Sergey Prisekin, The Battle of Kulikovo, 1980, oil on canvas

Several milestones mark the decline of nomad predominance: the battle of Kulikovo Pole in 1380 when the Moscovites first defeated the Mongols of the Golden Horde, although it was not until the fall of Kazan to the troops of Ivan IV in 1552 that the triumph of the settled people was finally consolidated.

Russian cavalry first appeared in 971, in a war against Byzantium, but it could not compare with the Byzantine armoured riders. In the eleventh century, it was organized according to the decimal system, and armed with short lance, sword, bow and large shield. Three centuries later, under Mongol influence, it became one of the main elements of the army, and at the Battle of Kulikovo (1380) against the Mongols, an attack by the Russian cavalry decided the outcome. From the end of the fourteenth century, it was more effective and its equipment improved. Armament consisted of a long lance with pennant, strong sword, battle-axe, bow and dagger; protection was provided by helmet, mail coif or hauberk and large kite shield. The Russian battle formation was akin to that of the Tartars: five groups of scouts (polk), centre, left wing, right wing, and rearguard (reserve).

The Muscovite appanage was further enlarged in the 14th century, and Daniel’s great-grandson Dmitry Donskoi (1359-1389) defeated the Tatars in the battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380. This victory marked the beginning of the end of Tatar domination of Russia. The power of the Golden Horde never fully recovered after Tamerlane’s attack on the khanate in the 1390s, and in the 15th century the Tatar state fell apart.

Dmitry’s disposition of his forces, with his flanks anchored to rivers or marshland and regiments placed in reserve and ambush, reflected how much the Russians had learned about turning their Tatar enemies’ tactics against them.

Before the break of dawn on September 8, 1380, Grand Prince Dmitry-Ivanovich of Moscow, accompanied by his general, Bobrok, made a personal reconnaissance of Kulikovo Field near the Don River, approximately 300 kilometers south of Moscow. The wide field, which got its name from the multitude of small swamp birds, or kulik, that inhabited it, was crisscrossed by many gulches, with small hillocks topped by copses of trees and swampy lowlands nestled between the hills. It was here that he would arrange the 12,000 warriors from various Russian principalities who had agreed to fight for him and a cause that amounted to suicide. Approaching to engage him were some 18,000 Tatars of the Golden Horde, a branch of the Mongol empire that had dominated Russia for almost a century and a half. Russian princes and dukes had challenged the Tatars before. All had gone down in defeat followed by a terrible retribution from their Asiatic overlords.

Russia’s ordeal under the eastern invaders began in 1237, when a 130,000-strong army under the command of Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, thundered across its steppes and claimed them for the Mongol empire. One after another the small and disunited Russian principalities, engaged in constant war against each other, fell under Mongol rule. The fall of Kiev in 1240 left almost all Russian territory, save for some of the northern lands around Novgorod, under Mongol domination. As tragic as those events were for the Russians, the Mongols regarded Russia as an area of little importance, merely a stopover on their way to conquer richer lands in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Unlike the conquered regions inhabited by nomadic Turkic tribes, the Russian lands were not incorporated into the Mongol empire, or khanate, but remained semi-independent vassals, paying an annual tribute and providing troops for Mongol campaigns.

After his campaigns in Russia and Eastern Europe, Batu Khan established the Kipchak Tatar khanate that became known as the Golden Horde, after the color of its warriors’ tents. After Batu’s death in 1255, the Golden Horde went into a gradual decline. By the mid-14th century, the empire Genghis Khan built had lost its Mongol identity. Its power base shifted to the Tatars, nomadic Turkic peoples inhabiting the vast steppes bordering southern Russia. When the ruling khan was assassinated in 1357, the Golden Horde entered a long period of internecine warfare. During a span of 20 years the Horde had almost as many rulers. By 1378, a Mongol general named Mamai, who was a longtime powerbroker behind the throne, finally emerged at the forefront and declared himself the khan of the Golden Horde.

Mamai’s political position remained tenuous. Since he was not of a Genghizid line, he was challenged for the supreme position by Tokhtamysh, khan of the Blue Horde, the eastern offshoot of the Mongol empire, who was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Sensing that Mamai’s grasp on Russian lands was weakening. Grand Prince Dmitry increased the pace of unifying the many duchies and principalities around Moscow under his own control through astute politics, religion and marriage. Dmitry, who hailed from a line of decisive and capable princes, was one of those rare people in history who was the right man at the right place at the right time. He subjugated the principality of Tver by force of arms, then secured an alliance with Suzdal by marrying the daughter of Suzdal’s prince. Novgorod and its adjacent lands came under his control when Patriarch Sergei Radonezhsky, an ardent supporter of Dmitry, excommunicated the city’s residents and closed its churches until they acknowledged the Muscovite prince’s authority over them.

Golden Horde 1. Khan Mamai 2. Standard Bearer 3. Warrior 4. Drummer 5. Trumpeter 6. Noble 7. Noble Horse Archer

In order to curb Prince Dmitry’s growing influence and reassert his own authority, Khan Mamai demanded a large tribute from Moscow in 1380. The prince sent gold and silver, but in what Mamai regarded as no more than a token quantity. The Tatar khan mobilized his army for a campaign to bring Dmitry in line.

The forces that Mamai assembled to oppose the Moscovite prince were varied in character. In addition to the khan’s own Tatars there were contingents from vassal steppe nomads, such as Polovtsi, and Circassian and Arrmenian tribes living in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Prince Oleg of Ryazan, chief among Dmitry’s Russian rivals, also promised Mamai his support. Lithuanian King Jogaila may have also pledged to send his troops to support Mamai. (Jogaila, the son of King Olgerd and Russian Princess Ulyana of Tver, considered himself a rightful heir to some of the Russian lands). Aid also came from an unexpected quarter. The Genoese merchants from colonies in the Crimean Peninsula wanted to minimize the disruption of trade along the Great Silk Road, a portion of which ran through Mamai’s territory. With that in mind, they hired more than 2,000 mercenary pikemen from all over the Eastern Mediterranean to support the Golden Horde.

ARMY OF PRINCE DMITRY Prince with retinue: 1. Prince 2. Squire-page 3. Standard Bearer 4. Trumpeter 5. Drummer

In the early spring of 1380, Prince Dmitry received news of the impending invasion from his ally Prince Gleb of Bryansk. At once Dmitry dispatched messengers to all the territories loyal to him, with requests for soldiers to come to his aid. At the same time he ordered the strengthening of fortifications in Kolomna and Tula, two border towns that would bear the first brunt of the Tatar onslaught.

Soon thereafter, Dmitry received word that Prince Oleg of Ryazan and King Jogaila had thrown in their lot with Khasn of the Golden Horde Mamai. Dmitry immediately called a council of nobles, or boyare, to decide on a course of action. Dmitry backed up by the veteran general Bobrok and Dmitry’s cousin, Prince Vladimir of Serpukhov, decided to immediately advance against Mamai before Oleg and Jogaila joined him.

Not wasting any time, Dmitry sent out a strong cavalry detachment under the command of experienced warriors Rodion Rzhevsky, Andrey Volosaty and Vasily Tupik. They were ordered to get as close as possible to the main encampments of the Golden Horde and take a prisoner for interrogation. This reconnaissance detachment took all the precautions to make its approach unobserved. The men wrapped their horses’ hooves and all the metal horse equipment, as well as their personal weapons, with rags in order not to make noise. Each trooper, emulating the Tatar custom, brought along a reserve horse for faster movement.

Five days later, the scouts reached the outer edges of the Tatar camp, to be confronted with the intimidating sight of innumerable campfires stretching to the far horizon. After setting up an ambush, they succeeded in capturing a minor Tatar noble. In questioning him, the Russian scouts found out that Mamai was waiting for the w heat to mature a little more so that his warriors could live off the land while campaigning. The Tatars were also waiting for the arrival of King Jogaila, who was not expected earlier than September.

That intelligence spurred Dmitry to hasten his mobilization effort. The troops who would not have time to gather in Moscow by the start of the campaign were redirected to the border town of Kolomna. As his forces began to gather, Dmitry took stock of the situation. Only a small portion of his force was made up of seasoned soldiers from the household war bands of Russian nobles. Those troops were armed with swords, war axes and heavy spears, and wore chain or scale armor with high-peaked helmets. A heavy metal teardrop-shaped shield, traditionally painted deep red, rounded off their armor Only a fraction of them were mounted. The bulk of the Muscovite army was made up of peasants and city residents with limited military’ experience at best. Barely one in three of them had any armor, and even that was simply fashioned from sewing metal plates onto heavy clothing. This militia was mainly armed with wooden shields, bows and spears.

The basic unit making up a Russian regiment was called a “banner,” comprising “lances” of 10 warriors each. The strength of each banner generally varied from 20 to 100 men, based on recruiting efforts in each area and the wealth that each particular prince had to raise and equip his retinues.

In his preparations for the upcoming campaign Dmitry proved himself an experienced administrator He attended to myriad details, from gathering materials for wound dressing and finding people knowledgeable in treating wounds to planning routes of march for individual units.

After leaving strong garrisons in Moscow and Serpukhov, Dmitry’s army left Moscow for Kolomna on August 20, 1380. In order to alleviate crowding on poor roads, the Russian forces moved along three different routes. Ten merchants who knew the route through the steppes as well as the location of watering holes and other water sources guided the columns. Reaching Kolomna on the 24th, Dmitry called a halt to rest his troops and give his late arriving detachments time to catch up. In order to facilitate the crossing of Oka River, he ordered his soldiers to improve the available fords by dumping large amounts of sand, gravel and dirt in the river. Some of these artificial sandbanks survive to the present day, and navigators on the Oka take careful measures to avoid them.

Learning that Jogaila’s forces were on the move as well, Dmitry led his army south along the left bank of the Oka. In choosing that route, Dmitry placed his forces between Mamai and his Lithuanian allies. Ever’ day mounted scouts brought news of Mamai’s progress. They reported that the forward detachments of Tatar cavalry’ were already approaching the Nepryadva River delta at the Don River. The main Russian force was rapidly advancing toward the Don as well, gaining several days’ march ahead of Jogaila.

Dmitry’s route took his forces through the edge of Ryazan’s territory. In spite of Prince Oleg’s alliance with the Golden Horde, Dmitry ordered his troops to leave the Ryazan lands unmolested. In so doing, the Muscovite prince displayed a canny understanding of the fact that Ryazan was one of the most geographically vulnerable Russian principalities, lying directly between Moscow and the Golden Horde. Oleg had the unenviable job of trying to safeguard even a modicum of independence in the face of two voracious neighbors. And Dmitry’s nonthreatening behavior paid off-although he was within easy reach of the Tatar army, Oleg did not hurry to join Mamai, but cautiously hung back, to see how the upcoming confrontation would play out.

The Russian forces approaching the Don were divided into four components. The main body, called the Grand Regiment, was under Dmitry’s immediate command. This unit also included the war bands of the Belozersk princes. The Right Regiment, as its name implied, was moving to the right of the Grand Regiment, under the command of Prince Vladimir. This unit also included troops from the city of Yaroslavl. The Left Regiment was commanded by Prince Gleb. Marching in the van, in front of the Grand Regiment, the Forward Regiment’s task was to scout out the route of march and receive the brunt of a Tatar offensive if necessary.

In the beginning of September; the forward Russian detachments reached the Don. Prince Dmitry ordered a halt to give all the troops who had fallen behind a chance to catch up, assemble and rest.

Meanwhile the Russian scouts took another prisoner who told them that Mamai was advancing slowly, waiting for Jogaila’s and Oleg’s armies to arrive. The Tatar forces, mostly composed of light cavalry, did not have the siege train necessary for taking Russian cities and were relying on the Lithuanians to provide them with the needed equipment. Not yet aware that Dmitry had already reached the Don, Mamai was still under the impression that the Russian forces would not dare to make a major move against him, and he was preparing to cross the river in three days’ time.

Russian scouts also reported that King Jogaila’s forces were making good time and were only two days away from joining Mamai. Prince Dmitry called for another war council, in which several courses of action were discussed. Some princes favored not crossing the Don, but remaining on their side and attempting to prevent Mamai from crossing the river. Dmitry, supported by his hotheaded cousin Prince Vladimir and General Bobrok, were for crossing the river and taking the war to Mamai. After much deliberation, Dmitiy decided to cross the river and meet the invader head-on. This decision did not come lightly. The Russian commander was well aware that should he fail and his army be annihilated, and as had happened so often in the past century, the majority of the Russian lands would be wide open to the ravages of Tatar retribution.

On September 7, the entire Russian army, numbering about 12,000 men, gathered on the banks of the Don, getting ready to cross this formidable obstacle. Numerous militia detachments were put to work felling trees to build temporary bridges. Cavalry detachments were sent out to search for fords, Dmitry wanted to be across before Mamai had time to join up with Oleg and Jogaila. Work on the bridges proceeded at a good pace, and several fords were discovered as well. By nightfall, the whole of Dmitry’s army had crossed over and halted in the swampy terrain near the confluence of the Don and Nepryadva rivers.

Tension ran high in the Russian camp that night. A strong wind picked up, and the river became shrouded with fog. Around midnight the wind finally died down and an uneasy calm fell over the encampment. Not many slept that night. Scouts reported that Mamai. with his whole force of roughly 18,000 troops, was already approaching the expected battlefield. The forward-most Russian detachments had fought several running skirmishes with the advancing Tatars. Now only a tiny river, the Smolka, divided the converging armies.

So it was that Dmitry and Bobrok surveyed Kulikovo Field and made their preparations for the battle to come on the morning of September 8, Knowing that the favorite Tatar tactic was to move around the flanks of an opposing force and take it from the rear, Dmitry and Bobrok deployed their forces in such a way as to anchor them on defensible terrain features. Their goal was to deny the Tatars mobility and channel them into a narrow field in order to negate their numerical superiority.

The Russian forces were deployed in their traditional three-deep battle formation. The detached scout element formed the first line. Directly behind it, in the second line, was the Forward Regiment. The third Russian line consisted of the Right, Left and Grand regiments. The Right Regiment was deployed with its flank resting on the Lower Dubyak River. The shallow Smolka anchored the Left Regiment, under the command of two brothers, the princes of Belozersk. The Grand Regiment under Dmitry’s personal command took up the center position, with a small reserve held behind it. An even smaller detachment guarded the several temporary bridges located behind the Left Regiment. Dmitry combined almost all of his available cavalry, consisting of the experienced war bands of various princes’ household troops, into a new unit. This so-called Ambush Regiment, placed under the joint command of Prince Vladimir and Bobrok, was hidden in the Dubrava Wood, on the extreme left of the Russian deployment.

According to Russian Orthodox Christian beliefs, September 8 coincided with the birthday of the Virgin Mother, and a priest walked up and down the Russian ranks imploring the troops to be worthy of the occasion. Shortly after 10 a. m., a solid wall of Tatar cavalry appeared on the field. Denied the opportunity to encircle the Russian deployment, the Golden Horde also deployed in linear-formation. The center of the Tatar line was occupied by Genoese mercenary pikemen and dismounted tribesmen, Tatar cavalry coveied their flanks, and a strong detachment of cavalry was kept in reserve.

Around 11 a. m. following a ritualistic duel between two horsemen, the Tatars opened the battle by shooting a volley of arrows that darkened the sky, then surged forward. The Russian scout force and Forward Regiment were severely pressed by the Genoese and their long pikes, supplemented by dismounted Tatars. After a short period of pushing and shoving, the Russians began to give way. Some Russian archers, however, managed to bring down several of the front-rank Genoese pikemen, and the Russian infantry got in among them. In the melee that ensued, the swords and war axes of the Russians began to exact a heavy toll on the Genoese, whose pikes became a liability’ in close combat. The Russian success did not last long, however, as fresh waves of Tatars swung the advantage back in Mamai’s favor.

After almost an hour of fighting, the survivors of the Forward and scout units were pushed back onto the Grand Regiment. The Tatar warriors charged headlong to close with the Russian main body, while their archers showered the tight Russian formations with arrows. The fight became a vicious brawl. Fallen wounded were crushed underfoot, men slipped on grass slick with blood, and horses stumbled over piles of bodies.

At that critical moment, Prince Dmitry himself went down under a fresh rush of Tartars. Instead of discouraging the Russian forces, however, this only strengthened their resolve. On the right flank. Prince Andrey of Ryazan, a noblemen who had renounced Prince Oleg’s alliance to the Golden Horde, slowly began to gain ground. He personally led a small band of his mounted retainers in a mad charge that drove the enemy back.

From his observation post on top of Krasny Hill, Mamai became enraged to see some of his troops retreat. Around 2 p. m., he sent in his last reserves in an attempt to overwhelm the Russian left wing and break into the Russian tear. As the fresh Tatar forces crashed into the exhausted Russians, the Left Regiment slowly began to give way. For the first time in the course of the battle, the Grand Regiment was in real danger of being surrounded. At that time, both of the Belozersk princes fell in battle. The small Russian reserve detachment was brought forward but could not restore the situation. The fight continued, with the Russian left wing being slowly pushed back onto the Grand Regiment.

As it often happens, the side that hoards the last reserves wins the day. At that crucial time, the Russian Ambush Regiment attacked from its position in the Dubrava Wood, taking the Tatars in their right flank and rear. The fresh Russian horsemen, bent on revenge for the carnage that had unfolded before their eyes, gave no quarter. The remnants of the Grand Regiment under Prince Gleb, who assumed command after Dmitry fell, rushed forward, trapping fleeing Tatars between them and the cavalry.

After another hour of savage fighting, the Tatars finally gave way and began to retreat in earnest. Some of them tried to rally and make a stand at Mamai’s camp but were quickly overrun by jubilant Russian troops. Mamai, screaming with rage, abandoned his camp and followed the survivor’s in retreat.

Back on the corpse-strewn battlefield. Prince Vladimir launched a desperate effort to find Dmitry. Twice, fallen noblemen resembling the grand prince were discovered and word spread of his death. That feeling of despair ultimately turned to widespread joy, however, when Prince Dmitry was finally found alive. He was covered in blood from a head wound, but his helmet bad absorbed the blow-he had been knocked unconscious rather than seriously wounded. Dmitry s personal standard with the image of Christ the Savior was hoisted high amid the exhausted but jubilant Russian troops.

After a short pursuit, the Russian cavalry’ returned to the battlefield. It was a Pyrrhic victory, with more than 3,000 Russians lying dead and roughly the same number wounded. Because of the large number of casualties, seven days had to be spent at the battlefield resting, tending the wounded and burying the dead. Disproportionate to the overall Russian casualties was the butcher’s bill of their leaders, who had fought at the forefront throughout the battle, with 15 princes killed. Tatar dead numbered roughly the same as the Russians, but the wounded they left on the field received no mercy from the victors.

King Jogaila was still a day’s march away when he received news of Mamai’s defeat, at which point he turned around and retired to Lithuania, laying waste to Russian lands as he passed. As Dmitry’s detachments began returning to their homes, several small units were set upon and destroyed by retreating Lithuanians and Prince Oleg’s forces, who until then had showed no activity. The brutal nature of the civil war was clearly demonstrated when at least two wagon trains of Dmitry’s Russian wounded were massacred by Oleg’s Ryazanians and Jogaila’s Kievan and Belorussian troops.

Upon returning to his base of operations, Mamai began to gather another army to take revenge on the upstart Russians. Significant numbers of his troops who were dispersed after the Battle of Kulikovo rejoined him and provided the backbone of his new force. Before he had time to assemble his new horde, however, Mamai was attacked and defeated in 1381 by his Tatar rival, Khan Tokhtamysh. Accompanied by just a few followers, Mamai escaped to Crimea to seek shelter with his recent backers, the Genoese. Now carried in the liability portion of their ledger, Mamai was quietly murdered by his former allies in Kaffa, present-day Feodosiya.

Dmitry died on May 19, 1389, nine years after the victory on the Don River, for which he forever became known as Dmitry Donskoi. While the immediate military-political gains of victory on Kulikovo Field were minimal, it gave a huge boost to Russian national pride and identity. Even though the Tatar yoke would not be thrown off for another century, the Russian people now recognized that their liberation was only a matter of time.

Leave a Reply