Magazine article Russian Life

Mongols Sack Kiev: December 5, 1240

Magazine article Russian Life

Mongols Sack Kiev: December 5, 1240

Article excerpt

WHAT KIND of a city was Kiev in 1240? It had already passed the pinnacle of its tenth and eleventh century glory, but it was still one of the richest and grandest cities of ancient Rus.

This city, which grew up along what was then the most important European trade route, leading "from the Varangians to the Greeks," from Scandinavia to Byzantium, glistened with golden cupolas and was protected by mighty walls. Kiev was home to Slavs and Scandinavians, Turks and Khazars, and was frequented by travelers from Western Europe and the Arab caliphates. All were amazed by its magnificence and wealth.

By the thirteenth century, the main centers of ancient Russian life had shifted to the northeast. Vladimir and Suzdal had emerged and blossomed, and ships were not traveling down the Dnieper to Byzantium, which had also passed its prime, as often as they once had. Nevertheless, many still saw Kiev as the heart of Rus.

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The princes of the region were still fighting for the right to possess this city, which remained Rus' most important religious center. While, by 1238, northeastern Rus lay in ruins, destroyed by the Mongol hordes of Batu Khan, Kievan Rus, although it had suffered from princely in-fighting, had so far escaped devastation. However, in 1239 Batu again advanced into Rus. This time his target was its southern cities.

Mongol ambassadors arrived in Kiev demanding that the city surrender. The city responded by killing the entire embassy--one o( the worst possible crimes according to the Mongol code of honor. The Kievans had chosen their fate.

In the fall of 1240, a huge Mongolian army lay siege to the city. A southern chronicler, clearly basing his history on survivor account, eloquently described how the city was surrounded, how around its mighty walls a new wall was erected, from behind which the attackers day and night chipped away at the city's fortification with their weaponry. A famous detail is that the noise generated by the attacking army--the creaking of the multitude of wagons, the bellowing of camels, the neighing of horses--was so loud that defenders of the city fighting atop its walls could barely hear one another.

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History had yet to see city walls that could stand up to the Mongol catapults and battering rams, and Kiev was no exception. On December 5, the enemies stormed the city. Archeological finds confirm the chronicler's account describing how the majority of the city's defenders hid in the Church of the Tithes ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) overlooking the Dnieper. There were so many people in the church that it collapsed, burying them in its rubble. Twentieth century excavations found a multitude of skeletons on the site where the ancient church once stood and the remains of people who unsuccessfully tried to escape from its basements.

The city was destroyed and brutally plundered. Soon afterward, the Italian monk Giovanni da Pian del Carpine passed through the area and wrote:

  They marched against Rus and committed a great massacre, destroyed
  cities and fortresses and killed people, besieged Kiev, which was the
  capital of Rus, and after a lengthy siege they captured it and
  killed the residents of the city; from here, when we traveled through
  their land, we found countless heads and bones of the dead lying in. … 
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