in the background and jesters challenging the natives with their Western-style entertainment. Old Slav and Turkic aristocracy to the right, along with Ivan V in the center, are not amused, while Peter the Great in his practical Russian kaftan is boisterous and excited. Peter’s German entourage are skeptically contemplating the scene.
Power as a national idea
The supreme national idea of Russia is power, embodied in the great Russian state (derzháva). Everything in our history is pinned on it. As a Russian subject, your worth is determined by how much you contribute to the wealth, might, and glory of our state, because it is the sole organizing force on the frozen, wind-blown, endless expanses of Eurasian plains. In the picture below, the clothing is Mediterranean, but the story is essentially Russian, archetypal for our civilization, where countless bright talents have been weighed and measured by servants of our Empire—and found wanting, or worse.
Revolutions and wars
“The Black Square”, by Kazimir Malevich. The year is 1913, but the painter already senses how the Great War is going soon to crack open in Russia a fathomless wellspring of human evil, that would reverberate through the rest of the century by unimaginable atrocities across half the world.
“Heroes of the First Five-Year Plan”, by Alexander Deineka. Rugged workers of mixed Soviet ethnicities walk through something reminding of the Pearly Gates. Their steps are weightless, faces overwhelmed, their path floodlit by a heavenly brilliance and blessed by the pagan goddess of victory. Millions of souls were spent in the XX century for the sake of the greatest project of social re-engineering, the Communist revolution.
The victory over Nazi Germany was the pinnacle of Russian history, an epic saga of self-sacrifice and human suffering. Like much else in our history, the fruits of the victory were appropriated by people who neither suffered or sacrificed anything.
The Russian heartland could sustain limited population because of too little arable land and harsh climate.
Russia is situated on the edge of the climatic zone where traditional European agriculture such as grain production, can be practiced. During the continental warming in the late-Middle Ages, bumper crops happened more often. Still, harvests failures because of weather were a much more serious factor than in territories further west and south.
Most of Russian peasants up to the Imperial times practiced migrational single-field agriculture. It could give up to 10x the input the first year, only to drop to a fraction of that the second year. Which defined the precarious nature of living in the Russian woods.
In the East Slav territories in the time of Varangians and Kievan Rus (IX-XIII centuries), there was another major challenge: no roads. Almost all transportation required access to rivers. This made delivery of excess produce to other areas very problematic. Russia got permanent markets, and the mercantile class in the cities several centuries later than the countries to the west. (The Hanseatic enclaves in Novgorod and Pskov, later destroyed by Moscovy dukes, were the few exceptions). No wonder the Russian word yármarka (seasonal market) came from German, torgóvlya (trade) from Scandinavian, bazár (local market), déngi (money) and tavár (goods) from Turkic.
To sum it up, the elites lived much like now, in habitual opulence, often surpassing the luxury of the Western aristocracy, yet punctuated by occasional blows of misfortune. The rest of the population had to struggle against harsher realities of East European nature and weather.
It required the spread of two-field and three-field agriculture brought to us by German settlers, as well as the annexation of fertile steppe lands in the south in the XVIII century, to create the economic base for larger swathes of population comparable with more benign areas in the Central and Western Europe.