Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

How Russia was almost Crushed

Between Timur the Great and a Western Prince

Dmitri's son, Basil, a young man of seventeen, succeeded to the triple throne of Moscow, Vladimir, and Novgorod without opposition. He went to the Horde with a purse full of money, and ignominiously bought the titles to Murom, Lower Novgorod, and Suzdal. The men of Lower Novgorod betrayed their own prince, opened the gates to Basil's soldiers and the Kan's baskak, and then all the bells proclaimed Basil Prince of the town. He also took possession of many provinces of Chernigof and vast tracts along the Dvina belonging to Novgorod; he brought Viatka into submission and made the Princes of Riazan and Tver bow before him. He married Sofia, daughter of the Grand Prince of Lithuania, and one of his own children was the wife of John, Emperor of Constantinople. But in spite of Basil's power he was nearly crushed by two fierce enemies. One was his father-in-law, Vitovt of Lithuania, and the other the mighty conqueror Timur, or Tamerlane.

Timur the Lame was the son of an obscure Mongol prince, but his soul was filled with visions of glory. At the age of thirty-five he had brought the Tartar tribes under his power, and seated himself on the throne of his ancestor, Chingis Kan. The Great Commander of the World "made his capital at Samarkand, and when he came back from his conquering expeditions, from Tiflis and the plains of Persia, from Delhi and the muddy waters of the sacred Ganges, or from the Nile-swept valley of Egypt, he sat upon a gorgeous throne with a golden crown upon his head, a royal belt around his loins, and dressed in a robe which sparkled with precious stones, while "troops of conquered kings" obeyed his slightest wish.

Plains of Persia


Having reduced "Bukhara the noble" and Bagdad, the seat of the renowned caliphs, he determined to punish his general, Toktamish. He marched leisurely northward through the Asiatic plains, stopping to hunt the countless cattle which ranged around the Caspian Sea. He expelled the rebel Kan, pillaged the Golden Horde, and then moved west with half a million men "in armor clad, upon their prancing steeds, disdainfully with wanton paces trampling on the ground." They burnt and ravaged every village from the Volga to the Don. Then the great host suddenly stopped and began to retreat, pillaging the rich cities of Azof and Astrakan on its way; the desert steppes, the gloomy forests, and the danger of the cold Russian winter were not to the mind of a monarch used to the sunny lands of the East. We hear of him next in Hindustan, and sending this proud message to Baiazet, the conqueror of Turkey, the first to bear the title of Sultan:—

"Learn that the earth is covered with my warriors from sea to sea. Kings form my body-guard, and take their places as servants before my tent. Art thou not aware that the destiny of the universe is in my hands? Who art thou? A Turkish ant! And darest thou raise thy hand against an elephant? If in the woods of Anatolia thou hast gained some meagre gains, if the timid Europeans have fled like cowards before thee, give thanks to Mahomet for thy success, for it is not owing to thine own valor. Listen to the words of wisdom. Be content with the heritage of thy fathers, and, though small it be, beware how thou darest in the least to extend its limits, lest death be the forfeit."

The two great champions of the world, Timur the Lame and Baiazet the Thunderbolt, met at Angora, and the Ottoman was humbled. For fifty years longer Constantinople was saved to the Grecian empire.

While Basil was so threatened by the hosts of Timur, he was in even greater danger from the vast Lithuanian empire of the West.

The Lithuanian tribes had once paid the Russians tribute of furs, bark, and brooms. Proud, independent, ferocious pagans, they often resisted their masters, came forth from the trackless forests of the Niemen, and, blowing long trumpets and mounted on shaggy ponies, made swift incursions into the lands of Kief.

In the time of Alexander of the Neva, one of their petty princes, the wily Mendog, "began by slaying his brothers and sons, and drove the rest from the country, and reigned alone over the land of Lithuania." Mendog, threatened by Alexander Nevski and the Sword-brothers, begged aid of Pope Innocent IV., who sent knights of the Teutonic Order, and a bishop to baptize him into the Church of Rome, and crown him king. When the German knights began to be overbearing, Mendog grew angry and "washed off his baptism," went back to his old gods, rekindled the sacred fire before the idol of Perkun, god of thunder, and called back the scattered priests and priestesses. He was assassinated by Prince Dovmont, who had an injured wife to avenge. Dovmont fled to Pskof, and became one of the best-beloved princes of the commonwealth. Then Lithuania, under Gedimin and Olgerd, for threescore years waxed steadily in power, extended its possessions down the Dnieper, humiliated Novgorod the Great, and almost conquered all Eastern Russia.

Olgerd's son, the cruel and treacherous Iagello, put his uncle Keistut to death, and drove out his brothers and cousins. At the request of the Polish nobles he married Hedwiga, their princess, who was affianced to the Duke of Austria, and loathed to give her hand to "a cruel pagan." Iagello went to Krakof, and was baptized into the Roman faith and crowned King of Poland. He straightway set his hand to the conversion of his Lithuanian subjects; he overthrew their idols, put out the sacred fire called the znitch that burned in the ancient castle at Vilno, killed the sacred snakes, and cut down the magic woods. Then the Catholic priests divided the people into little groups, sprinkled them with holy water, and gave them new names. Each group was named Ian, or Peter, or Paul, as the case might be, and many of the peasants came again and again to be baptized, so as to receive a full supply of white tunics. Thus the Lithuanians, like the Poles, were separated by religious form from their kinsmen the Russians.

Many of them, however, felt that by the union with Poland they had lost their independence. Iagello's cousin, Vitovt, son of the hero Keistut and the wild captured priestess Biruta, put himself at the head of the malcontents, made alliance with the Teutonic knights, and besieged the Polish guard in the castle of Vilno. Iagello was forced to recognize him as Grand Prince of Lithuania, and grant his independence. He took up the plans of his uncle Olgerd, and with all the energy in the world set about to conquer Northeastern Russia. He took Smolensk by treachery, and allowed his army to pillage it, even while he was feasting its princes in his tent. He made himself Grand Prince of Pskof. He fought many battles with the Tartars, and colonized many of his prisoners near Vilno, in villages where their race still exists. He even resolved to reduce the Golden Horde, which Timur the Lame had already pillaged and greatly weakened, and he said to himself,—

"When I have conquered Sarai I will turn my arms against Moscow and Riazan."

He gathered a splendid army under the walls of poor old Kief, which was now but a shadow of its former glory. His cousin, the King of Poland, sent an army under his bravest captains. Toktamish, the exiled Kan of the Golden Horde, brought a Tartar band; the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order sent five hundred knights, "iron men," richly armed. Many Russian princes came with their followers to swell the host.

Vitovt set out against Kan Temir-Kutlu, and came up with him on the banks of the Vorskla, a branch of the Dnieper which runs near the famous battle-field of Poltava, where the heroes of the North fought three hundred years later.

Temir-Kutlu sent a messenger to Vitovt, saying,—

"Give up to me my fugitive Toktamish; he is my foe. I cannot rest in peace knowing that he is alive and in thy hands: for our life is full of change, to-day a Kan, to-morrow in exile; to-day rich, to-morrow in poverty; to day friends only, to-morrow all foes. I fear for thee since thou knowest not Toktamish, my foe. Therefore give him unto my hands and keep what thou hast."

Vitovt replied,—

"We will not give Toktamish into thy hands; as for Kan Temir-Kutlu, I wish to see him also."

Then they drew up in battle array, but before the battle began Temir sent again,—

"Why dolt thou come out against me? I touch not thy land nor thy cities nor thy villages."

Vitovt replied,—

"God has brought all lands into my power. Submit also to me; be my son, and I will be thy father. Give me every year gifts and tribute. But if thou wilt not be my son, then shalt thou be my slave, and all thy Horde shall be given to the sword."

The Kan, to gain time, appeared to yield to all Vitovt's demands; and Vitovt, encouraged, further demanded that the Kan should place his father's "bearings on the Mongol coins. "Give me three days to think," said the Kan.

Before the three days were run the Tartar general Edige came up with a great army, and said, "Better die than yield."

Then Vitovt stood opposite to Edige, and Edige challenged him:—

"Easily didst thou take our Kan and his sons, since thou art old and he is young; but I am older than thou, therefore it is proper for thee to be my son, to give me tribute every year, and put my arms upon thy coins."

The Tartars Victorious


The question was brought to the test of battle. Edige had the most men. Vitovt had a great array of cannon. The Tartars outflanked the Lithuanians. The day was lost. Thirty princes and two thirds of Vitovt's army were left upon the field; the rest fled in dire dismay to the banks of the Dnieper, pursued by the relentless barbarians, who turned upon Kief and took a tribute of three thousand rubles. Again the Monastery of the Caves was plundered.

Basil of Moscow carefully held aloof from this quarrel between his two foes. Vitovt thrice marched against his son-in-law, but never risked a pitched battle with him, and at last, seeing that they both had too many enemies to afford to quarrel with each other, they signed a treaty of peace, which fixed the boundary between the two states.

After Edige had thus put Vitovt to rout, he made up his mind to extort tribute from Moscow. He collected another army, and took pains to spread the rumor that it was against the Lithuanians; and even while Basil was rejoicing that his wife's father was going again to be punished, he heard that the Tartar was at his gates.. He had barely time to escape in the same manner as his father had done to Kostroma, where he assembled an army, while his uncle, Vladimir the Brave, defended the city. The Kreml was now furnished with cannon, and before Edige had time to reduce the town by famine, he heard that his master was in danger at the Horde, and, raising the siege, he departed. Before he went, he sent a haughty letter to the Grand Prince, and collected a tribute of three thousand rubles from the citizens of Moscow.