LITERATURE OF THE SECOND QUARTER TO THE END OF THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY
The favourable prospects for the development of Old Russian culture and literature at the beginning of the thirteenth century were not destined to be realised. Bitter ordeals lay ahead for Russia, the Mongol invasion and the establishment of Mongol overlordship.
The first clash of the Russians with the Mongols took place in the Polovtsian steppes, near the Sea of Azov, on the small river Kalka. The Russian campaign against this hitherto unknown enemy was a joint one: several princes took part in it. But each of the princes who joined in the campaign was thinking primarily of his own interests, not of the common cause. Therefore the princes did not cohcert their actions during the battle on the Kalka and in spite of the military prowess and courage of the warriors the Russians suffered a cruel defeat. Feudal strife and the lack of a single leader were the main causes of this defeat. The feudal division and internal quarrels also facilitated the subsequent successes of the Mongols who conquered and subjected most of the Russian lands, although in socio-economic and cultural terms the conquerors were less developed than the people they had conquered.
In the winter of 1237 a vast Mongol host led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Batu, invaded the principality of Ryazan. The Ryazan princes’ appeal to Prince Yuri of Vladimir and Prince Michael of Chernigov to join forces against the foreign invaders went unanswered, and the Ryazaners had to confront the enemy with only their own forces. And so, one after another, the Mongols seized first the principalities of North-Eastern Russia, then those of the South-West (Kiev fell in 1240).
Batu’s conquest of the Russian lands by bloody battles was accompanied by the devastation and destruction of towns and villages. The merciless cruelty that the nomads showed to Russian warriors and civilians alike features in all the accounts of Batu’s invasion of Russia. The accounts from Russian sources are confirmed by historians and writers of other countries.1 The Mongol invasion did inestimable harm to Russian culture. The human losses were exceptionally great. Many towns in North- Eastern and Southern Russia were destroyed or burnt and with them the architectural monuments, works of handicrafts and the arts, and books. The enemy wiped out the whole population of towns that resisted them and took craftsmen away to the Horde. A whole number of handicrafts ceased to exist. All stone building stopped for a period (the first stone church to be erected after the invasion of Russia was in Novgorod, which the Mongols did not reach, at the end of the thirteenth century).
Having conquered the Russian lands, Batu invaded Eastern Europe, with the intention of subjecting the European states. Weakened by the struggle with Russia, however, his forces were not strong enough to carry out these plans, and at the end of 1242 the conquerors turned back eastwards. Batu settled on the Lower Volga, where a new state grew up, the Golden Horde, with its capital in Sarai. The Russian lands became vassals of the Horde.
The territory of Novgorod-Pskovian Russia was not devastated, but a bitter struggle took place here in the 1240s against German and Swedish invaders.
The role which Russia played in European history by taking upon itself the first blow of the Mongol hordes was brilliantly described by Pushkin: “Russia was destined to play a great role… Its boundless plains sapped the Mongol armies and stopped their invasion on the very brink of Europe; fearing to leave enslaved Russia behind them, the barbarians returned to their eastern steppes. The nascent enlightenment was saved by lacerated, expiring Russia…”2
Defeat in the struggle against the invaders and the latter’s policy of dividing Russia accelerated the process of feudal disunity and separation into individual principalities. But at the same time the idea of the need to unite the Russian lands, which was most vividly embodied in works of literature, was gradually maturing. This idea was supported by the consciousness of a common language (in spite of all the local dialects), a common religion, history and ethnic roots and the awareness that it was the lack of unity of the Russian principalities that had resulted in defeat and the establishment of foreign dominion.
Spiritually the Russian people was neither destroyed nor enslaved. The struggle against the invaders produced an upsurge of patriotism. And the patriotic theme became the main theme in thirteenth-century literature. Military heroism and courage, devotion to duty, love of one’s native land, praise of the former greatness and might of the Russian princes and principalities, grief for the fallen, pain and compassion for all those abased by the enslavers—all this was reflected both in chronicle-writing, hagiography and ceremonial rhetoric. The theme of the need for a strong princely power is stressed urgently in thirteenth-century works, which condemn princely strife and unconcerted action against the foe. The ideal of the strong ruler is the prince, both warrior and wise statesman. In reminiscences of the past Vladimir Monomachos is portrayed as such a prince, and among contemporaries, Alexander Nevsky.