The Mongol Invasion of Russia

Updated on July 15, 2019
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Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

The Mongol Invasion of Russia; Mid-Thirteenth Century.
The Mongol Invasion of Russia; Mid-Thirteenth Century.

Introduction

In the years 1237 – 1241, an Eastern nomadic people known as the Mongols conquered most of modern-day Russia with the aid of Turkish allies. Rus, divided politically and socially by its numerous principalities, could offer only ill-coordinated resistance against the Mongols as they killed thousands and conquered one Russian town after another. Under the Mongol onslaught, Kievan society was completely shattered and fragmented; allowing the Mongol Khans to control Rus for more than two centuries. From their position of authority in the lower Volga, the Mongols ruled with relative ease, imposing tribute on the various princes of Rus. The effect of this invasion would prove to have long-lasting effects on Russian society for decades and centuries to come.

The Mongols

When the Mongols invaded Russia in the Thirteenth Century, the onslaught was comparable to the “Fifth-Century incursion of Germanic tribes into the Western Roman Empire” (MacKenzie and Curran, 60). Even before advancing into Rus, the Mongols were well-acquainted with reigning death and destruction on their enemies, as they had already conquered (and slaughtered) a large swathe of Asia by the early 1200s. After taking control of Rus in a relatively short span of time, the Mongols continued West into Poland, Hungary, and the Balkans, halting their advance just beyond the Adriatic Sea. If not for the death of a great Khan in Mongolia around this time, Western Europe would have likely suffered a similar fate; however, such things were not meant to be. Regardless of this small setback, at its height, the Mongol Empire stretched all the way from the Eurasian Plains to the Pacific; making it one of the largest empires in human history.

The Mongols were comprised primarily of a series of nomadic tribes and clans that totaled more than a million people (MacKenzie and Curran, 60). Unlike many other civilizations from this period, Mongol religious beliefs were a fusion of shamanism, totemism, and animism, which played only minor roles in their political and social unity. In addition, property was primarily focused around herds of sheep, cattle and camels, with their most prized possessions being the horse. This dedication and attachment to horses proved valuable in warfare, as the Mongols were highly trained for horseback assaults. Even Mongol children, some as young as three years of age, were taught how to ride and fight on horseback. As a result, by adulthood, Mongol warriors were experts at horse-riding.

Early depiction of Genghis Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire during the early Thirteenth Century. Under his rule, the Mongol Empire thrived militarily and politically.
Early depiction of Genghis Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire during the early Thirteenth Century. Under his rule, the Mongol Empire thrived militarily and politically. | Source

Rise of Genghis Khan

Genghis-Khan, also known as Temuchin before he became ruler, was the son of a Mongolian chieftain called Esugal. During his early years, Temuchin was well-known in his tribe for both courage and shrewdness, and participated in numerous battles against local tribes. After leading his tribe to victory during a long and bloody campaign, Temuchin managed to bring the Mongolian tribes together under his direct rule, and was confirmed by a great council of clan chieftains known as the Kuriltai, who provided a sense of legitimacy to his newfound power. Re-named Genghis-Khan (or “Supreme Leader”), the Mongolian leader galvanized his new subjects into action around the year 1206, leading the Mongols on a bloody campaign of death and destruction wherever he led his army. Genghis-Khan’s military prowess was unmatched, as warlords, tribes, and entire villages/towns succumbed to his growing military and appetite for conquest. Using primarily bows and arrows atop their horses, Mongolian soldiers were capable of inflicting lightning-fast strikes at full-gallop; taking enemy forces by storm. As a result of these tactics, Genghis-Khan was able to establish (within only a few years) an absolute monarchy for himself within the region, as well as a well-trained and highly disciplined army.

After conquering and subduing his own lands, Genghis-Khan moved his forces into neighboring civilizations throughout Asia, taking control of China, Persia, and Khwarizm within only a few years. At the height of his power, however, Genghis-Khan suddenly died in 1227, leaving his four sons (The “Golden Kin”) to take control of his rapidly growing empire. During the brief peace that followed Genghis-Khan’s death, known as the Pax Mongolica, the Mongols once again readied themselves for future conflict as they began to focus on the development of commercial, political, and economic growth in their newly conquered lands. Leading these new developments and reforms was Genghis-Khan’s son, Ugedei, who was unanimously elected to serve as the new “great khan,” following in his father’s footsteps.

Artistic Depiction of Ugedei's Coronation Ceremony

Coronation of Ugedei.
Coronation of Ugedei. | Source

Invasion of Rus (Modern-Day Russia)

Conflict with Rus (Modern-day Russia) was inevitable, as the Mongols once again began to expand their empire toward the Western frontiers of Asia. At the request of Khan Ugedei, nearly 120,000 Mongol troops were assembled in 1235, where they began a systematic attack on the Volga Bulgars of Russia, conquering and enslaving them swiftly. Despite this invasion, the disorganized and divided Rus princes refused to unify for the sake of their own greedy survival, opening the door for complete takeover by the Mongols only two years later.

Using military tactics first devised by Genghis-Khan, large cavalry forces moving at a lightning-fast pace, attacked the Russian frontier from a variety of directions, overwhelming and encircling anyone who dared to oppose their advance. Opposition to Mongol attack was often met with devastation and slaughter, as the Mongols sought to implement complete and total control over the region. By December of 1237, Genghis-Khan’s grandson, known as Batu, successfully led his troops into the town of Riazan, before rapidly advancing to Moscow, burning it to the ground. Despite Grand Prince Iuri’s attempt to organize an army to oppose the Mongols, he was quickly defeated (and killed) in 1238, allowing Rus’s primary city of Vladimir to be taken over within weeks of his fall. By 1240, the great city of Kiev also fell to the Mongol army, despite a heroic resistance staged by the city’s inhabitants. Between 1240 – 1241, additional cities fell under Mongol control, including Podolia, Galicia, and Volhynia.

Depiction of Batu and the Golden Horde.
Depiction of Batu and the Golden Horde. | Source

Defeat of Rus

With the defeat of Rus secured, the Mongol army continued westward into central Europe, facing off against the armies of both Poland and Hungary in April of 1241. Easily overwhelming central Europe’s defenses and armies, the Mongols continued to press into the heart of Europe, halting just shy of the Adriatic Sea. With every intention of continuing their bloody and merciless campaign against the Europeans, Batu and his army were only stopped by the sudden death of the “Great Khan” Ugedei. Leaving in his wake a “Succession crisis,” Batu was forced to order a withdrawal of his army to the Volga River valley (MacKenzie and Curran, 63). The planned invasion of Central Europe never again materialized, as Mongolian internal politics prevented a return to former military policies in the empire.

"The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you. To see his cities reduced to ashes. To see those who love him shrouded in tears. And to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters."

— Genghis Khan

The Golden Horde

By 1242, “the outlines of the khanate of Kipchak, generally known as the Golden Horde,” were well underway in the western territories, under the leadership of Khan Batu (MacKenzie and Curran, 63). In the area of the Black and Caspian Seas, as well as the upper Volga, Caucasus, and the Crimea grew the nucleus of this new form of government and power. Enjoying a sense of autonomy from the disintegrating empire, Batu and the Golden Horde established a strong administrative unit around Old Sarai. Although the former Princes of Rus were allowed to remain in power across their territories, the Golden Horde maintained absolute control of the region, and forced each of the princes to swear allegiance to Mongolian rule. As a result, by 1242, nearly all forms of resistance had been eradicated across the region, as the Golden Horde’s power grew mightier and more centralized with each passing day. By using their superior military strength, and by utilizing raids and extreme punitive measures against dissident individuals and towns, the Mongols were able to establish nearly complete control of Russia, at large, by the 1250s. For the Mongol conquerors, fear became a weapon of choice when dealing with its subjects in the early stages of their rule.

Rus became a beneficial source of both taxes and army recruits in the years and decades that followed. Despite their initial use of terror, the Mongols also introduced numerus reforms in the region, including the Diwan system of governance, as well as a renewed system of commerce and trade (in particular, international trade). Because of their widespread control of Asia and Eastern Europe, such initiatives were made easier by the opening of traditionally closed-off borders, allowing merchants and traders to travel freely along various routes and towns.

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Conclusion

Despite their reforms and efforts to stabilize Rus, the Golden Horde began to rapidly collapse after nearly a century of total control. Suffering from political fragmentation in the early Fourteenth Century, the Horde faced numerous instances of internal divide that reached a peak with the crisis of 1360. Weakened by familial feuds, Rus’s Princes began to receive unparalleled levels of autonomy from the Mongols, as the desperate conquerors sought to maintain a sense of stability. By the mid-Fifteenth Century, however, the Golden Horde was finally crippled beyond repair and disintegrated as quickly as it had began nearly two centuries prior.

Despite being conquered and subjected to varying degrees of violence and taxation, Russia emerged from their conquered state with numerous advances in their political, social, cultural, economic, military and linguistic realms, thanks to the Mongol leadership. Thus, the impact of the Mongol invasion on Rus can be viewed as neither negative or wholly positive in the long-term (MacKenzie and Curran, 73).

Works Cited:

Articles / Books:

MacKenzie, David and Michael Curran. A History of Russia, the Soviet Union, and Beyond. 6th Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002.

Images / Photographs:

Wikipedia contributors, "Mongol Empire," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mongol_Empire&oldid=903357676 (accessed July 3, 2019).

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    © 2019 Larry Slawson

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