The siege of Kyiv in 1240

Originally appeared in Ukrainian

By Vasyl Makhno

If you picture the year 1240 and what preceded the siege of Kyiv, and the siege itself, the main sources will be our chronicles as well as Western, Chinese, and Islamic accounts that partially record the events of that year. As historical research attests, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, Kyiv was a city fortress with ramparts and wooden walls and towers. The population reached 50,000. The cathedrals, churches, and monasteries imparted an aura of grandeur and beauty to the city.

In the thirteenth century, the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks had lost its importance, as a result of which Kyiv's importance also declined. Even though the Kyivan throne was considered the principal one in Rus′, during the process of the ramification of the numerous princely dynasties — the Iziaslavyches, Olhovyches, Monomakhovyches, Romanovyches, Rostyslavovyches, and Mstyslavovyches — the Kyivan throne often passed from hand to hand. All the descendants in the male line needed at least an appanage principality, and sooner or later, this led to wars with neighbors and the reclaiming of new lands or to local wars between close or distant relatives.

The borders and limits of the Rus′ principalities expanded to the north, east, west, and south, affecting surrounding neighbors. If we look at the main events of the thirteenth century, it is obvious that the biggest geopolitical event was the birth of the Mongol Empire and the incredible scale of its unstoppable expansion. A few years before the Mongol invasion Mykhailo Vsevolodovych replaced Yaroslav Vsevolodovych from Suzdal, then Rostyslav Mstyslavovych — the Smolensk ruler, but even he did not tarry in Kyiv because he was expelled from there by Danylo of Halych [Galicia], who had installed his voivode, Dmytro, there.

All this dynastic disorder, enmity, and military struggle for Kyiv did not strengthen the throne of the Kyivan prince but weakened it. The wars among the Rus′ princes lasted from 1228 to 1236. In other words, as of 1240, each principality or city in Rus′ was left alone with its enemies. An interesting detail of the Mongol conquest is cited by Lev Gumilev, who said that the cities that surrendered voluntarily were given the appellation hobalyq ["beautiful city"], meaning they paid some kind of tribute or contribution in the form of fodder and food. But the Mongols did not establish their garrisons there yet.

But what about the Mongols? Do not suppose that Mongol state-building in the thirteenth century resembled a chaotic union of diverse nomadic tribes. After Genghis Khan, the empire was ruled by an emperor chosen from among his sons and close relatives. The Mongol army consisted of the imperial guard, the Kheshig, to which nobles' sons and ordinary people were recruited. The Mongols had a well-developed diplomatic service, an organized postal system for the delivery of various news and orders, and a quartermaster service. As of 1240, all the uluses were ruled by Ögedei Khan. Created in 1209, the Mongol Empire was based on military and aggressive wars. If you imagine the Mongol army advancing like a black cloud from the Volga steppes, conquering one city after another, you can picture these relentless waves of Mongol horsemen on fast, short-legged horses and the camel trains carrying various types of military equipment, fodder, and Mongol tents. In addition, they are pulling a considerable number of stone-throwing carriages, so-called poroky [trebuchets, a type of catapult]. Behind and alongside them flows the dust of the Kipchak steppes, the stench of horse and camel manure, but the stories of their cruelty precede them. That is only part of the truth.

Another is hidden in their military victories. In other words, how can this army cover such immense expanses, sojourn in their tens of thousands in alien, unfamiliar territory, and maintain communication with other units? How can they feed such a mass of men and animals? Apparently, everything resided in the structure of the Mongol army that Genghis Khan divided according to the principle of ten-man units, 100-man companies, and 1000-men battalions, appointing a commander for each number. In addition, flight from the battlefield, if not a coordinated retreat, was punishable by death. If someone was captured and the rest of the detachment did not try to free him, all the soldiers were put to death.

Among the many interesting testimonies are those of the Franciscan monk Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, who wrote The Story of the Mongols: Whom We Call the Tartars [Ystoria Mongalorum], which contains a chapter about sieges or, rather, the methods by which the nomads captured foreign cities. Who was this Franciscan, and why did he set out on such a dangerous journey? Western monarchs, alarmed by Batu Khan's campaign, were forced to seek diplomatic contacts with these unknown nomads. For this mission, Pope Innocent IV appointed one of the founders of the Franciscan order.

Pian del Carpine's four-month sojourn in Mongolia served as the basis of his observations of Mongol life. The first observation that the Franciscan shares is that the Mongols surround a city in such a way that no one can leave; in other words, they establish a siege. Fighting continues non-stop so that the enemy does not have a minute's respite; they themselves change detachments one after another. If this does not lead to success, they take fat, light it, and toss it over the defensive walls. The Mongols, Carpine says, are not above using human fat — from killed people. If this, too, does not bring success, then they advance, and once they enter the city, they divide into those who set fires and those who kill the defenders and the local population. If the defenders are still resisting, they set up camp and continue to storm and wait.

In February–March 1240, an army led by Möngke Khan approached Kyiv. The Mongols halted on the left bank in a place called Peresechnia or Pisochna. They sent envoys to the Kyivan prince Mykhailo and obtained a refusal to surrender and submit; they then returned to the steppes. It is believed that Möngke's campaign was of a purely reconnaissance nature; moreover, he did not have enough forces to storm Kyiv.

Pian del Carpine, who had traveled east and spent time even in Kyiv and Sarai, met Batu and Güyük Khan in Karakorum, the capital of the empire. His "story" is an interesting document about the Mongols and their anthropological features, behavior, food, and family relationships. About the emperor, he writes that he is endowed with such power that no one dares to be anywhere without his command. He says that after Genghis Khan's death, the emperor became his son, Ögedei, who then dispatched Batu's armies to Rus′.

The Italian monk states that as he was passing through Kyiv, that is, shortly after the siege and the storming of the city, he saw numerous heads and bones strewn in the fields. No more than two hundred houses belonging to those who were held in slavery remained in the city. Although these records constitute eyewitness testimony, they are not without exaggerations and fantasizing. The Galician-Volhynian Chronicle also recounts the events of the year 1240 and the arrival of Batu with a huge army. All around, you could hear the "creaking of wagons," the "bellowing of camels," and the "neighing of horses." They set up poroky — catapults — near the Lach Gates, and they broke through the walls. It talks about the final battle for Kyiv in the Church of the Tithes, onto the dome of which the last defenders clambered. It collapsed, and many were buried there.

It also mentions the Mongol prisoner Tovrul, who told the defenders of Kyiv stories about the military commanders and the number of troops. It appeared that the campaign against Rus′ had been well planned. The main forces were mobilized, and Batu's brothers and voivodes were in command: Orda, Baidar, Birjui, Kaidan, Becak, Meñg, and Kuyuk. According to various estimates, the siege lasted seventy-four days and ended on 6 December, on the feast day of St. Nicholas. Other sources claim that Kyiv surrendered after the first eight days.

Rashīd al-Dīn Faḍlullāh Hamadānī, in his work Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh [Compendium of Chronicles], a collection of descriptions of events pertaining to the Mongols, reports that in the fall of the Year of the Mouse, 637 in the Hijrī, that is, the year 1239 CE, Ögedei Khan ordered Güyük Khan and Möngke Khan to return from the Kipchak steppe. Then Batu and his brothers Kaidan, Buri, and Bucek set out on a campaign, as the chronicler writes, "to the country of the Rus′ and the people of the black hats." Within nine days, they captured the great Rus′ city of Manker Kan and conquered all the cities of Volodymyr.

The year that Ögedei Khan died, the Mongols crossed the Maraktan Mountains — obviously the Carpathian Mountains — and advanced against the Bulars (Poles) and the Bashgirds (Hungarians). After routing the Bashgirds, Majars, and Sasans, they spent the summer at the Tysa River. For four years, they conquered cities and lands, but were routed by the armies of Köten and Sonkur, the sons of Dzhunchi. This happened in the year of Bars, 639 in the Hijrī, that is, 1241–1242 CE. In the Year of the Snake, that is, 642 in the Hijrī (1244–1245), they returned to their ulus and remained with their respective hordes.

The mention of the people of the black hats is an interesting one. Who were they? In the Turkic language, they are the Karakalpaks. Where did they come from, and what were they doing in Rus′? After settling in Porossia [territory located in the basin of the Ros River], these Turkic people were part of the political and social life of ancient Rus′. In other words, these Karakalpaks were the protectors of the southern fringes of Rus′, as well as warriors in the princely troops. Apparently, not everything here quite coincides with numbers and events because Ögedei Khan died in 1242 and, according to established rules, all the khans were supposed to return home in order to elect a new emperor at a council. Batu returned, but instead of him, Güyük was elected as the great khan, followed by Möngke. Therefore, Batu settled in the lands of the Ulus Juchi, later known as the Golden Horde.

Rashīd al-Dīn Faḍlullāh Hamadānī describes the death of Ögedei thus: The khan abused alcohol; he had a particular passion for wine, from which he died. Ögedei was also known for his generosity and goodness, and from among the countless stories about the khan's benevolence, there is this one. A tradesman crafted bad bows that no one bought from him. He became impoverished and so went to the khan's camp with his bows. The khan came out and asked who he was and, upon learning that he was the one who was making bad bows, ordered that he be given twenty gold balysh.

When you are in Mongolia, you marvel at the expanses and desolation, especially when you are traveling by train, and along the track, there is practically nothing on which your eye alights, except for boxwood grasslands and the coarse sand of the Gobi Desert. This inferior soil yields trickles of snow-white kumis [mare's milk]; butter that is golden like sand; and camel cheese, hard as a rock. It tells of its rulers, whose yellow, watercolor faces are framed by patchy mustaches and beards. It smells of horse sweat and camel dung. This is the land from which those thousands of horsemen came to the banks of the Dnipro River back in 1240, leaving behind a bad memory for hundreds of years. They remained in our schoolbooks and also left behind their genes, watering our land with their caustic urine.

They destroyed ancient Rus′ and merged with the Golden Horde to form a new empire. After the conquest of Kyiv and the rout of the Galician-Volhynian Principality, Batu's road to the west was open. Is history, like music, capable of repeating its rhythmic beats?

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk