Kalka River


By  Periklis    Deligiannis


In 1222  the  Mongols  began to threaten dangerously the tribal confederation (Khanate) of the Kipchaks, in the eastern borders of the latter. The Kipchak khanate covered a huge area of Eurasian steppes from the modern southern Ukraine to the Aral Sea in Central Asia. The confederation of the Kipchaks (known also as the Cumans to the Byzantines and as the Polovtsy to the Russians) consisted of Turkish, Finno-Ugric and some Mongolian and Northern Iranian tribes. It seems that the Turkish language had prevailed also in most of the non-Turkish tribes. According to the most probable theory, the khanate of the Cumans/Kipchaks came from the union of two older tribal federations, those of the Kipchaks and the Cumans, hence the double name.
The Russian territory extended to the northwest of the Cumans , and during this period was politically split into independent principalities. The relations between the Russians and the Cumans were usually, if not generally, hostile, but the Mongolian threat forced them to reconcile. Russians and Kipchaks used to unleash devastating raids on each other’s territories.
At the beginning of 1223, the Mongolian threat forced the khan (khagan) of the Western Cumans to seek the help of Mstislav, prince of the Russian principality of Galicia. Mstislav the Brave as he was called, was a hero whose reputation exceeded the Russian borders. Mstislav had realized the lethal threat of a Mongolian invasion in the Russian territories, and immediately called all his Russian counterparts in council in Kiev, with the presence of the Cuman rulers. In Kiev, the metropolis of medieval Russia, they described to the Russian princes the martial prowess and ferocity of the Mongols. In the end, the princes decided on a joint campaign against the invaders.

In mid-March 1223 the Russian armies began their preparations, and in early April they began gathering in the default starting point of the campaign. Only the southern Russian principalities essentially participated in the campaign. The principalities of Chernigov and Smolensk were involved under the High prince of Chernigov Mstislav Sviatoslavich and his tributary princes of Kursk (the famous Oleg), Putivl and Trubchev. The second group of the Russian forces came from the principalities of Galicia-Volynia (Galich-Volyn), led by the High prince Mstislav Mstislavovich, who first responded to the call of the Cumans. Those troops came from Galicia and Volynia under the princes Danilo (Daniel) of Volynia, Mstislav Yaroslavich Nemoy and Izyaslav Ingvaryevich.

Rus 1237

Map of the Russian principalities.    Polovetses = Cumans/Kipchak/Polovtsy.


Finally, the great principality of Kiev participated with troops under the High prince Mstislav Romanovich and his tributary princes Vsevolod (his son), Andrei (his son-in-law) Yuri Nesvizhskiand Svyatoslav Shumski. It is worth noting that all three high rulers/princes who participated in the campaign, were called “Mstislav”.
Yuri, the powerful High prince of the Vladimir-Suzdal principality, was not involved in the campaign, although he was asked persistently to participate, because he had already planned a campaign against the threatening Livonian Knights. However, in order not to missabsent eatening Livonia Knight the  the joint Russian effort against the Mongols, he sent to the allies his subject (and relative) prince of Rostov with his army. However, these forces of Vladimir-Suzdal arrived belatedly in the battlefield and did not participate in the battle against the Mongols. The absence of the army of the strong Russian city-state of Novgorod was notable, but we must take into account the constant threat for this largest in area Russian state by the Germans and Scandinavians of the Baltic. After all, Novgorod was too far North and thereby its army could not be sent in time for the campaign against the Mongols.
In late April, all Russian campaigning armies were on the move converging to the site of Zaroba, about 50 km south of Kiev. The infantry was moving exploiting the large Russian rivers, aboard riverboats. Other river boats were loaded with supplies for the army. The Russian cavalry marched along the banks of the rivers, in parallel with the riverborne infantry and supply convoy. Shortly after the gathering of the Russian princes in Zaroba, Mongol envoys arrived there. They proposed to the princes to ally with them against the Cumans/Kipchaks, and to strike them from both East and West. Thus the Kipchaks would be crashed easily and Russians and Mongols would share the Cumanic lands and the loot.
Although the Kipchaks were old enemies of the Russians, the later did not breach the alliance which had concluded with them, and refused the Mongol proposal. In my point of view, the main reason for their refusal was that they have concluded correctly that the Mongols constituted a greater threat than the Cumans. The Russians probably understood that shortly after the defeat of the Cumans, their turn would come. Moreover they were possibly already well informed about how easily the Mongols used to breach the agreements. On the other hand, if the Cuman Khanate survived, it would be an excellent buffer state for the Russians against the Mongols. The Kipchaks of the Russian camp, were miffed at the Mongol proposal, and killed the envoys. However there is a possibility that the Mongols were killed by Russians.


Mongol cavalry onslaught.


The Mongols did not intend to attack yet in Russia, but the curse of the murder of their ambassadors, forced them to do so in accordance with their customs. However the great general Subotai (or Subedei) Bahadur, head of the Mongol forces, made another attempt for conciliation with the Russians, because he did not want to fight them. The campaign that he had undertook was targeting only to the submission of the Cumans and the Caucasian states, and Subotai did not want to deviate from the instructions given to him by Genghis Khan.
After the gathering of all the allied forces, the united Russian army began to move south along the great river Dnieper. In early May, the princes met a second embassy sent by Subotai, who suggested that they should make peace. The Russian princes rejected the new proposal as well, and the Mongols envoys replied to this refusal that the princes would be solely responsible for what it would follow, pointing out that Subotai and Djebe (the Mongol second-in-command) did not want this war. Russian troops were moving on the right bank of the Dnieper in order to be protected from any sudden Mongolian attack, because the Mongols were already in the region of the left bank. The Russians had with them a few Cumanic forces, but on mid-May, at the mouth of the tributary river Kortiza, they joined the main Cuman/Kipchak army. Concerning culture and warfare, the Kipchaks were very similar to the Mongols, being indeed close relatives culturally and ethnically (the Turks and the Mongols are the backbone of the Altaic ethno-linguistic group). Almost all Cumans fought as cavalry, consisting of the heavy cavalry and of the light horse-archers who constituted the majority. The Mongolian army had the same composition, consisting almost exclusively of cavalry. The Cuman armored cavalrymen had a striking appearance due to their heavy armor and a characteristic metal visor in their helmets. Many Russian cavalrymen had also adopted this visor.
At this point, the joint Russian-Cuman army seem to have numbered over 80,000 men, of whom it is considered that only 25-30% were experienced warriors, belonging mainly to the “druzhina” of the princes and to the Kipchaks. The druzhina detachments were the royal guards of the princes, consisting of mercenaries and other elite warriors of varying origins. They could number from a few hundred up to 4-5,000.

On the other hand, Subotai and Djebe had about 20,000 excellent cavalrymen/horsemen, Mongols and Turks of Central Asia. However, the composition of their army had changed for the better compared to the typical Mongolian, after their successful operations in the Caucasus area, which was a major center of manufacturing of arms and armors. The loot included many armors of men and horses, which were given over to many Mongol light horsemen, thus turning them into heavy cavalry. The Mongols were familiar with both military tactics of the nomadic horsemen (light and heavy). Thus, Subotai’s heavy cavalry exceeded the 50 % of the total Mongol force, reaching according to some estimates perhaps 60 %.


A Kipchaq (Cuman, Polovtsy) cavalryman in a beautyfull artwork by the author V. Vuksic (credit: V. Vuksic and Z. Grbasic). He is armed with a Turanic-type helmet with the characteristic visor adopted by the Russians as well, mail armor, a nomadic composite bow, a lance and a saber.
On March 16, the aggressive Mstislav of Galicia crossed the Dnieper with a part of his druzhina, performing reconnaissance and then raiding the Mongolian outposts. The Russian prince surprised the Mongols of the outposts, who fled. In pursuit of his enemies, Mstislav captured their commander and executed him.
The next day, Danilo of Volynia crossing to the left bank with his druzhina, encountered a small Mongol detachment and exterminated it. Encouraged by their successes, Mstislav and Danilo managed to convince the other Russian princes to cross the Dnieper and march against the enemy. The Russian engineers built a bridge and the Russo-Kipchak army began to cross it. The crossing lasted for some days.
Subotai deployed the rise of the Russian morale to the fullest, applying against the enemy the successful nomadic tactic of the “feigned retreat”. He sent a Mongol detachment against the Russians which attacked them, and shortly after began a retreat falling deeper and deeper in the steppe, “dragging” the enemy towards the main Mongol forces. The Russians probably felt that the Mongol detachment funk to face them again, and followed it close behind. During the chase, the allies captured prisoners and numerous herds, making their forces cumbersome and without the necessary flexibility. But the greatest problem of the Russo-Cuman army was its multi-headed leadership. The princes never agreed to the main war plan that they should follow. Everyone had its own opinion and he insisted on it. Instead, their opponent generals, Subotai Bahadur and Zurgatai Noyon (known by the nickname ‘Djebe’) had almost no disputes, with Subotai being the head of the army.

Continue reading in PART II


Periklis   Deligiannis