In the eleventh century southern Russia was held by semibarbarous tribes—Cumans, Bulgars, Khazars, Polovtsi, Patzinaks…. The remainder of European Russia was divided into sixty-four principalities—chiefly Kiev, Volhynia, Novgorod, Suzdalia, Smolensk, Ryazan, Chernigov, and Pereyaslavl. Most of the principalities acknowledged the suzerainty of Kiev. When Yaroslav, Grand Prince of Kiev, died (1054), he distributed the principalities, according to their importance, among his sons in order of their seniority. The eldest received Kiev; and by a unique rota system it was arranged that at any princely death each princely survivor should move up from a lesser to a greater province. In the thirteenth century several principalities were further split into “appanages”—regions assigned by the princes to their sons. In the course of time these appanages became hereditary, and formed the basis of that modified feudalism which would later share with the Mongol invasion the blame for keeping Russia medieval while western Europe advanced. In this period, however, the Russian towns had a busy handicraft industry, and a richer trade than they would have in many later centuries.
The power of each prince, though usually inherited, was limited by a popular veche or assembly, and by a senate of nobles (boyarskaya duma). Administration and law were mostly left to the clergy; these, with a few nobles, merchants, and moneylenders, almost monopolized literacy; with Byzantine texts or models before them, they gave Russia letters and laws, religion and art. Through their labors the Russkaya Fravda, Russian Right or Law, first formulated under Yaroslav, received emendation and definitive codification (c. 1160). The Russian Church was given full jurisdiction over religion and the clergy, marriage, morals, and wills; and she had unchecked authority over the slaves and other personnel on her extensive properties. Her efforts moderately raised the legal status of the slave in Russia, but the traffic in slaves continued, and reached its height in the twelfth century.7
That same century saw the decline and fall of the Kievan realm. The feudal anarchy of the West had its rival in the tribal and princely anarchy of the East. Between 1054 and 1224 there were eighty-three civil wars in Russia, forty-six invasions of Russia, sixteen wars by Russian states upon non-Russian peoples, and 293 princes disputing the throne of sixty-four principalities.8 In 1113 the impoverishment of the Kievan population by war, high interest charges, exploitation, and unemployment aroused revolutionary rioting; the infuriated populace attacked and plundered the homes of the employers and moneylenders, and occupied the offices of the government for a moment’s mastery. The municipal assembly invited Prince Monomakh of Pereyaslavl to become Grand Prince of Kiev. He came reluctantly, and played a role like Solon’s in the Athens of 594 B.C. He lowered the rate of interest on loans, restricted the self-sale of bankrupt debtors into slavery, limited the authority of employers over employees, and by these and other measures—denounced as confiscatory by the rich and as inadequate by the poor—averted revolution and reorganized peace.9 He labored to end the feuds and wars of the princes, and to give Russia political unity; but the task was too great for his twelve years of rule.
After his death the strife of princes and classes was resumed. Meanwhile the continued possession of the lower Dniester, Dnieper, and Don by alien tribes, and the growth of Italian commerce at Constantinople, in the Black Sea, and in the ports of Syria, diverted to Mediterranean channels much of the trade that formerly had passed from Islam and Byzantium up the rivers of Russia to the Baltic states. The wealth of Kiev declined, and its martial means or spirit failed. As early as 1096 its barbarian neighbors began to raid its hinterland and suburbs, plundering monasteries and selling captured peasants as slaves. Population ebbed from Kiev as a danger spot, and man power further fell. In 1169 the army of Andrey Bogolyubski sacked Kiev so thoroughly, and enslaved so many thousands of its inhabitants, that for three centuries the “mother of Russian cities” almost dropped out of history. The seizure of Constantinople and its trade by Venetians and Franks in 1204, and the Mongol invasions of 1229–40, completed the ruin of Kiev.
In the second half of the twelfth century the leadership of Russia passed from the “Little Russians” of the Ukraine to the rougher, hardier “Great Russians” of the region around Moscow and along the upper Volga. Founded in 1156, Moscow was in this age a small village serving Suzdalia (which ran northeast from Moscow) as a frontier post on the route from the cities of Vladimir and Suzdal to Kiev. Andrey Bogolyubski (1157–74) fought to make his principality of Suzdalia supreme over all Russia; but he died by the hand of an assassin while campaigning to bring Novgorod, like Kiev, under his sway.
The city of Novgorod was situated in northwestern Russia, on both sides of the Volkhov, near the exit of that river from Lake Ilmen. As the Volkhov emptied into Lake Ladoga in the north, and other rivers left Lake Ilmen to the south and west, and the Baltic, via Lake Ladoga, was neither too close for safety nor too far for trade, Novgorod developed a vigorous internal and foreign commerce, and became the eastern pivot of the Hanseatic League. It traded through the Dnieper with Kiev and Byzantium, and through the Volga with Islam. It almost monopolized the traffic in Russian furs, for its control reached from Pskov in the west to the Arctic on the north, and almost to the Urals on the east. After 1196 the vigorous merchant-aristocrats of Novgorod dominated the assembly that ruled the principality through its elected prince. The city-state was a free republic, and called itself “My Lord Novgorod the Great.” If a prince proved unsatisfactory, the burgesses would “make a reverence and show him the way to leave” town; if he resisted they clapped him into jail. When Sviatopolk, Grand Prince of Kiev, wished to force his son upon them as prince (1015), the Novgorodians said, “Send him here if he has a spare head.”10 But the republic was not a democracy; the workers and small traders had no voice in the government, and could influence policy only by repeated revolts.
Novgorod reached its zenith under Prince Alexander Nevsky (1238–63). Pope Gregory IX, anxious to win Russia from Greek to Latin Christianity, preached a crusade against Novgorod; a Swedish army appeared on the Neva; Alexander defeated it near the present Leningrad (1240), and won his surname from the river. His victory made him too great for a republic, and won him exile; but when the Germans took up the crusade, captured Pskov, and advanced to within seventeen miles of Novgorod, the frightened assembly begged Alexander to return. He came, recaptured Pskov, and defeated the Livonian Knights on the ice of Lake Peipus (1242). In his last years he had the humiliation of leading his people under the Mongol yoke.
For the Mongols entered Russia in overwhelming force. They came from Turkestan through the Caucasus, crushed a Georgian army there, and pillaged the Crimea. The Cumans, who had for centuries warred against Kiev, begged for Russian aid, saying, “Today they have seized our land, tomorrow they will take yours.”11 Some Russian princes saw the point, and led several divisions to join the Cuman defense. The Mongols sent envoys to propose a Russian alliance against the Cumans; the Russians killed the envoys. In a battle on the banks of the Kalka River, near the Sea of Azov, the Mongols defeated the Russian-Cuman army, captured several Russian leaders by treachery, bound them, and covered them with a platform on which the Mongol chieftains ate a victory banquet while their aristocratic prisoners died of suffocation (1223).
The Mongols retired to Mongolia, and busied themselves with the conquest of China, while the Russian princes resumed their fraternal wars. In 1237 the Mongols returned under Batu, a great-nephew of Jenghiz Khan; they were 500,000 strong, and nearly all mounted; they came around the northern end of the Caspian, put the Volga Bulgars to the sword, and destroyed Bolgar, their capital. Batu sent a message to the Prince of Ryazan: “If you want peace, give us the tenth of your goods”; he answered, “When we are dead you may have the whole.”12 Ryazan asked the principalities for help; they refused it; it fought bravely, and lost the whole of its goods. The irresistible Mongols sacked and razed all the towns of Ryazan, swept into Suzdalia, routed its army, burned Moscow, and besieged Vladimir. The nobles had themselves tonsured, and hid in the cathedral as monks; they died when the cathedral and all the city were given to the flames. Suzdal, Rostov, and a multitude of villages in the principality were burned to the ground (1238). The Mongols moved on toward Novgorod; turned back by thick forests and swollen streams, they ravaged Chernigov and Pereyaslavl, and reached Kiev. They sent envoys asking for surrender; the Kievans killed the envoys. The Mongols crossed the Dnieper, overrode a weak resistance, sacked the city, and killed many thousands; when Giovanni de Piano Carpini saw Kiev six years later, he described it as a town of 200 cottages, and the surrounding terrain as dotted with skulls. The Russian upper and middle classes had never dared to arm the peasants or the city populace; when the Mongols came the people were helpless to defend themselves, and were massacred or enslaved at the convenience of the conquerors.
The Mongols advanced into Central Europe, won and lost battles, returned through Russia ravaging, and on a branch of the Volga built a city, Sarai, as the capital of an independent community known as the Golden Horde. Thence Batu and his successors kept most of Russia under domination for 240 years. The Russian princes were allowed to hold their lands, but on condition of annual tribute—and an occasional visit of homage over great distances—to the khan of the Horde, or even to the Great Khan in Mongolian Karakorum. The tribute was collected by the princes as a head tax that fell with cruel equality upon rich and poor, and those who could not pay were sold as slaves. The princes resigned themselves to Mongol mastery, for it protected them from social revolt. They joined the Mongols in attacking other peoples, even Russian principalities. Many Russians married Mongols, and certain features of Mongolian physiognomy and character may have entered the Russian stock.13 Some Russians adopted Mongol ways of speech and dress. Made a dependency of an Asiatic power, Russia was largely severed from European civilization. The absolutism of the khan united with that of the Byzantine emperors to beget the “Autocrat of All the Russias” in later Muscovy.
Recognizing that they could not keep Russia quiet by force alone, the Mongol chieftains made peace with the Russian Church, protected her possessions and personnel, exempted them from taxation, and punished sacrilege with death. Grateful or compelled, the Church recommended Russian submission to the Mongol masters, and publicly prayed for their safety.14 To find security amid alarms, thousands of Russians became monks; gifts were showered upon religious organizations, and the Russian Church became immensely rich amid the general poverty. A spirit of submissiveness was developed in the people, and opened a road to centuries of despotism. Never-theless it was Russia, bending under the Mongol whirlwind, that stood as a vast moat and trench protecting most of Europe from Asiatic conquest. All the fury of that human tempest spent itself upon the Slavs—Russians, Bohemians, Moravians, Poles—and the Magyars; Western Europe trembled, but was hardly touched. Perhaps the rest of Europe could go forth toward political and mental freedom, toward wealth, luxury, and art, because for over two centuries Russia remained beaten, humbled, stagnant, and poor.