Today in European history: the Battle of the Kalka River (1223)

The astute reader might remember this battle from such blog posts as “Today in European history: the Mongols sack Kiev (1240).”

Or not, I wouldn’t blame you.

The 1240 siege of Kiev occurred on the Mongols’ second incursion into the eastern European steppe, the one that was intended to conquer territory. The first incursion amounted to a raid, but holy mackerel, what a raid. By 1221 the Mongols’ first invasion to their west, to obliterate the Khwarazmian Empire in Central Asia/eastern Iran, was over, although that empire’s straggling remnants would survive for another decade. Instead of turning around and heading home, however, as most of the Mongol army was doing, two generals–Jebe and Subutai–asked for permission from Genghis Khan to take 20,000 men on an extended (1-2 year) expedition further west. The intent, again, was not to take and hold new territory but simply to scout out these western lands, assess the kingdoms controlling them, take whatever booty they could scrape up, and then return home a little richer and a lot better informed. This was 20,000 mounted men campaigning entirely on their own, with no expectation of resupply or reinforcement, and really no assurance that they’d be returning home, for two years. The fact that they pulled it off is a testament to how unbelievably skilled the Mongols, from their top commanders all the way down to the greenest cavalry fighter, were when it came to military matters.

Map - Mongol Empire 1190-1400
The Mongol Empire and some of their most important campaigns. The solid red arrow that loops around the Caspian Sea and back east in 1223-1224 is the Jebe-Subutai excursion.

Jebe and Subutai led their men west through the region known as “Persian Iraq,” modern west-central Iran, sacking major city after major city, and north into Azerbaijan, where they were bribed to leave the wealthy city of Tabriz alone. They kept pushing north into the Caucasus, defeating a substantially larger Georgian army, before turning south and campaigning in western Iran again. They considered sacking Baghdad, but instead decided to sack the Iranian city of Hamadan, an easier target. Later they pushed back into the Caucasus, and by the end of 1221 they’d defeated another Georgian army and were raiding that kingdom at will.

It was apparently only at this point that Jebe and Subutai were given the green light by Genghis Khan to go on their extended raid–everything they’d done to this point had just been vamping, waiting for an answer to their request. Their army then headed north again, emerging from the Caucasus to find themselves opposed by an army about twice their size made up of Circassians, Alans (ancestors of modern Ossetians), and Lezgins (who mostly live in Dagestan today), along with the Cumans, a Turkic nomadic people. The Mongols, appealing to some Turko-Mongolian ethnic connections and promising them a big share of the booty, convinced the Cumans to abandon their allies. After they destroyed the Circassian-Alan-Lezgin army and paid the Cumans their bribe, the Mongols chased down the Cumans, killed many of them too, and got that bribe money back.

The sudden arrival of the Mongols compelled the Kievan Rus’ confederation, in an increasingly rare moment of solidarity (funny how the perception of an existential threat can bring people together), to muster a large army with contributions from each of its component principalities, including the three most important: Kiev, Galicia–Volhynia (the western part of modern Ukraine), and Vladimir-Suzdal (the eastern part of the confederation, which eventually became the core of Muscovy). This army may have been as large as 80,000 men by some modern estimates, though others put it at something closer to 30,000 and the surviving Russian sources aren’t very helpful in sorting it all out. The Mongols actually had a chance for reinforcement at this point, as there was another Mongolian army on campaign not too far away to the east. At some point, however, it became apparent that no reinforcements were arriving, and so Jebe and Subutai opted to send an embassy to the Kievan prince Mstislav (not to be confused with the Galician prince, who was also named Mstislav). Mstislav (the Kievan one) had the Mongolian ambassadors put to death, and if you know anything about Mongolian history you know how seriously they took that kind of thing.

Jebe and Subutai started the battle by doing what Mongolian armies often did to start battles: they retreated. The feigned retreat was the Mongols’ go-to tactic, because it suckered unprepared and overconfident opponents into the middle of what could quickly become a shooting gallery, as Mongolian horse archers surrounded them and began to pick them off at will. And the Kievans were overconfident, particularly after they were able to overwhelm the small Mongolian rearguard during the retreat. After several days of “retreating,” the Mongols turned to fight, and the two armies met near the Kalka River, which today is located in Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk province, on May 31 1223. A Cuman contingent fighting with the Kievans, perhaps having seen this movie already, apparently fled almost immediately. The Kievan lines had to open up to let them through, and those gaps were then exploited by Mongolian cavalry, who were able to rout the Kievan line. In the fighting, Prince Mstislav of Chernigov (not to be confused with Mstislav of Kiev or Mstislav of Galicia and, man, did the Kievans run out of child names or something?) was killed.

The Mongols, as they so often did, were able to surround the Kievan army, closing off its avenues of retreat and annihilating it with barrages of arrow fire. Mstislav of Kiev was able to lead his men back to their camp, but it was eventually overrun by the Mongols and he was captured, then executed. Since the Mongols were superstitious about spilling royal blood, it’s said that he was put under a giant wooden floor, upon which the Mongols danced and celebrated until Mstislav suffocated to death. I’m not sure how much credence to put in reports like that (and there are others like this that are written about after later Mongolian victories), but somebody–either the Mongols themselves or the people writing these accounts–sure could think of some imaginative ways to execute enemy royals. Jebe and Subutai did some raiding in the area, defeating a Volga Bulgar army and another Cuman army, before turning east. They met up with Genghis Khan and the main Mongolian force in 1224, with Jebe dying not long after. All told, they and their army had ridden more than 5500 miles in three years.

The tragedy of Kalka, from the standpoint of, you know, all the dead people, is that it probably didn’t need to happen. The Kievans saw the Mongolian force as an army of conquest and acted accordingly, but Jebe and Subutai couldn’t have held any territory if they’d wanted to. They were inevitably going to have to head back east again after raiding a few Kievan cities, which is what happened after Kalka but is also exactly what would have happened if Kalka had never been fought. You can’t blame the Kievans, because they had no real way of knowing what the Mongols’ intentions were and they probably believed that their superior numbers would be enough to hand the invaders a serious defeat. But, bottom line, tens of thousands of Kievan soldiers died defending their homeland against an army that was more an expanded raiding party than a serious threat. Of course, the next time the Mongols came through the area it was with Subutai and Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu at the head of a 100,000+ man army, and that…well, that was a different story.

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