Grand Prince Dmitry Ivanovich “Donskoy”

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Grand Prince Dmitry Ivanovich Donskoy

(1350-1389), prince of Moscow and grand prince of Vladimir. Dmitry earned the name “Donskoy” for his victory over the armies of Emir Mamai at the Battle of Kulikovo Field near the Don River (September 8, 1380). He is remembered as a heroic commander who dealt a decisive blow to Mongol lordship over the Rus lands and strengthened Moscow’s position as the senior Rus principality, preparing the way for the centralized Muscovite tsardom. Unofficially revered since the late fifteenth century, Dmitry was canonized by the Orthodox Church in 1988 for his selfless defense of Moscow. Modern historians have re-examined the sources on the prince’s reign to offer a more tempered assessment of his legacy.

Following the death of his father, Ivan II (1326-1359), the nine-year-old Dmitry inherited a portion of the Moscow principality but failed to keep the patent for the grand principality of Vladimir. In 1360 Khan Navruz of Sarai gave the Vladimir patent to Prince Dmitry Konstantinovich of Suzdal and Nizhni Novgorod. A year later, Navruz was overthrown in a coup, and the Golden Horde split into eastern and western sections ruled by rival Mongol lords. Murid, the Chingissid khan of Sarai to the east, recognized Dmitry Donskoy as grand prince of Vladimir in 1362. In 1363, however, Dmitry Donskoy accepted a second patent from Khan Abdullah, supported by the non Chingissid lord Mamai who had taken control of the western Horde and claimed authority over all the Rus lands. Offended, Khan Murid withdrew Dmitry Donskoy’s patent and awarded it to Dmitry Konstantinovich of Suzdal. Dmitry Donskoy’s forces moved swiftly into Vladimir where they drove Dmitry Konstantinovich from his seat, then laid waste to the Suzdalian lands. During that campaign Dmitry Donskoy took Starodub, Galich, and possibly Belozero and Uglich. By 1364 he had forced Dmitry Konstantinovich to capitulate and sign a treaty recognizing Dmitry Donskoy’s sovereignty over Vladimir. The pact was sealed in 1366 when Dmitry Donskoy married Dmitry Konstantinovich’s daughter, Princess Yevdokia. To secure his seniority, Dmitry Donskoy sent Prince Konstantin Vasilevich of Rostov to Ustiug in the north and replaced him with his nephew Andrei Fyodorovich, a supporter of Moscow. In a precedent-setting grant, Dmitry Donskoy gave his cousin Prince Vladimir Andreyevich of Serpukhov independent sovereignty over Galich and Dmitrov. The grant is viewed as a significant development in the seniority system because it established the de facto right of the Moscow princes to retain hereditary lands, while disposing of conquered territory. In 1375, after a protracted conflict with Tver and Lithuania, Dmitry Donskoy forced Prince Mikhail of Tver to sign a treaty acknowledging himself as Dmitry’s vassal.

With the defeat of Tver, Dmitry’s seniority was recognized by most Russian appanage princes. Growing divisions within the Horde and internecine conflicts in Lithuania triggered by Olgerd’s death in 1377 also worked to Moscow’s advantage. Dmitry moved to extend his frontiers and increase revenues, imposing his customs agents in Bulgar, as Janet Martin has shown (1986). He also cur tailed payment of promised tribute to his patron Mamai. Urgently in need of funds to stop his enemy Tokhtamysh, who had made himself khan of Sarai in that year, and wishing to avenge the de feat of his commander on the River Vozha, Mamai gathered a large army and issued an ultimatum to Dmitry Donskoy. Dmitry made an eleventh-hour effort to comply. But his envoys charged with conveying the funds were blocked by the advancing Tatar forces. On September 8, 1380, the combined armies of Mamai clashed with Dmitry Donskoy’s army on Kulikovo field between the Don River and a tributary called the Nepryadva. The Tatars seemed about to prevail when a new force commanded by Prince Vladimir Andreyevich of Serpukhov surprised them. Mamai’s armies fled the scene. As Alexander Presniakov and Vladimir Kuchkin point out, the gains made in this battle, though regarded as instrumental in breaking the Mongol hold on Moscow, were quickly reversed. Tokhtamysh, who seized the opportunity to defeat Mamai, reunified the Horde and reasserted his claims as lord of the Russian lands. In 1382 Tokhtamysh’s army besieged Moscow and pillaged the city. Dmitry Donskoy, who had fled to Kostroma, agreed to pay a much higher tribute to Tokhtamysh for the Vladimir patent than he had originally paid Mamai.

Dmitry Donskoy skillfully used the church to serve his political and commercial interests. He sponsored a 1379 mission, headed by the monk Stephen, to Christianize Ustiug and establish a new bishop’s see for Perm which, Martin documents, secured Moscow’s control over areas central to the lucrative fur trade. Metropolitan Alexis (1353-1378) and Sergius (c. 1314-1392), hegumen (abbott) of the Trinity Monastery, supported his policies and acted as his envoys in critical situations. After Alexis’s death, Dmitry moved to prevent Cyprian, who had been invested as metropolitan of Lithuania, from claiming authority over the Moscow see. Instead he supported Mikhail-Mityay, who died under mysterious circumstances before he could be invested by the patriarch. Dmitry’s second choice, Pimen, was invested in 1380 and with a brief interruption (Cyprian was welcomed back by Dmitry after the Battle of Kulikovo until Tokhtamysh’s siege of 1382) served as metropolitan of Moscow until his death in 1389.

In May 1389 Dmitry Donskoy died. He stipulated in his will that his son Basil should be the sole inheritor of his patrimony, including the grand principality of Vladimir. As Presniakov (1970) notes, the khan, by accepting the proviso, acknowledged the grand principality as part of the Moscow prince’s inheritance (votchina), even though, in the aftermath of the Battle of Kulikovo, Russia’s subservience to the Horde had been effectively restored and the grand prince’s power significantly weakened. In contrast to other descendants of the Moscow prince Daniel Alexandrovich, Dmitry Donskoy did not become a monk on his deathbed. Notwithstanding, grand-princely chroniclers eulogized him as a saint. The 1563 Book of Degrees, written in the Moscow metropolitan’s scriptorium, portrays him and his wife Yevdokia as chaste ascetics with miraculous powers of intercession for their descendants and their land, thereby laying the ground for their canonizations.

Kulikovo battle – Army of Dmitry Donskoy Prince with retinue.

Army of Dmitry Donskoy: Infantry


On September 8, 1380, Rus forces led by Grand Prince Dmitry Ivanovich fought and defeated a mixed (including Tatar, Alan, Circassian, Genoese, and Rus) army led by the Emir Mamai on Kulikovo Pole (Snipe’s Field) at the Nepryadva River, a tributary of the Don. As a result of the victory, Dmitry received the sobriquet “Donskoy.” Estimates of numbers who fought in the battle vary widely. According to Rus chronicles, between 150,000 and 400,000 fought on Dmitry’s side. One late chronicle places the number fighting on Mamai’s side at 900,030. Historians have tended to downgrade these numbers, with estimates ranging from 30,000 to 240,000 for Dmitry and 200,000 to 300,000 for Mamai.

The circumstances of the battle involved politics within the Qipchaq Khanate. Mamai attempted to oust Khan Tokhtamish, who had established himself in Sarai in 1378. In order to raise revenue, Mamai intended to require tribute payments from the Rus princes. Dmitry organized the Rus princes to resist Mamai and, in effect, to support Tokhtamish. As part of his strategy, Mamai had attempted to coordinate his forces with those of Jagailo, the grand duke of Lithuania, but the battle occurred before the Lithuanian forces arrived. After fighting most of the day, Mamai’s forces left the field, presumably because he was defeated, although some historians think he intended to conserve his army to confront Tokhtamish. Dmitry’s forces remained at the scene of the battle for several days, and on the way back to Rus were set upon by the Lithuania forces under Jagailo, which, too late to join up with Mamai’s army, nonetheless managed to wreak havoc on the Rus troops.

Although the numbers involved in the battle were immense, and although the battle led to the weakening of Mamai’s army and its eventual defeat by Tokhtamish, the battle did not change the vassal status of the Rus princes toward the Qipchaq khan. A cycle of literary works, including Zadon shchinai (Battle beyond the Don) and Skazanie o Mamaevom poboishche (Tale of the Rout of Mamai), devoted to ever-more elaborate embroidering of the bravery of the Rus forces, has created a legendary aura about the battle.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Halperin, Charles J. (1986). The Tatar Yoke. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers. Lenhoff, Gail. (1997). “Unofficial Veneration of the Daniilovichi in Muscovite Rus.’” In Culture and Identity in Muscovy, 1359-1584, eds. A. M. Kleimola and G. D. Lenhoff. Moscow: ITZ-Garant. Martin, Janet. (1986). Treasure of the Land of Darkness: The Fur Trade and Its Significance for Medieval Russia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Presniakov, Alexander E. (1970). The Formation of the Great Russian State, tr. A. E. Moorhouse. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. Vernadsky, George. (1953). A History of Russia, vol. 3: The Mongols and Russia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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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