The Mongols & the Rise of Russia
Updated: Sep 13, 2021
On May 31st, 1223, by the banks of Kalka river, a united Rus army of 60,000 men faced a Mongol force of about 40,000. Despite their numerical superiority, however, the entire Rus army was massacred by sundown. It was an outrageous defeat. The Russian commanders were then captured and tortured. Ghenghis Khan and the Mongols had just arrived to Russia.
This was the first martial encounter between Russians and Mongols, and it defined how the relationship would continue. For 200 years, the Mongols exposed the Russians to massacre, vassalage and humiliation. But, like a phoenix, the Russian people rose from the ashes and found strength in the struggle. In a dramatic confrontation, the Russians challenged the might of the Mongol hordes for independence, and at last, won back their Empire. This tumulus experience birthed a longsuffering soul among the Russians. It was a crucial era that shaped the Russian ethnicity, culture - and destiny.
870-1227: Splintered Rus, United Horde
In 1227, "Russia" consisted of several Rus principalities situated along the Dniepr river. The "Rus" aristocrats hailed originally from Scandinavia, as their lineage was founded by Ruric of Sweden in 870. They were technically unified as the "Kievan-Rus Empire", subjects of the Grand Prince of Kiev - but in reality, they were sharply divided.
The cracks in the Kievan-Rus Empire were obvious. Rus princes spent decades fighting each other with horrendous violence and causing terrible destruction.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Mongols had experienced the very opposite. Once a bunch of unruly tribes, Ghenghis Khan united them to form history's most explosive conquering spree. Within a few decades, Ghenghis led the Mongols to subdue China, the Eurasian steppes, Iran and, now, the Volga. Their military prowess was unmatched. Born on horseback, their mounted archers could shower arrows at a distance for days on end; their Chinese siege engineers brought down all kinds of city defences with ease. Furthermore, their brutal, tactical skill made them elusive, terrifying and near-invincible.
Destruction of the Kievan-Rus
In December 1237, the Mongol Horde crossed the Volga river. Within weeks, they had eviscerated the Cumans and Volga Bulgars, two arch enemies of the Rus. Then, on a cold Christmas morning in 1237, the Mongols besieged Ryazan - a populous and important Russian city. The defenders boldly refused to surrender, but their courage came at a cost. Once the Mongols breached the walls, "[the Mongols] killed men, women and children, monks, nuns and priests. Some by fire, some by the sword. They violated nuns and priests wives, good women and girls..." (from the Chronicle of Novgorod). An a shocking slaughter.
Prince Yuriy of Suzdal, the neighbouring principality, couldn't believe the news. He had refused to help Ryazan, preferring to see the rivalling city fall, but never expected this level of brutality. Prince Yuriy hastily gathered an army and called for help from other Russian princes. But the Russian princes refused to help on the same grounds Yuriy failed Ryazan. The rivalries between the princes ran too deep.
Yuriy faced the Mongols alone at the battle of Kolomna, but stood no chance. His capital, Suzdal, was taken shortly after. Then, town after town fell to Mongol plunder. Moscow, an obscure town at this point, burned. The great city of Vladimir was also reduced to ashes. Yuriy attempted one desperate stand at Sit river, but was killed along with his soldiers. The Mongols were unstoppable.
Seeing that the Russians were far too divided to form a unified front, the Mongols split their horde in four brigades to wreak havoc across all of the Kievan-Rus Empire. Within months, they had destroyed 14 cities, including Rostov, Tver, Torzhok, Kozelsk, Chernigov and, to the detriment of all Kievan-Rus, the symbolic imperial capital, Kiev.
The destruction of Kiev was total. An eyewitness account by Giovanni de Plano Carpini paints a stark image:
"They attacked Russia, where they made great havoc, destroying cities...and slaughtering men. They laid siege to Kiev, the capital of Russia...they took it and put the inhabitants to death... Kiev had been a very large and thickly populated town, but now it has been reduced almost to nothing...the survivors are kept in complete slavery."
Only 2,000 of 50,000 civilians survived the ensuing massacre. Kiev was wiped off. Many towns and cities never rose again. Farmlands were devastated. The Kievan-Rus Empire had simply ceased to exist. Russia was now a mere barren wasteland governed by the Supreme Khan.
The Mongol Yoke
With the Kievan-Rus Empire destroyed, the Rus nobility were now the humble vassals of the Khan. They were his official tax collectors and governors, and had to regularly travel to pay homage to him. The Mongols ruled Russia's political network by appointing or deposing nobles as they liked, and brutally punished any principality that showed signs of resistance. Russia was frozen in time.
However, as long as the princes obeyed, the Mongols ruled with a light touch. They had no interest in meddling in cultural, religious or social affairs. This made the humiliation somewhat bearable. It allowed the Russians to repopulate, nurture their culture and bolster their Christian Orthodox zeal. Mongol vocabulary also found its way in the Russian colloquial tongue.
More importantly, the shared experience of Mongol repression, and the sweet reminiscing of the glorious days of the Kievan-Rus Empire, birthed a vision of a new, united and strong Russia.
Ironically, the Mongols experienced the opposite. Their vast empire devolved into four separate Khanates. The Golden Horde and Ilkhanate Khanates absorbed Islam and Turko-nomadic culture, and therefore more accurately defined as Tatars than Mongols (Tatars refer to the ethnic mix of Mongols, Turks and other reigning nomadic peoples of Eurasia). Meanwhile, the Chagatai Khanate and Yuan dynasty gravitated to the Chinese civilization. Inheritance disputes and dynastic rivalries drove infighting between these Khanates, draining their resources. The Russian princes watched patiently as they witnessed the Tatars make the same mistake they once did.
The Rise of Moscow
In 1340s, the Tatar Golden Horde began to destabilise. Rocked by dynastic rivalries and inheritance disputes, the Golden Horde split in two. Then, the Black Death arrived, killing 25% of the Russian and Tatar populations.
All this turmoil had discouraged and disrupted trade activity in Eurasia, making the Tatars now extremely dependent on Russian tribute.
Sensing this weakness was Dmitri Ivanovich, the Grand Prince of Moscow. After a visit to the new Khan in Sarai, he was convinced that the time had come for Russia to rise again.
Confident that he was the only one who could lead such a united Russia, Dmitri steadily expanded his grip on other Russian vassals. Through intermarriage, he formed hereditary chains that secured his own seniority over other nobles. Having secured favour from the Tatars, he also used his political endorsements to annex lands from other Russian principalities, and depose of uncooperative princes. By 1368, all Russian principalities except for Tver were under Moscow's influence.
Dmitri's leadership and seniority was bolstered that very year, when a coalition of Lithuania and Tver invaded Moscow. Thanks to the Moscow Kremlin - which Dmitri had founded in 1367 - the Muscovites withstood the siege and beat their enemies. Humiliated, the Prince of Tver was formally adopted by Dmitri as his "little brother", clearly showcasing Tver's submission.
By 1375, it was no question what city led all of Russia: Moscow.
The Battle of Kullikovo
It was time to confront the Tatars. In 1375, Dmitri seized power over Ryazan and deliberately ignored orders from the Khan to halt. Then, he expanded Moscow's borders to the Volga, and forced local Tatar lords to pay tribute to him. In 1377, he began to reduce his tribute payments to the Khan, and then, stopped paying altogether. Needless to say, this triggered the Tatars' fury.
At this time, the Golden Horde was led by the military warlord Mamai, who governed through a puppet Khan. Mamai was enraged over Dmitri's behaviour and sent an expeditionary force to punish Moscow. However, by the Vozha river, Dmitri and his army intercepted the Tatars and butchered their entire army. It was a tremendous victory - for the first time since 1240, the Tatars could no longer simply "punish" their Russian subjects. Ecstatic, Dmitri declared: "Their time is up. And God is with us!"
Infuriated, Mamai assembled a massive army to annihilate Moscow once and for all. About 100,000 Tatar warriors were mobilized. Anticipating this, Dmitri gathered all the Russian princes and their men, forming a united Russian front. Only Tver and Ryazan abstained, making the army tally just short of 50,000.
Realizing the importance of the inevitable battle, Dmitri rushed to St. Trinity Monastery to seek the blessing of his abbot, St. Sergius Radonezh. In a now-famous scene, St. Sergius blessed him and gave him two warrior monks who were instructed to protect Dmitri and set an example for his warriors. St. Sergius gave a chilling prophecy: "Pluck up your courage, Dmitri!...There will be horrible bloodshed, many warriors will lay down their lives, but you will win and return."
Dmitri marched his men to the upper Don where the Tatars were awaiting more reinforcements from Lithuania. "Here runs the Don," Dmitri reportedly continued, "shall we await the enemy here or cross and meet him with the river at our backs?" All the princes unanimously agreed to cross. Thus, the Russian army was ferried over and took a stand at the Kullikovo field. Dmitri then ordered the ferries to be cast adrift to disallow any escape. They were to stand and fight to the death.
On a cold September morning, 1380, the Tatar horde took to battle formation. This was it. Suddenly, the champion warrior Chelubey rode out and challenged the finest Russian warrior to single combat - a classic opening spectacle in Asian warfare. To the amazement of the Russians, it was St. Sergius' warrior-monk who stepped forth, dressed only in his monastic garments. With a single lance, he galloped against Chelubey, who turned and steered his spear at the charging monk. The two smashed together with brute force, killing each other simultaneously. Unfortunately, this would serve as symbolic imagery of how the battle would transpire.
The Tatars smashed into the Russian line, applying extreme pressure. Initially, the Russians held, but as hours went by, the line cracked. Dmitri then led his heavy cavalry in a major charge to reinforce his infantry, but Dmitri himself fell. He was so terribly wounded that the Russians thought he died, but he was dragged away, awakened, and then saddled up again to charge to the cheer of his men.
However, though the Russians fought valiantly, they began to give away ground. The Tatars had fresh and rested reinforcements that kept joining the battle against the exhausted Russians. By evening, the Russian line was pushed to the river, opening a gap in their line. Mamai ordered his swift cavalry to rush through it to outflank them. The Tatars collapsed on the Russian flank, causing panic and terrible dismay as the entire line broke. Defeat was imminent, yet again.
But it was the Grand Prince who had tricked Mamai. In that very moment when his Russian warriors waivered in hopelessness, Dmitri sound the horns for his reserve cavalry to arise, who had remained hidden in the woods all this time. They now charged with fury at the Tatars, who were taken completely aback. They panicked. Filled with sudden terror, the entire Tatar army was routed.
It was a massive victory, but a costly one. Dmitry was found among the dead in a swoon from his loss of blood. As he awakened, he saw thousands of dead bodies spread across the field. His entire escort had perished, among with 27 commanders.
According to medieval Russian chronicles, "the Grand Prince stood on human bones for three days and three nights as he tried to extract all the dead bodies, and then he had them buried with honours." They spent eight days counting and burying the dead. A church dedicated to the Theotokos - the Virgin Mary - was erected over these bones.
The Great Stand
Despite the heavy losses, Kullikovo was of paramount importance for the unification of Russia. Under Moscow's leadership, the Russians had finally crushed the Tatars in a pitched battle. It resurrected the lost honour of the Kievan Rus and bolstered the idea of a strong Russian state under the aegis of Moscow. For Russians, the Kullikovo field was sacred. It marked the beginning of the rise of Russia - and the end of the Mongols.
But it was only the beginning of the end. Tokhtamysh, the new Khan of the Golden Horde, deposed of Mamai and swiftly assembled a new, massive army. In 1382, while Dmitri was touring Russia to assemble troops, Tokhtamysh swiftly captured Moscow and ravaged it, slaughtering thousands of inhabitants. When Dmitri returned, he wept bitterly and had no other choice than to sue for peace. He might have won Kullikovo, but he could not win a prolonged war.
Dmitri bitterly resubmitted himself as a vassal and resumed paying tribute. But this was realpolitik. A tormenting fate that Dmitri assumed to protect his citizens from more bloodshed. All his other actions remained still in defiance of the Khan. He formed "perpetual peace" treaties among Russian cities to secure everlasting unity of the Russian state. And when he died in 1389, he ceded all power to his son Vasily without seeking the Khan's approval.
Furthermore, his victory at Kullikovo changed the entire paradigm. Nothing was ever the same. As the famous Russian historian, Lev Gumilev, succinctly put it: “Russians went to Kulikovo Field as citizens of various principalities and returned as a united Russian nation." It changed the way people thought.
Tatar grip on the Russians was more insecure. Tributes were irregular, and the princes ruled somewhat independently. In 1439, the Tatars invaded to reassert a tighter grip on Russian politics, but all their invasions, though bloody, failed.
In 1476, Ivan III the Great of Moscow refused to pay tribute, triggering Ahmad Khan to invade. The two armies met at Ugra river in 1480. After days of fighting, a dismayed Ahmad withdrew and ceded victory to the Russians. This became known as the "Great Stand at Ugra river" and was the last battle in this long, epic tale of the Russo-Mongol wars. From that moment on, Russia was officially wrenched from Mongol control. The Tatar yoke of 240 years was finally ended.
Ivan, as Grand Prince of Moscow, was hailed the Grand Prince of "all the Rus". In 1500s, Ivan's grandson, Ivan IV the Terrible, would style this title differently: Tsar of Russia.
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