The Time of Troubles, Updated


I now declare my rewrite of my medieval Russian history papers complete.  The section covering the chaotic period from 1584 to 1613 is the last where I made major changes, so here it is.  I also moved a section about sailing the “Northeast Passage” (“North to the Orient”) here, from my European history folder, and added a few maps and one or two new paragraphs to the section entitled “The Early Romanovs,” but I don’t think those changes are big enough to warrant retelling those stories here.  If you want to check out those sections, go to .  And now let’s look at the anarchic time between Ivan the Terrible and Michael Romanov.

The Time of Troubles

1584 to 1613

For 29 years after the death of Ivan the Terrible there was no competent leadership in Moscow. Part of this was Ivan’s fault; in 1581, in a moment of rage, he killed his only promising son (also named Ivan) with a blow from the iron staff he habitually carried around. That left two other sons, the mentally retarded Fyodor and an infant named Dmitri. Unfortunately, with a monarchy you have to take what the royal family gives you, so Fyodor received the crown by default. He spent his 14-year reign saying prayers and listening to church bells, while his father-in-law, a member of the service gentry named Boris Godunov, ran the daily affairs of the country.

Ivan IV by Repin

Ivan the Terrible reacts with horror upon realizing that he killed his son. Painting by Elias Repin.

Halfway through the "reign" of Fyodor I, his brother Dmitri was found dead with his throat cut. It was never proved whether this was an accident or a murder. Official investigators, appointed by Godunov, declared that Dmitri suffered an epileptic seizure while playing with a knife and killed himself. Some Russians (including the nineteenth century writer Pushkin) believed that Godunov was responsible, in order to give himself a better claim to the throne; it is also possible that a boyar committed the deed, in an act of revenge against the family of Ivan the Terrible. Whatever the case, it was the death of this ten-year-old boy that caused all of the tragic events that followed in this period.

Seven years after Dmitri, Tsar Fyodor died childless, and with that the 700-year-old dynasty founded by Rurik came to an end. The Zemsky Sobor elected Boris Godunov to be the next tsar. Boris had proven himself to be a good prime minister, but after he became tsar nothing went right. The people never accepted him wholeheartedly because he could not trace his ancestry to the Rurikide tsars. Many boyars, including the influential Romanovs, opposed him for personal reasons, and the Church denounced his attempt to set up a Western-style university in Moscow as "foreign contamination." Boris accused the head of the Romanov family, Fyodor Romanov, of treason, and exiled him to a monastery outside Moscow, where he was forced to become a monk and change his name to Philaret. Meanwhile, drought and famine ravaged the land, causing armed mobs of desperate men to roam the countryside, plundering the estates of the rich.

Boris Godunov.

Boris Godunov.

On top of all this, a mysterious young man appeared (modern historians call him "False Dmitri"), who claimed that Dmitri’s assassins bungled their assignment and killed the wrong boy; now he, the "real" Dmitri, was coming out of seclusion to claim his rightful throne. He went to Poland, promised to make Russia a Catholic country if he gained the throne, and got a Polish army to back him up. Then he marched on Moscow, his band of warriors swelled by Cossacks and peasants along the way. Boris Godunov went to fight him, but bad luck intervened one more time; he had a fatal heart before he could battle the pretender. False Dmitri triumphantly entered Moscow, removed Godunov’s son (Fyodor II) from the throne, and was crowned tsar.

The young ruler, whoever he was, only lasted thirteen months. His obnoxious Polish guards & retainers offended the Muscovites. The Russian Orthodox Church was offended because he married a Polish noblewoman after becoming tsar, but allowed her to remain a Catholic. Some Muscovites suspected that he was not even a Russian at all, because he never took a bath.(5)A conspiracy, led by a boyar named Vasili Shuisky, slaughtered the Poles and False Dmitri. Shuisky was elected tsar and he showed what he thought of False Dmitri by burning his remains, stuffing them into a cannon and shooting it off in the direction of Poland.

Vasili IV, the "boyar tsar" (1606-10), found himself even less popular than his predecessors. A second False Dmitri appeared, as well as a "False Peter," who claimed to be the non-existent son of Fyodor I. In the south a former slave named Ivan Bolotnikov led a mass revolt of Cossacks, runaway peasants and vagabonds against all authority; the rebellion got all the way to the gates of Moscow before it was driven back. Vasili IV appealed to Sweden for military assistance in stopping False Dmitri II, and the king of Poland, Sigismund III, let Swedish intervention become his excuse to launch a second Polish invasion. The Poles took Smolensk in 1609, and Moscow in 1610; they removed Vasili, and persuaded the boyars to elect Sigismund’s son Wladislaw as the next tsar. However Sigismund opposed this move, partly because Wladislaw was a minor, and partly because the boyars expected Wladislaw to convert to Orthodoxy, so Sigismund claimed the throne for himself. Later, when Sigismund realized the Russians would never accept him as their ruler, he agreed to a compromise where he would act as regent until Wladislaw came of age. At any rate, the situation in Moscow was too dangerous for the Polish king and prince to stick around, so they left without a coronation taking place, meaning that for three years there was no tsar. To the northwest, Sweden launched its own invasion to get the Poles out of Moscow, taking Novgorod in 1611 and supporting a third False Dmitri’s claim to the tsar’s throne.

It looked like Russia would disintegrate completely as a nation, but it was saved by a miraculous reuniting of the people. Since we last saw him, Philaret had become a metropolitan (archbishop), and now he used the pulpit to rally the people in the name of patriotism and Orthodox Christianity; Holy Moscow, the "Third Rome," must not be allowed to fall to the Catholic "heretics" of the West. The Poles arrested Philaret and sent him to Poland as a prisoner, but his message went forth. Russians who heard it gave up one third of their possessions to finance a war of liberation, and soon a great national army–which to the Poles must have appeared to spring spontaneously out of the earth–marched on Moscow, led by a butcher named Kuzma Minin and a boyar named Dmitri Pozharsky. Praying, fasting, and implacable, it wiped out the Poles and liberated Moscow in November 1612, though it would take several more years and concessions of land to get the Poles and Swedes out of Russia altogether.

5. A common practice at the time. Russians bathed regularly but most Europeans avoided it as much as possible, thinking it unhealthy (!) and morally questionable, because the bathhouses of early medieval times were a good place to get your personal possessions ripped off.

Ivan the Terrible, Redone


The end of this rewrite project is in sight!  For this section I did not add or change as much as I did in the others.  Again, this is from Chapter 3 of my Russian history series.

Ivan the Terrible

1533 to 1584

Ivan IV was only three years old when his father Vasili III died. From that time until he grew up, the government was run first by his mother, then after her death by the boyars. The latter had seen enough of autocracy from the two previous tsars, so they tried to regain their lost privileges while they had the opportunity. According to Ivan’s own account, the boyars treated him with contempt verging on cruelty. They kept him separated from his friends and favorite servants and lolled about on his late father’s bed with their boots on. A group of them once burst into the boy’s chamber at dawn and engaged in a furious argument, frightening him into a panic. In public they beat their foreheads on the ground before him, but when alone Ivan had to go hungry and without proper clothes. Perhaps as a result of this, Ivan began very early to display the streak of sadism that marked him all his life; his earliest amusement was throwing small animals from the window of a Kremlin tower. In 1543, at the age of thirteen, Ivan had the most troublesome boyar murdered by the Kremlin dogkeepers, and thereafter he was ruler of Russia in fact as well as in name.

The early part of Ivan’s reign, up until about 1560, was his "good" period; most of the time he was rational, an able ruler who surrounded himself with advisors from all walks of life, including those from a peasant background; Ivan knew that ability and status are not necessarily found in the same people. He rewrote the law code and asked for forgiveness, both from God and from the people, for the past sins he had committed. Up until this time the boyars had been a most difficult group to control, since they had inherited large amounts of land and felt that they had no responsibilities to the tsar and the state beyond paying taxes. Many of them had private armies and dispensed justice within their own territories, making their lands virtually independent states within the state. Moreover, they could look across the border into Poland-Lithuania and see how much the nobility can do when the king is not watching them all the time; sometimes only anti-Catholic prejudice could keep them loyal to Muscovy. Ivan required the boyars to supply officers and men for his military campaigns, and used arbitrary confiscations and an occasional murder on those who disobeyed. Since the boyars were not trustworthy even when they complied, Ivan created a new nobility that was: the service gentry. Those who made up the service gentry were officers, given small to medium-sized estates as a reward for their service. Since the tsar could give or take away their lands at the drop of a hat, the service gentry remained loyal to him, and he used them as a check against the hereditary nobility.

Another way to limit the influence of the boyars was to limit what the boyars’ assembly, the Duma, could do. In 1550 a new assembly, the Zemsky Sobor ("Assembly of the Land"), convened for the purpose of checking the Duma. Its membership was made up of service gentry, clergy, merchants and a few loyal boyars. This was not a true parliament in the Western sense; its members were appointed, not elected, and it was meant to approve the tsar’s proposals, not debate or veto them. Still Ivan listened carefully to the grievances that were presented and took steps to remedy the causes of some of them.

Ivan IV

Ivan IV.

It was in his military campaigns that Ivan acquired his epithet, "the Terrible"; not because he was terrible to the Russians (though he was), but because he was terrible to Russia’s enemies. The introduction of gunpowder weapons had eliminated the old superiority of the mounted archer vs. infantry, and now the numerically superior Russians took the offensive. The Mongol Khanate of Kazan was conquered in 1552.(1) In 1554 Ivan installed a puppet ruler over the Khanate of Astrakhan, and when this individual rebelled, the Russians conquered Astrakhan, too (1556).

After the Volga conquests, Ivan IV gave tax breaks and vast land grants between the Volga and the central Urals, to Anikey Stoganov, one of the country’s richest merchants, who in turn organized settlement of the lands, farming, hunting, saltworks, fishing, ore mining, trade with Siberian tribes — whatever brought a profit. The local tribes gave the Stroganov family no trouble until 1563, when a member of the Shaybanid family, Kuchum, took over the nearest state, the Khanate of Sibir. In the 1570s he sent raids against the nearest Russian communities, including Perm. Ivan’s land grants included authorization to defend the lands against attacks by Russia’s enemies, so the sons of Anikey Stroganov hired a Cossack hetman named Yermak Timofeyevitch to command the defenses. A military expedition was organized, and 840 armed men crossed the Urals in late 1581. Following a three-day battle with Kuchum’s forces (the battle of Chuvash Cape, 1582), they captured Qashliq/Sibir; Yermak presented the Khanate, along with 5,200 furs collected from the natives, as gifts to the tsar. However, Kuchum could still gather reinforcements; in 1584 they attacked at night, took back Sibir and killed Yermak. The Cossacks had to withdraw to the European side of the Urals — their biggest gain at this point was the knowledge gained from exploring Siberia’s northwest corner — and this area saw a seesaw struggle between Russians and Siberians until 1598, when Kuchum conceded he was getting too old to keep on fighting, and went into exile. In 1587 Tobolsk was founded, where the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers meet and about twelve miles from the ruins of Sibir; this was the first Russian city in Siberia.

The one Mongol state remaining, the Khanate of the Crimea, could not be conquered because as we saw earlier, it was backed by the the Ottoman Empire. In fact, a devastating raid on Moscow by the Crimean Tatars in 1571 killed 100,000 people, showing that Russia’s weak spot was in the south.

Russia 1598

Russian expansion under Ivan IV and Fyodor I.

Ivan first turned his eyes toward Europe in 1553, when the English explorer Richard Chancellor, while searching for a "northeast passage" to the Orient, sailed into the White Sea. We will talk more about this expedition in the next section. From the White Sea Chancellor journeyed overland to Moscow and "discovered" Russia, a nation his countrymen knew almost nothing about. There was a political reason for this isolation; all of the states on Russia’s western frontier–Sweden, Poland, and the Ottoman Turks–were enemies, and they would not allow commerce between Russia and the rest of the world to pass through their territories. The king of Poland made this clear when he told England’s Queen Elizabeth I, "Up to now we could conquer him only because he was a stranger in education and did not know the arts." Despite this a trade agreement between England and Russia was signed, and the seaport of Archangel was built at the mouth of the Northern Dvina River to handle the trade. For most of the time between Ivan IV and Peter the Great, this would be Russia’s only port.(2)

On the shores of the Baltic, the Protestant Reformation finished off the Teutonic Knights; the last Grand Master dissolved the Order when he became a Lutheran in 1525, and while he continued to rule Prussia, he did so as a secular duke. However, the branch of the Order that had ruled Estonia and Latvia, the Livonian Knights, stayed in business, and now reappeared on the map of eastern Europe. Ivan looked west, saw that the Baltic lands were loosely organized and poorly defended, and thought this was an opportunity for an easy western victory to match his nearly bloodless ones in the east. At first it looked like it might work that way; the Livonian Knights suffered a crushing defeat in 1560 and were dissolved a year later. But Sweden, Poland and Denmark were in agreement that the eastern shore of the Baltic must not become Russian, so all of them now entered the fight. Thus, the Livonian War dragged on for 24 years (1558-82), and ended with a division of the disputed territory among the three Baltic powers: Sweden got northern Estonia, Denmark got the Estonian island of Saaremaa, and the rest went to Poland.(3)

In the same year that Ivan met the English expedition, he began slipping into the "bad" period of his life. First he suffered a nearly fatal illness, and he called the boyars to swear loyalty to his infant son. None of them did, and when he recovered he hated them more than ever. Then in 1560 his wife died, and Ivan really went crazy. Convinced that the boyars had poisoned her, he conducted a bloody purge in which not only boyars but their families and servants were murdered or imprisoned. Then he took his treasures and a few trusted servants, and moved to the town of Aleksandrov, 60 miles away. He stayed there in seclusion for a month, until thousands of people, both rich and poor, came there and begged Ivan to return; to them even a mad tsar was better than no tsar at all.

Ivan agreed to return on condition that he be given unlimited power against the "traitors" to the state. To do this he divided the country into two states within the state; the loyal half of Russia became the Oprichnina, and the rest was called the Zemshchina. The borders between Oprichnina and Zemshchina were a fantastic gerrymander that almost defies description; some streets in Moscow were part of the Oprichnina, for instance, but not others. Even individuals were divided; service gentry, the Stroganov family and English traders were classified as Oprichniks while most boyars and other Russian merchants were not. Then the citizens of the Oprichnina were turned loose to destroy all potential rebels, and anyone in the Zemshchina was fair game. For the next eight years (1564-72) lawlessness and terror swept the land, with people killed and dispossessed everywhere. Ivan went back to Aleksandrov and ruled a weird parody of a monastery. His Oprichniks were "monks" and he was the "abbot." After prostrating himself before an altar with such vehemence that his forehead would be bloody and covered with bruises, he would preach sermons on Christian virtues to his drunken retainers, fresh from torturing and raping victims in the cellars (He often participated in that, too.). Afterwards he would send lists of the victims to the Church so that prayers could be said for their souls; when the bloodbath killed so many that he lost track of the victims, Ivan merely remarked, "God knows their names."

When Ivan finally dissolved the Oprichnina, all resistance to his rule was dead, but the hereditary aristocracy had not been eliminated as a class; after they recovered they would cause trouble in the next generation. Ivan returned to Moscow and spent his last days wandering and howling through the palace, his cries audible to those outside. No longer even pretending to be a Christian, he brought in witches from parts of the far north where paganism still existed. One day in 1584 he looked better and called for his chessboard, but before he could begin the game he suddenly toppled backward and died. He was only 54.


1. Russia’s most famous building, the dazzling St. Basil’s Cathedral, was built to commemorate the victory over Kazan. Legend says that when it was finished, its beauty made Ivan so jealous that he blinded the architect, so that he would never build anything as gorgeous for somebody else.

2. Ivan once sent a marriage proposal to England’s Queen Elizabeth I, which she promptly turned down. It’s just as well; neither of them knew what they were missing!

3. In case you are wondering what happened to Lithuania, the Lithuanian government was dissolved with the signing of the Treaty of Lublin in 1569. Henceforth the Polish-Lithuanian union, now run by an elective monarchy, will be referred to as simply Poland.

Ivan the Great


Now from Chapter 3 of my Russian history series, here is how Ivan III, also called Ivan the Great, made Moscow great.

Ivan the Great

Because of the Golden Horde’s troubles from 1395 onward, Vasili I did not have to pay the full tribute the Mongols demanded; he paid nothing until 1412, and just sent the khan "gifts" after that. The next prince, Vasili II, was only ten years old when the crown passed to him, so he enjoyed a long reign (1425-62), but most of it was spent in a struggle over who was in charge. The trouble happened because Vasili I and his predecessor, Dmitri Donskoy, had written wills that conflicted with one another; Vasili I had understandably declared his son Vasili II would be his heir, while Dmitri’s will stated that if Vasili I died before his brother Yuri, Yuri would get the crown next. Now Vasili I did not have any sons while Dmitri was alive, but Yuri insisted it was too late to amend the will, and looked for a way to stake his claim. First, he tried to get the khan of the Great Horde to declare him prince, but the khan recognized Vasili II instead. Next, in 1433 Yuri raised and army and attacked Moscow. A see-saw struggle went on for a year, where Yuri won first and sent Vasili to the town of Kolomna, Vasili came back with a new army, Yuri withdrew to the town of Galich, and then marched on Moscow a second time. Vasili fled to Nizhny Novgorod, and Yuri captured his family and treasury; Yuri was planning to go after Vasili when he died suddenly in 1434. Yuri’s eldest son, Vasili the Cross-Eyed, immediately proclaimed himself the new Grand Duke, but the other son, Dmitri Shemyaka, joined the faction supporting Vasili II. When Vasili II returned to Moscow in 1435, Vasili the Cross-Eyed was captured and blinded, removing him as a contender.

The next challenge came from the new Khanate of Kazan. Vasili II had to flee when the Mongols attacked Moscow in 1439; in 1445, during a battle at Suzdal, they captured him, and held him until Moscow paid the ransom they demanded. Unfortunately for Vasili, his cousin Dmitri Shemyaka had run Moscow while he was held prisoner by the Mongols, and Dmitri had not forgotten what Vasili did to his brother. As soon as Vasili was returned, Dmitri had him blinded, so sometimes we refer to Vasili II as "Vasili the Blind." Then Dmitri had him exiled to outlying towns, first to Uglich, then to Vologda. But Vasili remained more popular than Dmitri, and by the end of 1446 he managed to gather enough supporters behind him to regain the throne. Dmitri withdrew northward, and a civil war waged between them until 1453, when Dmitri was poisoned. The sons of Dmitri fled to Lithuania, and Vasili removed the local princes that had supported Dmitri. Finally, during the civil war a Mongol prince named Qasim defected from Kazan, and Vasili installed him as prince of Novy Nizovoy, a town near Ryazan (1452). Soon that town was renamed Kasimov, and Qasim’s family ruled it until 1681. In that way, Vasili reversed the roles of lord & vassal that had existed for the past two centuries.

During the last nine years of his reign the blind Vasili was able to rule in peace, with the help of some boyars and the head of the Russian Church, Metropolitan Jonah. He also crowned his son Ivan III as co-ruler, which gave Ivan plenty of experience before Vasili’s death in 1462.

Ivan III (1462-1505), was a cautious man who "always took two bites at a cherry," preferred to let his troops go into battle without him (uncommon in the age of chivalry), and was afraid of the dark. Nevertheless, once he ruled alone, Ivan proved to be a shrewd leader, and is known to us as "Ivan the Great" for these accomplishments: the unification of Russia under Muscovite authority, the end of Mongol domination, and the transformation of the government into an absolute monarchy. These are described in more detail below.

1. Unification under Moscow: Like his ancestors, Ivan used every trick in the book to gain more land–cash purchase, inheritance, treaties signed under duress, and when all else failed, war. He started by buying Yaroslavl (1463) and Rostov (1474). He also conquered Novgorod (1478) and Tver (1485), and persuaded many Russian nobles in Lithuania to transfer their allegiance to Ivan; this move started the rolling back of the Polish-Lithuanian frontier. Ivan bequeathed to his son Vasili III a great nation covering 55,000 square miles, 110 times the size of the 500 sq. mi. fief that Alexander Nevsky had given Daniel 242 years earlier.

Ivan’s greatest triumph was the conquest of Novgorod, the last stronghold of Kievan Russian culture. We saw previously how the fortunes of "Lord Novgorod the Great" were riding high in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Its government, dominated by the Veche, was the most democratic one that Russia ever had; it could even, and often did, vote the prince of the city out of office. Ivan’s covetous eye upon Novgorod’s wealth, combined with large numbers of Muscovites moving to Novgorod’s lands in the Urals, brought a war in 1478. When Novgorod fell Ivan dissolved the Veche, carried the Veche’s bell (a symbol of liberty) off to Moscow, and deported the Novgorod boyars to remote areas, starting a practice for removing troublemakers that tsars and communist officials have used ever since. Finally, the lands held by Novgorod gave Moscow access to the White Sea and the Baltic Sea (via the Gulf of Finland). On the Baltic shore, next to the German town of Narva, Ivan built the fortress of Ivangorod in 1492, so two hundred years before Peter I, Russia had its first "window to the west."

2. Liberation from the Mongols: Ivan spent the 1470s forming alliances against the Golden Horde, with the Kazan and Crimean Khanates, and even Uzun Hasan, the current Turkish leader in western Iran. Once all those states were on his side, he announced he wasn’t going to pay tribute anymore. In 1480 the Mongols sent an army, the Muscovites sent theirs, and the two forces met on opposite banks of the Ugra River, 150 miles south of Moscow. Ahmed Khan was even more cautious than Ivan III, so for weeks they watched each other, neither willing to cross the river and make the first move. Ivan did not want to cross the river because he wasn’t confident he could win on the Mongol side, while Ahmed Khan was worried that troops from the Crimean Khanate would strike in the rear of his army. Finally the troops got restless and both sides went home. This curious stand-down, sometimes called "the non-battle of the Ugra," marks the end of Mongol domination over Russia. Nomad raids on Russia would be a problem as late as the eighteenth century, but never again did the Russians pay tribute to a foreign power.

Ahmed Khan was killed the following January, in a raid from his Siberian rivals, the Shaybanids. The last twenty-one years of the Golden Horde’s history saw constant fighting between three of Ahmed Khan’s sons: Shaykh Ahmed, Sayyid Ahmed II, and Murtada. This state of anarchy ensured that nothing the mini-khans tried would be successful. When they invaded Poland-Lithuania in 1487, they got as far as the Polish city of Lublin, before going down in defeat. Then in 1500 Muscovy went to war with Poland-Lithuania, and the Golden Horde allied itself with the latter, to stop Ivan III. But Ivan’s alliance with the Khanate of the Crimea was still good; in 1502 Mengli Giray, the Crimean khan, marched to the Volga, sacked Sarai, and the Golden Horde was no more. Finis.

3. The establishment of absolute monarchy: Ivan’s wife was Sophia Paleologus, a niece of the last Byzantine emperor, who had died fighting the Turks when they took Constantinople in 1453. This marriage made Ivan heir to whatever was left from Byzantium. He made the two-headed eagle, a symbol of the Byzantine emperors, the emblem of Moscow’s rulers, and gave himself a new title, Tsar, meaning "Caesar" (Czar in Polish). The Church helped by making some contributions of its own. Among them was a remarkable genealogy invented for Ivan that traced his lineage (correctly) back to the founding Varangian father, Rurik–but then went on to trace Rurik’s forefathers back through 15 fictitious generations to a brother of Caesar Augustus, "proving" that Ivan III was the heir of Rome & Byzantium not only by marriage, but by blood as well.

Ivan III

Ivan III.

More interesting to us is the "Third Rome" theory, first proposed at this time by a monk named Philotheos. Basically, it stated that when Rome fell to the barbarians in the fifth century, God gave His earthly authority to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. But eventually Constantinople also fell into sin, culminating with its submission to the pope in 1438, in a last-ditch effort to bring in help from the West before the city fell to the Turks. Now God’s city on earth was Moscow, the capital of the last Orthodox Christian nation; as Philotheos put it, "Two Romes have fallen, a third stands, and a fourth there shall not be." To those who subscribe to this theory, the Roman Empire’s final end came with the death of the last tsar in 1918.

Life under an autocratic Russia became more oppressive as time went on. The first to feel it were the boyars, who lost most of their privileges to Ivan III and his successors. Those who suffered the most, however, were those on the bottom of the social ladder–the peasants. In earlier times there were few restrictions placed on the movements of peasants, and they could work for anyone they liked. But the only way to guarantee a supply of peasant labor when it is needed is to bind each peasant firmly to one piece of land. The way the boyar landlords did that was to loan them money, forcing the peasants to keep working for the same landlord until the debt had been paid. Unfortunately most peasants could never earn enough to do that; most could barely meet the excessive interest rates charged them, and so they remained, year after year, in a condition not much better than bondage. This was the beginning of 400 years of Russian feudalism.

For those peasants who could not take this kind of life, the answer was to run away, to the southern and eastern frontiers of the country. Along the Dnieper and Don Rivers, these lawless frontiersmen adopted the nomadic life of the barbarians who had lived there before and came to be known as Cossacks. The Cossacks were fiercely independent, electing their leaders (known by the title of "hetman") by popular vote, and living by hunting, fishing, or raiding somebody else; farming was forbidden, because it symbolized the oppressive life they had freed themselves from. Since they hated the Poles, Lithuanians, Mongols and Turks as much as any other Russian did, they would help the tsar in his foreign wars, but if the tsar or the boyars tried to get their runaway peasants back, the Cossacks would proudly boast, "There is no extradition from the Don."

The next tsar, Vasili III (1505-33), was too colorless to be mentioned in most history books, but he completed the work of reunification that his father had started, annexing Pskov (1510) and Ryazan (1521), and taking Smolensk from Lithuania (1514). This left about three and a half million Russians still under Lithuanian rule, and it would take nearly three centuries before all of them were brought under the rule of the tsars.

The Golden Horde Breaks Up


Last time we covered how Moscow became the capital of Russia, and now it’s time to get rid of Russia’s oppressor in the late Middle Ages.  From the new chapter in my Russian history series, Muscovite Russia.

The Golden Horde Breaks Up

The liberation of the Russians from the Mongols was still a century away. Part of the reason for Dmitri Donskoy’s success was that the Golden Horde had been in turmoil for the past twenty years; there was a general, Mamai, but no khan. East of the Urals, the Golden Horde’s vassals, the White Horde, went through a similar spell of anarchy in the 1370s, until a member that ruling family, Tokhtamysh, came out on top. When Tokhtamysh heard about Kulikovo Pole, he charged west, defeated Mamai near the Sea of Azov, and made himself ruler of the Golden Horde as well. Next, he demanded tribute from the Russians, and when they refused, he marched against the Russian states to the north, sacking cities like Suzdal, Vladimir, Yuriel and Mozhaisk. He got to Moscow in August 1382; Dmitri fled from the city, Tokhtamysh persuaded the defenders to open the gates by promising a truce, and proceeded to burn down Moscow and kill 24,000 people. The Lithuanians tried to intervene in Russia at this point, so on his way home, Tokhtamysh defeated them near Poltava. Dmitri only kept his job by pledging loyalty to Tokhtamysh and to the Golden Horde, and thus was reinstated as chief Mongol tax collector and Grand Duke of Vladimir. Upon Dmitri’s death in 1389, his son Vasili I (1389-1425) inherited his titles, and he was the first Grand Duke to do this without first getting the khan’s permission.

Tokhtamysh at Moscow.

A sixteenth-century picture of Tokhtamysh at the gates of Moscow. This was the first battle we know of where the Muscovites used firearms, hence the cannon in one tower. Twenty-two years later (1404), a clock tower was built in Moscow; it was the first mechanical clock in Russia.

Fortunately for the Russians, the restoration of the Golden Horde was short-lived. Tokhtamysh was only successful because Timur (also called Tamerlane), the Turkish ruler of Uzbekistan, had been supporting him since 1376. Tokhtamysh had been defeated more than once while competing with his relatives for rule of the White Horde, and each time that happened, Timur gave him refuge and enough soldiers to win the next battle. Now that he had triumphed in Russia, and was ruler of a realm stretching from the Black Sea to Lake Balkhash, Tokhtamysh turned against his patron. With the Mongols gone from China and the Middle East, and those of Central Asia reduced to mere puppets of Timur, Tokhtamysh was the last descendant of Genghis Khan who was doing well. This gave him the idea that he could rebuild Genghis Khan’s empire, and he started by striking south of the Caucasus, invading the lands that the Golden Horde claimed, but never could keep. He got as far as Tabriz, in northwest Iran, and plundered it before returning home. That was a really bad move, for Timur had captured this area a few years earlier, and he was a better warrior; unlike Tokhtamysh, he never lost a battle.

Bust of Timur.

Timur / Tamerlane.

Timur retaliated with two invasions of Mongol-held Russia. For the first invasion, in 1391, he started from Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, passed through Kazakhstan, failed to find Tokhtamysh there, continued west across the Urals, and defeated his opponent in a battle on the Kondurcha River, near Samara. Tokhtamysh fled, and Timur did not follow, because he was already too far from home. When Timur came back for the rematch, in 1395, he chose a more direct route — from Iran through the Caucasus, aiming for the Golden Horde’s heartland. The critical battle came at the Terek River, where Timur won again; Tokhtamysh was overthrown, and Timur sacked Sarai and all other Golden Horde cities along the Volga, helping himself to a century and a half’s worth of accumulated wealth. To run the Mongol state, Timur installed rivals of Tokhtamysh: Temür Qutlugh as khan of the Golden Horde, Koirichak as khan of the White Horde, and Edigu as vizier for both.

The looting of the Mongol cities must have encouraged Timur to loot the Russians, too, because next he marched up the Don River, toward Moscow. The Russians couldn’t resist such a terrible conqueror, and Timur got as close as Yelets, a town 219 miles away, when he suddenly turned back. He never explained why he called off the campaign, and the Russians thought God had changed his mind; on the same day that Timur ordered the retreat, a popular icon, Our Lady of Vladimir, arrived in Moscow and was paraded around the top of the city walls. This is the first of several mysterious occasions where the Russians believed that divine intervention saved them.

This time Tokhtamysh fled to Lithuania and tried to get the help of Grand Duke Vytautas in regaining his thrones, but they were defeated in 1399 near the Vorskla River, a tributary of the Dnieper, by Temür Qutlugh and Edigu. Then Tokhtamysh fled to Siberia, where he was killed in the Tyumen district in 1406, by Edigu’s agents. With him gone, Muscovy resumed its growth, and the Khanate resumed its devolution. From 1395 to 1433 the Golden Horde had twelve khans, making for an average reign of only three years. During the first half of this period Edigu was the one who held the most power, becoming in effect a "majordomo of the palace"; in 1408 he led a raid against the Russian cities, which had not paid tribute since 1395. The arrangement came undone, though, in 1412, when the crown of the Golden Horde passed to the sons of Tokhtamysh, and they didn’t like being told what to do; one of them had Edigu assassinated in 1419. However, Edigu’s tribe, the Nogai Horde, became a significant player in Mongol politics; some of them joined the Crimean Khanate (see below), while the rest settled on the north shore of the Caspian Sea until the 1630s, when another Mongolian tribe, the Kalmyks, moved into the area.

East of the Urals, the White Horde was more stable, having just four khans over a fifty-year-span. That ended with the overthrow of the White Horde in 1446 by Abu’l-Khayr Khan, a descendant of Shiban, a grandson of Genghis Khan we mentioned in the previous chapter. This faction and the Turkic tribe it led have been known by several names over the ages. In the thirteenth century they were the Grey Horde; in the fifteenth century they were the Shaybanids; today they are called Uzbeks. Likewise two sons of Baraq, a khan of the Golden Horde overthrown in a 1427 coup, claimed the land between the Ural and Syr Darya Rivers, and thus became the founders of the Kazakh Khanate.

Gradually the Shaybanids moved southward, no surprise since Central Asia must have looked more appealing than the frozen lands they were leaving. Behind them a new Mongol state appeared, the Khanate of Sibir; it is from this state that Siberia got its present-day name. Founded some time between 1405 and 1428 by Taibuga, a prince of uncertain origin, it was centered in the valleys of the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers; it also claimed the lands to the north of those rivers, all the way to the Arctic Ocean, and everything east as far as the Yenesei River. Most of its rulers followed Islam, making the Khanate the northernmost Moslem state that ever existed, but because the area they ruled included Finno-Ugric tribes like the Samoyeds, Khanty and Mansi, a large portion of the population remained pagan/shamanist. Control over the realm was contested between two families, Taibuga’s descendants and the Shaybanids. At first the capital was at Chimgi-Tura (modern Tyumen); in the 1490s it was moved to Qashliq (Sibir in Russian).

Among the fifteenth-century Golden Horde khans, Küchük Muhammad (1435-59) had the longest reign, but he was no more effective than the rest. The Circassians, a Christian tribe on the north side of the Caucasus, were independent by 1424, and under Küchük Muhammad, other areas on the periphery of the Khanate broke away. One of his predecessors, Ulugh Muhammad, had ruled as khan twice, and after he was deposed the second time, he escaped upstream to the city of Kazan. Here he declared independence, founding the Khanate of Kazan in 1438. This state, in terms of its location on the upper Volga and its Moslem population, very much resembled the Volga Bulgar kingdom that had existed before 1236.

The next part of the Khanate to go was the Crimean peninsula. The leader of the tribesmen living in this area was Hajji Giray; he traced his ancestry to Tuq-Timur (also spelled Toqa Temür), the thirteenth son of Genghis Khan’s son Juchi, so while he was not part of the royal family ruling the Golden Horde, he was a distant relative. At some point in the 1420s, he began to fight for independence, but he does not appear to have succeeded before 1441, when the first coins bearing his name were minted. Then in 1449, after some rivals were defeated, Hajji Giray was crowned first khan of the Crimea. He ruled until his death in 1466, and his subjects thought he looked so impressive that they nicknamed him Melek, meaning Angel. For his capital, he built a fortress at Qirq Yer in the southern Crimea; the modern town of Bakhchysarai would spring up next to it later. Finally, we believe Hajji Giray acquired the chunk of Ukrainian territory that the Crimean Khanate held in the late fifteenth century: everything between the Dnieper and Don Rivers, extending north as far as Yelets and Tambov.

The Khanate of the Crimea never took over the trading ports the city of Genoa owned on the Crimean peninsula’s coast, like Kaffa. Hajji Giray let their commerce continue freely, allowing his government to share in the profits, and his descendants did the same at first. But then in 1475 a fleet arrived from Sultan Mohammed II of the Ottoman Empire, the new power in the Middle East. The current khan, Mengli Giray, took part in the defense of the Italian ports, until the Ottoman Turks captured him, took him to Constantinople, and threw him in prison. They let him return in 1478, when Mengli Giray swore fealty to the sultan; now both he and the Khanate were vassals of the Turks. However, this worked to the benefit of the Khanate. Because the Turks now controlled the Black Sea, they could send ships and men to aid Mengli Giray and his successors, so as long as the Turks were stronger than the Russians, the defense needs of the Khanate were assured. In fact, the Turks remained stronger for the next three hundred years, and that is exactly how long the Khanate lasted; the Russian couldn’t take it until they had beaten the Turks first.

Küchük Muhammad had two sons, Ahmed Khan bin Küchük and Mahmud bin Küchük. Mahmud ruled first (1459-65), but he could not get along with his brother Ahmed, and eventually was forced to flee. He went to Xacítarxan (Astrakhan in Russian), a city in the Volga River delta, and there in 1466 he founded yet another breakaway state, the Khanate of Astrakhan. With the Volga delta gone, the only land left for Ahmed Khan (1465-81) to rule was the Golden Horde’s core territory, the middle Volga valley. Historians sometimes refer to the Golden Horde at this point as the Great Horde, to distinguish it from the smaller states that were part of it before the fifteenth century. By now Ivan III was in charge of Muscow, so let us return to the leading Russian state and see how the Muscovites gained the initiative against their opponents.

Map of Europe in 1487.

A map of Europe in 1487. I am posting it here because on the right you can see the last remnant of the Golden Horde, surrounded by the states the seceded from it: the Khanates of Kazan, the Crimea, and Astrakhan. From The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History.

The Rise of Muscovy

No, not Muscovy ducks.  We’re talking about the country that used to be called Muscovy, until it ruled all of Russia.  From Chapter 3 of my Russian history series.


The Rise of Muscovy

Novgorod was the most important Russian city in the late thirteenth century. We saw how Alexander Nevsky kept the Mongols from plundering Novgorod, and being part of the European trade network made it the richest Russian city as well. The goods exported from Russia in the past remained in demand, especially amber, but with living standards improving in Europe (for Europeans, the best years of the Middle Ages occurred in the thirteenth century), the demand for furs increased greatly. One reason for the increased demand was because Europeans had more money to spend. The other reason was that the supply of fur-bearing animals was running low in other parts of Europe, thanks to over-hunting by fur trappers and the cutting down of forests to make room for more farms and towns. Even around Russian cities which had been important in the past, like Kiev, it was getting harder to make a living by fur trading; the trappers had literally killed the fox with the golden pelt, so to speak. However, the northern taiga had not yet been fully exploited, and Novgorod’s northern location, combined with the Mongols sacking the other north Russian cities, meant Novgorod was the city best suited to take advantage of the fur trade moving north.

Map of the Republic of Novgorod, 1400.
Territory held by the Republic of Novgorod, 1400. The city of Novgorod itself is located in the lower left corner of the green area.
Picture source:

Novgorodian fur traders set up outposts as far away as the northern Urals, and in the process of exploring the land, they reached the mouth of the Ob River, in northwest Siberia. This allowed Novgorod to claim all land north of the other Russian cities, making it the largest Russian state in the thirteen and fourteenth centuries (see the above map). As you might expect, the traders bagged some of the fur-bearing animals, but more often they enlisted the Finno-Ugric tribes of the taiga, like the Komi, to do the hunting for them. If both the traders and the natives were in a friendly mood, they could exchange furs for Russian-made goods, such as iron cooking pots and axes; otherwise the traders might demand a certain number of furs as a tax or tribute, and the indigenous people would pay up to avoid trouble.

1658 woodcut of a squirrel hunt.

For the European market, the furs most in demand were squirrel pelts, because it had become fashionable to edge woolen pieces of clothing with squirrel fur. Unfortunately, we now think the Black Death got started when the hunters caught some Russian squirrels infected with bubonic plague. Picture source:

At this point I like to speculate on a question fit for alternate history: What if Novgorod became the capital of a reunited Russia, instead of Moscow? Would Russia have become a commercially-oriented state, less traumatized by Mongol oppression, and less inclined to have an authoritarian/totalitarian government? In this universe, it was not meant to be, for in the fourteenth century, power among the independent Russian city-states would shift back to where it had been in the twelfth century — to one of the cities in the northeast. The city of Vladimir never fully recovered after the Mongols sacked it in 1238, but the strongest prince in this region was still called the Grand Duke of Vladimir, allowing him to call his state the Great Principality of Vladimir, whether he lived in Suzdal, Moscow or wherever. Probably the first sign that things were changing came in the 1330s, when the prince of Moscow began “flipping” the fur traders in the Urals, persuading them to switch their loyalty from Novgorod to him.

Before 1300 Moscow was an insignificant city, dwarfed by larger neighbors such as Rostov, Ryazan, Suzdal and Tver. Its true importance was illustrated by Alexander Nevsky’s last will & testament; the lands he ruled were divided between his thirteen sons, and Moscow went to Daniel, the youngest. Daniel proved to be a more than competent leader, though, by conquering two neighboring tracts of land, including the city of Kolomna, and claiming a third when its owner died childless. When Daniel’s reign ended in 1303, he left his heirs a principality that was twice as big as when he started.

The next important Muscovite prince was Ivan I (1328-41), nicknamed Kalita, or “Moneybag.” Ivan was so good at acquiring money that once the Mongols gave him the yarlyk, or tribute-collecting permit, he kept it for his entire reign, and he used it to enrich Moscow greatly. As a token of respect for his efficient leadership, the Khan also gave Ivan the title of Grand Duke of Vladimir, and he looked the other way when Ivan added to it the portentous phrase “and of all Russia.”


How Muscovy grew, 1300-1462.

The next eight monarchs that ruled Moscow, from Simeon to Ivan IV, were all successful at enlarging the Muscovite state, never passing up an opportunity to grab some more land for Moscow. That was one reason why Moscow grew to become the most important city of modern Russia, and others are listed below:

1. Moscow’s central location between the other surviving Russian city-states of the fourteenth century.

2. Muscovite princes were long-lived and more competent than their counterparts in other cities.

3. Russian princes were still following the custom of dividing their estates equally between their sons, though it had caused nothing but trouble since Kievan times. Moscow modified this practice: one son was given the lion’s share of the inheritance, forcing the other sons to submit to him if they wished to keep the scraps of land left to them.

4. The support of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1300 the leader of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan of Kiev, transferred his see (headquarters) to Vladimir, but only stayed there for a few years before he decided he liked living in Moscow better. From this time on the clergy actively helped manage the state, and they used the weapon of excommunication against Moscow’s enemies.

It was under the prince Dmitri Donskoy (1359-89) that Moscow became strong enough to do what was once unthinkable: fight the Golden Horde and win. In 1378 he stopped paying tribute, and the Mongols gathered together 200,000 troops for the usual punitive expedition. Unlike the times before this, the other Russian city-states stopped their petty bickering and helped Moscow assemble an army of 150,000, and the Church sent its blessings as well. At the battle of Kulikovo Pole (Snipe’s Field, September 8, 1380), the Mongols were defeated and sent fleeing back south, but at a awful cost; only 40,000 able-bodied Russians survived, and Dmitri himself was found half dead and surrounded by corpses, his armor shattered and pounded in. Dmitri became a national hero, and the memory of Kulikovo Pole made the Russians stop asking if the Mongol yoke can be thrown off; the new question was, “When will liberation come?”

Pavel Ryzhenko's painting of Kulikovo.

The battle of Kulikovo Pole. From a 2005 painting by Pavel Ryzhenko.

The Rise of Lithuania


And now I have greatly expanded the section on how Lithuania got started.  Previously there were only two short paragraphs on this subject.  Now it is the first section for Chapter 3 of my Russian history series.


The Rise of Lithuania


Map of the Baltic tribes.

This map appeared in the previous chapter, but you will probably need to see it again, to keep track of the tribe names. From Wikimedia Commons.

After their defeat on Lake Peipus, the Teutonic Knights did not go for a rematch with the Russians because back in their home base of Prussia, a revolt broke out at the same time. The rebel tribes destroyed all but three forts and settlements belonging to the Germans, and it took seven years for the Knights to regain control (1242-49). To prevent any more trouble, the Papacy urged the Knights to be lenient with their opponents. The result was the 1249 Treaty of Christburg, which promised that Prussians who became Catholics would have the same rights as Germans and Poles; they could buy, sell and litigate on equal terms with the other groups, and even become priests and knights.

The last pagan stronghold in Europe, a group of people the Christians could never conquer, were the Lithuanians. When civilized nations first encountered them, the Lithuanians were divided between two tribes, the Samogitians (lowlanders) and the Aukštaitians (highlanders), with several chiefs over each tribe. Then in the early thirteenth century, threats from the Poles, Russians, Crusaders and Mongols persuaded the Lithuanians to pull themselves together into one state. After they won the battle of Saule in 1236, five senior dukes and their followers fought among themselves, until an Aukštaitiai duke, Mindaugas, came out on top in 1240. At this point, Mindaugas became the first Grand Duke, borrowing a title used by the leaders of major Russian city-states. At this stage, if you count the Samogitians, whom Mindaugas did not firmly control, the infant Lithuanian state had almost the same borders as Lithuania has today. But he did not stop there; he expanded southward, conquering the cities of Hrodna, Brest, Navahrudak and Slonim, a territory in modern-day Belarus called Black Ruthenia. To the east, he had relatives installed as the princes of Minsk, Polotsk and Vitebsk.

Suddenly in 1251, Mindaugas accepted baptism from the Teutonic Knights. Then he made this arrangement with the Crusaders: they could have the land of the Samogitian tribe, an acquisition that would link their Prussian and Livonian territories, and they could even have his lands should Mindaugas die without an heir, which was likely in those violent times. In effect Mindaugas was doing the opposite of what Alexander Nevsky did — he joined his opponents in the west so he could concentrate on fighting his adversaries to the east.

The delighted pope sent a crown, and Mindaugas was crowned as Lithuania’s first (and only) king on July 6, 1253. For this reason July 6, the anniversary of the coronation, has been a holiday since present-day Lithuania became independent in 1991. However, the conversion did not last because the Samogitians wanted nothing to do with Christians. In fact, in 1260 they inflicted a major defeat on the Teutonic Knights in 1260, at Durbe in Latvia’s Kurland peninsula; 150 knights were killed, including the Livonian Grandmaster, and in the aftermath, more revolts broke out in Latvia and Prussia. Then the Samogitians offered to submit to the rule of Mindaugas if he renounced his Christianity, so in 1260 he went back to being a pagan, a move which also made him leader of the anti-Crusader rebellion. The church he had built in his capital, Vilnius, became a pagan temple; today it is part of Vilnius Cathedral. However, Mindaugas did not remain in charge for long; he was assassinated by a brother-in-law in 1263, the monarchy was abolished, and a civil war broke out among the dukes, which lasted for a generation.

Even with Lithuania in anarchy, it did not break up, and it took a while before the Christians enjoyed any more success. By now the pagans had copied the weapons, tactics and military organization of their opponents, allowing them to beat the Crusaders at their own game. In the early 1260s, the pope had been planning a Crusade against the Mongols, but the situation for the Teutonic Knights looked so bad that he told the Crusader recruits to go to the Baltic instead, promising that all their sins would be forgiven if they fought for the Order, even if only for a little while. They put down the pagan rebellion in Kurland by 1267, and the rebellion in Prussia by 1274. Settlers from northern Germany came to the secured areas, especially in Prussia. By 1283, the conquest/subjugation of Prussia was complete. The indigenous Prussians disappeared as an ethnic group; those who did not emigrate to Lithuania had to learn German. Even the name "Prussian" was appropriated by the German settlers for themselves. That is why, when a "Kingdom of Prussia" appeared in 1701, it would be a German-speaking state. In 1291 the Teutonic Knights reconquered Semigalia, the part of Latvia around Riga, and since they lost their original headquaters, at Acre in the Middle East, in the same year, the Baltic now became the main center for Crusader activity. For a few years they had their headquarters at Venice, but then in 1309 they moved it to Marienburg in the Vistula River delta; here they built Malbork, which eventually became the world’s largest brick castle.

For Lithuania, order returned when Vytenis (1295-1316) became Grand Duke. He successfully defended the realm from Crusader attacks, and began a wave of expansion to the east, annexing the city of Polotsk in 1307. Because of this annexation, Polotsk is one of the two medieval Russian cities that never paid tribute to the Mongols (the other is Turov, in southern Belarus). Evidently the Russians in this area saw pagan Lithuanian rule as an acceptable alternative to the Mongol yoke. To the west, he got involved in Poland’s succession disputes, because his favorite candidate, Boleslav II of Mazovia, was married to a Lithuanian duchess. However, the biggest success of Vytenis required both arms and diplomacy — an alliance with Riga, a city you would expect to be his enemy. The Archbishop of Riga and the city burghers disagreed with the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights on how to run Riga, and tensions between the two sides grew until open fighting broke out in 1297. Because the Knights were his archenemy, Vytenis offered his services to the residents of Riga, they accepted, and the Lithuanians marched in, destroying a castle north of Riga, and killing twenty-three Livonian Knights in battle, including the master of the order. Between 1298 and 1313 Vytenis sent eleven raids into Prussia, kept a garrison stationed outside of Riga, and traded with the Rigans. Pope Boniface VIII demanded an explanation of what was going on, representatives of Riga and the Archbishop told him how the Knights had become heavyhanded ruffians, and the Knights in turn pointed to all the converts they had made over the past century, so the pope ordered everyone to accept a compromise.

The next Lithuanian Grand Duke, Gediminas (1316-41), inherited a realm that was hard pressed by attacks from the Teutonic Knights, who claimed their mission was to convert Lithuania, but were simply raiding it. At first he allied himself with the Mongols against the Germans, then granted concessions to the Dominican and Franciscan monks already preaching in Lithuania; in 1323 he even accepted baptism as a Catholic, and had his daughter Aldona baptized so she could marry King Casimir III of Poland. Only the marriage was a success. Prussian bishops, who had always supported the Teutonic Knights, refused to accept Gediminas as a convert, while Russians denounced him for embracing what they saw as a heresy, and pagan Lithuanians were upset that he had abandoned their ancestral faith. Thus, less than a year after his baptism, Gediminas returned to paganism. He did better when it came to enlarging the realm, adding a southward expansion to the previous eastward expansion. These acquisitions included Vitebsk, Brest, Pinsk, Turov, and the Berezina River basin, so that by the end of his reign, the Lithuanian state ruled all of present-day Belarus, in addition to Lithuania. Finally, at home he built a wooden castle in Vilnius, the oldest part of the Vilnius castle complex; although it was replaced by a brick castle in the next century, it is still called Gediminas Tower in memory of him, and has become the most important landmark in the capital.

Lithuanian map thumbnail.

The growth of Lithuania, 1200-1500. This is a thumbnail picture, click on it to see the full-sized map (874 KB, opens in a separate window). From Wikimedia Commons.

After Gediminas’ death, he was given a pagan funeral; he was cremated, and his favorite servant and several German slaves were burned on the pyre with him. His third son, Jaunutis, took over, only to be deposed in 1345 by his elder brothers, Algirdas and Kestutis. These two then shared the realm: while Algirdas ruled from Vilnius, Kestutis built himself a castle in the Trakai district, a few miles to the west. This meant that Kestutis would defend the western lands from the Teutonic Knights, and Algirdas would handle military affairs in the south and east. With the Golden Horde declining, and the Russian states in the Ukraine fighting among themselves, Algirdas was able to make spectacular gains, such as Chernigov, Kursk, Bryansk and Kiev; Lithuania now challenged Mongol control over the western Ukraine. However, the remaining Russian state in the region, Galicia, was conquered by Poland, and when Algirdas fought a war with the new state of Muscovy, he besieged Moscow twice, in 1368 and 1370, but did not take that city.

Algirdas died in 1377, and he was cremated on a pyre with eighteen horses and many of his possessions, like a chieftain from an earlier time. His son Jogaila succeeded him in Vilnius, but he could not get along with his uncle Kestutis. A civil war broke out between them in 1380, and Kestutis won the first round, driving Jogaila from Vilnius and proclaiming himself the new Grand Duke. However, Jogaila was preferred by his father’s vassals, allowing him to raise an army and come back in 1382. From Vilnius, Jogaila marched to Trakai, and Kestutis and his son Vytautas went there as well, expecting to negotiate a settlement; instead Jogaila seized the two and threw them into prison. There Kestutis died a week later, while Vytautas escaped, fled to the Teutonic Knights, and was baptized in Marienburg.

An invasion of Lithuania by the Teutonic Knights in 1383 showed they were still a serious menace. So much of a menace, in fact, that Jogaila and Vytautas buried the hatchet; in return for Vytautas turning against the Knights, Jogaila gave back his fiefdom in Trakai. Fortunately for the Grand Duke, the Knights had made enemies of their other neighbors, and Jogaila could get one of them on his side if he became a Christian. The question was: Should he convert to Orthodoxy in order to secure help from Muscovy, or join Catholicism to gain an alliance with Poland?

A vacant Polish throne decided the answer. Poland’s Casimir III had died without leaving an heir in 1370, and he bequeathed his crown to his nephew, Louis I of Hungary. Louis was a very capable ruler for both countries, but then he made the same mistake as Casimir by leaving only daughters. The eldest daughter, Mary, received Hungary, and the second, Jadwiga or Hedwig, became the queen of Poland. Both of them were minors, so they would need husbands to survive in the medieval world, and Jogaila found out he could marry Jadwiga if he was a Catholic. Therefore he accepted baptism in 1386, the wedding took place, and Jogaila became King Wladyslaw II Jagiello of Poland. However, the Lithuanian nobility would not accept the new arrangement while Jogaila was both Grand Duke and king, and the Poles soon decided he was giving too much attention to Lithuania and not enough attention to them. To satisfy both groups, he made Vytautas, his cousin and former enemy, the next Grand Duke. A wave of baptisms followed: the Lithuanian nobility were baptized fairly quickly, the Aukštaitians were baptized in 1387, and the Samogitians underwent baptism in 1413. In that way Lithuania accepted Christianity at last. Equally important, the Polish-Lithuanian union formed by the 1386 wedding would last for 400 years. Though it was a dual monarchy, in effect one nation with two governments, as long as both heads of state were in agreement on military affairs and foreign policy, the union worked better than you might expect.

Re-enactor dressed as a knight.

Just for fun, here is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who followed the example set by the Polish-Lithuanian union. Should we say he got medieval on his girlfriend?

Lithuania’s best years began with the reign of Vytautas (1392-1430). To the east, Lithuania captured Smolensk (1395); this acquisition put the eastern frontier within striking distance of Pskov, Novgorod, and Moscow. To the south, Lithuania gained loose control over the Black Sea shore. To the southeast, Lithuania contested with Muscovy for control of the Verkhovsk district. Sophia, the daughter of Vytautas, married Vasili I, the prince of Moscow, so for most of the fiteenth and sixteenth centuries, Moscow’s rulers had both Lithuanian and Russian ancestry.

However, the most important achievement was in the west — the breaking of the power of the Teutonic Knights. The Knights reached their peak in 1398, when the latest round of fighting ended with Vytautas ceding the Samogitian district to them; the Knights now ruled Estonia, Latvia, Prussia, and the western half of present-day Lithuania. As long as Lithuania had practiced paganism, slavery and human sacrifice, the Teutonic Order could claim its cause was a righteous one, but now that Lithuania was Christian, the Baltic Crusades were over; any conflicts after this were ordinary wars. To justify continued hostilities, the Knights claimed that the conversion of the Lithuanians was not genuine, or that they actually practiced a heresy. Most Europeans did not buy it, though, so when Vytautas and Wladislaw launched an invasion of Prussia with their combined armies, Russians from Smolensk, Mongols from the Golden Horde, and mercenaries from central Europe went with them. Against this, the Teutonic Knights could only call on more mercenaries. Figures on the numbers of soldiers involved are not available; all we know for sure is that the Polish-Lithuanian coalition was larger, and this was one of the largest battles fought in medieval Europe. Because the Teutonic Knights wore heavier armor, had more artillery (100 cannon, compared with 16 cannon for the coalition) and a more fearsome reputation, the battle would not be decided by numbers alone.

The site of the showdown is called Tannenberg in German, Grünwald in Polish, and Žalgiris in Lithuanian. Here the opposing armies met on the morning of July 15, 1410, and fought for ten hours. The initial clashes drove the Lithuanians from the field, and the Teutonic Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen, launched a charge against the Poles, in the hope of killing King Wladyslaw. Instead, some of the Lithuanians returned at this point, and von Jungingen was the one killed. Now with the Grand Master and the most of their leadership dead, it was the Knights’ turn to flee. Some escaped into the forest, while others went to a nearby village and tried to build a defensive barricade by chaining wagons together (an early example of "circling the wagons"). But that only caused the village’s residents to join the victors in killing the Knights; it was said that more bodies were found in the village than anywhere else after the battle.

The Polish-Lithuanian coalition went on from Tannenberg to Marienburg, where they razed the town, but Malbork Castle was too strong for them to take. In the treaty ending the war, the Teutonic Order did not lose much land; they mainly had to give Samogitia back to Lithuania. For them the real loss came from the number of knights lost, the reparations they had to pay, and the cost of paying the ransoms for all of their soldiers captured. Those losses and expenses sent the Order into a death spiral. After Tannenberg they won no more victories. With the Thirteen Years War (1454-66), which began with the revolt of the burghers and nobles in Prussia, Poland invaded and took away Marienburg, forcing the Grand Master to set up a new capital at Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad). The end result of this war was that West Prussia went to Poland, and the Teutonic Knights had to swear vassalage to the king of Poland to keep the rest.

In the past few sections of this narrative, we have gone to great length to tell what non-Russians were doing in territories that have been considered Russian more recently. The most important effect of all these activities is that because the Eastern Slavs had been divided and conquered politically, they also were permanently divided ethnically. The Slavs under Lithuanian rule developed cultural and linguistic differences from their brethren and became known as "White Russians," Byelorussians, or Belarusians. Those who lived under the Mongol thumb became the Ukrainians or "Little Russians" of today. The Russians in the city-states along the Volga intermarried with the Finns who had inhabited the area before the twelfth century, and became the "Great Russians," the group that by virtue of numbers has dominated Russia ever since.

The Golden Horde


Another expanded section, now uploaded here.

The Golden Horde

Throughout the 1240s and 1250s the Mongol Empire continued to grow, until it was too large to be effectively governed from one place. Thus, under Genghis Khan’s grandsons it broke up into four smaller but still formidable states. Batu Khan’s family received the portion described previously — the valley of the Volga, the plains just north of the Caucasus, a piece of Kazakhstan, and western Siberia — with the Ukraine added. They built a capital city named Sarai near the Volga delta, but because its inhabitants were used to the nomadic life, it was basically a tent city. At an uncertain later date, another capital, New Sarai, was built a few miles upstream, with more real buildings than tents. Sometimes we call this city Sarai Berke, out of the belief that this project was done by Batu’s brother Berke. And as noted in an earlier section, Batu’s descendants (the so-called "Blue Horde") were the official rulers, but descendants of Batu’s brothers Orda and Shiban were the ones really in charge of the lands east of the Urals.

Batu Khan.

Batu Khan.

Unlike the Mongols in the Persian and Chinese portions of the empire, the ruling elite refused to adopt the civilization of their subjects, but tried to hold onto both their identity and the customs of the steppe. To give one example, a few Mongols were Christian, but instead of following the Catholic or Orthodox Churches, these Mongols were Nestorians, a Christian denomination that had been based in Asia since the fifth century. Still, it appears that they were outnumbered by the Turkic tribes (Polovtsi, Bulgars, Kyrgyz, Khazars, etc.) living around them, and were absorbed within two generations; e.g., after 1280, the Golden Horde’s coins bore Turkish inscriptions instead of Mongolian ones. Europeans didn’t bother to distinguish between the different Mongol and Turkic groups living on the steppes, and tended to simply call them all "Tartars."(8)

The Golden Horde

Map of the Golden Horde.

The Mongols chose not to rule the Russians directly, because in the forests of northern and western Europe, the mounted archers of the steppes would find both their speed and the range of their arrows reduced, putting them at a great disadvantage against the natives. Instead, they gathered tribute every year, giving one of the Russian princes a permit called a yarlyk to gather the wealth of Russia for the Khan. If the annual collection of gold and slaves did not meet the Khan’s demands, the Mongols would raid the offenders to show they meant business. Any tribute gathered beyond what the Mongols called for went to the holder of the yarlyk, so the Russian princes often fought for the right of holding this "honor." Under this system the Russians learned a lot about tyranny, brutality, and inhumanity in general, and it shows in the types of governments they would establish in the future. Before 1240 the Russians were generally a friendly, trusting people; those traits do not characterize the Russians who have lived since then.(9)

Batu died in 1255. His son Sartaq, a Nestorian Christian, happened to be in Mongolia at the time; the Great Khan approved of him succeeding Batu, but as soon as he got back from this trip he died, too. The Great Khan next appointed a ten-year-old named Ulaghchi. We don’t know if Ulaghchi was a son or a brother of Sartaq, and it doesn’t matter, for he was just as short-lived. Berke, Batu’s brother, took over after this, and his reign of nine years (1257-66) meant he was the first khan after Batu to get anything done.

Berke was a ruler of action. To the west, he let Europeans know the Khanate still meant business by launching a raid into Lithuania, Poland and Prussia (1259-60), which sacked the Polish cities of Sandomierz and Cracow, devastated the Teutonic Knights, and persuaded the king of Hungary to come and pay him homage. Berke also demanded a meeting with the most powerful king in western Europe, Louis IX of France, but both the khan and the king were too busy for such a meeting to ever take place. Then in 1265 he sent a raid into the Balkans to trash Bulgaria and Byzantine Thrace.

However, it was his actions regarding religion that put the Khanate on a new course. Berke was the first Mongol khan to embrace Islam, having converted while on a trip to Central Asia in the 1240s. However, he did not end Genghis Khan’s tolerance for all religions, and it took another fifty years for the rest of the ruling family to accept the new faith. One result was that it poisoned relations between him and Hulagu, his cousin who had been assigned the Middle Eastern portion of the Mongol Empire. Berke denounced Hulagu for destroying Baghdad and executing the last Abbasid caliph. At first he held off, resisting the temptation to start a war among family members, but when another war broke out in the east between two brothers of Hulagu, Kublai and Ariq Böke, over who would become the next Great Khan, Berke supported the claim of the latter. Then in 1261 he gave in and started a border war with Hulagu; besides claiming to avenge Islam, he wanted the province of Azerbaijan, part of Hulagu’s realm that contained good pasture lands for horses. This conflict in the neighborhood of the Caucasus lasted for the rest of Berke’s reign; neither side won a decisive victory, and no territory changed hands. In 1263, he forged an alliance with the Mamelukes, the new dynasty of ex-slaves ruling Egypt, and together the Golden Horde and the Mamelukes stopped further Mongol expansion into the lands south and west of Iraq; that probably saved both Jerusalem and Mecca from the ravages of a Mongol invasion. All the activities mentioned in this paragraph ensured that the breakup of the Mongol empire would be permanent.

Berke was succeeded by a grandson of Batu, called Mengu-Timur in Turkish or Möngke Temür in Mongolian (1266-80). The main event of his reign was participation in a Central Asian civil war between Genghis Khan’s grandsons. Also worth remembering is that he showed his toleration of Christianity by exempting the Orthodox Church from the tribute the Russians had to pay, and he stopped putting the image of the current Great Khan, Kublai, on Golden Horde coins — in effect declaring independence from the rest of the Mongol Empire. And around 1266, he allowed the Italian city-state of Genoa to establish an outpost in the Crimea, Kaffa; this would become an important port for trade between Russia and the Mediterranean.

The next two rulers, Töde Möngke (1280-87) and Töle Buqa (1287-91), were not very competent. During their reigns, real power was held by a nephew of Batu named Nogai. Nogai commanded the warriors in the western part of the realm, and led raids into Lithuania, Poland, and Bulgaria; the latter was done to assist an ally, the Byzantine Empire. Acting as a kingmaker, he deposed Töde Möngke and killed Töle Buqa, but the khan he installed in place of them, Toqta (1291-1312), refused to act as his puppet. Nogai and Toqta acted as rivals, until a civil war broke out between the factions they controlled. Nogai won the first battle, at the Don River, in 1297, but old age caused him to make the mistake of not marching on Sarai after that victory. The second battle, fought near the Dnieper in 1299, went Toqta’s way; Nogai’s followers deserted him, and he was killed by a Russian serving in Toqta’s army. After that, Toqta put down a rebellion in the White Horde to the east, and attacked the port of Kaffa because of some Italian trade practices he did not like. Finally, trivia fans should note that Toqta was a Shamanist (Mongolian pagan) with an interest in Buddhism, meaning he was the last non-Moslem ruler of the Golden Horde.

Muhammad Özbeg, also called Uzbeg or Ozbeg Khan, was a nephew of Toqta. Toqta didn’t like him because like Berke, he was a convert to Islam, and had him exiled, but upon Toqta’s death Muhammad Özbeg promptly returned and seized power. His reign (1312-41) was the longest of any Golden Horde ruler, and is now considered the time when the Golden Horde reached its peak. It has been said that he transformed the Khanate into a Sultanate, because he encouraged the whole ruling class to convert, but because he was not a fundamentalist (he belonged to a Sufi sect), he continued to tolerate other religions, especially Christianity. In 1327 he put down an anti-Mongol revolt from the Russian city of Tver, executed its ruler, and transferred the yarlyk from Tver to Moscow; that would have a very important effect on Russian history.

After Muhammad Özbeg came his son Tînî Beg, who only ruled for a year, and then another son, Jânî Beg (1342-57). Under Jânî Beg the previous religious tolerance disappeared; the conversion to Islam that Muhammad Özbeg recommended was now ordered. In partnership with Moscow, Jânî Beg led raids on Lithuania and Poland in the 1340s. However, his reign also saw the arrival on the steppe of an enemy the Mongols could not fight, the Black Death. This plague killed both his subjects and his vassals; the loss of many taxpayers is bad news for any nation, and it set the Golden Horde on a rapid, permanent decline. Even worse, the Mongols made another attack on Kaffa while they were infected, allowing the plague to spread to Europe. Below the Caucasus, the breakup of the Mongol state in the Middle East allowed Jânî Beg to capture Azerbaijan in 1355, but the Golden Horder was only strong enough to hold that territory for three years.

Jânî Beg was poisoned, and his son Berdi Beg was in turn assassinated two years later (1359). Berdi Beg’s only child was a daughter, who married a general named Mamai. With no heir to the throne, the Khanate fell into anarchy, with as many as four khans competing for the top spot at the same time. Mamai thus became the most powerful man in the realm, leading the army until he was defeated at the battle of Kulikovo Pole in 1380 (see the next chapter). By then, nine official khans, and maybe ten pretenders, had risen and fallen; when the last one was gone, the dynasty of the Blue Horde became extinct. Order and unity were restored when the Blue Horde’s former vassals, the White Horde, took over, first under Urus Khan (1372-77), and then under Tokhtamysh (1380-97). Meanwhile, Genoa gained control over the whole southern coast of the Crimea, and Lithuania and the Principality of Moscow grew tremendously. Although these two newcomers were not yet as strong as the Golden Horde, they would challenge the Mongols soon.


8. Early in Genghis Khan’s career there was a Mongolian tribe called the Tatars, but Europeans who used the name "Tartars" were more likely thinking of Tartarus, the deepest pit of Hell in classical mythology. For them Mongolia was beyond the known world until a few brave travelers went there, of which Marco Polo is the most famous.

9. Of all the Russian states, Galicia was probably in the most pitiful situation. Located in the western Ukraine, it was surrounded by four larger neighbors in the early fourteenth century, and it paid tribute to all of them: the Mongols, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland.

Alexander Nevsky, Revisited


Now for my Russian history papers, I have expanded the section about the most famous hero during Russia’s darkest days.

Alexander Nevsky

Last but not least, the Russian city of Novgorod got involved in the Baltic region, by gaining control over the Karelians, the Finnish tribe living between the Gulf of Finland and the White Sea. In 1227, Novgorod’s Prince Yaroslav II led a successful raid against the Tavastians, a tribe in central Finland. The Tavastians tried to retaliate with an attack of their own upon Novgorod in the following year, only to suffer a devastating defeat, because the Karelians, traditional enemies of the Tavastians, fought on Novgorod’s side. However, the pope was alarmed by Novgorod’s success, because the Russians were Orthodox Christians; from the Catholic point of view, the Orthodox Church was a heresy, and belonging to it was almost as bad as being a pagan. Thus, in 1229 the pope ordered a trade embargo on Novgorod. The embargo came at the same time as a crop failure caused by early autumn frosts, so thousands of Novgorodians starved to death that year. However, the merchants of the western Baltic, those Germans who would soon found the Hanseatic League, were not willing to give up their profitable trade with Novgorod because the pope said so, and for that reason, the embargo did not last very long.

In 1236, Yaroslav got to become the prince of Kiev, and he handed over rule of Novgorod to his fifteen-year-old son, Alexander. Then in 1240, Novgorod faced the first of three military threats that were more serious than the economic threat had been. It came from the Swedes, who marched an army up the Neva River toward Novgorod, backed by their Suomi and Tavastian allies. The Swedish commander, a noble named Birger Jarl, thought Novgorod wouldn’t be a tough opponent, but he was no match for the young Alexander, who charged at the first opportunity and inflicted a crushing defeat. Because of this battle on the banks of the Neva, modern-day Russians call the Novgorod prince Alexander Nevsky.


This statue of Alexander Nevsky was erected in 2002, on one end of the avenue named after him in St. Petersburg, Nevsky Prospect. Source:

When the Teutonic Knights took over the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and their holdings, King Waldemar of Denmark reminded them of his claim to Estonia. They agreed to a compromise where the Danes got the northern half of Estonia, and the Teutonic Knights got the southern half. When the pope heard about this, he got involved in Baltic affairs again, declaring that he would only approve of this division if the Danes and Germans both went on a Crusade against the Russian heretics. Accordingly, in 1240 a combined German-Danish force took the towns of Izborsk, Pskov and Koporye. Alexander staged a counterattack in 1241 that recovered Pskov, but then the Germans, Danes and their Estonian allies marched on Novgorod itself. Alexander could not defeat the heavily armored knights in a straight slugging match, so on April 5, 1242 he let them charge toward him across the frozen Lake Peipus, and on the other side he hit them with an attack on each flank. Nowadays, in part because of the movie Sergei Eisenstein made about Alexander Nevsky, popular imagination sees the battle ending when the ice on the lake broke and knights sank out of sight. Although we have no medieval documents saying this really happened, the unusual conditions of the battle have given it the name we use, "the Battle on the Ice."


The Battle on the Ice.

The Mongols were the third threat to Novgorod, because they had wasted the rest of Russia by this time. Alexander chose to pay tribute, instead of fighting them. For that reason, and because the northern Russian forest made it difficult for the Mongol cavalry to get at Novgorod, the Mongols spared the city. Buying off the Mongols may have been the right decision, but it raises questions about Alexander for us. Today he is remembered as the only Russian hero in the country’s darkest time, the thirteenth century, so keep in mind that he was also a loyal vassal to the Mongols for the rest of his life. In 1252 Sartaq Khan, Batu’s son, rewarded Alexander by appointing him Grand Duke of Vladimir, and a few years later, when the Novgorodians revolted against the census and tribute the Mongols had imposed on them, Alexander used the threat of another Mongol invasion to make them pay the full amount (1259). Finally, in 1262 another anti-tribute insurrection broke out in the city of Suzdal, and showed signs of spreading to the rest of the Russian states. Alexander went to Sarai, the Mongol capital, to plead their case before the Khan; he succeeded in not only getting the Mongols to reduce the tribute, but also persuaded them to stop requiring that Russian states contribute soldiers to fight in the Mongol army. Unfortunately, he had to stay in Sarai for the whole winter of 1262-63 to do this; he fell ill during this time, and died on the way home afterwards. Nearly three hundred years later, the Russian Orthodox Church would canonize him as a saint.


Alexander Nevsky before the Khan.

It was left to Alexander’s successors to settle the conflicting claims by Sweden and Novgorod over the Finnish tribes. Birger Jarl completed the Swedish conquest of the Tavastians in 1249, and from 1256 onward, Russian chronicles acknowledge that most of Finland was under Swedish rule. Forty years of infrequent but fierce border raids between the two sides followed, and then in 1293 a Swede named Tyrgils Knuttson tried to conquer Karelia as well. He only succeeded on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, where he captured the mouth of the Neva River and built Vyborg Castle nearby. For the next four hundred years, until Peter the Great captured it in 1710, Vyborg would be Sweden’s easternmost city. After that came another thirty years of hostilities; in 1318 the Novgorodians burned down Turku, Finland’s oldest city. Neither side could win a decisive victory, though, and in 1323 they signed the Treaty of Nöteborg, the first attempt to define the border between them.

This was not the last word on relations between the Russians, Finns and Swedes; more wars involving them would be fought for centuries to come. In that sense, the treaty was really a cease-fire. Still, after this Sweden was no longer considered a participant in the northern Crusades. Finland had never attracted many knights, because this was a land with much hardship, few profits, and no glory. The soldiers who ended up settling in places like Turku and Vyborg were called "Food Swedes" by the Finns, because their voracious appetites were more impressive than their fighting ability.

Meanwhile along Scandinavia’s Atlantic coast, the Norse/Norwegians had been steadily expanding northward from Trondheim, their northernmost community at the beginning of the Viking era. By the thirteenth century, they had reached Lapland, where they met expeditions from Novgorod. We know this because in 1251 Novgorod sent an embassy to the king of Norway, complaining about clashes between Norwegians and Karelians in this area. The next three quarters of a century saw the building of forts here, and a series of raids and counter-raids. What makes this amazing is that it all happened above the Arctic Circle; this is probably the northernmost war of all time. It was settled by the Treaty of Novgorod in 1326, which declared Lapland a "march" or buffer zone, and stated who could tax each Saami tribe, but did not draw a border between Norway and Novgorod. Even so, it left the Norwegians in control of the North Cape district (henceforth called Finnmark), while the Novgorodians (and later the Russians) got the Kola peninsula; that arrangement has lasted to this day.

The Baltic Crusades Begin


In a follow-up to yesterday’s message, here is a completely new section for Chapter 2 of my Russian history series.

The Baltic Crusades Begin

After missionaries converted the Slavs, Vikings and Hungarians to Christianity in the tenth century, the only part of Europe the remained pagan was the northeast corner. This was the homeland of the Balts, Finns and Saami (Lapps), on the eastern shore of the Baltic, and in the part of the taiga and tundra the Russians had not penetrated yet. Much of this territory was inaccessible; the bogs, lakes and thick virgin forests often meant that people could only travel through the area by following the rivers, the way the Varangians had done. Missionaries were reluctant to go to a region so remote; this wasn’t the place to be if you were interested in anything besides winning souls to Christ. The Saami were too far north and too few in number to justify visiting them at this time. And two of the other tribes, the Livonians among the Finns and the Prussians among the Balts, were fanatically anti-Christian. Thus, from about 1000 to 1200, a line drawn across the Baltic Sea, from Danzig (modern Gdansk) through Gotland to Stockholm, marked the eastern limit of the part of Europe converted and civilized by the Catholic Church.


The Balts in 1200. Today their only descendants are the Latvians and Lithuanians (the Estonians are a Finnish tribe), but as you can see, originally they were organized into several tribes. From Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, some missionaries were up to the challenge. One of the first was a German priest, St. Meinhard of Segeberg, who may have gone to Livonia with some merchants as early as 1179. The stone church that Meinhard built, and a fortress and a castle that went up to defend against pagan attacks, are the oldest stone buildings in the region; the pagans used only wood for their structures. In 1186 he was consecrated as the first bishop of Livonia, a title he held for the last ten years of his life. He managed to win over a few souls by practicing acts of kindness whenever possible, and his successor, a German abbott named Berthold of Hanover, followed the same behavior, but he wasn’t as lucky. Once, the Livonian pagans responded to Berthold’s gifts and banquets by trying to drown him; another time they burned down a church he was preaching in. After escaping that fire, Berthold fled to the German city of Lübeck, and with the help of an archbishop and some merchants, he recruited a Crusader army to subdue the pagans by force. However, soon after Berthold returned with the Crusaders, he was killed in battle by a Livonian lance. Enraged at the loss of their leader, the Crusaders then went on a rampage, attacking the natives and forcing 150 of them in a two-day period to accept baptism at sword point. But even this wasn’t worth the effort; after the Crusaders went back to Germany, the Livonians renounced the Christianity forced upon them, bathed in the Western Dvina River to wash off their baptisms, and chased the remaining priests out of the land.

This was only a temporary pagan victory. The next bishop appointed over the region, Albert of Riga, came in 1200 with twenty-three ships, 500 Crusaders, and an assortment of merchants and peasants (probably 1,000). They captured the native trading post at the mouth of the Western Dvina River, and here the merchants and peasants founded the city of Riga in 1201; this became the base of operations for Germans in the eastern Baltic. One year later, Albert organized the Crusaders into a new military order, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, to defend Riga and expand the Christian domain in the region. And expand they did; although there were never more than 150 knights in the order, their superior discipline and weapons allowed them to beat their pagan opponents regularly, and as they advanced up the Dvina River, they built stone and brick forts to secure their position. Also, for those Livonians and Latgalians (also called Letts) who accepted baptism, they promised protection against their still-pagan enemies. By 1206, the Latgalians had been converted and after a Livonian rebellion was put down, the Livonians were forcibly baptised again; now attention began to turn to neighboring tribes like the Semigallians and Estonians.

The Livonian bishopric was soon declared a state of the Holy Roman Empire, with Albert as its ruler, but the Crusaders proved to be an undisciplined unit, who tended to forget that they were supposed to be serving the Church. Once, Albert asked some of the knights to put on a Nativity play, to teach that story to a pagan audience, and they inserted some fight scenes so terrifying that most of the audience fled! Later, when the Crusaders were facing tougher than expected resistance in Estonia, Albert called on Denmark’s King Waldemar II for help, and Waldemar sent a Danish fleet to save the day for the Crusaders (1219), but then the Crusaders made a deal with the Danes that gave Estonia to Denmark, instead of to Albert. The arrangement only lasted until 1223, when the Estonians revolted against both Germans and Danes. Using captured weapons, they were able to take all the enemy forts, and they slaughtered every German and Danish soldier they got their hands on; they also had the help of Russian soldiers from the cities of Novgorod and Pskov. Reinforcements for the Crusaders arrived, allowing them to regain control in 1224. For a while they tried dividing Estonia between Denmark and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, but when they started disputing how much each side got, the pope intervened and proclaimed the entire territory (most of modern-day Estonia and Latvia) under his authority, meaning that from 1225 onward, Bishop Albert and the Crusaders owned the whole thing.

The Danish arrival showed that other outsiders had taken an interest in Baltic opportunities. Besides the Germans and the Danes, the Swedes were now expanding into Finland; since the late twelfth century they had been converting and conquering the Suomi (today’s Finns). Then another group of Germans, the Knights of the Teutonic Order, entered the game. Founded during the Third Crusade, they started out as an order of German knights, organized very much like the Hospitallers, and based in the Near Eastern city of Acre. Their success encouraged the king of Hungary to grant them a landholding in Transylvania in 1211, to secure Hungary’s southeastern border against the Polovtsy. But soon the knights wore out their welcome, by inviting German peasants to work on their tract of land and declaring themselves in service of the pope; these two actions were in effect a declaration of independence. Calling the knights a "fire under the shirt, mouse in the bag, viper in the bosom," the Hungarian king used his own army to drive them out in 1224.

Soon after that door closed on the Teutonic Knights, another one opened. A Polish duke, Conrad of Mazovia, lived next door to the hostile Prussians, who frequently raided Poland, taking captives and selling them into slavery. Conrad had about a dozen knights, whom he called the Knights of Dobrzyn, but they could scarcely even defend their own castle. In 1226 he invited the Teutonic Knights with this offer: if they would defend his realm from the Prussians, they could have the fort of Kulm, and keep any Prussian land they conquered. The Grand Master of the order was reluctant to go for it, because he did not want to repeat what had happened in Hungary, so he waited until both the Holy Roman emperor and the pope approved the deal before accepting it; then in 1230, 20 knights and 200 sergeants (foot soldiers) moved into Kulm.

Although the Prussians fought back bitterly, the knights won their battles, following the Vistula River to its mouth and then advancing east along the Baltic coast. Behind them they built forts, as the Livonian Brothers of the Sword had done, and German peasants came to settle the now-secure land. They did better than the other Crusaders for two reasons. First, they were in effect an independent state, not directly under the authority of anyone else. Second, there were more of them. Their monasteries and castles across Europe did a better job of recruiting new members for the order than the Sword Brothers had done, and to get to Kulm, recruits only had to travel overland across Poland, while going to Riga required a trip by sea. One result was that the Teutonic Knights absorbed the other orders, because the latter had reached their limits. The tiny Knights of Dobrzyn order had already joined them in 1235. The Sword Brothers rose to their level of incompetence (as the Peter Principle puts it) when they invaded Lithuania in 1236. The historian who recorded what happened wrote down that the Crusaders "robbed and burned wonderfully in many bands, and ravaged up and down the land freely," until they reached a place called Saule. Here the Lithuanians ambushed them in a swamp, where their light cavalry had the advantage over the heavy cavalry of the knights. About 50 Crusaders were killed, including the order’s Grand Master; 2,700 foot soldiers (mostly tribesmen allied with the Crusaders) were also killed. Those pagans still living in Estonia and Latvia revolted when they heard the news, especially on Saaremaa, an offshore Estonian island. These disasters left the Sword Brothers so demoralized and reduced in number that the remainder of them joined the Teutonic Knights in 1237, meaning that the Teutonic Knights were now the dominant pro-Western faction in the Baltic.


The campaigns of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword (red arrows) and the Knights of the Teutonic Order (black arrows), 1200-1260. This is a thumbnail picture, click on it to see the full-sized map (850 KB, opens in a separate window). From Wikimedia Commons.

Russian History Update, and the Mongol Conquest


After I finished my latest history paper last month, I went back to an older paper to bring it up to date.  That has been the standard website maintenance procedure for the past decade, at least.  But that’s the nature of the history business; what is news/current events right now will be history tomorrow.

Anyway, this time I went back to the Russian history series, which I first composed back in 1990.  Because I majored in Russian history during my college days, this is like a homecoming for me.  I have had some visitors praise what I wrote there, for keeping a balanced point of view on a subject that can turn controversial easily.

Long-time readers will remember I wrote a new Chapter 1 in 2013, to cover peoples and events that happened in present-day Russia and its neighbors before the first Russian state was founded, in 862 A.D.  Now I am doing a major rewrite of Chapter 2, the Medieval Russia chapter.  The motivation is the same as with Chapter 1; I want to give equal time for non-Russians living in places that would be considered part of Russia in later eras.  For medieval times, that will include the Mongols, Germans, and Lithuanians.  In fact, I have added so much material that I will have to split Chapter 2.  The new Chapter 2, called “Kievan Russia,” will cover the years from 862 to 1300, while the material for the years 1300-1682 will go into a new Chapter 3, called “Muscovite Russia.”  Of course the chapters that were previously numbered 3-5 will now be numbered 4-6.  And I’m topping everything off with several new pictures for the narratives.

I’m almost finished, but before I upload it all, I will post the new sections here, and the old ones that got the most radical rewriting.  So now, here is the first rewritten section:

The Mongol Conquest

In 1206 the tribes of Mongolia united under Genghis Khan to form the most formidable military force of the Middle Ages. This went unheralded in the rest of the world, but it would soon have catastrophic effects all over Eurasia. The first victim was northern China, followed by an invasion of Central Asia. By 1221 the Mongols had reached the Caspian Sea, and a scouting party of 15,000 was detached from the main army, to explore the lands farther west. They would make a complete loop around the Caspian Sea before they were done.

First they ravaged northern Iran, sacking the cities of Rai, Qom and Hamadan, but sparing Tabriz because it paid tribute. Next they entered the Caucasus and defeated the Georgians; when they heard the news, the Polovtsy tried to form a coalition with tribes like the Alans and Circassians to meet the new threat. The Mongols responded with treachery; they sent a message to the Polovtsy, inviting them to switch sides, because the Mongols were steppe nomads just like them, and gave them part of the loot they had gathered so far. Once the coalition was divided, the Mongols defeated its members separately, and then they hunted down the Polovtsy, cut them to pieces, and recovered their loot. In desperation the Polovtsy called on the Russians for help, but the 80,000-man Russian army was beaten near the Sea of Azov, in the battle of the Kalka (1223). After that victory the Mongols forced the leaders of their captives to lie down while they built a large wooden platform over them. The Mongols then held a feast on the platform, crushing the Russians to death.


The Mongols at the battle of the Kalka.

Now that they were done with the Russians, the Mongols ravaged the Ukraine and explored up the Volga, until they encountered stiff resistance from the Bulgars; then they suddenly left, making a beeline east across the steppes. They would not follow up on this expedition for more than a decade, because Genghis Khan needed those troops to conquer a tribe closer to home, the Tanguts in northwest China. As soon as that campaign was finished, Genghis Khan died (1227), and the Mongols took a lengthy time out to organize the empire he left behind.

When a Mongol chief divided his landholdings between his children, it was customary to give the piece farthest away from home to the eldest son; that encouraged another generation of conquering. But Juchi, the eldest son, had died six months before Genghis did, so Juchi’s inheritance–the part of Russia conquered so far–went to two of Juchi’s fourteen sons. The eldest son of Juchi, Orda, got the part of the steppes between the Irtysh River and the Urals (western Siberia & part of Kazakhstan); that would be called the realm of the White Horde. Another son, Batu, got the European portion of the steppes, which was called the Blue Horde at first. The fifth son of Juchi, Shiban, was a minor at this time, so he did not receive any lands, but later his descendants, the so-called Grey Horde or Shaybanids, would be put in charge of western Siberia, leaving just Kazakhstan for Orda’s descendants. Although Batu was not the eldest, his brothers regarded him as the supreme leader of all these domains, which amounted to the northwestern quarter of the Mongol Empire. The official name for this area was the Kipchak Khanate (Kipchak was the Mongolian name for the Polovtsy, who made up the largest part of the local population), but Westerners knew it better as the Golden Horde, naming it after the color of Batu’s tent, so that is the name we will use most of the time.

Back in Mongolia, the third son of Genghis, Ogotai (also spelled Ugedey), was elected as the new Great Khan. At first Ogotai continued what Genghis had started, conquering Iran, Korea, and more of China. Finally in 1236 he authorized a new expedition to advance as far west as possible, and it began to move at the end of the year, led by Batu Khan and Subotai, the aged but able general who had commanded the first expedition. Besides loot and adventure, the goal was to secure the inheritance of Batu, since the Mongols did not yet have firm control over any land west of the Volga. This time they brought 150,000 troops (2/3 of them Turkish) and siege equipment that they had learned to use from the Chinese, including catapults.

Taking advantage of the winter season by crossing Russia’s sizeable rivers when they were frozen, the Mongols easily eliminated their first target, the Volga Bulgar kingdom. Then they took the Russian cities, starting with Ryazan, Moscow, and Vladimir. Since there was no Russian capital at this time, every city had to be captured, and the northern Russian cities kept them busy for all of 1237 and 1238.(6) In 1239 they descended upon the Ukrainian steppe, conquering the Polovtsy and Alans, and spending the following winter along the lower Don River. Next, the Mongols went after the Russian cities in the Ukraine, sacking Chernigov in 1239, and Pereyaslavl and Kiev in 1240. 1241 saw the invaders charge into central Europe, inflicting defeats on the armies of Germany, Poland and Hungary; read this page for the details. But then the Mongols quit while they were ahead; in early 1242 Batu learned that his uncle, Ogotai Khan, had died in Mongolia. Since Batu was a candidate for Genghis Khan’s throne, he called off the campaign and began the 5,000-mile journey east, sparing the rest of Europe from an invasion it could not have resisted for long.(7)


The Mongols outside Vladimir’s walls, ordering the city to surrender.


One lesson you will learn if you continue reading is that it is a very bad idea to invade Russia, especially in the winter. Poland tried it in the seventeenth century, Sweden tried it in the eighteenth, France tried it in the nineteenth, and Germany tried it in the twentieth century. All of those invaders got worse than they gave. Only the Mongols pulled it off, because they had the toughest army of the Middle Ages.


6. The small town of Kozelsk was the hardest to take; it put up a magnificent defense that detained the entire Mongol army for two months in 1238. Determined to resist for as long as possible, the residents of Kozelsk even plugged the breaches made in the walls with the bodies of their comrades. The Mongols won in the end, though, and burned down the city like they had done to so many others.

7. This was a great relief for Europe, though few Europeans at the time knew why the Mongols had left, and attributed it to divine intervention. During the heyday of the Vikings the Church regularly prayed for deliverance from "the fury of the Northmen"; now the same sort of prayers were said to keep the Mongols away.