Timur Khaydarov: “Russian cities practised burning, while the Golden Horde — quarantine”

The historian on why the coronavirus is not the Black Death that hastened the end of the Ulus of Jochi

Timur Khaydarov: “Russian cities practised burning, while the Golden Horde — quarantine”
Photo: tnv.ru

The coronavirus pandemic should be compared not with the plague but with the Spanish flu, according to Tatarstan historian Timur Khaydarov, who studied the Black Death in the Golden Horde. Moreover, the plague was the catalyst for the collapse of the once great empire. And the measures taken in Russia, in his opinion, are timely. In the interview with the correspondent of Realnoe Vremya, the expert spoke about how in the middle ages they fought epidemics.

Hygiene, quarantine, burning and freezing

Timur, to start with, how many outbreaks of plague were in the Golden Horde?

It is necessary to speak about not outbreaks but about the epidemic waves. Each epidemic wave is an active activity of one generation. The outbreaks were combined into waves that lasted about 25-30 years. If we count from the very beginning, the first wave of the Black Death falls on the years 1320-1350. The second wave — the middle of 1350-1390. The third — 1390-1420. The fourth — 1430-1460. It was about the spread of the strain in each period. Each wave carried its own strain. Given that the late Horde period ends in the middle of the 17th century, the total number of waves was 10-11.

In Europe, the source of the plague was considered an unpleasant smell. What did the Golden Horde think of the reason?

The same. The Galen's theory of the miasmic nature believed that the source was considered to be poisonous fog, vapors, dirt. The Golden Horde studied the works of Arab-Muslim doctors. For example, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) also spoke about miasma and actively promoted the idea of hygiene. And the Arabs, as proper students, promoted hand washing, cleanliness, including performing ritual ablutions before namaz. Islam was born in the age of Justinian, which influenced the medical literature of the Muslims, which called for hygiene if a contagious disease spreads.

Was there any effect from such hygiene tips?

The Muslim literature gives a separate section to this, where hygiene is strictly prescribed because it comes from Allah. Another method used is quarantine. There is indirect data about this in the sources: cities were not visited. Archaeologists show that during certain periods life in the city continued, but coins became fewer, and the delivery of goods decreased. Many people are surprised that during the Black Death of 1346-1353, it did not go north, when Jani Beg bombarded the territory of Kafa. Why do all the lands [affected by the plague] are more to the south (for example, in the area of Urgench), and why are the cities of the Golden Horde, which were located to the north of Bolgar, are not recorded? Although chronicle indications of 1360 say that they are recorded both in Kazan and Bolgar. Most likely, there was a quarantine.

Photo: express-k.kz
In the Golden Horde, an outbreak of plague occurred in April and May before the period of drought. In Russian cities, it took place in August, when people went out to the field to harvest, there was contact

Did they use the method of burning?

There were several ways. If we judge from the records of Russian physicians of the 18th century (the practice had not changed much by that time), a mixture of coniferous branches, gunpowder and oils was taken and a large fire was made. This is how individual buildings were set on fire, if it happened in the summer. In winter, the house was frozen: doors and windows were opened and left for a day or two in the cold. Moreover, burning was more common in Russian cities, but the Golden Horde practised quarantine — the Koran's prescription: a taboo on visiting and leaving. Therefore, Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi pointed out (this is what historian Yulay Shamiloglu also says): there are abandoned cities on the Lower Volga Region, they were subjected to an epidemic.

In the Golden Horde, an outbreak of plague occurred in April and May before the period of drought. In Russian cities, it took place in August, when people went out to the field to harvest, there was contact.

How the plague hastened the end of the Ulus of Jochi

Historian Bulat Khamidullin reported that the plague was one of the most important factors in the collapse of the Golden Horde (the Ulus of Jochi). Do you agree with this position?

Bulat Khamidullin, apparently, read my book (The Era of the Black Death in the Golden Horde and Surrounding Regions — editor's note). The plague was the catalyst for the processes that were originally laid in the Horde. The disintegration was originally laid down in the Golden Horde, the plague just hastened this process. Yes, the population declined, but in Europe it also declined. The society [of the Golden Horde] was less technologically developed, it could not adapt to changing economic and climatic conditions. The Golden Horde was disintegrating at a time when capitalism was being formed in Europe, new state institutions were emerging, and the army was being built according to uniformity. The Golden Horde continued to have an archaic form of government. For a long time, there was no religious uniformity, with great difficutly they established Islam as a single religion under Uzbeg Khan. The economy of the Golden Horde was fixated only on the provision of transport services. The level of agriculture was at a low level, compared to the Near Muslim East, where the agricultural revolution began. The level of agricultural technology was extremely low. The population was also small: on the entire territory of the Golden Horde there lived about 3 million people — half as many as on the territory of Russia.

Moscow in the 1460s switched to troepolye — the technology that allowed increasing the yield by dividing the field into three parts. But in the Golden Horde, extensive methods dominated over intensive ones. In conditions of political instability, it was extremely difficult to develop agriculture. Therefore, everyone began to concentrate around regional leaders, including in the Kazan region. The rest of the territory remained nomadic. The nomads' food production remained low. In the context of an epidemic, when mistrust grows and decays. Moscow was able to consolidate society around itself, it had food. Therefore, the influx of Tatar murzas with their subjects is quite a natural process.

Even if the Black Death did not exist, it had to be invented. The way out would be the same, only stretched out over time.

Photo: cyrillitsa.ru
The plague is spread by humans. And major cities play a big role here. In Europe, these were Venice, Genoa, London, Paris, Constantinople (Istanbul). The larger the population, the higher the outbreak

Coronavirus is more appropriate to compare not with the Black Death, but with Spanish flu

Do I understand correctly that the plague was exported from the Golden Horde through the Crimea and swept through Europe?

That's not quite true. There was one of the epidemic centres in the Golden Horde, but it was limited. Europe had its own hotbeds that worked the same way. For example, Krause does not take this fact into account. There were several strains, and they acted differently. We will never know the total number of population losses because there are no statistics and there are no mass burials. The plague is spread by humans. And major cities play a big role here. In Europe, these were Venice, Genoa, London, Paris, Constantinople (Istanbul). The larger the population, the higher the outbreak. Crimea is a major port where people are concentrated.

Turkish researcher Nukhet Varlik says that the centre of the plague outbreak of the late Horde world of 1559 was located on the territory of Bulgaria, where large mines were located. She adheres to the concept that all major epidemic secondary hotbeds are located at an altitude of 800 metres above sea level. Monica Green, a Professor at the Arizona State University, suggested that there were several exits of the plague, where four different strains originated. The first was in the Far East. The second — the North Caucasus and the Golden Horde. The third is the Middle East — the South Caucasus and Iran. The fourth — the Balkans. And cities are are already tertiary centres. But the epidemics did not go away, and went into standby mode.

Timur, what are the similarities and differences between the current coronavirus pandemic and the plague waves in the Golden Horde in the middle ages?

First, the pathogen. There was a bacterium, and we are facing a virus — a simpler form. The coronavirus was caused by seasonality, and the plague has a more complex transmission period. Moreover, we do not yet know the final results, since the process has not yet ended.

They share a common pandemic coverage, but against the background of other diseases, it has not become so powerful. The peak has not yet been reached. They can also be united by a change in the development of the economy and social relations — the transition to “distance”. In the era of the plague of 1347-1520, there was a change in economic formation, the transition to capitalism, and a new technological order.

So far, we can say: yes, there is a disease that has affected a large number of countries. Comparing the number of deaths is illogical. During the Black Death, there was a reduction of 15% of the population: 14% — men, 16% — women. Here we can't even tell whom the coronavirus kills more — men or women. So far, we can say that it affects the elderly, who have a reduced immunity. Especially as during the Black Death, there was a great famine in Europe. And children who were born to mothers who survived the famine of 1315-1317 had extremely low immunity. The result was an increase in the number of livestock: Europe began to breed pigs. And where there is a pigsty, there are rats. In the Golden Horde under Uzbeg Khan, the number of cattle increased. Small cattle almost destroyed the fertile layer — the uprooting of grass leads to soil erosion.

It can also be related to the spread due to the movement of people. The nature, development are completely different. Now we don't see a 100 per cent mortality rate [of those infected], as during the plague. Yes, people are getting sick, sometimes die from lung complications. In our country, before the outbreak of the coronavirus, many people were ill with something: the temperature did not hold for a week, and antibiotics did not help. Now we live in a post-antibiotic era: antibiotics no longer work. There is no cure for whooping cough in America.

The causes of the Black Death were malnutrition, stress, and large-scale climate change. Now, climate change is not so dramatic. Besides, we have some health care, knowledge about medical things, we understand what the epidemic will lead to. It is very logical and timely for the government to introduce a quarantine now. At the same time, they did not know what was happening, they referred to the Almighty, who was sending the test.

The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Bruegel. Reproduction wikipedia.org
Coronavirus is more appropriate to compare not with the Black Death but with Spanish flu. And Western experts are now comparing the current pandemic with the Spanish flu. So the flu pandemic has already come: the Spanish flu was the first wave

Coronavirus is more appropriate to compare not with the Black Death but with Spanish flu. And Western experts are now comparing the current pandemic with the Spanish flu. So the flu pandemic has already come: the Spanish flu was the first wave. Now there is just another wave of influenza-virus diseases. Coronavirus is not considered a “long-term” disease, which includes smallpox, typhoid, plague and AIDS. COVID-19 is classified as more transient, like the Spanish flu and Ebola. The coronavirus can at least be cured, and we are seeing a lot of recoveries. In Africa, the high mortality rate is not because it is such a terrible disease but because there are no doctors there. And this disease can be overcome: just stay home. In Italy, it didn't work out: they were sent to quarantine, but people continued to walk.

So these are completely different diseases. During the plague, there was a 100% mortality rate [of the sick], here — it is 1%. We have long been prepared for this course of development — books, movies, games. This has been accumulating since the 1990s. And the first outbreak was avian flu, but it didn't cover the entire planet, it affected mainly China. If you remember the autumn of 2019, we had a lot of posters hanging around the city with an appeal to watch the Epidemic series. And now any major disease evokes memories of the Black Death.

You also need to distinguish between information support. The first estimates of the Black Death were made only after its completion on the basis of chronicle sources: where and where it went. A lot of running information viruses remain in our memory — the fear of large epidemics and mass death. But we must keep in mind that this epidemic has grown to the level of a pandemic. The virus mutates, changes, and causes death. Closures in Russia began when deaths began in the country. But I believe that this is a necessary and timely decision: there are no drugs against it yet. If you have a strong immune system, you eat right, think positively, and maintain hygiene, then you can survive the epidemic quite easily. But stress is a concomitant element of further aggravation of the situation.

The uniqueness of the current situation is that we can understand what was happening in the era of the Black Death. The phantom exists — we start to panic. We must now think about what is going to happen. Any major pandemic leads to the growth of large national entities: everyone begins to isolate, see each other as an enemy. The player who has a strong army starts playing. Russia has a strong army that helps us survive this era. Europe does not have such, so they are panicing. Only the army structure helps to maintain a stable state.

Besides, there is a change in the technological structure taking place, there is an acceleration, and we are all switching to the Network. But no one cancelled the real economy. Energy and agriculture continue to work. In the middle ages, people returned from working in the fields. Fatigue, stress, and malnutrition led to an exacerbation. We don't have any malnutrition at the moment, and they don't issue food stamps yet. The economic crisis has started along with the coronavirus epidemic. And the plague was inside the crisis itself. With a strong public administration, all of these things are offset.

By Timur Rakhmatullin
Tatarstan