British scholar’s perspectives on the Ulus of Jochi - Interview with Dr Alexander Morrison

Dr Alexander Morrison
Dr Alexander Morrison Photo credit: :

In the UK, the history of the Ulus of Jochi is typically taught as part of the broader history of the Mongol Empire and its aftermath, featuring prominently in mediaeval history curricula at most universities. In an interview with a Kazinform News Agency correspondent, a Fellow and tutor in History at Oxford university and a former Professor of History at Nazarbayev University Dr. Alexander Morrison provided an overview of British scholarly perspectives on the Ulus of Jochi.

Dr. Morrison, could you tell us more about your primary research interests and what drew you to this field?

Much of my research has concentrated on understanding the nuts and bolts of how Russian imperial rule functioned (or failed to do so) in 19th and early 20th-century Central Asia - the political and administrative history of Russian colonialism. In Russian Central Asia this means a considerable focus on the social background and institutional culture of the military, who administered the region. I am also interested in the ways in which the local population engaged with, exploited and suffered from these new structures of power, and in Russian imperial ideologies. In 2019 I published a co-edited volume on the 1916 Central Asian Revolt against Russian rule, and I remain interested in the impact of the First World War on Russian and other European colonies.

I have completed a major History of the Russian Conquest of Central Asia, the first in any language for over a hundred years. In it I seek to avoid the grand narrative of the 'Great Game' and return the British in India to the margins of the story, where they belong. Instead, the book focuses on the processes of decision-making which prompted the Russian advances, their entanglement with the politics of the steppe and of the Central Asian khanates, the logistical challenges of Inner Asian warfare and the local response, at least as far as this is revealed in Persianate chronicles. British and Anglo-Indian sources and perspectives only feature on the rare occasions where they were relevant or well-informed. Instead, my book, though a series of micro-historical studies of the different phases of the advance, places Central Asia itself at the heart of the narrative.

What is the general perspective of British scholars on the Ulus of Jochi?

Its history is usually taught as part of the history of the Mongol empire and its aftermath, which figures prominently in the curriculum on mediaeval history at most British universities. At New College which is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom we teach the history of the Ulus of Jochi here as part of a course called Eurasian Empires. My wife, Beatrice Penati, also teaches it in the framework of a course on Central Asia from the early modern to the Soviet period at the University of Liverpool. I think it is also likely to figure on the curriculum at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where it would be taught by Professor Andrew Peacock, and probably also at UCL and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Are there any notable studies, books, or research projects by British academics on this topic? Also, what primary sources do you use as a lecturer?

Two which spring to mind are The Mongols and the Islamic World by Peter Jackson (formerly of Keele University, now retired) and several books by George Lane at SOAS University of London.

I am a specialist in nineteenth-century history, and as such not very well-qualified to discuss the early history of the Kazakhs and their Khans. However, I am proud of the materials I used when teaching the History of Kazakhstan at Nazarbayev University, and as anyone who has taught or researched Kazakh history of the 15th-16th centuries knows, there is a small group of crucial primary sources which are the basis for almost everything we know about the Kazakhs and their Khans in this period. These are all Islamicate chronicles, narrative dynastic histories, written in Persian (with the exception of the Zubdat al-Athar, which is in Turkic) in the XVI and XVIІ centuries.

Is the history of the Golden Horde included in university curricula in the UK? What programs and methodologies are used in teaching this subject?

Not usually as a separate topic of its own, but certainly as part of wider histories of Eurasia in the mediaeval and early modern period. It is often taught using translated extracts from easily-available primary sources, notably the Ta’rikh-i Jahan Gusha of Juwayni, which has been available in English translation since the 1950s, and the Ta’rikh-i Rashidi, which was translated in the 1890s.

How has recent research or new discoveries influenced the understanding of the Ulus of Jochi in British academic circles?

I think that work informed by an anthropological perspective – especially Khazanov’s Nomads and the Outside World and DeWeese’s Islamisation and Native Religion in the Golden Horde has been very important. The work of Nurbolat Masanov and (for the later period) of Irina Erofeeva is also very influential.

What primary sources or archives are most frequently used by British historians studying the Golden Horde?

As mentioned above, the most important Persianate and Turkic Chronicles along with the Secret History have long been the mainstay of study as they are everywhere. A short paper I wrote for the 550th anniversary of the Kazakh khanate when I was teaching at Nazarbayev University also gives some ideas.

What specific approaches or methodologies do you believe could help fill the existing gaps?

I think there are still some important gaps in our understanding of the Kazakhs and Khans. What all our sources have in common is that they were produced in neighbouring sedentary societies, and show little understanding either of nomadic society and culture, or nomadic forms of political organisation – we never hear the voice of the Kazakhs themselves in them. My colleague at Nazarbayev University, Thomas Welsford, has recently suggested that this has led to a fundamental misunderstanding of the Kazakh khanate, as the authors of our sources simply assumed that the Kazakhs had exactly the same forms of political authority and organisation as those they themselves were familiar with from sedentary societies. In fact, he has suggested, the political authority exercised by the Kazakh khans in the steppe may have been quite different – more fluid, with multiple centres of power (reflected in the double-khanship of Janibeg and Giray), and with fewer of the bloodlettings between rival groups of Chingissids that characterised neighbouring sedentary polities. I think the task for the next generation of historians studying this period is to try to understand the Kazakhs on their own terms, rather than constantly looking at them through the eyes of outsiders.

Dr Alexander Morrison is a historian of empire and of colonial warfare, with a particular focus on the Russians in Central Asia. His background is in South Asian History, and much of his work compares Russian and British Imperial and military history. Dr Morrison read Modern History at Oriel College, and was then elected to a Prize Fellowship at All Souls College, which he held from 2000-2007.

From 2007-2013 he was Lecturer in Imperial History at the University of Liverpool, where in 2012 he was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize.

From 2014-2017 Dr Morrison was Professor of History at Nazarbayev University before returning to Oxford as Fellow and Tutor in History at New College, a post which he holds in conjunction with a Faculty post in the History of Modern War. Morrison teaches undergraduate papers in European and Asian history, Global and Imperial history, and the history of warfare from ca.1800.

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