It happened today - February 8, 2016

On this date in history, February 8, in 1238, the Mongols burned Vladimir. Which sounds like hard luck for him even if he had done something to annoy them. But what of the rest of us?

Well, bear with me here. First, Vladimir isn’t a who, it’s a what. Specifically, it was an important city in medieval Russia. But then the Mongols came, slaughtering, burning, raping and otherwise destroying. Which was as bad as it sounds; not every evil historical reputation is undeserved.

What followed was worse. Not just for Vladimir, though it never really recovered, but for Russia and the world. Because the Mongols came to stay, and did stay for several centuries. And by the time they were gone the place was unrecognizable.

It’s hard to recall, or perhaps believe, but pre-Mongol Russia was very much oriented toward the West. Kievan Rus, founded by Vikings, had strong links to Western Europe. King Henri I of France married princess Anne of Kiev and apparently it was through their son that the name “Philip” became popular among Western royalty. So perhaps its political history could have been much less dismal despite its geographically exposed position which necessarily would have made national security and a strong state high priorities. But the Mongols put their stamp on its face in a singularly brutal way.

As Richard Pipes put it in his depressing Russia under the Old Regime, the Mongols were the first real government most parts of Russia ever experienced and provided rulers and citizens alike with a most unfortunate model. It taught the populace that the state “was arbitrary and violent, that it took what it could lay its hands on and have nothing in return, and that one had to obey it because it was strong; it taught the princes that governments collected tribute, maintained order and security, but had little responsibility to its people, and to regard political authority as inherently arbitrary.” And this lesson persisted and made the Russian state a menace to its own people and its neighbours to this day.

The fate of Vladimir was illustrative rather than decisive. But the destruction of city-states by the Mongols, imitated by the tsars as soon as they became independent, and the crushing of the idea as well as the fledgling institutions of political liberty, was a tragedy indeed, for Russia and the world.