In Asia, the greatest continent of the earth, lies its most extensive plain, the vast plateau of Mongolia, whose true boundaries are the mountains of Siberia and the Himalayan highlands, the Pacific Ocean and the hills of Eastern Europe, and of which the great plain of Russia is but an outlying section. This mighty plateau, largely a desert, is the home of the nomad shepherd and warrior, the nesting-place of the emigrant invader. From these broad levels in the past horde after horde of savage horsemen rode over Europe and Asia,—the frightful Huns, the devastating Turks, the desolating Mongols, It is with the last that we are here concerned, for Russia fell beneath their arms, and was held for two centuries as a captive realm.
The nomads are born warriors. They live on horseback; the care of their great herds teaches them military discipline; they are always in motion, have no cities to defend, no homes to abandon, no crops to harvest. Their home is a camp; when they move it moves with them; their food is on the hoof and accompanies them on the march; they can go hungry for a week and then eat like cormorants; their tools are weapons, always in hand, always ready to use; a dozen times they have burst like a devouring torrent from their desert and overwhelmed the South and West.
While the Turks were still engaged in their work of conquest, the Mongols arose, and under the formidable Genghis Khan swept over Southern Asia like a tornado, leaving death and desolation in their track. The conqueror died in 1227,—for death is a foe that vanquishes even the greatest of warriors,—and was succeeded by his son Octoi, as Great Khan of the Mongols and Tartars. In 1235, Batou, nephew of the khan, was sent with an army of half a million men to the conquest of Europe.
This flood of barbarians fell upon Russia at an unfortunate time, one of anarchy and civil war, when the whole nation was rent and torn and there were almost as many sovereigns as there were cities. The system of giving a separate dominion to every son of a grand prince had ruined Russia. These small potentates were constantly at war, confusion reigned supreme, Kief was taken and degraded and a new capital, Vladimir, established, and Moscow, which was to become the fourth capital of Russia, was founded. Such was the state of affairs when Batou, with his vast horde of savage horsemen, fell on the distracted realm.
Defence was almost hopeless. Russia had no government, no army, no imperial organization. Each city stood for itself, with great widths of open country around. Over these broad spaces the invaders swept like an avalanche, finding cultivated fields before them, leaving a desert behind. They swam the Don, the Volga, and the other great rivers on their horses, or crossed them on the ice. Leathern boats brought over their wagons and artillery. They spread from Livonia to the Black Sea, poured into the kingdoms of the West, and would have over-run all Europe but for the vigorous resistance of the knighthood of Germany.
The cities of Russia made an obstinate defence, but one after another they fell. Some saved themselves by surrender. Most of them were taken by assault and destroyed. City after city was reduced to ashes, none of the inhabitants being left to deplore their fall. The nomads had no use for cities. Walls were their enemies: pasturage was all they cared for. The conversion of a country into a desert was to them a gain rather than a loss, for grass will grow in the desert, and grass to feed their horses and herds was what they most desired.
So far as the warriors of Mongolia were concerned, their conquests left them no better off. They still had to tend and feed their herds, and they could have done that as well in their native land. But the leaders had the lust of dominion, their followers the blood-fury, and inspired by these feelings they ravaged the world.
One thing alone saved Russia from being peopled by Tartars,—its climate. This was not to their liking, and they preferred to dwell in lands better suited to their tastes and habits. The great Tartar empire of Kaptchak, or the Golden Horde, was founded on the eastern frontier; other khanates were founded in the south; but the Russian princes were left to rule in the remainder of the land, under tribute to the khans, to whom they were forced to do homage. In truth, these Tartar chiefs made themselves lords paramount of the Russian realm, and no prince, great or small, could assume the government of his state until he had journeyed to Central Mongolia to beg permission to rule from the khan of the Great Horde.
The subjection of the princes was that of slaves. A century afterward they were obliged to spread a carpet of sable fur under the hoofs of the steed of the khan's envoy, to prostrate themselves at his feet and learn his mission on their knees, and not only to present a cup of koumiss to the barbarian, but even to lick from the neck of his horse the drops of the beverage which he might let fall in drinking. More shameful subjection it would be difficult to describe.
Several princes who proved insubordinate were summoned to the camp of the Horde and there tried and executed. Rivals sought the khan, to buy power by presents. During their journeys, which occupied a year or more, the Tartar bashaks ruled their dominions. Tartar armies aided the princes in their civil wars, and helped these ambitious lords to keep their country in a state of subjection.
Fortunately for Russia, the great empire of the Mongols gradually fell to pieces of its own weight. The Kaptchak, or Golden Horde, broke loose from the Great Horde, and Russia had a smaller power to deal with. The Golden Horde itself broke into two parts. And among the many princes of Russia a grand prince was still acknowledged, with right by title to dominion over the entire realm.
One of these grand princes, Alexander by name, son of the grand prince of Vladimir, proved a great warrior and statesman and gained the poster as well as the title. Prince of Novgorod by inheritance, he defeated all his enemies, drove the Germans from Russia, and recovered the Neva from the Swedes, which feat of arms gained him the title of Alexander Nevsky. The Tartars were too powerful to be attacked, so he managed to gain their good will. The khan became his friend, and when trouble arose with Kief and Vladimir their princes were dethroned and these principalities given to the shrewd grand prince.
Russia seemed to be rehabilitated. Alexander was lord of its three capitals, Novgorod, Kief, and Vladimir, and grand prince of the realm. But the Russians were not content to submit either to his authority or to the yoke of the Tartars. His whole life was spent in battle with them, or in journeys to the tent of the khan to beg forgiveness for their insults.
The climax came when the Tartar collectors of tribute were massacred in some cities and ignominiously driven out of others. When these acts became known at the Horde the angry khan sent orders for the grand prince and all other Russian princes to appear before him and to bring all their troops. He said that he was about to make a campaign, and needed the aid of the Russians.
This story Alexander did not believe. He plainly perceived that the wily Tartar wished to deprive Russia of all its armed men, that he might the more easily reduce it again to subjection. Rather than see his country ruined, the patriotic prince determined to disobey, and to offer himself as a victim by seeking alone the camp of Usbek, the great khan, a mission of infinite danger.
He hoped that his submission might save Russia from ruin, though he knew that death lay on his path. He found Usbek bitterly bent on war, and for a whole year was kept in the camp of the Horde, seeking to appease the wrath of the barbarian. In the end he succeeded, the khan promising to forgive the Russians and desist from the intended war, and in the year 1262 Alexander started for home again.
He had seemingly escaped, but not in reality. He had not journeyed far before he suddenly died. To all appearance, poison had been mingled with his food before he left the camp of the khan. Alexander had become too great and powerful at home for the designs of the conquerors. He died the victim of his love of country. His people have recognized his virtue by making him a saint. He had not labored in vain. In his hands the grand princeship had been restored, Vladimir had become supreme, and a centre had been established around which the Russians might rally. But for a century and more still they were to remain subject to the Tartar yoke.