Going to the Horde: The Effect of the Mongol Invasion on Russia

December 29, 2017

Tags: Mongol Invasion, Batu Khan, Kievan Rus, Church of the Virgin, Mongols and Russia, Subudei, Alexander Nevsky

In the thirteenth century, the Mongol Khans invaded Russia and occupied the lower Volga setting up a vast nomad camp. The Golden Horde remained in control of Russia for two hundred and fifty years.

The invasion army was commanded by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. The Mongol Army was the greatest fighting force of the medieval world. In my new book, I examine the strategy and tactics that would have come into play if the Mongols had decided to conquer Europe.

The first invasion force was small, only twenty thousand. It was an experiment, an expeditionary force. The great general had spies, Venetian spies, who informed him of conditions in Russia. (They also provided intelligence on conditions in Europe that caused Subudei to plan the invasion of Europe with Batu in command of one wing of the army.)

Europe was divided and the Europeans were in blissful ignorance about the Mongols and their potential danger. Even when warned by King Bela of Hungary about the approaching menace, the Europeans ignored the warnings. The Pope and the Holy Roman Empire were at war. They were preoccupied, too busy killing each other to face an external threat. It is a very good story.

The Venetians were only too happy to have the Mongols oust their trading rivals, the Genoese, from the trading port on the Black Sea where the merchants were making a fortune. This is where the family of Marco Polo had established a branch of their trading emporium, an extension of the family business in Venice. General Subudei thought the Venetians were disloyal, betraying Europe for commercial advantage.

In this period, Russia was divided, not unified as it is today. The government was centered in Kiev, and Moscow was still a backwater. Kiev was the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church and the seat of government.

The Mongol Army laid siege to the walled cities of Russia, the principalities of the North, then rode to the south and burned the Church of the Virgin in Kiev to the ground with all of the esteemed and rich inhabitants inside. First they removed the treasure, the gold and the priceless icons.

General Subudei did this by laying bales of hay against the walls and setting fire to them. It was the beginning of the end for the principalities. This broke the resistance of the Russian princes, including the great hero, Alexander Nevsky. Alexander went to the horde and paid his tribute. He saved his city. The chroniclers of Novgorod wept and prayed.

One might argue that Russian history is tragic. Any devotee of Russian literature-- Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,and Chekhov, the poetry produced in the Soviet Union--understands this. Russians weep at their literature. Their souls are moved. They are emotional.

Beginning with Old Russia, Kievan Russia, the country that we think of as Russia, an empire headquartered in Moscow, had not yet formed and was not yet centralized, under the grip of the czars.

In the North, the cities were the gateway to the trade of the Baltic Sea. Novgorod was the most important, fare more important than Moscow. Surrounding Kiev and the walled cities, were Russia's own barbarians, the Kipchaks, the mounted horsemen who lived on the steppes and commanded a vast empire.

Trade or raid, that was the relationship of the mounted warriors of the Russian steppes to the Russian princely cities. At the time of the Mongol invasion, the Russian barbarians had made peace with the princes. Even this alliance was no match for the Mongol Army. No one had the strategy and the tactics. No one had the command structure. No one had the weapons and the equipment.

This is a fascinating story and one that has gone untold. It will have you on the edge of your chair.

The history is simple to summarize.
There were the Viking invasions. The very name Rus comes from the Vikings.
There was Kievan Rus, before the center of Russia formed around the northern city of Moscow.
There were the princely walled cities and the nomads, the barbarians, called the Kipchaks. These nomad cavalry would later become the Cossacks.

In medieval times, Russian walled cities had names like Vladimir, Yaroslav, Riazan and Suz in the North. Novgorod was a walled city,the gateway to the Baltic Sea.

There were a few Russian principalities in the South, and they traded along the Volga and the Dnieper Rivers to the port on the Black Sea that connected Russia with Constantinople. This was when the government and the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church was headquartered in Ukraine, in the Mother of Russian cities, in Kiev.

To the east and the South was the vast empire of the Kipchak Khanate, the nomads of Russia, who ruled all the way to Southern Siberia, a vast empire, only partially sedentary.

These Kipchaks were mounted cavalry, like the Mongols. For some centuries they had invaded the principalities of the lower Russias, but at the time of the Mongol invasion, they had entered into a period of trade and peace. Trade had taken over from raid.

So when the Mongol Army attacked them, and chased them out of the steppes, their leader sent an envoy to the Russian prince who was his father-in-law. The khan of the Kipchaks had intermarried with the princely state and taken a Russian bride. His envoy delivered the following message: "Today they are coming for us. Tomorrow they will be coming for you."

Unfortunately, the prince did not heed the warning and the warning was true. The culmination of the invasion was not to take place for another thirteen years. It was to end at the battle of the Khalka River, but I get ahead of my story.

The second Campaign in Russia took place seventeen years later and brought Russia under the Mongol Yoke. For the second invasion, Prince Batu was accompanied by princes of the four branches of the Mongol imperial family. The invasion force of 120,000 was in the command of the greatest strategist of the Mongol Army, General Subudei. In his talent as a general, he was exceeded only by Genghis Khan himself. Russia fell and the Russian Khanate was born. In the West, Batu inherited the Golden Horde. In the northeast, his older brother Orda was the Khan of the White Horde.

For two hundred and fifty years, until the coming of the first of the Romanovs, Ivan the Terrible, the Russian princes "went to the horde" bearing tribute.

The Romanovs czars ruled for a little less than four centuries, until the Bolshevik Revolution that brought seventy years of communism. Until the present day, that is the history of Russia. And Russian history denies the importance of the Mongol period as a Dark Age they would rather forget. And so it is obliterated.

When I began "Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde", I went to visit a literary mentor of mine, a woman by the name of Olga Carlisle. Olga belonged to a literary family famous in Moscow. It was she who helped to bring the Solzhenitsyn papers out of Russia.

Olga told me of the famous poem by Alexandr Blok, one of Russia's greatest poets. It was called "The Twelve" and it was about the battle that ended the Mongol domination of Russia.

I read her a chapter of the story of Batu Khan. Like any good Russian when confronted with literature, she wept. She said it was the story from the other side. She had never heard it before.

Russian historians rarely analyze the Russian debt to the Mongol Invader. Before the coming of the Mongols, there was not as much centralization, nor as much authoritarian rule as there was afterward.

The Mongols did not have private property as it is understood in the West, because they were nomads. Their wealth was not counted in real estate, but in people, in followers. They did not have fixed pieces of property with deeds. They had grazing grounds. This was the "ulus", or native campground.

For Genghis Khan, this was the valley between the Onon and Kerulen Rivers in the region called the Kentei. For Batu Khan, it was the lower Volga where his horse depot was said to contain a million horses.

It was not a fixed site with a dwelling for the nomads lived in white felt ger tents made from the felt that came from the shearing of sheep. There were no farms, no agricultural seasons, no peasant festivities at various times of the year. There were no factories, places of manufacture that paid rents, for the nomads simple had shearing and tanning, drying of meat, churning of koumiz, fermented mare's milk. These were the products of animal husbandry. The steppes, the grasslands, were a vast ranch.

Without private property, a class structure still existed. The hereditary members of the nobility had followers who camped with them on the vast grazing grounds granted to them by the central government. Those who lived in white felt tents were the commoners with their herds and they paid a tithe to the khan.

The followers of khans received grazing grounds for their animals and good government. For this, they gave a tenth of the herd to the khan. They paid for law and order. They paid for the khan to lead them into battle and provide them with the spoils of war, herds, possessions as booty, slaves and concubines.

This was the system of the nomad empire. Of course, the Mongols and even the Russian nomads eventually had a mixed system, with some fixed cities, such as Sarai, Batu's vast trading emporium on the lower Volga. What does it say about the communist theory that class structure originates with private property when the nomads had no system of private property as the West understands it and yet had a class system?

The army was the central institution of Mongol society and it was a meritocracy. As the careers of the most talented generals proved, a man could rise up from being a commoner into the highest level of command, depending solely upon his talent. A woman with common origins could become the wife of a Khan and respected, as was proved with Genghis Khan's fourth principal wife, Gulan.

The ruler of Russia, Josef Stalin, came from Georgia, which the Mongols conquered on their ride to attack the northern princely cities. It is also worth noting that Stalin considered the Kazakh nomads backward and attempted to settle them in apartment buildings in Kazakhstan. He attempted to send all of their herds of the magnificent Akhal-Teke horses to the sausage factory, but the Kazakhs released them into the desert. There they might survive, for they were a desert breed.

In the steppes under the baked lilac skies described in the writing of the Russian Anton Chekov, Batu Khan pitched his tent. This was the magnificent pavilion tent captured in battle from the King of Hungary, Bela IV. The tent could hold 1000 people.

Batu had no desire to live in a city, in the civilized world. He established his camp on the lower Volga, the mythic Russian river in the mythic Russian landscape where the mythic Russian hero, Alexander Nevsky, went to the horde. The great deeds of Alexander were the subject of the 1921 film by the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

The archetype is profound: Alexander was the sainted and immortalized protector of the Russian Orthodox Church against the Teutonic Knights. The Pope of Rome had called for a Crusade against Russia. He sent the German knights to Russia to bring Russia back into the fold of the papist church in Rome.

Alexander was the elected ruler of the walled city of Novgorod--in this time, Kievan Russia, the Russians elected their princes. The period when the Russian capital was in Kiev ended with the coming of the Mongols.

Alexander deemed it a better fate for his beloved city to be surrendered to the Mongols rather than fall to the Teutonic Knights. After all, the Russians had been dealing with their own barbarians, the Kipchaks and others, for a thousand years. They were a known quantity.

Alexander did what was called "going to the horde", surrendering Novgorod without a battle, to Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde, in order to prevent the Mongols from burning Novgorod to the ground.

This they had done with the Church of the Virgin in Kiev, the mother of Russian cities, the seat of the Orthodox Church. Mongol forces led by Batu and General Subudei had already attacked the walled Russian cities of Vladmir, Suzdal, Yaroslav. They delivered Orders of Submission: Submit and be spared. Resist and be plunged into humiliation.

After the second Russian Campaign, Batu would command troops that would result in the conquest of Hungary and Poland. Batu was poised at the edge of Europe, ready for conquest. Only the death of the Supreme Khan saved Europe, for when he received word, General Subudei called for the withdrawal of troops.

The Mongol yoke was to last for two and a half centuries, until the defeat of the Mongols and the empowerment of the czars, the Romanovs, in the person of Ivan the Terrible.

In the meantime, Alexander would travel to the capital of the Mongol Empire in Khara Khorum to attend the enthronement of Batu Khan's candidate for Supreme Khan.

Batu was the senior prince of Genghis Khan's line. Batu had made an alliance with the Princess Sorghagtani to put her sons on the throne. He requested Alexander to attend the ceremony.

Alexander traveled to the East and met the future emperor and the papal envoy to the Mongol court, John of Plano Carpini.

Batu also set in motion the campaign that brought down the Order of the Assassins in Iran and the Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq. The end of the story is the appearance of a Mongol Army in Syria.

This is the history that Russia has forgotten for eight hundred years. This is the story of Batu Khan. It forms a chapter of global history, the backdrop to contemporary times.