On the borders of the Chinese Empire, in the north-east of Asia, roamed a Mongol tribe, known as the Tartars or Tatars. A Chinese author of that time, described them as follows: "The Ta-tzis or Das occupy themselves exclusively with their flocks; they go wandering ceaselessly from pasture to pasture, from river to river. They are ignorant of the nature of a town or a wall. They are ignorant of writing and books; their treaties are concluded orally. From infancy they are accustomed to ride, to aim their arrows at rats and birds, and thus acquire the courage essential to their life of wars and destruction. They have neither religious ceremonies nor judicial institutions. From the prince to the lowest among the people, all are fed by the flesh of the animals whose skin they use for clothing. The strongest among them have the largest and fattest morsels at feasts; the old men are put off with the fragments that are left. They respect nothing but strength and courage; age and weakness are condemned."
The people were, therefore, nomads, moving their flocks as necessity required, and occasionally making a raid upon a neighboring town. "They move on horseback; "says the Chinese author; "when they wish to capture a town, they fall on the suburban villages. Each leader seizes ten men, and every prisoner is forced to carry a certain quantity of wood, stones, and other material. They use these for filling up moats or to dig trenches. In the capture of a town the loss of a myriad men was thought nothing. No place could resist them. After a siege, the entire population was massacred, without distinction of old or young, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, those who resisted or those who yielded; no distinguished person escaped death, if a defense was attempted."
These nomad Tartars were united by and under Genghis Khan (1154-1227), one of their chiefs or khans. He summoned all the khans of the several tribes, and before them took the title of emperor over all, declaring that, as there was only one sun in heaven, so there should be but one emperor on earth. At the head of his tribes, Genghis conquered Manchuria and North China; then he moved west. He himself remained in Asia, but two of his lieutenants proceeded in that direction, subduing the tribes on their way, and often joined by them. The long march had rendered the Tartars inured to hardship and wholly indifferent to danger. At last they passed by the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, and, crossing the Caucasus, commenced the invasion of Europe.
The march of such a host could not be kept secret. When the Polovtsi, the old enemies of Russia, heard of the approach, they sent for help to the Christian dukes. "When they have taken our country, they will take yours," they said. Mstislaf the Bold of Galitch, urged that the assistance be granted, and the chief of the Polovtsi agreed to enter the Greek Church. The Russians assembled on the lower Dnieper, where they were approached by some Tatar envoys who told them that they had "come by God's command against our slaves and grooms, the accursed Polovtsi. Be at peace with us; we have no quarrel with you." The envoys were arrested and put to death. The Russian army then moved eastward, and met the Tartar host at the Kalka, a small river running into the Sea of Azof. Instead of waiting for the troops still on the way. Mstislaf the Bold and his friends began the battle. While it was at its height, the Polovtsi were seized by a panic and, falling back, threw the Russians into disorder. The Russian army was routed; six dukes and seventy high boyards were left dead on the battlefield, and hardly a tenth of the army escaped. The Grand Duke of Kief still occupied a fortified camp on the Kalka. The Tartars offered to allow him and his drujina to retire upon payment of a ransom. He accepted, and was attacked by the Tartars after he had left his fortifications. He and his two sons were stifled under boards, and his guard was massacred.
The Tartars at this time needed all their men to complete the conquest of China, and therefore the armies invading Europe were recalled, after southern Russia was at their mercy. The Russians did not inquire into the cause of this relief, but resumed their old life, confident that all danger was past.
When the "Tartars had made themselves masters of China, Bali, a nephew of Genghis, was dispatched westward to mark further conquests. He did not follow the same route but passed south of the Ural Mountains. Thirteen years after the battle of the Kalka, Bati besieged and took the capital of the Bulgars, east of the grand dukedom of Souzdal (1237). As soon as the dukes of Central Russia heard this, they united against the Tartars, but the Grand Duke of Souzdal refused to join them. The Tartars sent envoys to the allied dukes. "If you want peace," they said, "give us the tenth of your goods." "When we are dead," was the proud reply, "you can have the whole. A battle was fought in which the Russians were crushed. Nearly all the dukes died on the battlefield; Riazan was stormed, sacked, and burned, and the other towns of that dukedom met the same fate.
It was now the turn of Souzdal. The army of the grand duke was defeated on the Oka; Moscow was burned and Vladimir besieged. After an heroic defense, the Tartars took the city by assault, and many Russians were burned in the cathedral which was set on fire. Leaving ruin in their wake, the Tartars went in search of the grand duke who had taken a position on the Sit, near the frontiers of Novgorod. Here another battle was fought ending in disaster for the Russians. The headless corpse of the grand duke was found by the Bishop of Rostof. On swept the Asiatic hoards, as if nothing would stop them. At Torjok, "Russian heads fell beneath the sword of the Tartars as grass beneath the scythe." Leaving Souzdal behind, they entered the territory of Novgorod; but the dense forests and swollen rivers delayed them, and when within fifty miles of the city, they turned southeast. The little town of Kozelsk did not surrender but inflicted such a loss upon the invaders that they mentioned it as "the wicked city." When it was captured, every man, woman, and child, was butchered.
The years 1239 and 1240 were spent in ravaging southern Russia. Peréiaslaf and Tchernigof, after a desperate defense, were burned, and the Tartars under command of Genghis's grandson Mangou, marched upon Kief. Mangou offered terms, but Kief, knowing the fate of other cities, executed Mangou's envoys. The grand duke and his rival, Daniel of Galitch, fled from the city, but the people fought for their lives. Mangou was reënforced by Bati's army and the siege began. The walls were knocked to pieces by battering rams. "The people of Kief, led by the brave Dmitri, a Gallician boyard, defended the battered ramparts till the end of the day, and then retreated to the Church of the Dime, which they surrounded by a palisade. The last defenders of Kief were grouped round the tomb of Iaroslaf. The next day they perished. Mangou gave the boyard his life, but the Mother of Russian Cities was sacked. This third pillage was the most terrible; even the tombs were not respected. All that remains of the Church of the Dime is only a few fragments of mosaic in the museum at Kief. Saint Sophia and the Monastery of the Catacombs were delivered up to be plundered." Kief fell in 1240.
There remained only Volhynia and Gallicia, which also bowed under the Tartar yoke. With the exception of Novgorod and the northwest, Russia was in possession of the Yellow race. The Russian dukes who had escaped carried the tale to Western Europe which was soon in a state of alarm. The Emperor of Germany wrote to the other monarchs: "This is the moment to open the eyes of body and soul, now that the brave princes on whom we depended are dead or in slavery." The Pope called upon the Christian princes to take up arms. Meanwhile Bati continued his westward march and penetrated as far as Moravia, when he was recalled by the death of the second Tartar emperor. He withdrew to Russia and on the Volga built a city which he named Saraï—the Castle,—which became the capital of a Tartar empire extending from the Ural river and Caspian Sea to the mouth of the Danube, and is known as the Golden Horde.
The first three successors of Genghis Khan are known as the Great Khans, and ruled over all the Tartars; but after Kublai Khan established himself in China, in 1260, the Golden Horde declared its independence. So long as Bati lived, this khanate was united and powerful, but after his death, in 1257, it gradually lost strength. In 1272, these Tartars became Mahomedans and spread that faith. The Golden Horde enjoyed another period of prosperity under the Khan Uzbeck.
How did the Russians bear this blow? We have seen that Iaroslaf, the duke who had been expelled so many times from Novgorod, became Grand Duke of Souzdal. He found the country in Souzdal in ruins. Nothing was left of the towns and villages but charred remains; the inhabitants who had survived the Tartar massacres had fled into the forests. Iaroslaf's first work was to induce them to return and rebuild their homes. The Tartar general Bati heard of this and sent word to Iaroslaf to come to him. The grand duke dared not refuse. He went to Saraï on the Volga where Bati told him that he might continue as grand duke, but that it would be best for him to pay a visit to the great khan, who was then on the Amoor in the far eastern part of Asia. Iaroslaf agreed; he started on his long journey, and after many months of travel through deserts and wastes, he arrived at the headquarters of the Tartars. There he was compelled to kneel before Oktaï, the successor of Genghis. It appears that some Russian boyards had preceded Iaroslaf hoping to secure favors from the khan, and that they accused the grand duke, but Oktaï refused to listen to them. After some delay Iaroslaf was confirmed as grand duke, and permitted to return, but he died from exhaustion in the desert, in 1246. His remains were brought to Vladimir.
Iaroslaf left two sons, Andrew, who succeeded him in Souzdal, and Alexander who was duke at Novgorod. This younger son was an able as well as a brave man. On one occasion, when the Scandinavians had invaded Novgorod's territory aided by the Catholic Orders, Alexander had gained a great victory on the Neva, from which he is known in history as Alexander Nevski (1240). Upon his return to Novgorod he had a dispute with the vetché, and he left the city. After his departure the territory of the Republic was invaded by the German Sword-bearers who erected a fort on the Neva, captured Pskof, Novgorod's ally, and plundered merchants within a short distance of the walls. The people sent to Alexander Nevski, begging him to cone to their rescue, and after several refusals he consented. Alexander collected an army, drove the Germans out of Pskof and their new fort, and at last defeated them on the ice of Lake Peipus in 1242. This is known as the Battle on the Ice. Alexander then returned to Novgorod where he was received with honor and joy.
Andrew, the Grand Duke of Souzdal, Alexander's brother, refused to recognize Bati's authority, whereupon a Tartar army ravaged his territory for the second time. Novgorod, as we have seen, had escaped the Tartar invasion, but when Alexander Nevski received a letter from Bati, in which the khan said, "God has subjected many peoples to me, will you alone refuse to recognize my power? If you wish to keep your land, come to me; you will see the splendor and the glory of my government.'' The duke thought it prudent to comply. He and his brother Andrew went to Saraï, where honors were showered upon the hero of the Neva. The two brothers were directed to visit the great khan, as their father Iaroslaf had done. They did so; and the Mongol emperor confirmed Andrew as Duke of Souzdal, but to Alexander's dukedom, he added Kief and South Russia. They returned from the Far East in 1257.