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Inner Eurasia typically refers to a huge area that includes all the lands within the former Soviet Union, as well as Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. The region’s flatness explains the expansiveness of the countries found there; it also clarifies the dominant role of pastoralism and nomadic societies that have shaped the history of the area from the foraging era to the present day.
Inner Eurasia is one of several geographical labels that can be used when thinking about the history of the interior regions of Eurasia. Other labels that refer to the innermost regions of the Eurasian landmass include Turkistan, Inner Asia, Central Eurasia, and Central Asia. The label Inner Eurasia is the most inclusive of all the alternatives, linking the fate of Central Asia to that of the lands included within Mongolia and the former Soviet Union, and suggesting that the history of this entire region was shaped by the distinctive geography of the Eurasian heartlands.
Using geographical labels with care and precision is a matter of great importance within all forms of history, but particularly within world history, for geographical labels shape how we think about the past and help steer historical arguments along particular trajectories. Used uncritically, they can warp our accounts of the past, projecting present-day assumptions into the remote past. Used carefully and critically, they can reveal new aspects of the past. As the geographers Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen have argued, metageographies, or the categories we use to think about the geography of the world, shape historical arguments at the most profound levels. For example, the conventional division of Europe and Asia at the Ural Mountains carries the implicit assumption that Eurasia divides naturally into its European and Asian components, that all Asian societies share basic similarities, and that a line from the Urals to the Black Sea constitutes the fault line between these metaregions. None of these assumptions bears serious scrutiny today, yet the labels persist as traps for the uncritical reader.
Delineating Inner Eurasia
Inner Eurasia refers to a huge area that includes all the lands within the former Soviet Union, as well as Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. To group this large and disparate region together makes sense only on the hypothesis that Inner Eurasia has an underlying geographical coherence that has shaped the history of the entire region. Early in the twentieth century, the British geographer Halford Mackinder argued that it is helpful to think of the Eurasian landmass as divided into two main regions. At its heart is a huge, largely flat, plain—the largest continuous region of flatlands on Earth. Inner Eurasia was constructed mainly from two ancient tectonic plates (the Siberian plates) that joined some 300 million years ago to create a huge mountain chain that has since worn away to leave the low Ural Mountains. Attached to the west, south, and east of the Inner Eurasian plain lie several subcontinental peninsulas, all with a more varied topography. These make up what we can call Outer Eurasia. Outer Eurasia includes Europe and southwest Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China. The plates carrying modern Europe and China joined the Siberian plates approximately 200 million years ago. Within the last 60 million years, the plates carrying modern India and Africa drove north and collided with the Eurasian plate, creating a chain of mountains from the Alps to the Himalayas. These offer the clearest topographical border between Inner and Outer Eurasia. So, at the most general level, Eurasia consists of an ancient, interior plain that is surrounded by regions closer to the sea that have a choppier and more complex topography.
On large scales, Inner and Outer Eurasia are very different. Not only is Inner Eurasia mostly flatter than Outer Eurasia, it is also more arid, for it is cut off from the sea, except to the north where extreme cold limits evaporation and precipitation. In Inner Eurasia, average yearly rainfall exceeds 50 centimeters only in the far west (in modern Belarus, northern Ukraine, and European Russia), along the southern parts of the eastern Siberian coast, and in pockets in Siberia; in Outer Eurasia, regions with rainfall of less than 50 centimeters a year are unusual, and in many regions average rainfall is well above 100 centimeters a year. Because it lies further north, there is less sunlight for photosynthesis. Inner Eurasia is also, on average, colder than Outer Eurasia. As Mackinder (1962, 110) pointed out, the heartland of Eurasia is, roughly speaking, the part that freezes in January: “At mid-winter, as seen from the moon, a vast white shield would reveal the Heartland in its largest meaning.” Because Inner Eurasia is so flat and most of it is far from the moderating influence of oceans, its temperatures also tend to be more extreme than those of Outer Eurasia. Differences between summer and winter increase as one moves east, so that, in general, the climates of Mongolia are harsher and more variable than those of Ukraine.
Flatness, aridity, northerly latitudes, and continental climates shaped all the societies of Inner Eurasia and ensured that the history of Inner Eurasia would be very different from that of Outer Eurasia. Flatness explains why the states that emerged in this region were some of the largest in the world, for there were few geographical barriers to the movements of powerful armies. The harsh climatic and ecological environments of Inner Eurasia help explain why population densities were lower than in most of Outer Eurasia. This was true even in the foraging (Paleolithic) era, for humans evolved in the savanna lands of Africa and had to develop entirely new forms of clothing and housing, as well as new hunting techniques, to settle in Inner Eurasia. In the last two thousand years, the populations of Inner Eurasia have varied from one-tenth to one-twentieth of those of Outer Eurasia, even though the two regions are approximately the same size. Given these difficulties, it is not surprising that Inner Eurasia seems to have been settled later than most of Outer Eurasia. In the Neolithic era, the region’s aridity ensured that agriculture made little headway for many thousands of years, except in parts of modern Ukraine and in the borderlands of Central Asia, where irrigation farming was possible. Extensive farming communities appeared in the so-called Tripolye culture of Ukraine, and in Central Asia, significant urban communities emerged during the third millennium BCE. Elsewhere, the Neolithic revolution in its most familiar form, that of grain-based agriculture, bypassed most of Inner Eurasia. So, while agriculture spread in much of Outer Eurasia, laying the foundations for several great agrarian civilizations, in Inner Eurasia agriculture made hardly any headway for many thousands of years. Instead, Neolithic technologies entered Inner Eurasia in the less familiar form of pastoralism.
Unlike agricultural lifeways, which are dominated by domesticated plants, pastoral lifeways are dominated by the exploitation of domesticated livestock. Pastoralism became a viable lifeway as a result of a series of innovations that the archaeologist Andrew Sherratt has described as the secondary-products revolution. Beginning around 4000 BCE, people began to exploit not just those products of livestock that could be used after an animal’s slaughter (its skin, bones, and meat), but also the animal’s secondary products—products such as its wool, blood, milk, and traction power— that could be used while it was still alive. These techniques raised the efficiency with which domesticated animals could be exploited, making it possible to build entire lifeways around the use of domesticated animals such as sheep, cattle, goats, horses, camels, and yaks. Pastoralism proved an effective way of exploiting the vast grasslands that stretched from Hungary to Manchuria, and, for several thousand years, it was the dominant lifeway throughout this region. The earliest evidence of pastoralism comes from the Sredny Stog cultures of eastern Ukraine, which include some of the first evidence for the riding of horses. These were still relatively sedentary cultures. But in the third millennium BCE, pastoralism of some form spread throughout much of southern Russia and Ukraine and into parts of modern Kazakhstan. Evidence from steppe burial mounds suggests that pastoralism was also becoming more nomadic, and this makes ecological sense, for the most economical way to graze large numbers of animals is to move them over large areas. By 2000 BCE, pastoralism of some form had spread towards the western borders of Mongolia. Nicola Di Cosmo, a specialist on Inner Asia, writes, “A conservative interpretation would date a significant impact of horseback riding on western and Central Asia to between the mid-third and early second millennium BCE” (2001, 26). In the first millennium BCE, pastoralism finally spread to Mongolia. It also appeared in new and more warlike forms that may have depended on technological innovations such as the appearance of new and improved saddles and improved compound bows.
The dominant role of pastoralism in the steppes of Inner Eurasia had a profound impact on the history of the entire region, and also on the way that the region’s history has been perceived. Pastoralism cannot support the large populations that agriculture can, and pastoralists are normally nomadic or seminomadic, so pastoralism did not generate the areas of dense settlement characteristic of so much of Outer Eurasia. For the most part, this was a world without towns or cities. Instead of villages and cities, small, nomadic encampments dominated the steppes. Because cities and all the paraphernalia we associate with cities and agrarian civilizations existed only in a few borderland regions of Inner Eurasia, the history of the region was strikingly different from that of Outer Eurasia. For the historian, one of the most important differences is that pastoralist societies generated few written records. Because historians rely heavily on such records, they have tended to ignore societies that do not produce them. So Inner Eurasia has too often been seen through the eyes of the agrarian civilizations of Outer Eurasia, beginning with the works of the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) and the Chinese Han dynasty historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BCE). Even the most sympathetic Outer Eurasian historians portrayed Inner Eurasia as a sort of black hole out of which pastoralists rode to rape and pillage the villages and cities of the “civilized” world. Not surprisingly, Inner Eurasian pastoralists have traditionally been cast as “barbarians” in world historiography.
In part, this is because the mobility of pastoralism, the skills it teaches in the handling of large animals, and the ubiquity of raiding ensured that most pastoralist societies of Inner Eurasia have had a military influence out of proportion to their sheer numbers. In a famous passage, Sima Qian wrote of the pastoralist Xiongnu to China’s north:
The little boys start out by learning to ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a bow and arrow, and when they get a little older they shoot foxes and hares, which are used for food. Thus all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war. It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. (Watson 1961, 2:155)
The limited resources of pastoralist societies also ensured that they were usually keen to engage in exchanges with neighboring communities of farmers, trading livestock produce such as meat, skins, and cloths for agricultural products and artisan goods including weaponry. Evidence of such exchanges, some peaceful, but some clearly violent, appears as early as the fourth millennium BCE on the edges of the Tripolye culture in Ukraine, in the objects found within steppe burial mounds and in the increasing use of fortifications by farming communities.
Inner Eurasia and Cultural Exchange
The mobility of pastoralists and their interest in exchanges ensured that goods, ideas, people, and influences passed much more readily through the Inner Eurasian steppes than is commonly supposed. Pastoralists carried the technologies of pastoralism through the steppes to the borders with China. They also carried languages. The Indo-European languages spread throughout southern Inner Eurasia and then beyond, carried largely by communities of pastoralists, while Turkic languages began to spread eastwards from about 2,000 years ago, also carried mainly by pastoralists. In addition, pastoralist communities helped spread religious practices and artistic motifs, as well as technologies such as bronze working and the use of chariots. The Inner Eurasian steppes, far from being a barrier to civilization, provided the interconnections that from at least the second millennium BCE ensured that the history of the entire Eurasian landmass would have a certain underlying unity, nurtured by the symbiotic relationship between the societies of Inner and Outer Eurasia.
The existence of trans-Eurasian contacts is evident as early as 2000 BCE within the Oxus civilization (on the borders of modern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), where archaeologists have found goods from the steppes, as well as goods from Mesopotamia, India, and even China. The importance of trans-Eurasian exchanges increased in the first millennium BCE when, for the first time, Outer Eurasian states, including Achaemenid Persia and Han China, tried to conquer parts of Inner Eurasia, and trade goods, including silk, started to flow right across Eurasia. The modern term Silk Roads is used to refer to the networks of exchange through Inner Eurasia that linked all parts of the Eurasian landmass.
Inner Eurasian Pastoralist States
The military power of pastoralist communities meant that when they were threatened, they could unite quickly to form powerful military confederations that were a match for the armies of great Outer Eurasian powers. The military power of such confederations was first realized clearly in the agrarian world when pastoralist armies defeated and killed Cyrus II (reigned 558–529 BCE), the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, but it is also apparent from the detailed account by Herodotus of the unsuccessful campaign in the Black Sea steppes of Cyrus’s successor, Darius I (reigned 522–486 BCE). In the second century BCE, for the first time, a pastoralist leader managed to build a confederation of pastoralists and hold it together long enough that historians conventionally refer to it as a state or empire. This was the achievement of Modun (reigned 209–174 BCE), the creator of the Xiongnu Empire in modern Mongolia.
Inner Eurasian pastoralist states were very different from the agrarian and city-based states of Outer Eurasia. With limited human and material resources, they could be held together only by extracting resources from neighboring agrarian regions using a complex mixture of looting, tribute taking, taxation, and trade, and redistributing them to regional chiefs. So, as Thomas Barfield and Nicola Di Cosmo have pointed out, the success and longevity of pastoralist empires depended on how well they could accomplish that task. The larger the flow of material and cultural resources, the more powerful the state, so it is no accident that the most powerful pastoralist states, such as the sixth-century Turkic Empire and the empire of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan in the thirteenth century, were built by extracting resources from powerful agrarian states such as China or Persia. This also explains why major pastoralist states appeared along the border regions between Inner Eurasia and Outer Eurasia, and why many powerful pastoralist leaders, including the Seljuks in the twelfth century and the Mughals in the sixteenth century, eventually crossed the border to found dynasties in nearby regions of Outer Eurasia.
Agriculture in Inner Eurasia
The dominant role of pastoralism in Inner Eurasia created a complex symbiotic relationship across the borders between Inner and Outer Eurasia for several millennia. But in the last thousand years, the dominance of pastoralists in Inner Eurasia has been challenged by the spread of agrarian communities from the west. In the middle of the first millennium CE, large numbers of peasant farmers from eastern Europe began to settle in the lands west of the Urals that are dominated today by Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia. Why farmers should have settled this region after avoiding it for several millennia remains unclear, though it may have something to do with the cultivation of rye and the increasing use of metal implements, which made farming more viable even in the difficult climatic conditions of western Inner Eurasia. Steppe rulers such as the Khazars (flourished seventh to tenth centuries) began to extract resources from these communities, but it was Viking warriors who established the first durable agrarian states in the region, with the formation of a federation of city-states, united under Viking leaders, sometime in the tenth century.
As agriculture spread within Inner Eurasia, it became an increasingly important foundation for emerging states, providing a demographic and economic basis that no pastoralist communities could match. Agriculture sustained the power not just of Rus and Lithuania, but also of remnant states of the Mongol Empire, such as the Golden Horde (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries). Eventually the state of Muscovy established control of most of the agrarian lands of western Inner Eurasia, and over the next few centuries it built the largest agrarian state in the world as it slowly established its control over the woodlands of Siberia. The greater demographic dynamism of agriculture ensured that, over time, the sheer numbers of people supported within agrarian states would give them an advantage over neighboring pastoralist societies as well, and so, over many generations, Muscovy and the Russian Empire also began to encroach on the steppes of Inner Eurasia. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire had conquered most of the steppes and all of Central Asia. Meanwhile, the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12) in China had conquered Xinjiang, after defeating the last great pastoralist empire, that of the Dzhungars, and established its control over much of Mongolia. The dominance of pastoralism had ended and Inner Eurasia, like Outer Eurasia, was now dominated by agrarian states.
The distinctive geography of Inner Eurasia, however, left its mark even on the now-dominant agrarian states of the region. The ecological difficulties of Inner Eurasia ensured that agriculture was never easy and rarely as productive as in most of Outer Eurasia. As a result, the agrarian states of Inner Eurasia had to be peculiarly good at mobilizing resources, and that meant they needed strong, autocratic leadership. At the same time, the flatness of the steppes exposed both agrarian and pastoralist states to almost constant border conflict and forced them to concentrate resources to a peculiar degree on warfare. But it also made it possible to build huge states, for geography posed few natural barriers to the expansion of powerful states. This is why the history of Muscovy and Russia can be thought of as a slow filling up of the lands of Inner Eurasia. Finally, the mobilizational traditions of Russian states, dictated by the relative ecological poverty of Inner Eurasia, may help explain why, in the Soviet era, there emerged an economy and society very different from those of the capitalist West. Soviet society, like the society of Muscovite and Imperial Russia, was dominated by a powerful autocratic state capable of mobilizing resources with exceptional intensity. In this way, the distinctive features of Inner Eurasia’s geography have shaped the region’s history from the foraging era to the present day.
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