Kievan Rus and the Mongols

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

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

In 1237, Mongol invaders attacked the town of Suzdal.

They plundered the Church of the Holy Virgin and burned down the prince’s court and burned down the Monastery of St Dmitrii, and the others they plundered. The old monks and nuns and priests and the blind, lame, hunchbacked and sick they killed, and the young monks and nuns and priests and priests’ wives and deacons and deacons’ wives, and their daughters and sons – all were led away into captivity.

Such images have haunted the minds of Russians over the centuries. They have been re-enacted within living memory in the German invasion of 1941. Whatever else they may have wanted, Russians have always longed for security from terrifying and murderous assaults across the flat open frontiers to east and west. They could not have that security, though, without restraining the feuding of their own internal strongmen. That was the need which motivated the creation of the first Rus state, more than three centuries earlier. The Primary Chronicle, the first East Slav foundation narrative, reported of the 9th-century Slav tribes that

there was no law among them, but tribe rose against tribe.

Discord thus ensued, and they began to war against one

another. . . . Accordingly they went overseas to the Varangian Russes.

[And they] said to the people of Rus ‘Our whole land is great and

rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.’

Probably this was not a single event but a gradual process by which scattered tribes accepted Varangian, or Viking, rule in the interests of peace, security, and stable commerce. The Vikings established fortified urban settlements on the trading route from Scandinavia to Byzantium along the rivers Volkhov, Dvina, and Dnieper. At the southernmost of these settlements, Kiev, they established a capital city from where their kagan (later Great Prince) could enforce his authority over unruly tribes. It forms the birthplace of two of today’s sovereign states, Russia and Ukraine. Around Kiev they built a semi-circle of fortresses to defend it against nomadic raids. They intermingled readily with their subjects and adopted their tongue, so that a common East Slav language and culture emerged, albeit one with a marked social hierarchy: the prince and his druzhina (armed henchmen) formed the elite.

This fixing of authority and culture made life safer and more prosperous: a lively commerce and settled agriculture developed. Kinship faded as the basic principle of social organization, and the names of tribes disappeared from the Chronicles, to be replaced by urban and village communities. The princes awarded their warriors the right of kormlenie, that is to be supported (literally: fed) by local communities in return for guaranteeing protection. This was a variant of the ‘gift economy’; it gave local communities a means to get to know their masters, gauge their reactions, and establish – or sometimes not – some mutual trust and a give-and-take relationship with them.

To regulate their own affairs, village communities had their own assemblies, for which the term mir, meaning peace or harmony, gradually came into use. The urban assemblies were known as veche: only their support or ‘acclamation’ rendered a prince’s authority fully legitimate. All male citizens were members of the veche, and they had both the right and duty to take up arms in defence of the community.

Establishing a unified kingdom, however, proved more difficult. The various sons of the Kievan Great Prince regularly fought one another for the succession. Efforts to curtail these feuds resembled those of Charlemagne’s successors, who were also trying to suppress lesser princes and unruly tribes. The best way to establish law and order and to generate mutual solidarity was to accept a monotheistic religion. That is what Prince Vladimir (r. 978–1015) did in 988 by accepting the Byzantine form of Christianity. It offered attractive assets to a prince seeking to consolidate his authority: it condemned blood feuds and it justified the princely imposition of law, order, and peace. Two of its first saints, Boris and Gleb, sons of Vladimir, were said to have been murdered by rivals because they declined to participate in dynastic feuds. As it extended its network of parishes, the church also provided the most effective way of disseminating both moral concepts and observance of the law.

A close relationship with Byzantium was especially beneficial to a people who already traded with it. Orthodox Christianity had other advantages: it accepted partnership with secular authority, and its liturgy was conducted in a language akin to the vernacular, so that it was closer to the people than Latin Christianity. On the other hand, after the Byzantine and Roman churches split apart in the 11th century, Orthodoxy lost its ecumenical contact with much of Central and Western Europe.

To coordinate the sinews of authority, Vladimir dispersed his sons to various regional bases within his realm. Each had a druzhina, entitled to kormlenie from local communities. Vladimir’s work of consolidation was continued by his son, Iaroslav (r. 1019–54), who rebuilt Kiev as an imposing capital city, with stone fortifications, its own Cathedral of St Sophia, named after Byzantium’s principal church, and a Golden Gate for ceremonial entry. The Kievan Caves Monastery became a centre of Christian learning and culture, and over several decades in the 11th and early 12th centuries, it produced the Primary Chronicle, which identified the Kievan realm as the joint enterprise of Vladimir’s Riurikovich dynasty (called after the first Varangian prince, Riurik). Iaroslav promulgated the first Rus-ian law code, the Russkaia Pravda. Pravda is a key word for understanding Russian culture: it means not only truth, but also justice and what is right according to God’s law. The code’s main contribution was to severely restrict blood feud and supplant it with a closely calibrated scheme of fines for murder, injury, insult, or violation of property. The capacity to impose such fines presupposed both strong central authority and a stable monetary system.

At the northern end of the trading route from Scandinavia to Byzantium, the city of Novgorod developed as a major economic centre. It gained control over the immense territories of the far north and east, and it enforced tribute on the local Baltic and Finno-Ugrian peoples. From the huge forests, the Novgorodians could sell timber, furs, wax, and honey both southwards to Kiev and Byzantium, and westwards to the Baltic and Germany through the Hanseatic League. It had its own Cathedral of St Sophia and its own archbishop, who was second only to the Kiev Metropolitan. Its veche was especially influential and frequently reasserted its right to elect its own prince, whatever the dynastic arrangements laid down from Kiev.

Iaroslav did his best to ensure strong collective leadership by regularizing the succession to the princely thrones, not in direct succession from father to son, but passing through the younger brothers according to seniority. This was to establish the principle that the realm was a kind of federation belonging to the princely family as a whole, while also removing the grounds for feuds within that family. The oldest living brother was to supervise the whole arrangement.

Collective rule was honoured in principle, but proved too difficult to manage in practice. After Iaroslav’s death, his brothers and cousins periodically fought each other over the inheritance, yet at times they had to curtail their feuds to face common threats from the nomadic horsemen of the steppe. During the especially alarming raids of the Kipchaks (or Polovtsy) in the 1090s, the princes met and renewed their dynastic agreement. It was successful in coping with the immediate danger, and gave Kievan Rus another generation of peace, but it did not prove durable.

In 1113, the citizens of Kiev invited Vladimir of Pereiaslavl, the most successful commander against the Kipchaks, to rule over them as Great Prince. After his victories, he received from Byzantium a fur-lined crown, the ‘Monomakh crown’, as a symbol of his God-given authority. He was a thoughtful and pious but also practical ruler, who believed in taking personal responsibility for all the major burdens of princely authority: war, the dynasty and its household, justice, charity and patronage, and the observance of pravda. He outlined his precepts in a written Exhortation (Pouchenie) to his sons, urging them to rule not only through military means, but also through ‘repentance, tears, and almsgiving’. This combination of physical power with Christian morality continued to be an ideal for the rulers of Rus/Russia.

After Vladimir’s death, the fragmentation of Kievan Rus resumed. This happened partly because it was growing in size and prosperity. Trade was bringing economic activity to new areas, especially to the north and east, where there was abundant timber, furs and fish, and tree cover offered better protection against steppe raiders. New towns were founded and junior princes used them as bases for securing their own authority; in particular Vladimir, Suzdal, and Rostov became wealthy commercial centres, though as yet not serious rivals of Kiev and Novgorod. New churches were built and new bishoprics created under the aegis of the Kiev Metropolitan. At the same time, the princes’ feuding over land and succession rights repeatedly undermined these promising developments.

Mongol overlordship

In the early 13th century another, much more serious, danger emerged. Under the Mongol tribe, a new kind of steppe federation was being created, with its centre between Lake Baikal and the Great Wall of China. It created large, extremely mobile, and proficient cavalry armies, which conquered China under Chingis Khan. They then moved westwards, integrating the scattered nomadic tribes of Central Eurasia, among them the Kipchaks. Here the Rus princes’ disunity proved fatal. When the army of Batu, Chingis Khan’s grandson, approached Riazan in 1237, the princes were engaged in ferocious battles for control of Kiev, and did not respond to Riazan’s appeal for help. Over the next three years, Batu’s cavalry was able to attack cities singly, without ever facing a combined Rus army, inflicting the carnage we saw above.

In each case, his men looted, destroyed, and killed without mercy. Many towns lost most of their population; able-bodied survivors were deported to slavery or to service in Batu’s army.

Eventually Batu withdrew, concluding that direct occupation of such unfamiliar forested territory was beyond him. He set up the capital of his domain (ulus), usually called by historians the Golden Horde, at Sarai on the lower Volga. From there, he and his successors fashioned a system of dominion over the Rus principalities. They awarded each ruling prince a iarlyk (the right to rule), after a symbolic ceremony of submission. In selecting a successor for each principality, the Golden Horde followed wherever possible the established Kievan principles – but kept the final decision in their own hands. They appointed to each prince a Mongol tribute-collector and a viceroy, who carried out a census of the local population – an indication of a highly developed administrative system – to ensure that the people paid tribute to Sarai and contributed recruits to a militia or to a forced labour brigade.

Traditionally, Russians have regarded the Mongol overlordship as an unmitigated disaster. Recent research suggests, however, that, after the initial shock and destruction, it had compensations, even though for several generations it imposed a heavy burden on the Rus population, against which townsfolk periodically rebelled. The Mongols restrained princely feuding. They built and maintained a network of communications, together with postal relay stations, superior to anything that had existed in Kiev. Through it, they plugged Rus into a Central Asian trading network which extended to China, the world’s wealthiest civilization. This trade laid the basis for an economic recovery which gathered pace during the 14th century. The princes who cooperated with the Mongols did especially well: their authority was guaranteed, and they received Mongol support against any rebellion in their territories.

For the Orthodox Church, the Mongol dominion was almost a golden age. The Mongols were on principle tolerant in religious matters, and later themselves became Muslims. They granted the church immunity from tribute and from the obligation to deliver recruits for military and labour service. It was able to accumulate extensive landholdings and vassals. Much of the work of opening up new territories was accomplished by monasteries, which thus became nurseries of both spiritual and economic power. Moreover, with the fragmentation and subjugation of secular authority, the church was the only institution able to speak for Rus as a whole. The Kiev Metropolitan regarded himself as the custodian of its integrity: he took the title Metropolitan of All Rus, and spent much of his time travelling round the various dioceses.

Meanwhile, Novgorod was going its own way. Its far northwestern forest location deterred the Mongols from attacking it. Its prince, Alexander (r. 1236–63), negotiated skilfully with them, and in return for paying an ample tribute received a special charter guaranteeing the city’s right to govern itself. He had good reason to mollify the Mongols, for his western frontier was threatened by the Swedes; he defeated them in 1240 in a battle on the River Neva – hence his nickname Nevskii. In addition, the Teutonic Knights were trying to block Novgorod’s lucrative trading routes in the Baltic. When they advanced towards the city itself in 1242, Alexander overcame them in battle on the frozen Lake Peipus. The scale of the battle may have been exaggerated by later chroniclers, but its significance cannot be. It established the River Narva and Lake Peipus as a permanent boundary between Eastern and Western Christianity.

Alexander’s younger son, Daniil, became ruler of the new principality of Moscow. During the early 14th century, he and his successors succeeded in establishing themselves as the favoured recipients of the iarlyk of Great Prince, even though, as scions of a cadet Riurikovich line, they did not qualify under the Kievan succession rules. Daniil’s son, Ivan I (Ivan Kalita, or ‘moneybags’, r. 1325–41), received the iarlyk in 1328, having seen off a rival from Tver. He practised unswerving loyalty to the Golden Horde, and used his function as their tribute-gatherer to enrich his own principality. By subsidizing neighbouring princes, he was able to attract their support and that of their trading towns, and in some cases actually integrate their territories into his own. Gradually, Moscow ceased to observe the Kievan dynastic rules and went over to straightforward patrimonial succession, from father to eldest son. The importance of doing so was underlined when in 1425, on the death of Vasilii I, his brother contested the succession of his son, and plunged Muscovy into a civil war which lasted nearly thirty years. Later princes and their boyars (leading warriors) were determined to prevent any repetition of this disaster.

The recovery of Rus took place not only in the north and east. The south-western principalities, notably Galicia and Volynia, allied themselves with Lithuania, which defeated the Golden Horde at the Battle of Blue Waters in 1362, and was able to establish its authority over Kiev and most of the original heartland of Rus. From the late 14th century, Lithuania, for its own protection, sought union with Poland, to form what at the time was the largest kingdom in Europe. The Lithuanian princes accepted the Catholic religion, though many of their people remained Orthodox. In this way, the western and south-western principalities of Kievan Rus adopted an elite Latinate Polish culture, which distinguished them from those of the north and east. The language spoken in the west, initially known as Rusin (Ruthenian), evolved into modern Belorussian and Ukrainian. Eventually, their territories became contemporary Belorussia and a large part of Ukraine.

Since the Metropolitanate was the most important ‘all-Rus’ institution, its location and powers were vital to the development of Kievan Rus’s successor states. Kiev itself lost its ascendancy because it was especially vulnerable to steppe raids. In 1325, the Metropolitanate relocated to Moscow; Metropolitan Petr, who made the move, was subsequently canonized with the support of Ivan Kalita, and his tomb became a pilgrimage site. This was a crucial moment: from then on, Moscow became the centre of Russian Orthodox Christianity, though at times contested by Kievan Metropolitans with Lithuanian backing.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, monasteries multiplied and acquired extensive new lands in the northern and eastern forests. Their motive was both spiritual and economic. When young monks became discontented with the discipline in their home foundations, they would break away to set up their own skit (hermitage) further into the forest, where to achieve spiritual concentration they could be alone or share divine worship with just a few like-minded colleagues. In the course of time, other devotees would join them, build their own huts or shelters close by, and so a whole new monastery would appear. The most skilled and experienced monks became revered elders (startsy), whose spiritual counsel was sought by believers from all ranks of society. Dostoevsky depicted one as Father Zosima in his Brothers Karamazov.

Such was the biography of St Sergy of Radonezh, who left home with his brother and built a chapel deep in the forest. He acquired a reputation for spiritual insight, and gradually other monks and seekers joined him. Eventually, they set up a full-scale monastery, of which they invited him to become the abbot. Reluctantly, and only on the insistence of the local bishop, he agreed. His foundation later became the Lavra of the Holy Trinity and St Sergy, future site of the Moscow Patriarchate and centre of Russian Orthodoxy.

The search for spiritual peace and concentration also inspired icon painters associated with the Moscow princely court and the Trinity Lavra. Feofan the Greek and his pupil, Andrei Rublev, developed Byzantine iconic models, making their figures less monumental, more graceful and expressive in their gestures and appearance. Rublev’s Trinity is perhaps the best known of all Orthodox icons: its light blue colouring, the meek and trusting way the three angelic figures respond to each other, express the spiritual peace and mutual communion (later known as sobornost) which has remained an ideal for Russian believers.

The decline of the Golden Horde and the rise of Muscovy

The very wealth of the Golden Horde, based on Eurasian commerce, encouraged its subordinate rulers to utilize their ulus as centres of settled prosperity and independent power. In the 1370s, one such warlord, Timur (or Tamerlane), carved out a Central Asian empire, the last of the great nomadic super-states. One of his generals, Mamai, set up his own independent khanate west of the Volga and claimed the whole of Rus as his ulus. The princes of Rus were faced with two sets of demands for tribute, but also with the opportunity to take advantage of their overlords’ conflicts. In order to overcome the growing power of Moscow, Mamai allied himself with Lithuania. Moscow had always deliberately avoided armed conflict with the Horde. In 1380, though, when Mamai moved on Moscow, Prince Dmitry, fortified (as legend has it) by the formal blessing of Sergy, decided to challenge him on the field of Kulikovo, on the upper River Don. Dmitry’s army succeeded in repelling the Mongol cavalry charges before Mamai’s Lithuanian allies could arrive. Dmitry became known as Dmitry Donskoi in honour of his victory.

The Mongols’ yoke was shaken but not overthrown. They decided to demonstrate who was master and raided Moscow two years later. Dmitry meekly accepted the iarlyk again. All the same, unquestioning acceptance of Mongol domination had faltered. Moscow had become the undoubted leader among the northeastern principalities. Over the next two generations, a series of writers of chronicles and narrative poems began to extol Moscow as the leader of the forces of Christendom against the Muslims. In this narrative, Kulikovo and Sergy’s blessing occupied central place; Dmitry Donskoi became the saintly prince who with God’s help had delivered victory over the infidels. By the same token, the ‘land of Rus’ became identified with the power of the Muscovite Great Prince. This was the launch of Moscow’s fusion of strong state power with religious mission.

Despite the legend, Moscow had augmented its power and prestige not by opposing the Mongols but by cultivating good relations with them, proving themselves reliable tribute-payers and upholders of order. In the course of that experience, they learned much about the art of government: how to conduct a census and use it for taxation purposes, how to raise an army, maintain rapid communications over extensive territory, and exploit trade whilst also extracting dues from it. The steppe khans ruled by intermittent consultation with their leading warriors when important decisions had to be taken. The Muscovite Great Prince likewise summoned his boyars to periodical gatherings which historians have called the Boyar Duma. He issued major decrees with the wording ‘the boyars advised and the Great Prince resolved . . . ’.

Concentrating power and gaining the consensus of the junior princes and boyars became the paramount priority for the Great Princes, especially after the mid-15th-century civil war showed how dangerous disunity was. Their success enabled Moscow to become the largest and most flourishing of the post-Kievan principalities, with the single exception of Novgorod. Between 1462 and 1533, Muscovy roughly tripled in size and population. By persuasion, marriage settlement, and the occasional threat of war, Moscow brought under its sway several principalities of the north and east. The largest prize was Novgorod itself, which was trying to form an alliance with Lithuania in order to maintain its independence and commercial links with the Baltic. In 1478, Ivan III (r. 1462–1505) marched into the city, closed the veche, and took down its summoning bell, symbol of its independence. He deported many of Novgorod’s landowners and awarded their extensive lands as pomestia (service estates) to his own followers. In the following decades, making such awards from newly acquired land enabled the Muscovite Great Prince to create his own army, with its commanders answerable to him. Junior princes had to take their place in the boyar hierarchy.

Up until the late 15th century, all the same, Moscow still had a nominal overlord, the Khan of the Great Horde, one of the remnants of the defunct Golden Horde. In practice, Ivan III, though he continued to pay tribute, ignored his theoretical obligation to seek consent for his policies from the Khan. In 1480, Khan Akhmet made one final attempt to enforce this obligation by moving his armies towards Moscow. Ivan barred his way on the River Ugra, and after a long standoff, Akhmet retreated. This was a tacit acknowledgement that Mongol suzerainty was no longer enforceable, though Moscow continued to pay tribute for a few more years.

At around the same period, the church was also emerging from under the canopy of Byzantium. As the Byzantine Empire became progressively weaker, more of its worldly responsibilities devolved upon the Patriarch, who reacted by attempting a reunion with Rome. At the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438–9), the Orthodox accepted the demands of the Vatican on all essential doctrinal matters. Metropolitan Isidor, who attended on behalf of Muscovy, signed the concluding document, and returned home a Roman cardinal. He entered the city in solemn procession holding aloft a crucifix, but to his horror was arrested and confined in a monastery for apostasy. Henceforth, the Muscovite church no longer deferred automatically to the Byzantine Patriarch. Shortly after that, in 1453, Byzantium finally fell to the Ottoman Empire – an event which appalled Moscow’s churchmen, but which also vindicated their judgement and liberated them.

By the late 15th century, then, Muscovy was incontestably the dominant power in the north and east of former Kievan Rus, and it had become independent of the Mongols. It had achieved this by integrating most of what had been a dynastic federation into a single patrimony, governed by adapting some Mongol practices.

Its church had emancipated itself from Byzantium and believed it had an ecumenical mission as the bastion of the one true Christian faith. The amalgam of radical centralization with a sense of universal religious calling was to remain the most characteristic feature of Muscovy and later of Russia.

There were at this stage, though, several possible futures before it. It could become an embryonic East Slav nation-state – but the western branches of that potential nation were already under another power. It could become a centre of the eastern Christian ecumene, taking over from Byzantium – but, as we shall see, it was to dilute that mission by assimilating many non-Orthodox, indeed non-Christian, peoples. Or it could become a north Eurasian multi-ethnic and multi-faith empire, in effect the successor to the Golden Horde – but in that case, the church, with its assertive sense of mission and its secular riches, would prove a problematic ally.