Battle of Kulikovo Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Kulikovo marked the decisive defeat of the Mongols by Grand Duke Dmitry Donskoy of Moscow, which dispelled the myth of Mongol invincibility and elevated Dmitry as a legendary hero in Russia.

Summary of Event

For much of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Russia Russia;Mongol invasion of was under domination by the Mongols Mongols , or Tatars as they were known in Russian. The Mongols had invaded southern Russia in 1237, and by 1241 had succeeded in conquering Kiev. Thus began a long period known as the Tatar yoke, whereby the Mongols maintained exploitive control over the Russian lands. Although the Mongol conquest was savage, the Golden Horde allowed Russian princes to rule the day-to-day affairs of their regions. The Mongol yoke largely took the form of periodic demands for tribute and, less frequently, plunderous raids. During this time, Muscovy Muscovy (Moscow) was surpassing Kiev and Novgorod as the preeminent Russian principality. First emerging as a significant principality in the late thirteenth century, Muscovy grew partly as a result of the sycophancy of its princes toward the Golden Horde. In 1327, Muscovy became the residence of the metropolitan (chief religious leader) of the Russian Orthodox Church Orthodox Church;Russia , which not only elevated the city’s status as a religious capital but also laid the groundwork for the claim of Moscow to be the “Third Rome.” During the middle of this important period in Muscovy’s (and Russia’) development came the reign of Grand Duke Dmitry Donskoy Dmitry Donskoy in the late fourteenth century, setting the stage for an eventual escape from Mongol domination and the consolidation of a Muscovite state. [kw]Battle of Kulikovo (September 8, 1380) [kw]Kulikovo, Battle of (September 8, 1380) Kulikovo, Battle of (1380) Russia;Sept. 8, 1380: Battle of Kulikovo[2950] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 8, 1380: Battle of Kulikovo[2950] Dmitry Donskoy Jogaila Mamai Oleg

Dmitry Donskoy refuses to pay tribute to the Tatars.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The Golden Horde was experiencing internecine struggles among its rival khans when Dmitry came to power in Muscovy. One especially powerful khan named Mamai Mamai sought to recentralize Mongol authority. At the same time, Mamai was concerned about the growing independence of the Russian princes and particularly about the growing strength of Muscovy. In 1378, Mamai sent a Mongol force under the command of one of his generals, Begich, to Riazan, a principality at the southeastern border of Muscovy. Dmitry interpreted this as a threat to his own domain, and responded by personally leading his troops to head off Begich’s advance. A battle ensued between the two forces at the Vozha River on August 11, with Dmitry’s troops emerging victorious.

The Mongol defeat in that small battle only served to enrage Mamai, who already had resolved to reimpose on the Russians stricter discipline and extract from them greater tribute. In the months following Begich’s defeat, Mamai prepared for a major assault on Muscovy. His decision to personally lead his army into battle ensured that the resulting clash would have epic-heroic aspects. Mamai also secured promises of assistance from the princes of Riazan Riazan and Lithuania Lithuania . Oleg Oleg of Riazan felt compelled to acquiesce to Mamai’s demand for assistance in order to save his region from yet another assault. Oleg did, however, alert Dmitry to Mamai’s planned attack and delayed the deployment of his troops for so long that they failed to meet up with Mamai’s army.

Having been alerted to Mamai’s plan by Oleg in the summer of 1380, Dmitry prepared for the Mongol attack. Legend has it that Dmitry was blessed by Abbot (later Saint) Sergius of Zagorsk, who also foretold the Mongols’s defeat at Dmitry’s hand. Dmitry assembled a large force of men from Muscovy, but received little assistance from the other major Russian cities and principalities. He did secure men from other lands, including Lithuanians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians. As these forces were being assembled, Mamai’s emissaries approached Dmitry with a demand for tribute backed by a threat of attack. Dmitry stalled for a time in diplomatic negotiations through his own envoy, but shortly began moving his troops toward the Don River without the knowledge of Mamai. On September 7, they crossed the Don near the point where it was met by the Nepriadva River and set up positions in Kulikovo Pole (Snipes’s Field).

Mamai had planned for his army to be joined by Jogaila’ Władysław II Jagiełło Lithuanian forces on September 1. Jogaila’s forces were late, however, and Mamai went on toward Moscow without those reinforcements. In the early morning of September 8, Mamai’s army entered the Kulikovo Pole from the end opposite Dmitry’s forces, as Dmitry had anticipated. As a thick fog obscured the vision of the two armies, however, both sides waited in relative silence for several hours. When the fog lifted, both armies immediately sprang into preparations for battle. True to his somewhat self-styled heroic character, Dmitry chose to ride with his central mounted units as a soldier under the grand prince’s banner. Mamai directed his troops’s attack from behind the front lines.

The first hours of the battle were favorable for the Mongols, who began compressing the Russian troops against the Don. Yet Dmitry had earlier hidden an elite group of cavalrymen behind his left flank. This ambush force now came into play, taking the Mongols entirely by surprise. The Mongol cavalry panicked and fled the battlefield, driving off and trampling their own infantry. As they had at Vozha two years earlier, Dmitry’s forces pursued the fleeing Mongols to seize spoils. Mamai himself managed to escape even before the battle had subsided. Dmitry had fallen unconscious on the battlefield, but survived.

The Russian victory did not owe entirely to Dmitry’s tactics and his forces’s fighting ability. Certainly the absence of Jogaila’s forces contributed to Mamai’s defeat. Still a day’s ride away when Mamai fled the battlefield, Jogaila chose to turn back rather than face Dmitry’s army alone. Dmitry’s victory was further diminished by the heavy losses sustained by Russian troops.

Significance

Dmitry was credited with standing up to the Mongols, halting Mamai’s raid, and weakening the Golden Horde. Out of respect for these accomplishments Dmitry became known as Dmitry Donskoy, or Dmitry of the Don. Russians in Muscovy and far beyond looked to Dmitry as a leader of the Russian people against the Tatars, thus marking a step toward an eventual consolidation of the Russian principalities into a national Russian state. Despite the symbolic power of Dmitry’s success at Kulikovo in destroying the myth of Mongol invincibility, Russia would suffer under the Mongol yoke for another century. It was not until 1480 that Ivan III (the Great) of Moscow successfully renounced Russian subordination to the khan. During that century, Kulikovo would remain a source of pride and hope for the Russians, and Dmitry Donskoy became a symbol of Russian strength and resistance to invaders throughout Russian and later Soviet history.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bogatyrev, Sergei. The Sovereign and His Counsellors: Ritualised Consultations in Muscovite Political Culture, 1350’-1570’. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2000. An in-depth study of medieval Muscovy’s political structure, beginning in the 1350’.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crummey, Robert O. “Moscow and Its Rivals, 1304-1380.” In The Formation of Muscovy, 1304-1613. London: Longman, 1987. A discussion of Moscow’s conflicts and rivalries in the fourteenth century, culminating in the Battle of Kulikovo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halperin, Charles J. Russia and the Golden Horde. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. An analysis of Russia under the Tatar yoke. The Battle of Kulikovo is noted in various parts of the narrative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hartog, Leo de. Russia and the Mongol Yoke: The History of the Russian Principalities and the Golden Horde, 1221-1502. New York: British Academic Press, 1996. Explores the Mongolian beginnings of the Russian Empire and the Golden Horde. Covers the Mongolian invasion and subsequent dominance of Russia, the rise of Moscow and Lithuania, and more. Genealogy of principal persons, maps, a bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Moscow’s First Successful Challenge of the Mongols, 1380.” In Medieval Russia: A Source Book, 850-1700, edited by Basil Dmytryshyn. 3d ed. Fort Worth, Tex.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1991. A translated excerpt from a nineteenth century Russian source. This account is heavily biased, with reference, for example, to the “godless Tatars.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neville, Peter. “The Rise of Muscovy.” In A Traveler’s History of Russia and the USSR. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Interlink, 1990. A brief description of Muscovy’s rise to prominence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, focusing on the Russians’s efforts to escape the Mongol yoke.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Orison on the Life and Death of Grand Prince Dmitry Ivanovich.” In Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, edited by Serge A. Zenkovsky. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974. A highly symbolic and reverent tribute to Dmitry written shortly after his death, with particular focus on his defeat of Mamai. This work conveys the idolization felt by Russians toward Dmitry, and their epic-heroic interpretation of Kulikovo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ostrowski, Donald. Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-Cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, 1304-1589. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A study of the cultural effects on the Tatars and Muscovites upon one another. Covers both cross-cultural exchanges in which one culture absorbed part of the other and xenophobic reactions in which one culture was shaped by its resistance to the other.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. “The Mongols in Russia.” In A History of Russia. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A chapter on the Mongol influence in Russian history. Bibliography, index.

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