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.

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