|The Kazakh Steppe
Screen Shot from Nomad: The Warrior
In honor of Independence Day, which we here in the United States celebrated yesterday, I thought it might be fun to explore different concepts of freedom. As a student of the steppe peoples, I recognize that the word “freedom” doesn’t leap to mind in connection with Genghis Khan. On the contrary, Genghis represents pretty much the antithesis of freedom to most Westerners. Yet his people—and his descendants—regarded themselves as free.
By their definition, moreover, we might be considered unfree. Whereas they could pick up their houses at any moment to follow their herds, we remain in one place and with one company for years and move, if we move at all, from one walled location to another. Whereas they lived in small camps that coalesced only for brief periods into larger units and changed leaders as seemed best to them, making rules that met the needs of the moment, we pledge allegiance to large states and to standing governments that enact laws that we are then bound to uphold whether we like them or not. As voters, we do influence policy, but mostly in election years.
We elect leaders to represent us; theirs often took power by virtue of their genealogy—most notably their descent from Genghis Khan—and by acclamation. But the steppe peoples, too, had councils of elders who decided their tribe’s future and voted to support this decision or that. We use ballot boxes to cast our votes; they used horses—riding in to attend a council, riding off if they didn’t like the results. When, in Sergei Bodrov’s film Nomad, the tribal leader Barak says, “We Kazakhs have always been a free people,” he means that he owes allegiance to no outside force. Minutes later, he and half a dozen other leaders jump on their horses and go rather than agree to unite against a common enemy. Even in a grand quriltai (intertribal council), the would-be khan issued invitations. Potential allies voted by showing up. Those who remained unconvinced stayed away. If no one attended, the khan’s hopes fizzled.
Libertarians might well find themselves comfortable with the steppe idea of freedom, although probably not with the other component of steppe governance, which Joseph Fletcher calls “the Turco-Mongolian tradition of the grand khan—the supra-tribal nomad emperor whose authority entailed kingship over a multi-tribal nomadic people, combined with a highly personal command over that people’s collective military forces.”* The grand khan—Genghis is the greatest and most memorable example, but far from the only one—encapsulates everything we in the West imagine about the Mongol empire: a ruler demanding absolute obedience and personal loyalty from his (occasionally her) followers. The exact opposite of democracy and freedom, except …
Except for one thing. The steppe is vast and sparsely populated, land that can support large numbers of animals but only if they spread out—beautiful but stark, arid as the hills of northern California. Few individuals could muster the energy, never mind the resources, to control this enormous area with its many disparate and unruly tribes. And since all leadership was personal, the despotic authority of a successful khan dissipated on his death. The tribes could choose a new leader, but that new leader had to form alliances, fight off contenders, escape assassination attempts, and keep supporters happy with raids and plunder until he (more rarely she) emerged victorious with a coalition mighty enough to establish another transitory empire. The whole process took years. Together with the concept of fictional kinship and the consequences of polygamy, which I’ll address in other posts, this political system forms the backdrop to The Winged Horse (and, no doubt, later books in the series).
Meanwhile, the clan and tribal elders jockeyed for power and kept their eyes peeled for alternative candidates. If they didn’t like what the new leader had planned, they packed up their tents, mounted their horses, and left to support another descendant of Genghis or just to hang out in the steppe until someone made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. This choice—to stay or to go—the steppe peoples regarded as freedom.
Paradoxically—and I am indebted to Fletcher for this insight—what turned the steppe system from raw democracy mixed with intermittent autocracy into despotism proper was the imposition of the grand khan as a rulership model on settled peoples. The Ottoman empire and, for the most part, early modern Russia were states with large peasant populations—people who, like us, lived in houses and hence could not simply pick up and go when they didn’t like what was happening. The escape valve of the steppe closed, and the ability to pick the leader to whom you owed absolute personal loyalty (until s/he died or you changed your mind) became instead the requirement to fulfill without question the demands of a monarch who ruled by divine right (Russia) or after eliminating all his rivals (Ottoman Turkey). Those monarchs did not rule by acclamation, and they did not need to recreate their alliances with each generation.
And so, on this Independence Day weekend, it seems worthwhile to me to appreciate the gifts that our forefathers (and foremothers) gave us while acknowledging that other systems, very different from ours, can also define liberty in ways that we can recognize, even if we don’t subscribe to their values or want their particular form of freedom for ourselves.
Isn’t that, in the end, what fiction is for—to allow us to experience the lives of others, so that we can grasp the extraordinary beauty and diversity of our world?
*Joseph Fletcher, “Turco-Mongolian Monarchic Tradition in the Ottoman Empire,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 3–4 (1979–80), pt. 1, 236. Fletcher’s article gave me the idea for this post.
Fotopedia is currently hosting a lovely photo essay on the steppe, “Kyrgyzstan: Nomads on Top of the World,” by Lekkertrekken.nl. You need not be a member to see the story, but note that the photographer has reserved all rights to the pictures.