Mongol Hygiene, is it all it’s cracked up to be? – Part II

Dear Readers:

Diving into my review of this piece by author and historian Orynganym Tanatarova.  I couldn’t find much online about this author.  I am assuming “she” is a “she” because of the femininized/Russified surname, hence I will endow her with the pronoun “she”.  Tanatarova’s thesis is that Russian people borrowed much from their Tatar neighbors (and sometimes overlords), with whom they lived side by side, for centuries.  She also wishes to dispel the (racist) notion that Tatar-Mongols of the medieval period were simply violent (and filthy) savages.

Russians of the 13th century were open to new ideas.

She quotes history Professor Vadim Dolgov who wrote a book called “The Secret Life of Ancient Rus” (Moscow, 2009).  Dolgov describes the process of cultural interrelationships.  Russian people of the time possessed personal characteristics such as receptiveness, openness to new ideas and the ability to notice and borrow useful stuff from other peoples.  These qualities (which are not necessarily possessed by all peoples) have served the Russians well over history.  Especially in times of change, and especially during this particular era, which constituted the dawn of Russian statehood.  Dolgov:  “Rus, from the 13th century to the middle of the 16th, was actively following a path of synthesizing the most varied cultural acquisitions.”

This is seen in the Russian language itself, which contains many words borrowed from Mongol-Tatar.  The Mongol influence is also shown in certain “oriental” motifs in the decoration of Orthodox churches.  People usually ascribe this to the Byzantine architectural tradition, but in reality these themes could have been copied by the Russian masters from examples of folk art brought in by Princes of the Golden Horde.

Even the national costume of Russians shows the Tatar influence, according to many historians.  For example, Russian aristocrats wore Tatar-type headgear, namely those pointy caps with fringes.  Many Tatar “clothing” words were borrowed into Russian:  Kaftan, Sarafan, Shuba, etc.

While playing friendly war enactments with their Tatar friends [sarc], Russian weaponry also changed and adapted.  Heavy swords were replaced with lighter sabres, which are way more effective when battling atop galloping horses.

But What About Dental Hygiene?

Well, war is war.  But after a well-fought battle, the soldiers must eat a hearty meal.  And then discover they have all sorts of disgusting things stuck in their teeth.  What to do?

Solution!  Some clever member of the Golden Horde invented the toothbrush.  (Actually, historians agree that the toothbrush was invented in China.  Maybe.)  Archaeologists poking around in the Horde-occupied city of Azak (now known as Azov) discovered a 14th-century toothbrush!  Historians and archaeologists were not especially surprised by this find, but it became a sensation among regular Russians when the news was published by journalist Nikolai Grishchenko in 2015.

The Azov toothbrush consisted of a handle carved from bone, with tiny holes punched in it (where the brushes obviously went).  Archaeologists posited that the toothbrush most likely belonged to a Mongol warrior.

Which makes sense, because all soldiers, throughout history, have been known to be fussy about their appearance.  They don’t mind dying for their leader, but they want to look good (and smell good) while doing so.  And they also don’t mind violently slaying the enemy, but preferably with a sword and not just blasting them dead with their bad breath!

Sidebar on the city of Azov, where this amazing implement was discovered.  According to wiki, this town, situated in the Rostov Oblast of Russia, has a fascinating history.  It is situated on the Don River, just 16 km from the Sea of Azov.  A brief look at the map will show how this area was the crossroads of everybody and everybody.

First known colonists were the Greeks (3rd century BC), they called the River (now the Don) Tanais, and named their settlement after that.

In the 3rd century AD the Goths took over.  In the 5th century it was invaded by some people called Akatziroi, and then handed over to the Huns.  Then was ruled by Turkish Bulgars (not the same as modern Bulgarians), before being handed over to the Khazars.  In the 10th century the Khazar state disintegrated and the area passed to the Slavic princedom of Tmutarakan.  Avid readers of the Russian national poem, “The Tale of Igor’s Regiment”, know that Tmutarakan is mentioned in that beautiful poem.  When I was a child and first read that poem, I found something thrilling about that word Tmutarakan, it sounded so mysterious, like a lost civilization!

“The Gates of Tmutarakan” – painting by Nicholas Roerich (1919)

Anyhow, in 1067 some people called the “Kipchaks” seized this area and named it Azaq which means “lowlands” in Kipchak.  That name has remained, but mutated somewhat to the modern name of Azov.  In the 13th and 14th centuries the Golden Horde ruled over Azov and, as we have seen, introduced toothbrushes to the local population.

I reckon it could be said that, right there, in the ancient city of Tmutarakan, the Tatars declared war on gum disease and dental tartar!

Next:  Mongol Fire Ceremonies and other cool customs…

[to be continued]

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10 Responses to Mongol Hygiene, is it all it’s cracked up to be? – Part II

  1. Ben says:

    Always found the ‘Mongols as savages’ meme to be amusing. ‘Dumb savages’ don’t conquer all of the most advanced nations in the world. Or if they do, what does that say about everyone from China to Hungary whose asses they kicked?


    • yalensis says:

      In the Russophobe context, this meme almost always comes into play. Believe it or not, you will still find Russophobic talking heads claiming that Russians have “authoritarian personalities” because they are more Mongol than Slav. I even heard some talking head (I think it was Julia Ioffe) saying this on TV. These peoples mouths move, and I don’t think they even register that what they are saying is racist. My retort would be, well, what if Russian DNA was mostly Mongolian?

      Which it isn’t, but just for the sake of argument… Would that mean that Russia should be banned from the list of civilized nations? haha


      • Sid Finster says:

        “Russians aren’t really Slavs” was a favorite argument of the “Blood And Soil” Ukrainian nationalists. But I am being redundant.


      • Ben says:

        ‘Russians are Mongols’ is a new one to me. Racism against Russians is definitely making a comeback (that quote about how Russians are genetically predisposed to subterfuge by Clapper always springs to mind), but I’ve never heard this particular smear before. It manages to insult both Russians and Mongols. Brilliant! I guess Mongols have no meaningful public presence so they’re a target that can be insulted without fear of repercussions.


        • yalensis says:

          Yeah, the “Russians are Mongols” thing is maybe not as widely known among the general public as more recent memes such as “Russians are liars.” The Mongol thing is a specialty of the Ukrainian diaspora, who almost always have a racial angle up their sleeves. Their debating point is two-fold:

          1) Mongols and Russians intermarried a lot [which is true], so the Russian DNA is not pure Aryan-Slav [unlike theirs, haha, which also it’s not, but they won’t admit it]; and

          2) A more general political argument which you will sometimes hear from, say, English and Western Europeans, namely that Russians learned their way of government from the Horde, and that’s why they used to bow low to the ground, because they were taught to bow and scrape to the ruling Khan. And that’s why they have “authoritarian” personalities and like to be governed by a strong ruler, such as Stalin (or Putin, they will add now).

          There might be a grain of truth in that second point, except that almost all the Western “democracies” also used to have absolute rulers, before they adopted parliamentary government. The English still bow and curtsey to their Queen. And my experience of the oh-so-democratic Americans, is that they are mostly a nation of conformists who expect the political elites to tell them what to think.


      • Sid Finster says:

        That was also a favorite trope of “Blood and Soil” Ukrainian nationalists (but I repeat myself). Russians were Asiatics who somehow acquired a Slavic language and place-names, while Ukrainians were of course Pure Blooded Aryans (which itself requires a staggering ignorance of history for anyone to say with a straight face).

        Ustashe-era Croatian ideology was that Croats were a species of really confused German and not Slavs at all, FWIW.


        • yalensis says:

          Yeah, it’s confusing because the German Nazis regarded Slavs as an inferior race, even though Slavs (along with Persians) are technically Aryans (speaking an Indo-Aryan Satem language).
          Ukrainian Nationalists tend to argue that Slavs are okay, but dispute that Russians are Slavs. Because they’re Mongols, etc….. go figure…
          Just to make racism even more confusing, some Russophobes claim that Russians are actually Finno-Ugric, and I reckon that would make them bad people too; except that Estonians and Finns really are Finno-Ugric, but they are good people, because they joined NATO and are inherently democratic in their thoughts and culture.


          • Pavlo Svolochenko says:

            Hitler admitted in his last days that Germans are racially inferior to Russians, so the question is closed.


            • yalensis says:

              Really? Where did he say that, in an Erratum to Mein Kampf?
              Or perhaps in a death-bed interview in Brazil:

              Reporter: “Mr. Hitler, are you lying now, or were you lying then?”
              Hitler: “I was lying then, but now I tell the truth. Russians are superior race.”
              Reporter: “How can we believe anything that you say, after so many lies?”
              Hitler: “What I say is true. They handed me my Teutonic ass, that should prove the point.”


            • Pavlo Svolochenko says:

              That does capture the essence of what he said:


              ‘If the war is lost, the nation will also perish. This fate is inevitable. There is no necessity to take into consideration the basis for which the people will need to continue a most primitive existence. On the contrary, it will be better to destroy these things ourselves because this nation will have proved to be the weaker one and the future will belong solely to the stronger eastern nation [Russia]. Besides, those who will remain after the battle are only the inferior ones, for the good ones have been killed.’


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