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.

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