Genghis has won (Dean Conger/Corbis via Getty Images)

July 28, 2022   8 mins

On the road between the frontline cities of Sloviansk and Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, three stone statues stand mutely by the side of the road, observing the coming and going of military traffic with impassive detachment. Known as balbals, they are funerary monuments erected by the Cuman Turks, known in Russian archaeology as the Polovtsians, who once ruled this vast sea of grass, long before Russian or Ukrainian speech was ever heard in this region.

For thousands of years, the empty, spreading steppe, stretching from Hungary to Mongolia, was the home of nomadic peoples, speakers of Iranic, Turkic and Mongolic languages, who drove their herds across the vast plains in search of fresh pastures. They founded great empires, which time and the steppe grasses would soon swallow up, leaving barely a trace. Their constant irruptions into Europe sounded the death knell in turn for other, settled civilisations, part of the endless cycle of growth, invasion and collapse that has shaped our continent’s history.

The war in Ukraine has taken place in two very different climatic and cultural zones: its initial phases saw Russian armour wend its way through the dark forests and marshes of northern Ukraine, the ancient homeland of the first Slavic peoples, to be destroyed in close fighting on the narrow wooded roads in a stunning and unexpected Ukrainian victory. Yet the gruelling war of attrition in the country’s east is taking part in a very different landscape, in the open steppe that was once the home of nomadic peoples.

The expansion of Slavic peoples, both Ukrainians and Russians, into the open steppe was a very recent historic event, broadly contemporaneous with the European settlement of the Americas, its fertile plains, now the breadbasket of the developing world, Europe’s equivalent of America’s Midwest. These open plains, the “Wild Fields” of local historiography have always been a contested space, where great empires wrestled for control: in the great Second World War battles of Kursk, Kharkiv and Stalingrad, Europe’s entire fate hinged on the battle between the two great tank armies wheeling and clashing like nomad hordes.

But then, as The Eurasian Steppe by the archaeologist Warwick Ball makes clear, rather than a semi-wild anteroom to the continent, “the history, languages, ideas, art forms, peoples, nations and identities of the steppe have shaped almost every aspect of the life of Europe”. Europeans from further west have for centuries been prone to viewing the steppe as the haunt of wild tribes, and the source of occasional, fearsome destruction.

But what if the Europe of today is in fact the product of steppe dynamics? As Ball argues, rather than being a product of 19th century nationalism, some historians trace the origin of Europe’s oldest nation states to the steppe, observing that “Peoples newly arriving from the east were also among the first to create nationally defined states, such as kingdoms of the Bulgars or Magyars”. “In some ways,” Ball argues, “the incipient idea of a nation state might have been stronger with the nomadic groups from the steppe, who were bound more closely by tribal loyalties” than among the polyglot peoples of the imperial Roman successor states they conquered.

Did the steppe peoples then create the fractious patchwork quilt of nationalities that we understand as Europe? Ball cites the archaeologist Hyun Jin Kim who claims that: “The political and cultural traditions of Inner Asia brought to Europe by Central Asian immigrants, the Huns and the Alans, were just as fundamental to the formation of western Europe as the rich legacy left behind by the Roman Empire. The political and cultural landscape of early medieval Europe was shaped by the fusion of Roman and Inner Asian influences.”

While Hungary and Bulgaria were directly founded by steppe nomads, the influence of steppe rulers also helped shape the political forms taken by Poland (whose szlachta nobles claimed Sarmatian descent well into the 19th century), Bohemia, Denmark and even, it is claimed, France. Even into the 19th century, as Ball notes, it was the Hungarian awareness of their steppe Magyar ancestry that helped bring about the rise of nationalism which shook apart the great Austro-Hungarian empire. “In the long evolution of the idea of the nation state,” then “from their beginnings in late-antique Europe to their emergence in the nineteenth century, we must look east as well as west”.

Viewed in this light, the war in Ukraine, a battle between a European nation-state and a vast Eurasian empire, is resonant with all manner of strange echoes of the steppe’s dimly-understood history. The colossal earthern ramparts of the “serpent walls” outside Kyiv, erected by early Slavic kingdoms to guard against invasion by steppe nomads from the Huns to the Mongols, fulfilled their ancient role admirably earlier this year when they prevented the movement of Russian armour towards the capital’s suburbs, corralling the latest wave of invaders into killing zones to be picked off at leisure by guided missiles.

The Cossack heritage both sides claim is the result of earlier Slavic peoples, runaway Ukrainian and Russian serfs, claiming the freedom of the open steppe and adopting the customs, lifestyle and much of the vocabulary of their nomadic Turkic predecessors. The very word Cossack, Ball notes, “derives from the Turk root qaz, ‘to roam’”, and is cognate with the ethnonym Kazakh further east, as the Cossacks “comprised mainly Russians — usually renegades, escaped serfs or criminals — but they also included Turks, Tatars and remnant Polovtsi.” Even now, Ukrainian is sprinkled with Turkic words, a legacy of the two cultures’ long history of interaction and competition. One Ukrainian commander I met went by the nom de guerre “Duman, or fog, deriving from the Turkic word for smoke or mist. Even now, Ukrainians refer to Russians with the dismissive Turkic epithet Katsab, or butcher.

On the Russian side, the war effort has been marked by the use of steppe peoples as infantry, with many of the heaviest casualties borne — and apparently some of the worst war crimes committed by — the Buryat Mongols of the Russian steppe, along with the Kalmyks of the lower Volga, Europe’s only Buddhist nation, who once watered their horses as far west as Paris following the defeat of Napoleon. Similarly, among the many subject peoples of the Russian empire deployed to Ukraine are Ossetians from the Caucasus, a tiny Iranic-speaking nation who are all that remain of the Alans, who once fought the Romans across Central Europe, settling as far west as France and Spain: some of their descendants, now Magyarised, still live in Hungary as the Jasz people. Their Iranic speech is now heard in Ukraine’s steppe for the first time in a thousand years, dragged along into a war of European conquest by another great Eurasian empire.

The very concept of chivalry which defined Europe’s medieval history was the product of Iranian-speaking steppe peoples like the Sarmatians and the Alans, whose innovations in the use of cavalry — stirrups, lances and long chainmail coats — changed the face of late Roman warfare and set the stage for the knights of the High Middle Ages. Even our own medieval romances may owe something to their distant steppe traditions, after the border forts of what is now northern England became the garrison home of Sarmatian levies in Roman service. As Ball notes: “Sarmatian warrior worship of a sword fixed in the ground has been suggested as furnishing the origin of the Excalibur legend. This appears to have been a long steppe warrior tradition: Ibn Rusta in the tenth century, for example, describes how the Viking Rus ruler — whom he calls by the steppe title of Khagan or khāqān — would plant a naked sword in the earth pointing towards his newborn son.” Perhaps it is not mere coincidence, then, that the Azov Regiment’s torchlit ceremonies in the southern steppe city of Mariupol took place beneath three giant swords embedded in the ground, a striking symbol that has now become the group’s emblem.

Again and again, these strange resonances between the steppe’s ancient nomad past and its bloody present swim to the surface like long-forgotten memories. The great statue to Mother Russia, sword in hand, that rises above Stalingrad’s Hill 102, where tens of thousands of Soviet and German soldiers were ground into the soil by artillery possesses the grim grandeur of some ancient steppe monument. And indeed, Hill 102, the crucial position of the battle that decided the war’s outcome, is perhaps better viewed by its alternate name as the Mamayev Kurgan, the burial tumulus of a long-forgotten Tatar khagan. From the ancient past to now, Russia’s history was written on the steppe, and without the steppe Russia’s imperial past and present is simply impossible to understand. Indeed, as Ball observes, without the historic domination of steppe nomads, there would be no Russia as we understand it.

As Ball observes: “The future of Russian greatness was both a response to and a legacy of the Mongols… Indeed, to a large extent Muscovite power was a creation of the Golden Horde: the khans required a stable central authority as a client state which could be relied upon to raise auxiliaries for the khan’s armies and to collect and deliver taxes and tribute. Moscow fitted the bill, so the Golden Horde deliberately strengthened it against the other Russian cities and appointed its prince as their chief tax collector.” Without the Mongol-enforced primacy of Muscovy, the land that is now Russia may well have remained a series of disunited kingdoms and city states, just like medieval Italy or Germany: “The Mongols, in other words, brought about the emergence of Russia.”

Even the great king Sviatoslav of Kyivan Rus, whose legacy is claimed by both Ukraine and Russia, extended his rule across the steppe by defeating the great Jewish Khazar kingdom and in doing so, “adopted the techniques and warfare of the steppe nomad: in other words, Kievan Rus was at first simply another steppe nomad state, albeit with a Scandinavian element. Sviatoslav never decisively defeated the Pechenegs and was killed by them in 963, and his skull was made into a cup in steppe tradition.” Medieval Russia was, then, as much a steppe polity as a European state, perhaps more so. After all, “up until 1480 Muscovite coins still carried inscriptions in Arabic. As late as 1531 Vasili III of Moscow was still paying tribute to the successors of the Golden Horde: Crimea, Kazan and Astrakhan”, and the eternal symbol of Russian power, Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral, was modelled on Kazan’s Great Mosque, in thanks for the conquest of the great Tatar capital.

Tracing Muscovy’s traditions of governance, and then those of imperial Russia, to the Mongol and Tatar customs of the inner steppe, Ball observes that “Even by the fourteenth century the civil and military institutions of Muscovy ‘were overwhelmingly Mongol in origin’… Ivan IV, the first Russian to proclaim himself Tsar (in Russian the title is actually Tsezar), added Ulugh Khan, ‘Great Khan’, to his titles.” Though he dismisses the “Mongol Yoke” hypothesis of Russian historiography, Ball nevertheless traces Russia’s unique and terrible form of autocratic rule to steppe customs, deep into the modern period: “Ivan also adopted the Mongol policy of ‘collective guilt’ where all male relatives and retainers of a guilty man would be executed, a policy even extended to entire communities. Stalin’s similar policy was a continuation of this.” The steppe’s long influence stretches deep into the cultural DNA of our modern world: even such a giant 20th century figure as Lenin, destroyer of one great Eurasian empire and founder of another, was of part-Kalmyk descent, after all.

Imperial Russia’s second largest minority after the Ukrainians, whose post-independence relationship with their giant neighbour is today a source of such bloodshed, was the Muslim Tatars, from whose Russified nomad aristocracy some of the greatest names in Russian culture — Rachmaninoff, Turgenev, Nureyev and Akhmatova — claimed descent. “The list [of Tatar surnames] covers all walks of Russian life: artistic, religious, scientific, literary, military, political and royal. The list is virtually endless,” Ball notes, and even today “the descendants of the Mongol ‘hordes’ — the Tatars — are the second-largest minority in Russia after the Russians themselves, and the Republic of Tatarstan is the second-largest republic in European Russia.”

Written for a general audience, Ball’s book nevertheless synthesises the latest archaeological research and historical debate on the steppe’s ancient and modern peoples, archaeological research on the steppe’s history, delving back into the deepest mists of time. The burgeoning community of esoteric archaeology and anthropology posters on Twitter will surely appreciate his summarising of the latest research on the origins of the Indo-Europeans, the fate of the Khazars and the birth and decline of the great Scythian kingdoms, whose exquisite goldwork was the highlight of the British Museum’s recent blockbuster exhibition.

Noting that St Petersburg’s great Hermitage Museum was founded primarily as a place to store the newfound Scythian treasures unearthed by Russian colonists in Crimea, Mariupol and the rest what is now Ukraine’s contested southern steppe, and alert to the theft of Scythian treasures from Ukrainian museums by their new-old Russian conquerors, we realise that the relentless cycle of history has brought a new relevance to Ball’s book, even since its publication last winter. Just as in the Middle Ages and in the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, the fate of Europe is once again being written on the endless, grassy steppe.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.