Russian History


The Mongol Invasion

As it was undergoing fragmentation, Kievan Rus' faced its greatest threat from invading Mongols. In 1223 an army from Kievan Rus', together with a force of Turkic Polovtsians, faced a Mongol raiding party at the Kalka River. The Kievan alliance was defeated soundly. Then, in 1237-38, a much larger Mongol force overran much of Kievan Rus'. In 1240 the Mongols sacked the city of Kiev and then moved west into Poland and Hungary. Of the principalities of Kievan Rus', only the Republic of Novgorod escaped occupation, but it paid tribute to the Mongols. One branch of the Mongol force withdrew to Saray on the lower Volga River, establishing the Golden Horde (see Glossary). From Saray the Golden Horde Mongols ruled Kievan Rus' indirectly through their princes and tax collectors.

The impact of the Mongol invasion on the territories of Kievan Rus' was uneven. Centers such as Kiev never recovered from the devastation of the initial attack. The Republic of Novgorod continued to prosper, however, and a new entity, the city of Moscow, began to flourish under the Mongols. Although a Russian army defeated the Golden Horde at Kulikovo in 1380, Mongol domination of the Russian-inhabited territories, along with demands of tribute from Russian princes, continued until about 1480.

Historians have debated the long-term influence of Mongol rule on Russian society. The Mongols have been blamed for the destruction of Kievan Rus', the breakup of the "Russian" nationality into three components, and the introduction of the concept of "oriental despotism" into Russia. But most historians agree that Kievan Rus' was not a homogeneous political, cultural, or ethnic entity and that the Mongols merely accelerated a fragmentation that had begun before the invasion. Historians also credit the Mongol regime with an important role in the development of Muscovy as a state. Under Mongol occupation, for example, Muscovy developed its postal road network, census, fiscal system, and military organization.

Kievan Rus' also left a powerful legacy. The leader of the Rurik Dynasty united a large territory inhabited by East Slavs into an important, albeit unstable, state. After Vladimir accepted Eastern Orthodoxy, Kievan Rus' came together under a church structure and developed a Byzantine-Slavic synthesis in culture, statecraft, and the arts. On the northeastern periphery of Kievan Rus', those traditions were adapted to form the Russian autocratic state.