Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

The Coming of the Tartars

Who were the Tartars? A Chinaman, writing six hundred years ago, says of them:—

"The Ta-tzi, or the Das, are entirely busied with their flocks; they go wandering ceaselessly from pasture to pasture, from river to river. They know not the nature of a town or a wall; they are unacquainted with writing and books; their treaties are made orally. From infancy they are wont to ride horses, to shoot their arrows at birds and rats, and thus they gain the courage needful for their life of war and rapine. They have neither religious ceremonies nor courts of justice. From the prince to the lowest man of the tribe, all feed on the flesh of such animals as they kill, and they dress in skins and furs. The strongest among them have the largest and fattest morsels at feasts; the old men eat and drink the remains. They respect naught but strength and courage; they scorn age and weakness. When the father dies his son marries the youngest wives."

The Tartars were armed with lances, axes, and lassos; with them came a multitude of wagons filled with their provisions; when they encamped they used felt tents. An ancient writer thus describes them to one of the popes:—

"On the east side of Moscow are the Scythians, which are now-a-days called Tartars, a wandering nation, and at all ages famed in war. In the stead of houses they use wagons covered with hides. For cities and towns they use great tents and pavilions, not defended by trenches or walls of timber or stone, but enclosed with a numberless host of archers on horseback. The Tartars are divided into companies which they call Hordes, which word in their tongue signifies a consenting company of people gathered together in form of a city."



"For person and complexion," says a quaint old English writer, "they have broad and flat visages of a tanned color, yellow and black, fierce and cruel looks, thin haired upon the upper lip and a pit on the chin, light and nimble bodied, with short legs, as if they were made naturally for horse men: whereto they practise themselves from their childhood, seldom going a foot about any business. Their speech is very sudden and loud, speaking as it were out of a deep hollow throat. When they sing you would think a cow lowed or some great ban dog howled. Their greatest exercise is shooting, wherein they train up their children from their very infancy, not suffering them to eat till they have shot near the mark within a certain scantling."[original spelling corrected]

The Tartars had no infantry in battle, and when they wanted to take a city they rode up to it on their fiery little horses, and obliged the natives of the surrounding villages to lug a quantity of wood, stones, and other things whereby they filled up the ditches or reached the level of its walls. "In the capture of a town," says a Chinese author, "the loss of ten thousand men was a mere trifle. No place could resist them. When once they had possession they put to death the whole population, old and young, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, those who resisted and those who yielded."

Tartar man


These rough tribes of Mongols living at the foot of the Altai Mountains were united into a conquering army under an energetic prince living near the river Amur. On the death of this conqueror, his son, a lad of thirteen, found himself the lord of fifty thousand families. Many of the subject tribes tried to break away fro him,[ but he seized their leaders, plunged seventy of them into boiling water, and after forty years of obscure struggles he freed himself from the overlordship of the Chinese Emperor, and was acknowledged to be Chingis-Kan, the Lord of the earth.

At the head of an immense army he crossed the famous wall of China and made himself master of ninety cities. The Emperor sent him as a sign of submission a thousand beautiful young men and women, three thousand heroes and great treasures of silk and gold. This tribute did not stop his progress. Peking fell before his legions and was given to the flames. Then he crossed the lands of "the great and mighty Saladin," burnt Samarkand and the capital of Bukhara, and for three years ravaged the plains of Western Asia, and made such devastation that to this day Turkestan has not recovered from the disaster.

Tartar woman


While the "Chief of the Kans" was subduing Bukhara he sent two of his generals around the Caspian Sea. They conquered a host of Turkish tribes, passed Georgia and the Caucasus, and on the level steppes of. Southern Russia measured their arms with the Kumans, the ancient enemies of the Russians.

Basti, the Kan of the Kumans, sent a message to the princes of Kief and Suzdal and Galitch:—

"To-day they have taken our land, to-morrow they will take yours."

Venging Fame the Rash, and the brave Daniel, persuaded all the princes of Southern and Western Russia to go to the defence of Basti, who in honor of the alliance was baptized.

The Russian princes of Galitch and Volynia, Chernigof and Smolensk, Novgorod and Kief, assembled on the banks of the Dnieper, and the Tartars sent them ambassadors, who said,—

"We are come by the will of God against our slaves and grooms, the cursed Kumans. Be at peace with us, we have no quarrel with you."

But the princes put the ambassadors to death and marched nine days into the steppe. On the banks of the little Kalka stream flowing into the Sea of Azof, they caught the first glimpse of the many-colored tents of the Tartar host extending as far as the eye could reach.

Venging Fame the Rash, and Daniel of Volynia, without waiting for any signal or giving any warning, but wishing only to win fame, dashed into the midst of the Asiatic horsemen, and the battle raged with instant fury. Suddenly their allies, the Kumans, were seized with a panic and doubled back upon the Russians carrying' disorder into the ranks. The Tartars, with shouts and yells, and sending showers of arrows, rushed in pursuit and drove the fugitives before them. The rout became general; the battle was lost. Seven princes and seventy of the chief captains or boyars were among the slain. Nine-tenths of the army were destroyed. Kief alone lost ten thousand men. Its grand prince, abandoned by his allies, remained in a fortified camp on the banks of the Kalka, and tried to defend himself.•

"Pay us ransom for thyself and thy chief men, and thou shalt be allowed to depart in peace," said the Tartar Kan; but the barbarian broke his word as soon as the ransom was paid, hewed to pieces the prince's guard, stifled him and his two sons-in-law under planks, and held high carnival over their bodies.

Instead of following up his advantage, the Chief of the Kans recalled his Tartars to Northern China, and three years later died, leaving to his four sons one of the greatest empires that the world had ever seen.

The Russians, who thought that these wild tribes were the hosts of Gog and Magog, foretelling the end of the world, soon forgot the danger which had threatened them, and for a dozen years more their princes quarrelled to their hearts' content, not heeding the fatal omens, the famines and pestilences, fires, comets, earthquakes, and eclipses which we know by the chronicles warried the land.



When Oktai, the eldest son of the Great Kan, had established his power and brought the nations of Asia to terms, he sent his nephew, the terrible Baty, with an army as numberless as the locusts, to conquer the lands north of the Caspian Sea. Baty crossed the Ural Mountains and came down into the valley of the Volga, where he burned the great city, capital of the half-civilized Bulgars, and put the inhabitants to the sword.

Then pressing on directly west through miles of unbroken forest, he entered the heart of Russia, and sent a sorcerer and two heralds to the princes of Riazan, saying:—

"If you want peace give us a tenth of your goods."

The Russian princes replied:—

"When we are dead you can take all that we have."

They asked help in vain of the selfish princes of Tchernigof and George II. of Suzdal. Nevertheless they bravely advanced to meet the Tartar Kan. Baty was victorious. Nearly all the princes of Riazan and their allies were left dead upon the field. But the Russians did splendid deeds of valor. Prince Theodore fought like a hero to prevent his young wife from falling into Baty’s hands, but he was crushed by superior forces, and his princess, when she heard that he was dead, took their little son and leaped from the upper window of her apartment. Oleg the Handsome was found alive on the battle-field and brought before the Kan, who offered him his life if he would accept the Tartar religion, worship the sun, and serve him. But the brave prince rejected the temptation and was hewn in pieces. Then the Tartars went through the provinces, sacking the cities and killing the inhabitants. George II. of Suzdal, who had refused to come to the aid of Kief, or Riazan, was now punished for his selfishness. His army was beaten on the Oka; Moscow, and a multitude of other towns were burned and sacked. He left his two sons to defend Vladimir, which. the Tartars closely invested. Princes and nobles chose death rather than servitude. The bishop gave them all the holy sacrament, and they shut themselves into the cathedral with their wives and children and perished in the flames.

The Tartars scaled the walls, sprung the gates, and swarmed through the city; the streets ran with blood. The Grand Prince was in camp on the bank of the river Sit, not far from Novgorod, whither he went to raise a new army. He hastened back to save his capital, but when he heard of the fate of the citizens and of his family he cried:—

"Better for me were it to perish than to live to see this day! Why am I left alone? "

The Mongol host drew nigh and George gave them gallant fight, but it was all in vain. The Tartar cavalry overrode his men-at-arms and swept them down. The Grand Prince himself was slain, and after the battle the Bishop of Rostof found his headless body. His nephew, Vasilko, was taken prisoner, and his noble face, his bravery, his genial manners greatly pleased the victors. "Be our friend," said they, "and fight under the standard of the Great Baty." "The enemies of my fatherland and of Christ can never be my friends," was his reply. "Great as is my woe, ye will never force me to fight against Christians. Thy destruction also is at hand, O heavy and cursed power! "

The Tartars, grinding their teeth with rage, stabbed the young hero and threw his body into the underbrush.

The devastating host swept on. "Villages and cities disappeared, and the heads of the Russians fell beneath the swords of the Tartars as grass falls beneath the scythe." Only the deep forests and the impassable marshes and the rivers, swollen by the spring rains, spared Novgorod the Great. Baty came within one hundred kilometers of the old city, then he turned toward the south. The little town of Kozelsk made such a determined resistance, caused them such a long delay and so much loss of life, that the Tartars called it the "Wicked City." When at last they took it they set it on fire, exterminated the inhabitants, and drowned the young prince in blood.

Two years were spent in desolating Southern Russia. At last it came the turn of Kief. Long stood the Kan on the left bank of the Dnieper, admiring the beautiful city rising on the opposite hills, with its white walls of cut stone, reflected in the wide river, with its lofty towers, its churches with golden domes shining in the sun.

The barbarian offered terms of surrender, but the men of Kief, though their princes fled and though they knew well how other states had fared, put the Kan's envoys to death and waited their fate. The annalist says that as the main army drew nigh, so loud was the grinding of the wooden chariots, the bellowing of buffaloes, the cries of the camels, the neighing of the horses, and the ferocious shouts of the Tartars, that men could not hear each other's voices in the heart of the town.

The barbarians assailed the Polish gate and the walls with their rude battering-rams. Dimitri, a noble of Galitch, the deputy of Prince Daniel, headed the citizens in holding the ramparts until sunset.

Then they retreated to the Church of the Tithe and built a palisade, behind which the next day they perished on the tomb of Fiery Fame. The brave Dimitri was spared by the Kan, but the mother of Russian cities was pillaged for the third time, and from this blow it never recovered. The Church of the Tithe was dismantled; even Saint Sophia and the Monastery of the Caves were plundered. This was the convent where the saints bricked themselves into cells which became their tombs, and where their bodies stayed incorruptible. It is now one of the "Holy Places,” and every year three hundred thousand of the faithful make pilgrimages to the city and bow before the holy relics of the past.

Tartar Kan at home


All Russia, except Novgorod and the northwest country, was now in the power of the Tartars. Few of the princes remained; the most were dead or in exile. Many of the richest citizens were dragged into bondage; "the wives of boyars who had never known toil, who but a short time since had been clothed in rich raiment, adorned with jewels and collars of gold, surrounded by slaves, were now made to be the slaves of barbarians, and of their wives, turning the stone of the mill and cooking their coarse food."

Baty invaded Hungary and fought with the Poles in Silicia, but was long checked by a gallant noble in Moravia. Europe was terror-struck by the danger.

The Pope, whose help was asked by Daniel, Prince of Galitch, summoned Christendom to arms. Lewis IX; of France got ready for a crusade. The Emperor Frederic wrote to the Kings of the West:—

"This is the moment to open the eyes of body and soul when the brave princes on whom we reckoned are dead or in slavery."

Just as the King of Bohemia and the Dukes of Austria and Karinthia were mustering their forces to oppose the conquering Kan, the second ruler of the vast Mongol Empire died, and his nephew deemed it best to withdraw.

On his way back he founded, on one of the branches of the lower Volga, a city which he called the Castle, and which became the capital of the Golden Horde, or the Kipchak, a powerful empire reaching from the Ural Mountains to the Danube, whose Tsars or Kans exacted tribute of money and furs and military aid from the nations under their sway.

The envoy of one of the popes gives this picture of Baty's court:—

"It is crowded and brilliant. His army numbers six hundred thousand men, a quarter of whom are Tartars, the rest foreign contingents, Christians as well as infidels. On Good Friday we were led to the Kan's tent between two fires, because the Tartars believe that fire purifies everything and takes away even the strength of hid poison. We had to make many salaams and enter the tent without touching the threshold. Baty was on the throne with one of his wives; his brothers, his children, and the Tartar lords were seated on benches; the rest of the assembly were on the ground, the men on the right, the women on the left. The Kan and the lords of his court from time to time emptied cups of silver and gold, while musicians made the air resound with melodies. Baty has a bright face, he is rather affable with his men, but people in general are stricken with terror before him."

The Mongol Kans, having brought Russia into subjection, contented themselves with a general overlordship, leaving the native laws, courts, and government. The Russian princes were allowed to keep their titles, but they were forced to do homage at the Horde and pay terrible taxes. The cruel baskaks, or tax collectors of the Kans, were often the cause of revolts in the Russian cities.

The Golden Horde was at first bound to the authority of the Grand Kans of Asia, but under the fourth successor of Chingis, the vassalage was shaken off and the Golden Horde became independent. About fifty years after the battle of the Kalka the Tartars accepted the faith of Mahomet and became the fiercest champions of Islam.