Russia and the Mongol Empire

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Russia and the Mongol Empire

The Golden Horde. Russian name for the Mongol domains of
Russia and neighboring areas. The name derives from a nickname for the palace tent (Middle Mongolian hordo) of the Golden Horde ruler.

The Mongol conquest of the Russian duchies ironically led to the emergence of Muscovy as the center of a new united Russian state. At the time of the Mongol invasions the Russians, or East Slavs (including the Ukrainians and Belarussians), were ruled by princes (or dukes, kniazi) of the Riurikid family, dating back to the ninth century. Since no system of primogeniture existed, the number of new appanages (udel) multiplied steadily. Politically, the unifying institution was the grand duchy, that is, the special title of grand prince (or grand duke, veliki kniaz’), which accrued, after 1169, to the possessor of the city of Vladimir in the northeast. However, this position of grand prince had no set rule of succession, leading to complex family politics. The real unity of the Russian land, surrounded by Catholic, Muslim, and pagan neighbors, was provided by the Orthodox Church, conducting its services in Old Church Slavonic and headed by the metropolitan in Kiev. Economically, the Russian duchies had ceased coinage in the 12th century, using furs for money instead. The largest city, Novgorod, which traded Russia’s furs, falcons, and lumber to the Baltics, had an estimated 22,000 persons.

The Conquest

The Russians first collided with the Mongols (or TATARS, as the Russians always called them) through their Turkish- speaking Qipchaq (Polovtsi or Cuman) allies. When SÜBE’ETEI BA’ATUR and JEBE led a reconnaissance force of three tümens (10,000s) through Qipchaq territory in 1223, the latter appealed to allied southwest Russian princes, who joined the QIPCHAQS, slaying the Mongol ambassadors. Sübe’etei and Jebe crushed the Russian- Qipchaq force on the Kalka River (May 31, 1223).

Thus, in 1235 ÖGEDEI KHAN added the Russians to the list of targets of the Mongols’ great Western campaign. As usual, the Mongols campaigned principally in the winter. The main Mongol force, headed by the Jochid princes BATU and Hordu, the future great khans GÜYÜG and Möngke, and several others, arrived at Ryazan’ in December 1237. Once Ryazan’ refused to surrender, the Mongols sacked it and stormed through the north-eastern district of Suzdalia, sacking its cities and defeating Russian field forces before leaving that summer. Among the casualties was Grand Prince Iurii (1217–38), killed on the River Sit’ (March 4, 1238). The Mongols reappeared in southern Russia in 1239, sacking Pereyaslavl’ (March 3) and Chernihiv (Chernigov, October 18). Finally having smashed the Russians’ Qipchaq allies, the Black Caps, the full Mongol army sacked Kiev (December 6, 1240), Halych (Galich), and Volodymyr (Vladimir) before passing on to Central Europe. Throughout the campaign the Russians showed neither unity of purpose nor any sense of the enemy they were facing. No Russian princes surrendered to the Mongols, but most fled when it became clear resistance was futile.

When the Mongols destroyed Kiev in December 1240 and sacked Halych (Galich) and Volodymyr (Vladimir), Prince Daniel of Halych (d. 1264), his brother Vasil’ko of Volodymyr (d. 1269), and Michael of Chernihiv (Chernigov, d. 1246) all took refuge in Poland.

The princes of the dynasty, who survived and succeeded those killed defending the Rus’ lands, faced multiple problems of consolidating their own positions, reconstructing their lands, and also developing working relationships with their conquerors. In the first years after the invasion, while the Mongols were pursuing military campaigns elsewhere, the remaining Riurikids were virtually left to their own devices to recover and restore order.

Mongol suzerainty

Nevertheless, the invasion of the Rus lands, although not followed immediately by any formal treaty or Mongol occupation, constituted for practical purposes a conquest. A new, political relationship had to be forged between the Mongol khans and the Riurikid princes. The khans had to find methods of exercising their authority over the defeated lands; and the Rus princes and their populations had to accept and adjust to the demands of the Horde. The princes of Rus recognized Batu and his successors as their overlords. The first evidence of this relationship became manifest almost as soon as the Mongols’ western campaigns ended. According to chronicle accounts, they began the practice of traveling to the Mongol khan or “going to the Horde” to receive the khan’s iarlyk or patent, which was an official appointment or confirmation of each prince’s right to rule his domain.

As early as 1243, Prince Iaroslav Vsevolodich, who had replaced his brother Iurii as prince of Vladimir after the latter’s death at the Battle on the Sit, made such a trip to the Horde. He was awarded not only the title of grand prince of Vladimir, but also that of grand prince of Kiev. Three years later Iaroslav returned to Sarai. On that occasion he was sent on to the Mongol capital at Karakorum. He did not survive the journey. Iaroslav’s sons, Andrei, who served as prince of Vladimir from 1249 to 1251/52, and Alexander Nevsky, who replaced him in 1252, also traveled to both Sarai and Karakorum. In subsequent years other princes also repeatedly made the trip to the Horde. The Suzdalian princes alone, according to one count, made nineteen visits between 1242 and 1252.

By 1280 Noqai, leader of a junior Mongol line, had established a virtually independent realm from the Dnieper to the Danube, ruling Ossetes, Vlachs (Romanians), and Russians of Halych and Volodymyr. King Ladislaus IV (r. 1272–90). The figure who divided the Golden Horde was Nogai. Leader of the Mangkyt clan and himself a descendant of Juchi, Nogai emerged during the reign of Mengu-Timur (1266/67–81) as a powerful military commander with virtually autonomous control over the western territories of the Golden Horde, i.e., the lands west of the Dnieper reaching to the lower Danube. Nogai’s influence was such that he engaged in direct interaction with Byzantium, Egypt, and Hungary and conducted military expeditions as far west as Serbia, Transylvania, and Hungary. When Tuda-Mengu succeeded his brother Mengu- Timur, Nogai’s power as clan leader, Horde elder, and military commander was so great that he has been characterized both as a “virtual co-ruler” with the khan and as an independent ruler. Nogai continued to play a powerful role when Tuda-Mengu, having personally converted to Islam (1283), delegated much of his authority and responsibility to his nephew Telebuga.

The south-western Rus’ principalities of Galicia and Volynia continued to be entangled with Lithuania as well as Hungary and Poland after Daniil’s death in 1264. But it was not uncommon in the 1270s for the Tatars to assist Daniil’s heirs in their campaigns against their western neighbors. When Nogai and Telebuga conducted their campaigns in Hungary in 1286 and 1287, troops from Galicia and Volynia joined them. By that time, however, the unity and power of the two principalities were declining. Tatar troops passing through and wintering in Galicia and Volynia during those campaigns destroyed agricultural fields and looted the region. Unable to protect their lands, the Rus’ princes lost credibility and authority, and Mongol officials became more directly involved in the south-western principalities, especially during the height of Nogai’s power, than they did in the northeast.

Not long afterward, however, as the Sarai khans consolidated their authority after Nogai’s death, their grip on the western principalities relaxed. By the end of the thirteenth century, Daniil’s son Lev (d. 1301) and grandson Iurii (d. 1308) were temporarily able to recombine the Volynian and Galician lands. But it was Poland and the rapidly expanding state of Lithuania that ultimately not only replaced the Riurikid princes, but also competed effectively and successfully with the Mongols for control over the region. Poland absorbed Galicia by 1349; Lithuania gradually acquired the remainder of the south-western lands, including Kiev. The divergence of the south-western from the north-eastern Rus’ principalities that had become apparent before the Mongol invasion was thus intensified; the two sectors that had previously formed Kievan Rus’ split apart.

Golden Horde (Qipchaq Khanate, Ulus of Jochi)

The Golden Horde, founded by CHINGGIS KHAN’s eldest son, Jochi, unified for the first time the lands around the Kazakh, Caspian, and Black Sea steppes. Successors to the Golden Horde ruled under Russian sovereignty into the 20th century. The name Golden Horde derives from the gold-hung palace-tent (horda or ORDO) at which ÖZBEG KHAN (1313-41) received visitors. When Russian chronicles mentioned “going to the Horde,” horde was being used in its proper sense of a nomadic palace, not the later European sense of a mass of people. As the realm disintegrated, the chroniclers referred to other ordos at the center of splinter regimes: the BLUE HORDE, the Volga Horde, the Great Horde, and so on. Implicitly, the palace-tent stood for the people gathered around their ruler. Not until the 16th century, however, did Russian chroniclers begin explicitly using Golden Horde to designate this Mongol successor state. Persian sources of the 13th and 14th centuries, undoubtedly reflecting Mongol usage, spoke either geographically of the Dasht-i Qifchaq, “Qipchaq Steppe” or dynastically of the “ulus (realm) of JOCHI,” Chinggis Khan’s eldest son and ancestor of its khans.


The Golden Horde army was the largest of the three western khanates but neither as battle worthy nor as well equipped as those of the CHAGHATAY KHANATE and the IlKhanate. During the 1357 invasion of Azerbaijan, the conventional wisdom said the Horde’s vast army was “horsemen without weapons.” The bulk of the army must have been Mongol clans and their native Turkish subjects. Still, Rashid-ud-Din speaks of Russians, Hungarians, and Circassians being brought into both right- and left-hand armies, and they do figure occasionally in battle accounts. In 1277 the Russian prince of Rostov won distinction in the siege of an Ossetian fortress.


A constant of Golden Horde foreign policy was hostility to the Il-Khans. While some rulers did not actively pursue their claims beyond the Caucasus, none, except possibly Toqto’a (1291-1312), ever considered abandoning them. Ultimately, Sultan Özbeg’s sons and grandson pursued this claim to ultimate success by occupying Tabriz, in modern Iran, in 1357-59, although they could not hold on to their conquest. To outflank the Il-Khans, the Golden Horde maintained the Egyptian alliance begun by Berke and Baybars. Although the alliance never produced the hoped-for military benefits, it did play a substantial role in the cultural and religious life of the Horde. Geography dictated that this alliance needed the Byzantine Empire as a third partner, and keeping Byzantium in line necessitated land access to Constantinople, which in turn necessitated control over Bulgaria. From Berke to Özbeg these requirements were more or less maintained.

Eastward, the Golden Horde’s primary interest lay in thwarting the Chaghatayids’ ambitions toward Khorazm and the Syr Dar’ya cities. From 1269 to 1284 the khans pursued this aim by encouraging QAIDU and the Chaghatayids’ ambitions to the south and east. From 1284, however, the Golden Horde became wary of Qaidu’s expansion and opened friendly relations with the YUAN DYNASTY.

Central Europe impinged on the Golden Horde primarily as a source of instability among the Russian principalities. Local Jochid princes and noyans met Lithuanian and Polish raids on southwestern Russian towns (modern western Ukraine) with counterraids, which were, however, often as damaging to the local Russians through whom the Mongol soldiers passed as to the Poles or Lithuanians.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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