Russian cavalry first appeared in 971, in a war against Byzantium, but
it could not compare with the Byzantine armoured riders. In the eleventh
century, it was organized according to the decimal system, and armed with short
lance, sword, bow and large shield. Three centuries later, under Mongol
influence, it became one of the main elements of the army, and at the Battle of
Kulikovo (1380) against the Mongols, an attack by the Russian cavalry decided
the outcome. From the end of the fourteenth century, it was more effective and
its equipment improved. Armament consisted of a long lance with pennant, strong
sword, battle-axe, bow and dagger; protection was provided by helmet, mail coif
or hauberk and large kite shield. The Russian battle formation was akin to that
of the Tartars: five groups of scouts (polk), centre, left wing, right wing,
and rearguard (reserve).
The Muscovite appanage was further enlarged in the 14th century, and
Daniel’s great-grandson Dmitry Donskoi (1359-1389) defeated the Tatars in the
battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380. This victory marked the beginning of the end
of Tatar domination of Russia. The power of the Golden Horde never fully
recovered after Tamerlane’s attack on the khanate in the 1390s, and in the 15th
century the Tatar state fell apart.
Dmitry’s disposition of his forces, with his flanks anchored to rivers
or marshland and regiments placed in reserve and ambush, reflected how much the
Russians had learned about turning their Tatar enemies’ tactics against them.
Before the break of dawn on September 8, 1380, Grand Prince
Dmitry-Ivanovich of Moscow, accompanied by his general, Bobrok, made a personal
reconnaissance of Kulikovo Field near the Don River, approximately 300
kilometers south of Moscow. The wide field, which got its name from the
multitude of small swamp birds, or kulik, that inhabited it, was crisscrossed
by many gulches, with small hillocks topped by copses of trees and swampy
lowlands nestled between the hills. It was here that he would arrange the
12,000 warriors from various Russian principalities who had agreed to fight for
him and a cause that amounted to suicide. Approaching to engage him were some
18,000 Tatars of the Golden Horde, a branch of the Mongol empire that had
dominated Russia for almost a century and a half. Russian princes and dukes had
challenged the Tatars before. All had gone down in defeat followed by a
terrible retribution from their Asiatic overlords.
Russia’s ordeal under the eastern invaders began in 1237,
when a 130,000-strong army under the command of Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis
Khan, thundered across its steppes and claimed them for the Mongol empire. One
after another the small and disunited Russian principalities, engaged in
constant war against each other, fell under Mongol rule. The fall of Kiev in
1240 left almost all Russian territory, save for some of the northern lands
around Novgorod, under Mongol domination. As tragic as those events were for
the Russians, the Mongols regarded Russia as an area of little importance,
merely a stopover on their way to conquer richer lands in Eastern Europe and
the Middle East. Unlike the conquered regions inhabited by nomadic Turkic
tribes, the Russian lands were not incorporated into the Mongol empire, or
khanate, but remained semi-independent vassals, paying an annual tribute and
providing troops for Mongol campaigns.
After his campaigns in Russia and Eastern Europe, Batu Khan
established the Kipchak Tatar khanate that became known as the Golden Horde,
after the color of its warriors’ tents. After Batu’s death in 1255, the Golden
Horde went into a gradual decline. By the mid-14th century, the empire Genghis
Khan built had lost its Mongol identity. Its power base shifted to the Tatars,
nomadic Turkic peoples inhabiting the vast steppes bordering southern Russia.
When the ruling khan was assassinated in 1357, the Golden Horde entered a long
period of internecine warfare. During a span of 20 years the Horde had almost
as many rulers. By 1378, a Mongol general named Mamai, who was a longtime
powerbroker behind the throne, finally emerged at the forefront and declared
himself the khan of the Golden Horde.
Mamai’s political position remained tenuous. Since he was
not of a Genghizid line, he was challenged for the supreme position by
Tokhtamysh, khan of the Blue Horde, the eastern offshoot of the Mongol empire,
who was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Sensing that Mamai’s grasp on
Russian lands was weakening. Grand Prince Dmitry increased the pace of unifying
the many duchies and principalities around Moscow under his own control through
astute politics, religion and marriage. Dmitry, who hailed from a line of
decisive and capable princes, was one of those rare people in history who was
the right man at the right place at the right time. He subjugated the
principality of Tver by force of arms, then secured an alliance with Suzdal by
marrying the daughter of Suzdal’s prince. Novgorod and its adjacent lands came
under his control when Patriarch Sergei Radonezhsky, an ardent supporter of
Dmitry, excommunicated the city’s residents and closed its churches until they
acknowledged the Muscovite prince’s authority over them.
Golden Horde 1. Khan Mamai 2. Standard Bearer 3. Warrior 4. Drummer 5. Trumpeter 6. Noble 7. Noble Horse Archer
In order to curb Prince Dmitry’s growing influence and
reassert his own authority, Khan Mamai demanded a large tribute from Moscow in
1380. The prince sent gold and silver, but in what Mamai regarded as no more
than a token quantity. The Tatar khan mobilized his army for a campaign to
bring Dmitry in line.
The forces that Mamai assembled to oppose the Moscovite
prince were varied in character. In addition to the khan’s own Tatars there
were contingents from vassal steppe nomads, such as Polovtsi, and Circassian
and Arrmenian tribes living in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Prince
Oleg of Ryazan, chief among Dmitry’s Russian rivals, also promised Mamai his
support. Lithuanian King Jogaila may have also pledged to send his troops to
support Mamai. (Jogaila, the son of King Olgerd and Russian Princess Ulyana of
Tver, considered himself a rightful heir to some of the Russian lands). Aid
also came from an unexpected quarter. The Genoese merchants from colonies in
the Crimean Peninsula wanted to minimize the disruption of trade along the
Great Silk Road, a portion of which ran through Mamai’s territory. With that in
mind, they hired more than 2,000 mercenary pikemen from all over the Eastern
Mediterranean to support the Golden Horde.
ARMY OF PRINCE DMITRY Prince with retinue: 1. Prince 2. Squire-page 3. Standard Bearer 4. Trumpeter 5. Drummer
In the early spring of 1380, Prince Dmitry received news of
the impending invasion from his ally Prince Gleb of Bryansk. At once Dmitry
dispatched messengers to all the territories loyal to him, with requests for
soldiers to come to his aid. At the same time he ordered the strengthening of
fortifications in Kolomna and Tula, two border towns that would bear the first
brunt of the Tatar onslaught.
Soon thereafter, Dmitry received word that Prince Oleg of
Ryazan and King Jogaila had thrown in their lot with Khasn of the Golden Horde Mamai.
Dmitry immediately called a council of nobles, or boyare, to decide on a course
of action. Dmitry backed up by the veteran general Bobrok and Dmitry’s cousin,
Prince Vladimir of Serpukhov, decided to immediately advance against Mamai
before Oleg and Jogaila joined him.
Not wasting any time, Dmitry sent out a strong cavalry
detachment under the command of experienced warriors Rodion Rzhevsky, Andrey
Volosaty and Vasily Tupik. They were ordered to get as close as possible to the
main encampments of the Golden Horde and take a prisoner for interrogation.
This reconnaissance detachment took all the precautions to make its approach
unobserved. The men wrapped their horses’ hooves and all the metal horse
equipment, as well as their personal weapons, with rags in order not to make
noise. Each trooper, emulating the Tatar custom, brought along a reserve horse
for faster movement.
Five days later, the scouts reached the outer edges of the
Tatar camp, to be confronted with the intimidating sight of innumerable
campfires stretching to the far horizon. After setting up an ambush, they
succeeded in capturing a minor Tatar noble. In questioning him, the Russian
scouts found out that Mamai was waiting for the w heat to mature a little more
so that his warriors could live off the land while campaigning. The Tatars were
also waiting for the arrival of King Jogaila, who was not expected earlier than
That intelligence spurred Dmitry to hasten his mobilization
effort. The troops who would not have time to gather in Moscow by the start of
the campaign were redirected to the border town of Kolomna. As his forces began
to gather, Dmitry took stock of the situation. Only a small portion of his force
was made up of seasoned soldiers from the household war bands of Russian
nobles. Those troops were armed with swords, war axes and heavy spears, and
wore chain or scale armor with high-peaked helmets. A heavy metal
teardrop-shaped shield, traditionally painted deep red, rounded off their armor
Only a fraction of them were mounted. The bulk of the Muscovite army was made
up of peasants and city residents with limited military’ experience at best.
Barely one in three of them had any armor, and even that was simply fashioned
from sewing metal plates onto heavy clothing. This militia was mainly armed
with wooden shields, bows and spears.
The basic unit making up a Russian regiment was called a
“banner,” comprising “lances” of 10 warriors each. The
strength of each banner generally varied from 20 to 100 men, based on
recruiting efforts in each area and the wealth that each particular prince had
to raise and equip his retinues.
In his preparations for the upcoming campaign Dmitry proved
himself an experienced administrator He attended to myriad details, from
gathering materials for wound dressing and finding people knowledgeable in
treating wounds to planning routes of march for individual units.
After leaving strong garrisons in Moscow and Serpukhov,
Dmitry’s army left Moscow for Kolomna on August 20, 1380. In order to alleviate
crowding on poor roads, the Russian forces moved along three different routes.
Ten merchants who knew the route through the steppes as well as the location of
watering holes and other water sources guided the columns. Reaching Kolomna on
the 24th, Dmitry called a halt to rest his troops and give his late arriving
detachments time to catch up. In order to facilitate the crossing of Oka River,
he ordered his soldiers to improve the available fords by dumping large amounts
of sand, gravel and dirt in the river. Some of these artificial sandbanks
survive to the present day, and navigators on the Oka take careful measures to
Learning that Jogaila’s forces were on the move as well,
Dmitry led his army south along the left bank of the Oka. In choosing that
route, Dmitry placed his forces between Mamai and his Lithuanian allies. Ever\’
day mounted scouts brought news of Mamai’s progress. They reported that the
forward detachments of Tatar cavalry’ were already approaching the Nepryadva
River delta at the Don River. The main Russian force was rapidly advancing toward
the Don as well, gaining several days’ march ahead of Jogaila.
Dmitry’s route took his forces through the edge of Ryazan’s
territory. In spite of Prince Oleg’s alliance with the Golden Horde, Dmitry
ordered his troops to leave the Ryazan lands unmolested. In so doing, the
Muscovite prince displayed a canny understanding of the fact that Ryazan was
one of the most geographically vulnerable Russian principalities, lying directly
between Moscow and the Golden Horde. Oleg had the unenviable job of trying to
safeguard even a modicum of independence in the face of two voracious
neighbors. And Dmitry’s nonthreatening behavior paid off-although he was within
easy reach of the Tatar army, Oleg did not hurry to join Mamai, but cautiously
hung back, to see how the upcoming confrontation would play out.
The Russian forces approaching the Don were divided into
four components. The main body, called the Grand Regiment, was under Dmitry’s
immediate command. This unit also included the war bands of the Belozersk
princes. The Right Regiment, as its name implied, was moving to the right of
the Grand Regiment, under the command of Prince Vladimir. This unit also
included troops from the city of Yaroslavl. The Left Regiment was commanded by
Prince Gleb. Marching in the van, in front of the Grand Regiment, the Forward
Regiment’s task was to scout out the route of march and receive the brunt of a
Tatar offensive if necessary.
In the beginning of September; the forward Russian
detachments reached the Don. Prince Dmitry ordered a halt to give all the
troops who had fallen behind a chance to catch up, assemble and rest.
Meanwhile the Russian scouts took another prisoner who told
them that Mamai was advancing slowly, waiting for Jogaila’s and Oleg’s armies
to arrive. The Tatar forces, mostly composed of light cavalry, did not have the
siege train necessary for taking Russian cities and were relying on the
Lithuanians to provide them with the needed equipment. Not yet aware that
Dmitry had already reached the Don, Mamai was still under the impression that
the Russian forces would not dare to make a major move against him, and he was
preparing to cross the river in three days’ time.
Russian scouts also reported that King Jogaila’s forces were
making good time and were only two days away from joining Mamai. Prince Dmitry
called for another war council, in which several courses of action were
discussed. Some princes favored not crossing the Don, but remaining on their
side and attempting to prevent Mamai from crossing the river. Dmitry, supported
by his hotheaded cousin Prince Vladimir and General Bobrok, were for crossing
the river and taking the war to Mamai. After much deliberation, Dmitiy decided
to cross the river and meet the invader head-on. This decision did not come
lightly. The Russian commander was well aware that should he fail and his army
be annihilated, and as had happened so often in the past century, the majority
of the Russian lands would be wide open to the ravages of Tatar retribution.
On September 7, the entire Russian army, numbering about
12,000 men, gathered on the banks of the Don, getting ready to cross this
formidable obstacle. Numerous militia detachments were put to work felling
trees to build temporary bridges. Cavalry detachments were sent out to search
for fords, Dmitry wanted to be across before Mamai had time to join up with
Oleg and Jogaila. Work on the bridges proceeded at a good pace, and several fords
were discovered as well. By nightfall, the whole of Dmitry’s army had crossed
over and halted in the swampy terrain near the confluence of the Don and
Tension ran high in the Russian camp that night. A strong
wind picked up, and the river became shrouded with fog. Around midnight the
wind finally died down and an uneasy calm fell over the encampment. Not many
slept that night. Scouts reported that Mamai. with his whole force of roughly
18,000 troops, was already approaching the expected battlefield. The forward-most
Russian detachments had fought several running skirmishes with the advancing
Tatars. Now only a tiny river, the Smolka, divided the converging armies.
So it was that Dmitry and Bobrok surveyed Kulikovo Field and
made their preparations for the battle to come on the morning of September 8,
Knowing that the favorite Tatar tactic was to move around the flanks of an
opposing force and take it from the rear, Dmitry and Bobrok deployed their
forces in such a way as to anchor them on defensible terrain features. Their
goal was to deny the Tatars mobility and channel them into a narrow field in
order to negate their numerical superiority.
The Russian forces were deployed in their traditional
three-deep battle formation. The detached scout element formed the first line.
Directly behind it, in the second line, was the Forward Regiment. The third
Russian line consisted of the Right, Left and Grand regiments. The Right
Regiment was deployed with its flank resting on the Lower Dubyak River. The
shallow Smolka anchored the Left Regiment, under the command of two brothers,
the princes of Belozersk. The Grand Regiment under Dmitry’s personal command
took up the center position, with a small reserve held behind it. An even
smaller detachment guarded the several temporary bridges located behind the
Left Regiment. Dmitry combined almost all of his available cavalry, consisting
of the experienced war bands of various princes’ household troops, into a new
unit. This so-called Ambush Regiment, placed under the joint command of Prince
Vladimir and Bobrok, was hidden in the Dubrava Wood, on the extreme left of the
According to Russian Orthodox Christian beliefs, September 8
coincided with the birthday of the Virgin Mother, and a priest walked up and
down the Russian ranks imploring the troops to be worthy of the occasion.
Shortly after 10 a. m., a solid wall of Tatar cavalry appeared on the field.
Denied the opportunity to encircle the Russian deployment, the Golden Horde
also deployed in linear-formation. The center of the Tatar line was occupied by
Genoese mercenary pikemen and dismounted tribesmen, Tatar cavalry coveied their
flanks, and a strong detachment of cavalry was kept in reserve.
Around 11 a. m. following a ritualistic duel between two
horsemen, the Tatars opened the battle by shooting a volley of arrows that
darkened the sky, then surged forward. The Russian scout force and Forward
Regiment were severely pressed by the Genoese and their long pikes,
supplemented by dismounted Tatars. After a short period of pushing and shoving,
the Russians began to give way. Some Russian archers, however, managed to bring
down several of the front-rank Genoese pikemen, and the Russian infantry got in
among them. In the melee that ensued, the swords and war axes of the Russians
began to exact a heavy toll on the Genoese, whose pikes became a liability’ in
close combat. The Russian success did not last long, however, as fresh waves of
Tatars swung the advantage back in Mamai’s favor.
After almost an hour of fighting, the survivors of the
Forward and scout units were pushed back onto the Grand Regiment. The Tatar
warriors charged headlong to close with the Russian main body, while their
archers showered the tight Russian formations with arrows. The fight became a
vicious brawl. Fallen wounded were crushed underfoot, men slipped on grass
slick with blood, and horses stumbled over piles of bodies.
At that critical moment, Prince Dmitry himself went down
under a fresh rush of Tartars. Instead of discouraging the Russian forces, however,
this only strengthened their resolve. On the right flank. Prince Andrey of
Ryazan, a noblemen who had renounced Prince Oleg’s alliance to the Golden
Horde, slowly began to gain ground. He personally led a small band of his
mounted retainers in a mad charge that drove the enemy back.
From his observation post on top of Krasny Hill, Mamai
became enraged to see some of his troops retreat. Around 2 p. m., he sent in
his last reserves in an attempt to overwhelm the Russian left wing and break
into the Russian tear. As the fresh Tatar forces crashed into the exhausted
Russians, the Left Regiment slowly began to give way. For the first time in the
course of the battle, the Grand Regiment was in real danger of being surrounded.
At that time, both of the Belozersk princes fell in battle. The small Russian
reserve detachment was brought forward but could not restore the situation. The
fight continued, with the Russian left wing being slowly pushed back onto the Grand
As it often happens, the side that hoards the last reserves
wins the day. At that crucial time, the Russian Ambush Regiment attacked from
its position in the Dubrava Wood, taking the Tatars in their right flank and
rear. The fresh Russian horsemen, bent on revenge for the carnage that had
unfolded before their eyes, gave no quarter. The remnants of the Grand Regiment
under Prince Gleb, who assumed command after Dmitry fell, rushed forward,
trapping fleeing Tatars between them and the cavalry.
After another hour of savage fighting, the Tatars finally
gave way and began to retreat in earnest. Some of them tried to rally and make
a stand at Mamai’s camp but were quickly overrun by jubilant Russian troops.
Mamai, screaming with rage, abandoned his camp and followed the survivor’s in
Back on the corpse-strewn battlefield. Prince Vladimir
launched a desperate effort to find Dmitry. Twice, fallen noblemen resembling
the grand prince were discovered and word spread of his death. That feeling of
despair ultimately turned to widespread joy, however, when Prince Dmitry was
finally found alive. He was covered in blood from a head wound, but his helmet
bad absorbed the blow-he had been knocked unconscious rather than seriously
wounded. Dmitry s personal standard with the image of Christ the Savior was
hoisted high amid the exhausted but jubilant Russian troops.
After a short pursuit, the Russian cavalry’ returned to the
battlefield. It was a Pyrrhic victory, with more than 3,000 Russians lying dead
and roughly the same number wounded. Because of the large number of casualties,
seven days had to be spent at the battlefield resting, tending the wounded and
burying the dead. Disproportionate to the overall Russian casualties was the
butcher’s bill of their leaders, who had fought at the forefront throughout the
battle, with 15 princes killed. Tatar dead numbered roughly the same as the
Russians, but the wounded they left on the field received no mercy from the
King Jogaila was still a day’s march away when he received
news of Mamai’s defeat, at which point he turned around and retired to
Lithuania, laying waste to Russian lands as he passed. As Dmitry’s detachments
began returning to their homes, several small units were set upon and destroyed
by retreating Lithuanians and Prince Oleg’s forces, who until then had showed
no activity. The brutal nature of the civil war was clearly demonstrated when
at least two wagon trains of Dmitry’s Russian wounded were massacred by Oleg’s
Ryazanians and Jogaila’s Kievan and Belorussian troops.
Upon returning to his base of operations, Mamai began to
gather another army to take revenge on the upstart Russians. Significant
numbers of his troops who were dispersed after the Battle of Kulikovo rejoined
him and provided the backbone of his new force. Before he had time to assemble
his new horde, however, Mamai was attacked and defeated in 1381 by his Tatar
rival, Khan Tokhtamysh. Accompanied by just a few followers, Mamai escaped to
Crimea to seek shelter with his recent backers, the Genoese. Now carried in the
liability portion of their ledger, Mamai was quietly murdered by his former
allies in Kaffa, present-day Feodosiya.
Dmitry died on May 19, 1389, nine years after the victory on
the Don River, for which he forever became known as Dmitry Donskoi. While the
immediate military-political gains of victory on Kulikovo Field were minimal,
it gave a huge boost to Russian national pride and identity. Even though the
Tatar yoke would not be thrown off for another century, the Russian people now
recognized that their liberation was only a matter of time.