On May 31, 1223, the Russian-Polovtsian army was defeated by the Mongols in the Battle of the Kalka River. This event played a huge role in the history of Ancient Russia. Representatives of the Rurik dynasty failed to unite in the face of external threat. The defeat at Kalka was the prologue to the establishment of the Mongol yoke in Russia.

First contact

Ancient Russia in the XIII century was in a state of fragmentation. On its territory there were about 25 state formations, of which 19 were quite large. The princes were busy fighting for richer fiefdoms. The throne of Kiev, still considered influential, had been occupied by Grand Duke Mstislav Romanovich since 1212.

In the central part of the Eurasian steppes at the beginning of the XIII century, events unfolded, the consequences of which, despite the remoteness from Russia, had a tremendous impact on its history. In 1206, Genghis Khan became the great khan of the Mongols, who established strict military discipline among his subjects and began large-scale campaigns of conquest. His warriors conquered vast territories in Central Asia.

At the end of 1222 - the beginning of 1223, the generals of Genghis Khan Subedei and Jebe, passing through the Caucasus, encountered the combined army of the Alans and Polovtsians. In the first battle, neither side was able to win. Then the Mongol negotiators drove a wedge between the allies. They quarreled with them, promising the Cumans an alliance and rich gifts. When the union collapsed, the Mongols first defeated the Alans, and then attacked the Polovtsians, forcing them to flee to the Black Sea steppes on the borders of Russia.

Polovtsian Khan Kotyan, realizing that the Mongols would not leave him alone, turned for help to his son-in-law, the Galician prince Mstislav Mstislavovich Udatny. At the request of the latter, a princely congress was convened in Kiev at the beginning of 1223. The Polovtsians, demanding help from the Russians, declared: "Today they took away our land, and tomorrow yours will be taken." And the princes listened to this argument.

  • Khan Kotyan gives gifts to Mstislav Udatny, a miniature of the facial chronicle of the XVI century
  • © Wikimedia

The Mongols, who heard rumors of negotiations, sent ambassadors to Russia with a proposal to unite against the Polovtsians. The Mongol envoys were listened to, but then executed.

"It was a big mistake, as it turns out later. A little later, another Mongolian embassy came to the Russian army, which conveyed that the Mongols of Russia did not want evil, but since the princes wanted war, there would be war for them. Members of the second embassy, by the way, did not kill, "said Kirill Sutomin, an employee of the State Historical Museum, in an interview with RT.

Tragedy on Kalka

The members of the princely council decided not to wait for the Mongols in Russia, but to meet them. The beginning of the campaign was scheduled for the end of April 1223.

According to historians, most of the South Russian princes volunteered to take part in the fight against the Mongols. From North-Eastern Russia, the Rostov prince Vasilko Konstantinovich led his army to the south, but he did not have time for the general collection.

Russian squads moved along the Dnieper. One part of the army moved on boats, the other walked along the shore. After 17 days in this way, the Russian army, together with its Polovtsian allies, moved east. The first attacks of small Mongol detachments were safely repulsed.

There are no reliable data on the number of Russian-Polovtsian troops. In various sources, you can find estimates from 40 to 150 thousand, but historians call them clearly overestimated. Modern researchers estimate the number of Russian squads proper at about 20 thousand people. According to Kirill Sutomin, there were from 20 to 25 thousand soldiers in the Mongol army.

There is no reliable data on where the Russian-Polovtsian army clashed with the main forces of the Mongols. Historians cannot unequivocally identify the river mentioned in the chronicles as Kalka with any particular modern river. Many believe that this is Kalchik flowing through the Donbass, but archaeologists have not found a place on its shores that could be associated with the battle.

In addition, there are disputes among historians about the specific chronology of the battle. Modern researchers are more inclined to believe that Russian and Polovtsian detachments crossed Kalka on May 28, 1223. After that, the Galician prince Mstislav Udatny, without the consent of other princes, attacked a small detachment of Mongols and put it to flight. The Polovtsy and part of the Russian squads joined the pursuit of the enemy. Other princes at this time crossed the Kalka and set up a camp on its banks.

  • Tatars feasting after the Battle of Kalka, drawing by Nikolai Koshelev from the article "Kalka" ("Military Encyclopedia of Sytin"), 1911-1915
  • © Wikimedia

According to historians, the main forces of the Mongols ambushed the Russian-Polovtsian detachments engaged in the pursuit of their fellow tribesmen. To do this, they picked up a place in the area of the hill, climbing to which, the heavy Russian cavalry was forced to slow down the pace of movement.

"Russian troops weakened their front, stretching across the field, and found themselves in a vulnerable position," Andrei Dvornichenko, head of the Department of Russian History from Ancient Times to the Twentieth Century at St. Petersburg State University, said in an interview with RT.

The Russian-Polovtsian detachments could not withstand the blow of the main forces of the Mongol army. The first to be defeated were the squads of Prince Daniel Romanovich (the future King Daniel of Galicia) and the Polovtsians. Then the Mongols in turn defeated the forces of the princes Mstislav Udatny and Mstislav Svyatoslavovich. When the remnants of the defeated troops fled, the Mongols approached the fortified camp of Mstislav Romanovich. It was not possible to take it right away. The battle at his fence lasted three days.

  • Mongolian feast on the bodies of Russian princes, a miniature of the front chronicle of the XVI century
  • © Wikimedia

On May 31, the Mongols sent Brodniks (free steppe settlers who lived on the borders of Russia) Ploskinya to negotiate with the Russian governor. He vowed that if the Russians laid down their arms, they would be released in peace, and would not be persecuted. However, when the Russian squads stopped resisting and began to leave the camp, surrendering their weapons, the Mongols attacked them and staged a massacre.

"The main reason for the defeat on Kalka is the lack of a unified command of the Russian army. Each of the princes acted at his own discretion, guided solely by personal ambitions and the desire to "win more glory." They did not even have a consensus on which of them leads the campaign, "said Vitaly Zakharov, a professor at Moscow State Pedagogical University, in an interview with RT.

In total, Russia lost at least nine princes in the battle of Kalka. According to some reports, only a tenth of the Russian army survived after the battle.

"The Battle of Kalka was a turning point in the history of Russia. It not only significantly weakened the forces of the Russian principalities, but also sowed panic and uncertainty in Russia, "historian Pyotr Tolochko wrote in his book "Nomadic Peoples of the Steppes and Kievan Rus".

The Mongols did not continue their offensive against Russia. According to one version, this was due to the fact that their army also suffered significant losses. They turned east to the Volga. According to historians, the leadership of the Mongol Empire received valuable data about Russia from the participants in this campaign, which were later used to organize a larger invasion.

"Perhaps, from the point of view of a modern person, it looks very strange, but the Russian princes, instead of developing plans for defense and unification in the face of a common threat, after the defeat at Kalka, rushed to divide the vacant princely tables. As far as we know, it all ended catastrophically. This was a painful historical lesson," Kirill Sutomin summed up.