The Chronicle Stories of the Siege and Destruction of Russian Towns
A description of the Russian people’s heroic struggle against Batu’s forces has survived in accounts of the defence of other towns that were attacked and defeated. They take the form either of brief entries on the capture by the Mongols of a certain town or small stories. In all of them one can sense first-hand knowledge of the period. Thus, for example, in describing the Mongols’ campaign against Kolomna, the chronicler exclaims that anyone who experienced it and lived to tell the tale could not restrain his tears. “We bewailed our sins day and night,” he continues.
There is a description of the Mongols’ siege and capture of Vladimir in both the Laurentian and the Hypatian chronicles. The account in The Laurentian Chronicle is the most detailed.33 The enemy laid siege to the town when Grand Prince Yuri of Vladimir had gone off to the River Sit with part of his bodyguard. To frighten the besieged inhabitants the enemy brought out Yuri’s son, whom they had captured during the fall of Moscow, Prince Vladimir, the brother of princes Vsevolod and Mstislav, whom Yuri had left in Vladimir in his place. The episode with Prince Vladimir makes a very tragic impression. The wretched captive is hauled forcibly by the enemy to the Golden Gate in Vladimir, his native town. “ ‘Do you recognise your princeling Vladimir?’ the inhabitants of Vladimir are asked. Vladimir is sorrowful of countenance. But Vsevolod and Mstislav stand on the Golden Gate and recognise their brother Vladimir. Oh, sorrowful spectacle, worthy of tears.”
The figure of the young captive prince stands before the inhabitants of Vladimir as the embodiment of the fate that awaits them: death, suffering and slavery.
The account of the fall of the town, like the episode with Prince Vladimir, is full of a sense of doom and hopelessness. The enemy surround the town on all sides. After camping for a while by the walls of Vladimir (during which time the Mongols manage to take Suzdal), they begin to storm the town. The enemy pour into Vladimir from all sides and quickly conquer it. The grand princess, her sisters-in-law and children and a “large multitude of boyars and common people” hide in the huge stone chruch of the Virgin (the Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir). The cathedral is set on fire and everyone inside it perishes. After describing the looting of churches and monasteries and the killing of priests, the chronicler concludes his account of Vladimir’s sad fate with the words, “The Mongols gave short shrift to all, killing some and leading away others, barefoot and unclothed, dying of cold, to their camps.”
The chronicle account of the capture of the town of Kozelsk in The Hypatian Chronicle is of a different kind. This story illustrates the bravery and courage of the Russian people.
Batu’s forces arrived at the small town of Kozelsk and camped under its walls for seven weeks. When the storm of the town began, the inhabitants decided to a man to fight to the last and not to surrender. The battle was so bloody that the young prince of Kozelsk, Basil, who disappeared without trace, was said to have drowned in the blood. After that, the chronicler says in conclusion, the Mongols referred to Kozelsk as the “evil town”.34
The story of the siege of Kiev is found in The Hypatian Chronicle under the entry for 1240. It contains a striking description of the “great enemy host” that marched up to the town walls. There were so many, the chronicler writes, that people conversing in the town could not hear each other for the creaking carts, grunting camels and neighing horses of the enemy forces surrounding Kiev. The capture of Kiev by Batu’s men and their cruel treatment of the inhabitants are described in vivid detail. Archaeological excavations in Kiev confirm this account of the destruction of the town and mass killing of peaceful citizens by the invaders.35 Tales of the siege and destruction of towns give us not only eye-witness accounts of the cruelty of the conquerors, descriptions of the sacking of Old Russian towns, large and small, and the terrible hardships endured by Russian people in those bitter years. They also present us with a striking picture of the courage, selflessness and patriotism of the Russian people.