The Battle of Kulikovo Pole (Snipe’s Field
) was the scene of the first Russian
victory over their Tartar
overlords. Fought under the lead of Prince Dmitry III
, the battle was a turning point in both the history of the Golden Horde
. Though the battle’s short term affects were very little, it became a rallying cry for Russian freedom from their Tartar overlords. It would be through his lead in this battle that Dmitry III became known as Dmitry Donskoi, or Dmitry of the Don
During the 14th century, Russia saw the rise of the principality of Muscovy. It was this principality which would eventually unite Russia. But at this point the current ruler, Dmitry, was forced to focus on both the other principalities, including Ryazan and Novgorod who were Muscovy’s main rivals for power in Russia, and on the Golden Horde, who though much weakened over time, was the overlord of Russia. In 1378 Dmitry ceased to pay tribute to the Golden Horde. As would be expected, the Tartar leader, Mamai Khan, gathered a large army with which to force his vassal back into line.
Mamai had more than one goal in marching on the Russians though both were hinged one upon the other. Behind the protective barrier of Lithuania and finally safe from the Teutonic Knights attacks from the west, Russia had been able to strengthen over the years. Now they were becoming less and less docile and Dmitry III had just displayed that fact in brilliant color when he refused to send tribute. So it was the Mamai Khan wished to beat the Russian princes back into docility and to reinforce his demand for tribute.
The entirety of the Golden Horde would prepare for the campaign. Troops were called in from vassal states in the Crimea, the Caucasus and lands all along the Volga to reinforce the Tartar divisions. The Tartar warriors themselves were said to have been forbidden to even plant their fields that year, only to prepare. They were promised massive riches in the sacking of the Russian cities in return for their preparation. Estimates of Mamai’s troops range from 200,000 to 400,000 soldiers, but given the habit of exaggeration that tends to happen when chroniclers wrote about ancient battles it can be considered to have been closer to 200,000.
Politically Mamai took advantage of the situation in the area. Riazan, the principality to the south of Muscovy, had begun to grow very wary of Muscovy’s increase in strength and its prince, Oleg, was willing to fight alongside the Tartars against Dmitry. Mamai also concluded an alliance with Prince Jagailo of Lithuania, who had found their relations with the Russian states increasingly strained due to border skirmishes. Both Riazan and Lithuania agreed to send troops to assist the Tartar armies. Oleg, fearing that his lands might be raped by the advancing Tartar armies, also warned Dmitry about Mamai’s preparations and held his army back from joining either side; a decidedly two-faced action that could potentially see Riazan destroyed either way.
During the summer of 1380 Mamai’s army began its march northward. By August the army had reached the Don river and was proceeding towards the Oka, where it would join forces with the Lithuanian and Riazan forces. By August Dmitry had learned of the fact that the Tartars were finally on the march. Dmitry met in council with his generals and with Prince Vladimir Andreevich of Serpukhov in which to decide how best to fight the Tartar armies. The town of Kolomna was decided as the staging point for the armies and Dmitry dispatched a scouting party under orders to capture a Tartar soldier, in order to verify the strength and disposition of the army of Mamai.
A second scouting party was sent out when the first failed to return, but it would meet one Vasily Tupik who was retuning with a Tartar prisoner from Mamai’s own entourage. The prisoner verified the reports; Mamai was on the march and an invasion of Russia was imminent. The report spurred the various princes of Russia into activity and help began arriving from all over the area. Troops from Muscovy’s dependent lands arrived, as well as soldiers from far distinct principailities and even troops from Lithuanian lands.
By late August, the combined armies of Russia had reached a number around 150,000 men and began their march towards the staging grounds at Kolomna. There the hierarchy in the armies was refined and the generals were appointed. Dmitry III would take command of the main command himself, with Vladimir Andreevich in command of the right flank and Prince Gleb of Briansk in command of the left flank, while the princes of Vsevolozhsk were put in command of the forward guard. As the army crossed the Oka River and approached the Don River, a vanguard under the command of one Semion Melik was sent to the front to prevent discovery and lay an ambush.
For the battle, the Russians chose to meet the armies from the Golden Horde at Kulikovo Pole a place that was strategically advantageous for the Russians. Dmitry chose a very controversial place to fight. He crossed the Don river and cut his forces off from retreat, with the Don to his back and the Kulikovo Pole stretching out in front of his forces. The two sides were arranged for battle, but the Lithuanians and the troops from Riazan had not shown up at the field yet. As it was arranged, the Russians were still outnumbered but not as heavily as might have been.
Still, the sheer size of the opposition arranged before Dmitry did more than unnerve him a little. He was loath to go into battle in what looked like a hopeless situation. It was here that the renowned monk Saint Sergius is said to have communicated the news that god would support the Russians. So it was that Dmitry set his forces to meet the Tartar armies. The first meeting of the two armies took place in the form of personal combat. It is said that a Russian warrior and Tartar champion dueled, both to the death, to open the battle. Both failing dead, there was no victory gained by either side and at 6 o’clock that morning battle was engaged.
The advancing Tartar forces struck squarely at the center of the Russian forces, were they were met by troops under the command the boyar Mikhail Brenk. Brenk would fall to the Tartar onslaught and in his death protect the life of Dmitry, for before the battle had commenced, Mikhail had convinced Dmitry to allow the boyar to wear the Prince’s personal armor. So it was that the Tartars thought they had killed the leader of the Russians when in fact only a simple sacrifice had been made.
The initial battle lasted for more than two hours, during which the Russian forces were heavily beaten upon and suffered massive casualties. As it was Dmitri had held some forces back in ambush and these forces, hidden in a stand of oak, waited until the proper moment to attack. When the reserve troops broke from their cover they heavily surprised the Tartar army. The battle quickly turned from a close fight which Russia was losing to a full scale rout, as the Tartars fled this unexpected foe.
Though the battle was hard fought and little more than 40,000 of the original 150,000 Russian troops survived and Dmitry himself was badly wounded, the Tartars were sent fleeing. The Lithuanians, arriving too late to help their Tartar allies, left Russia without ever fighting a battle and Mamai was captured and killed in the town of Kaffa in the Crimea..
Unfortunately only two years later Tokhtamysh, the new Tartar Khan, would shatter the Russian armies and sack Moscow. Though nearly another hundred years of control by the Golden Horde would result, the Battle of Kalikovo Pole was a victory for the Russians and the rallying cry for eventual Russian independence from the long Tartar control; as well as becoming one of the great epic events of Russian history.
Kimball, C. (December 10, 1997). The xenophile historian: A history of Russia. Retrieved January 18, 2004 from http://xenohistorian.faithweb.com/russia/ru01.html
Lawrence, J. (1993). A History of Russia. Penguin Books: New York, New York.