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Tales of the Mongol Invasion of Russia. The Tale of the Battle on the Kalka


The Tale of the Battle on the Kalka. In examining the history of thirteenth-century chronicle-writing, we have already men­tioned the broad reflection in the chronicles of Batu’s invasion and the establishment of Mongol overlordship. Let us now consider the individual works of this type.

The first clash with the invaders, the battle on the River Kalka in 1223, is the subject of a chronicle story the most lengthy version of which is to be found in The Novgorod First Chronicle. Comparing this version with shorter ones in other chronicles, one might think that the long form contains later additions inserted when it was included in The Novgorod First Chronicle, but for the most part this text “has preserved most fully the popular South-Russian story of the battle on the Kalka which was composed almost immediately after the defeat of the Russians in the period between 1223 and 1228.”21 Let us now examine The Tale of the Battle on the Kalka in more detail from the text of The Novgorod First Chronicle.22

The Tale begins by announcing the unexpected appearance of hordes of terrible warriors of a hitherto unknown people. This is punishment sent down by God for man’s sins. This view of the cause of the Mongol invasion of Russia, i.e., the standpoint of religious historiosophy, is characteristic of all works of bookish origin.

The author of the tale lists the Mongols’ defeat of the peoples who live next to the Russian lands: the Alans, Adygheis and Polovtsians.

Survivors from the defeated Polovtsians come to Russia and beg the Russian princes to protect them, warning them that with time the enemy will invade the Russian lands as well. “Today they have taken away our land, tomorrow they will take yours.” The Russian princes decide to fight the dreaded invaders. Then the Mongols send envoys to the Russian princes inviting them to conclude an alliance against the Polovtsians who, as the Mongol envoys say, “have done you much harm, which is why we are killing them”. But the Russian princes remain true to their word and embark on a campaign. Lack of unanimity between the princes, however, means that the military valour of the Russian warriors is in vain.

The events on the Kalka were as follows. The united Russian host advanced up to the river and set up camp. The Mongols suddenly descended on the “camps of the Russian princes” and the latter, unprepared for battle, turned and fled. Mstislav of Kiev, whose men were standing apart from the main camp, on a hill, “saw this disaster and did not move from the spot”.

The fact that Mstislav of Kiev did not join in the fighting with his men determined both the outcome of the battle as a whole and his own fate. Mstislav’s men took refuge behind a stockade and prepared to defend themselves. But they were able to hold out for only three days. All those captured were killed, and the princes (Mstislav had two other princes with him) died a particularly painful and ignominous death. They were crushed to death by the wooden table on which the victors were feasting.

The tale ends by saying that the Mongols pursued the Russians as far as the Dnieper, six princes were killed, and only one in ten warriors returned home. The defeat on the Kalka aroused universal grief in the Russian lands.

The Tale of the Battle on the Kalka was written in the tradition of Russian military chronicle tales of the twelfth century. In a very short text the author succeeded in conveying the Russian princes’ preparations for the war and their talks with the Polovtsians and Mongol envoys, narrating how the Russian host marched to the Kalka, and giving a vivid description of the ill-fated battle.

The Tale of the Battle on the Kalka kept alive the Russian people’s bitter memories of this event for many centuries. It was constantly recopied and reworked in different chronicles. It also served as a source for references to this event in other literary works on the struggle of the Russian people against Mongol overlordship.