Mongol invasion of Rus'

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History of Belarus,
History of Russia,
History of Ukraine
Early East Slavs
Kievan Rus’
Mongol invasion
Golden Horde
Grand Duchy of Lithuania
Grand Duchy of Moscow
Tsardom of Russia
The Hetmanate
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Imperial Russia
Revolution of 1917
Russian Civil War
Soviet Union
Russian Federation

The Mongol invasion of Rus' was heralded by the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223 between Subutai's reconnaissance unit and the combined force of several Rus' princes. After 15 years of peace, it was followed by Batu Khan's full-scale invasion during 1237 to 1240. The invasion was facilitated by the breakup of Kievan Rus' in the twelfth century, and, among other consequences, led to the rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which ruled Russia for a period of two centuries prior to the rise of the Russian autocracy.

The rise of Moscow as the successor state to the one centered in Kiev would ultimately lead to the development of Imperial Russia and the Tsardom of Russia as the dominant political force in Eastern Europe.


As it was undergoing fragmentation, Kievan Rus' faced the unexpected eruption of an irresistible foreign foe coming from the mysterious regions of the Far East. "For our sins," writes the Rus' chronicler of the time, "unknown nations arrived. No one knew their origin or whence they came, or what religion they practiced. That is known only to God, and perhaps to wise men learned in books."

The princes of Rus' first heard of the coming Mongol warriors from the nomadic Cumans. Previously known for pillaging settlers on the frontier, the nomads now preferred peaceful relations, warning their neighbors: "These terrible strangers have taken our country, and tomorrow they will take yours if you do not come and help us." In response to this call, Mstislav the Bold and Mstislav Romanovich the Old joined forces and set out eastward to meet the foe, only to be routed in 1223 at the Battle of the Kalka River, a defeat remembered to this day in Russia and Ukraine.

Although this defeat left the Kievan principality at the mercy of invaders, the Mongol forces retreated and did not reappear for 13 years, during which time the princes of Rus' went on quarreling and fighting as before, until they were startled by a new and much more formidable invading force than at Kalka.

Invasion of Batu Khan

The Mongol Invasions
Central Asia – Georgia and Armenia – Kalka River – Volga Bulgaria – Ryazan – Rus' – Sit River – Köse Dag – Legnica – Mohi – Baghdad – Ain Jalut – Korea – Japan (Bun'ei – Kōan) – Vietnam – Xiangyang – Ngasaunggyan – Yamen – Pagan – Bach Dang – Syria – Kulikovo – Vorskla – Ugra River
Mongol invasion of Rus'

Kalka River – Ryazan – Sit River – Kiev – Blue Waters – Vozha – Kulikovo – Moscow – Vorskla – Ugra River

The vast Mongol hordes of around 35,000 mounted archers, commanded by Batu Khan and Subutai, crossed the Volga River and invaded Volga Bulgaria in the autumn of 1236. It took them a year to extinguish the resistance of the Volga Bulgarians, the Kypchaks and the Alani.

In November 1237, Batu Khan sent his envoys to the court of Yuri II of Vladimir and demanded his submission. A month later, the hordes besieged Ryazan. After six days of bloody battle, the city was totally annihilated, never to be restored. Alarmed by the news, Yuri II sent his sons to detain the invaders, but they were soundly defeated. Having burnt down Kolomna and Moscow, the horde laid siege to Vladimir on February 4, 1238. Three days later, the capital of Vladimir-Suzdal was taken and burnt to the ground. The royal family perished in the fire, while the grand prince hastily retreated northward. Crossing the Volga, he mustered a new army, which was totally exterminated by the Mongols in the Battle of the Sit River on March 4.

Sacking of Suzdal by Batu Khan in February, 1238: a miniature from the sixteenth century chronicle

Thereupon Batu Khan divided his army into smaller units, which ransacked fourteen cities of modern-day Russia: Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Kashin, Ksnyatin, Gorodets, Galich, Pereslavl-Zalessky, Yuriev-Polsky, Dmitrov, Volokolamsk, Tver, and Torzhok. The most difficult to take was the small town of Kozelsk, whose boy-prince Vasily, son of Titus, and inhabitants resisted the Mongols for seven weeks, killing 4,000. As the story goes, at the news of the Mongol approach, the whole town of Kitezh with all its inhabitants was submerged into a lake, where, as legend has it, it may be seen to this day. The only major cities to escape destruction were Novgorod and Pskov. Refugees from southern Rus' gravitated mostly to the northeast, in the forest region with poor soils between the northern Volga and Oka Rivers.

In the summer of 1238, Batu Khan devastated the Crimea and pacified Mordovia. In the winter of 1239, he sacked Chernigov and Pereyaslav. After many days of siege, the horde stormed Kiev in December 1240. Despite the fierce resistance of Danylo of Halych, Batu Khan managed to take two of his principal cities, Halych and Volodymyr-Volynskyi. The Mongols then resolved to "reach the ultimate sea," where they could proceed no further, and invaded Hungary and Poland.

The age of the Tatar yoke

This time the invaders came to stay, and they built for themselves a capital, called Sarai, on the lower Volga. Here the commander of the Golden Horde, as the western section of the Mongol empire was called, fixed his golden headquarters and represented the majesty of his sovereign the grand khan who lived with the Great Horde in the Orkhon Valley of the Amur. Here they had their headquarters and held parts of Rus' in subjection for nearly three centuries.

The term by which this subjection is commonly designated, the Mongol or Tatar yoke, suggests ideas of terrible oppression, but in reality these nomadic invaders from Mongolia were not such cruel, oppressive taskmasters as is generally supposed.[1] They never settled in the country, and they had little direct dealing with the inhabitants. In accordance with the admonitions of Genghis Khan to his children and grandchildren, they retained their pastoral mode of life, so that the subject races, agriculturists, and dwellers in towns, were not disturbed in their ordinary avocations.

In religious matters they were extremely tolerant. When they first appeared in Europe, they were Shamanists, and as such they had naturally no religious fanaticism. Thus, after they adopted Islam they remained as tolerant as before[2], and the khan of the Golden Horde, who first became a Muslim, allowed the Rus' to found a Christian bishopric in his capital. Nogai Khan, half a century later, married a daughter of the Byzantine emperor, and gave his own daughter in marriage to a Rus' prince, Theodor the Black. Some modern Russian historians (most notably, the Soviet era historian and "Neo-Eurasianist" ideologist Lev Gumilev) even postulate there was no invasion at all. According to them, the Rus' princes concluded a defensive alliance with the Horde in order to repel attacks of the fanatical Teutonic Knights, which posed a much greater threat to Rus' religion and culture.

There were some negative aspects of Tatar rule. So long as a great horde of nomads was encamped on the frontier, the country was liable to be invaded by an overwhelming force. Fortunately, these invasions were not frequent but when they occurred they caused an incalculable amount of devastation and suffering. In the intervals the people had to pay a fixed tribute. At first it was collected in a rough-and-ready fashion by Tatar tax-gatherers, but by about 1259 it was regulated by a census of the population, and finally its collection was entrusted to the native princes, so that the people were no longer brought into direct contact with the Tatar officials.

The invasion's impact on historical development

The influence of the Mongol invasion on the territories of Kievan Rus' was uneven. Centers such as Kiev never recovered from the devastation of the initial attack. The Novgorod Republic continued to prosper, however, and new entities, the cities of Moscow and Tver, began to flourish under the Mongols. Although Russian forces defeated the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, Mongol domination of parts of Rus territories, with the requisite demands of tribute, continued until the Great standing on the Ugra River in 1480.

Historians have debated the long-term influence of Mongol rule on Rus' society. The Mongols have been blamed for the destruction of Kievan Rus', the breakup of the ancient Rus' nationality into three components, and the introduction of the concept of "oriental despotism" into Russia. But some historians agree that Kievan Rus' was not a homogeneous political, cultural, or ethnic entity and that the Mongols merely accelerated fragmentation that had begun before the invasion. Historians also credit the Mongol regime with an important role in the development of Muscovy as a state. Under Mongol occupation, for example, Muscovy developed its mestnichestvo hierarchy, postal road network, census, fiscal system, and military organization.[3]

Certainly, it can be (and often is) argued that without the Mongol destruction of Kievan Rus' that Moscow, and subsequently the Russian Empire, would not have risen. Trade routes with the East came through the Rus lands, making them a center for trade from both worlds. In short, the Mongol influence, while destructive in the extreme to their enemies, had a significant long term effect on the rise of modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Influence of the Mongol invasion on Russian society

A significant number of historians consider the oppression of Rus' by the Mongols to be the major cause of what is sometimes called "the East-West gap"–the approximately 200 year delay in introducing major social, political and economical reforms and scientific innovations in Russia compared to Western Europe. Some argue that the yoke had a severe destructive influence on the delicate system of unwritten laws regulating everyday life of society. For instance, Valeriya Novodvorskaya mentions that the death penalty, long-term imprisonment and torture had not existed in Rus' before the Mongols invaded the country. Over half the population of Rus' may have died during the Mongol invasions.[4] However, Colin McEvedy (Atlas of World Population History, 1978) estimates the population of Russia-in-Europe dropped from 7.5 million prior to the invasion to 7 million afterwards.[5]

The period of Mongol rule over Russia included significant cultural and interpersonal contacts between the Russian and Mongolian ruling classes. By 1450, the Tatar language had become fashionable in the court of the Grand Prince of Moscow, Vasily II, who was accused of excessive love of the Tatars and their speech.[6] Many Russian boyar (noble) families traced their descent from the Mongols or Tatars, including Veliaminov-Zernov, Godunov, Arseniev, and Bakhmetev. In a survey of Russian noble families of the seventeenth century, over 15 per cent of the Russian noble families had Tatar or Oriental origins: 229 of Western European (including German) origin, 223 of Polish and Lithuanian origin (this number included Ruthenian nobility), 156 of Tatar and other Oriental origin, 168 families belonged to the House of Rurik and 42 were of unspecified "Russian" origin.[6] In the religious sphere, St. Paphnutius of Borovsk was the grandson of a Mongol baskak, or tax collector, while a nephew of khan Bergai of the Golden Horde converted to Christianity and became known as the monk St. Peter Tsarevich of the Horde.[7]


The Mongol invasion of Rus' had incalculable ramifications for the history of Eastern Europe, including the division of the East Slavic people into three separate nations.[8]

Beyond Russia and Eastern Europe, the invasion of Rus' was a prelude to the Mongol invasions of Europe. After the invasion of Rus', centered on the destruction of East Slavic principalities of Kiev and Vladimir, the Mongols then invaded the Kingdom of Hungary (Battle of Mohi) and the fragmented Poland (Battle of Legnica) (see History of Poland (966–1385)), the former invasion commanded by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, and the latter a diversion commanded by Kadan, also a grandson of Genghis Khan, though both invasions were also masterminded by Subutai.

Since the thirteenth century, historians have debated whether or not the Eastern European campaigns of the Mongols had macrohistorical importance. Most military historians believe they were essentially diversions, meant to frighten the Western powers sufficiently to keep them out of the Mongols' affairs in the east of Europe, specifically in Russia. The evidence does indicate that Batu Khan was primarily interested in securing the western frontiers of his Russian conquests, and only after the swift destruction of both the Hungarian and Polish armies did he begin thinking about the conquest of Western Europe. Mongolian records indicate that Subutai was planning a complete conquest of the remaining European powers, beginning with a winter attack on Austria and other states of the Holy Roman Empire, when he was recalled to Mongolia upon the death of Ögedei Khan For the Mongols, the European invasions were a third theater of operations, secondary in importance to both the Middle East and Song China.

Successors of the Golden Horde

The Golden Horde was succeeded by the Kazan, Astrakhan, Crimean, and Siberian khanates, as well as the Nogai Horde, all of which were eventually conquered by the Russian Empire.


  1. It has been noted that it was during the period of Mongol domination that "the curve of Russian Western trade climbed steadily," as did its trade with the Orient. See Donald Ostrowski, Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier (Cambridge University Press, 1996, 109.
  2. Paul Robert Magocsi, A History of Ukraine (University of Toronto Press, 1996), 110.
  3. Ostrowski, 1996, 47.
  4. History of Russia, Early Slavs history, Kievan Rus, Mongol invasion.
  5. Mongol Conquests Retrieved September 24, 2016.
  6. 6.0 6.1 George Vernadsky, The Mongols and Russia. A History of Russia, Vol. III. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.
  7. Website of the Orthodox Church calendar Retrieved September 24, 2016.
  8. Boris Rybakov Киевская Русь и русские княжества XII-XIII вв (Kievan Rus' and Russian princedoms in XII-XIII centuries), (Moscow: Nauka, 1993, ISBN 5020097950).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Full Collection of Russian Annals, St. Petersburg, 1908 and Moscow, 2001. ISBN 5944570113
  • Magocsi, Paul Robert. A History of Ukraine. University of Toronto Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0295975801
  • McEvedy, Colin, and Richard M. Jones. Atlas of World Population History. Puffin, 1978. ISBN 978-0140510768
  • Ostrowski, Donald. Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0521590853
  • Rybakov, Boris. Киевская Русь и русские княжества XII-XIII вв. (Kievan Rus' and Russian princedoms in XII-XIII centuries), Moscow: Nauka, 1993. ISBN 5020097950
  • Vernadsky, George. The Mongols and Russia, Vol. III. Yale University Press, 1970. ASIN B0096ED07Q
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


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