Today in European history: the Mongols sack Kyiv (1240)

Our “Today in History” posts are always free, but if you want to support the newsletter and get the full Foreign Exchanges experience you know what you have to do:

Historians often cite the 1240 Mongol sack of Kyiv as the final end of the Kyivan Rus' federation, but as with most things there's more to the collapse of the Rus' than one solitary event. For nearly two centuries prior to 1240, the balance of power in the Rus' federation had been shifting gradually away from its central authority and toward its individual principalities, who fought each other for supremacy just as much as they fought any external enemies in self-defense. The federation's ruling Rurik Dynasty began to fragment, as uncles contested with nephews for succession and local princes refused to be governed by the Grand Prince of Kyiv. The federation was the kind of political entity whose cohesion depended in large part on the strength of any given Grand Prince, and so when a series of weak (or weakened by infighting) monarchs came to the throne one after another, decentralization was the inevitable result.

In the early 13th century, the federation began to suffer heavily from external developments. In 1204, the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and drove the Byzantines into exile, which deprived Kyiv of its biggest trade partner and "older sister" (the Rus' had been converted to Orthodox Christianity by emissaries from Constantinople, and Kyiv had very much considered itself the heir to Romano-Byzantine culture and society). The federation's second-biggest trade partner, the Abbasid Caliphate, was also in steep decline, with the territory that was actually under the caliph's control having shrunk to Iraq and...well, not much else, and with the Mongols beginning to threaten the easternmost parts of the Islamic world. And starting in the 1220s, the Teutonic Knights, another of those Crusades-era religious-military orders like the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, began to undertake the so-called "Prussian Crusade" against the still-pagan peoples of the Baltic region, which put them right on Kyiv's northwestern border.

So describing the siege of Kyiv as the "end" of the Rus' federation is kind of a cop out, akin to identifying Odoacer's conquest of Rome in 476 as the "end" of the Western Roman Empire. It's not not true, and it is a sort of dramatic punctuation mark around which to build a basic understanding of events. It's a clean break point that a high school student can remember, at least long enough to get through a test. But just as Rome hadn't been "Rome" for quite some time before 476, so Kyiv had stopped being "Kyiv" well before the Mongols showed up. Of course, it really stopped being Kyiv after they left.

The siege of Kyiv was the culmination of the Mongols' second invasion of the Eurasian steppe. In the early 1220s, Mongol generals Jebe and Subutai undertook one of the most remarkable raids in military history, taking their 20,000-man army into Iran, north through the Caucasus, and back to Mongolia via the northern steppes. Over three years they led their force on a 5500 mile trek around the Caspian Sea, winning victory upon victory in the process. This army fought a Rus' force of probably around 30,000 (though some estimates go as high as 80,000) at the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223 and almost completely annihilated it. But Jebe and Subutai weren't there for conquest (and would have had no way to hold on to territory at that time anyway), so they just kept moving until they had returned home.

The Mongol campaigns in Russia and eastern Europe

Due to the death of Genghis Khan in 1227, the interregnum before he was succeeded by his son Ögedei in 1229, and the need to consolidate gains in China and Iran after that, the Mongols didn't return to Rus' territory until 1235. This time they showed up with an army of conquest, not a raiding party, commanded by Genghis Khan's grandson Batu overall and Subutai in the field. This army conquered two Rus' principalities, Vladimir-Suzdal and Ryazan, pretty quickly, then Batu divided his forces into several smaller contingents and sent them after a number of smaller cities. By the 1230s, the Mongols, who initially had no concept of siege warfare (there weren't exactly a lot of walled cities in the Mongolian-Siberian region), had assimilated Chinese and Islamic engineering and tactical expertise (and experts) and were quite skilled at taking cities. So they made short work of those smaller cities and towns, then took their time conquering Crimea and parts of what is now western Russia, before training their sights on real prize, the city of Kyiv itself.

By this point, the city was controlled by the western Rus' principality of Galicia-Volhynia, which had taken it from the eastern principality of Vladimir-Suzdal just a year earlier. Prince Daniel of Galicia sent his most trusted warlord, Dmytro, to defend Kyiv, but the Rus' were heavily outnumbered and the Mongols were well-prepared to take the city. It's said that the Mongol prince Möngke (who would later become the Great Khan but who for now commanded the advance guard of Batu's army) sent envoys to Dmytro to negotiate his surrender, because Möngke didn't want to see such a beautiful city destroyed in a siege, but Dmytro had the envoys put to death. If you know anything about the Mongols, you know that they took the inviolability of embassies very seriously, so if this really happened (and if it did, that may help to explain the violence that accompanied the end of the siege) then any chance of a peaceful settlement died along with the envoys. After several days of bombardment (the siege began on November 28), the Mongols breached Kyiv's walls and burst into the city on December 6.

The Mongols treated the city brutally, which is why I'm a little inclined to think that the thing with the envoys really did happen even though it kind of feels like a trope. They plundered the city of its wealth and burned nearly every one of its buildings to the ground. Of a pre-siege population of about 50,000, it's believed that only around 2000 survived, though how many were killed during the siege and how many executed afterwards is not clear. Among the survivors was Dmytro, which argues against the execution of the envoys. We're told that Dmytro's bravery impressed Batu, but Dmytro was responsible for putting those envoys to death and it seems unlikely he would've escaped punishment for such a flagrant violation of The Norms.

With Kyiv down, the Mongols just kept pushing west, invading Poland and Hungary in the 1230s. A succession crisis (really almost a civil war although there wasn't much fighting), brought on when Ögedei died in 1241 and his son/successor Güyük died in 1248, forced the Mongols to abandon their conquests in those kingdoms and eventually to give up their designs on Europe altogether. Kyiv, meanwhile, took centuries to recover from the devastation of the Mongol invasion, which not only destroyed the city (one of the grandest in Europe to that point) but shrunk the population of the Rus' territory by a full 1/15th (from 7.5 million to 7 million). That would be the equivalent of over 20 million people dying in the United States today, in case you were wondering.

Even though the Rus' federation was very much coming apart before its nominal capital was destroyed, the Mongol victory represents the point of no return. From then on, the former federation devolved into its component states. Vladimir-Suzdal was allowed some  autonomy but was subordinate to the Mongols. Eventually, one of its cities—Moscow—began to eclipse the others, as its princes took special care to cultivate good relations with the Mongolian authorities. Galicia-Volhynia stayed independent until 1349, when it was divided and absorbed into Poland and Lithuania. A third region, the northern state of Novgorod, remained outside Mongolian control, and was independent until its conquest by Moscow in the late 15th century.