Battle of Kulikovo 1380

By Bloodswan

The battle at the Kulikovo field fought between the Muscovites under Prince Dmitri Ivanovich and the Golden Horde under Mamai was in many ways a very important battle. It was probably the largest battle in terms of numbers fought during the fourteenth century and the first major victory for the Russians over the Mongols.

The Mongol invasion of Russia

In 1237 the Mongols under Batu invaded the Russian principality of Ryazan. Three years later, most of Russia save for the principality of Novgorod lay in ruins. It has generally been agreed that the destruction caused by the initial Mongol invasion held back Russian development for two centuries.

Unlike the Mongol campaigns into Europe, the Mongols after finishing their campaigning occupied large parts of Russia and forced the local inhabitants to pay tribute. Novgorod, despite escaping the fate of Kiev and Vladimir was forced to pay a large tribute to the Mongol Khan. Novgorod was also subject to numerous Mongol-Tatar raids over the 50 years.

The tide begins to turn

Resistance to the Mongols had started way back in 1252 when Prince Andrej Yaroslavich led his troops against the Tatars near Pereyaslavl-Zalesskij but it was not until 1285 when Prince Dmitrii Alexandrovich drove the raiding Tatars from Novgorodian lands.

From 1269 Rusian princes had actually begun recruiting Golden horde Mongols into their armies and the Russians fought for several of the Horde's Khans. Russian warfare was still clearly defined and as of 1270 the size of Russian armies greatly increased. European influences became increasingly obvious and this blend of styles contributed to the gradual success of the Russian army. For example mounted archers still proved a headache for many Western armies with the obvious examples being against the German and Scandanavian attempts to expand into Novgorodian territory. European armour, weaponry and artillery was also to become crucial in later clashes with the Mongols.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century the Mongol's armour and equipment was inferior to those used by the Mongols under Batu and Russian military power was well on the rise.

Moscow as a city had increased in importance as Kiev declined and it was the Moscovites under several inspirational leaders that took Russia from the Mongol yoke.

At the battle of Kulikovo the combined Russian armies under the command Dmitri Ivanovich of Moscow faced a much larger Tatar force under the command of Mamai. Mamai's allies, Grand Prince Oleg of Ryazan and Grand Prince Jogaila of Lithuania were late to the battle.

Kulikovo 1380

The battle took place on September the 8th at Kulikovo field near the Don river. The Russian troops lined up into the then traditional three line order, with reserves kept at the rear and the elite cavalry of Vladimir Andreyevich, Prince of Serpukhov (Dmitri's cousin) hidden in ambush. Mamai arranged his troops in line order as well. In the middle was his hired Genoese infantry. On the flanks and behind the infantry there were troops of the Horde's cavalry and other mercenaries. Behind them there were the reserves.

The number of warriors at the battle is subject to much debate with some estimates putting the Mongol force at 250 000. Between 100 000 and 120 000 for the Mongols and 75 000 for the Russians is acceptable but around 70 000 a more reasonable figure for the Mongols with a possible figure of 36 000 for the Russians. These numbers are still massive for an army of their time.

A thick fog covered the Kulikovo Field. The fog cleared late morning at around 11am, at which point both armies began advancing on each other.

The battle was opened with a duel between the Russian monk Alexander Peresvet and a Tatar champion named Chelubej. Both were killed by each other's spears on the first pass though Russian legend tells us that Peresvet did not fall from his horse as Chelubej did. After the duel the battle began with both sides taking heavy casualties. Peresvet was later made a hero after his act of courage.

Peresvet and Chelubej

The Genoese infantry supported by Tatar cavalry attacked the Russian advance but were held. Having outstayed the first attack, the remains of the regiments went back to the main Russian forces. The severe frontal attacks by the Horde's cavalry began along all the defensive line of the Russian front ranks. Dmitri himself fought in the first ranks and received several blows to the head and body and twice fell off his horse. Severely wounded, only his European style armour saved him from death.

Despite the ferocity of the attack, the Russians stood firm forcing Mamai to send his reserves against the Russian left wing hoping to break them. Despite the strong resistance of the Russian troops, the Horde's army managed to break through the Russian lines. Having lost the most part of its soldiers, the left wing began to retreat. The reserves didn't save the situation. At about 2pm the Golden Horde moved to the rear of the Russian troops, outflanking the main body of the Russian army. The Russian forces were now in very real danger of collapsing. At this moment the ambush force of the Vladimir's cavalry led by Dmitri Bobrok, Prince of Volynia attacked the Horde's cavalry in their rear. This unexpected involvement of the fresh Russian troops changed the situation dramatically. From this point on the Russian troops took the offensive. Mamai's army took flight and were pursued until late night. The hard fought battle had lasted some four hours. It was absolute victory for the Russians. The Golden Horde troops were completely destroyed. Mamai escaped to Crimea, where he was assassinated by his enemies, leaving the Horde under the command of Tokhtamish.

Battle of Kulikovo

The battle had come at a cost though. Twelve princes and 483 Boyars (the pick of the Russian army) were killed representing 60% of the Russian commanders plus a great deal of their army. It took seven days for all of the dead warriors to be picked from and buried in honour.

After the battle Dmitri Ivanovich was given the title Dmitri Donskoy which meant Dmitri of the Don and later made a saint.

Kulikovo became one of if not the largest fight of the Middle Ages. More than one hundred thousand warriors participated in it.

Aftermath of the battle

This victory was the beginning of the end of the Mongol rule in Russia, which officially ended with the great standing on the Ugra river in 1480. Its importance for the unification of the Russian lands was however more important. As one historian put it , the Russians went to the Kulikovo Field as citizens of various principalities and returned as a united Russian nation.

However it was far the end for the Golden horde. Just two years later in 1382 Tokhtamish attacked the Russians and Moscow was sacked and almost burnt to the ground by Tokhtamish. Tokhtamish had a great deal of success against the Russians who were unable to field sufficient numbers of men to fight him. This indicates that the Russians had not managed to replace those men lost at Kulikovo however Dmitri Donskoy was able to lead a substantial army against Novgorod in 1386. It was his disasterous conflicts with Tamerlane which prevented Tokhtamish from achieving further success in Russia. In 1399 the Russians also suffered a great defeat at the hands of Emir Idegej's trops at the battle of the Vorskl river.

Eventually however Mongol in fighting and Russian unification lead to the final defeat of the Golden horde and the fall of the Mongol capital at Kazan. One of the most powerful of the former Golden Horde states, the Crimean Tatars even sided with the Russians formany of their campaigns.

Kulikovo's importance is not so much the battle itself as the Mongols recovered their losses well enough but rather that it became the symbol of the struggle against the Mongols and was the source of inspiration for the future campaigns against them. It was the first large scale battle won by the Russians against them and it shattered the Mongol myth of invincibility in Russia as Ain Jalut had done in the Middle East.

The battle's site is commemorated by a memorial church, built to a design by Aleksey Shchusev.

Statue of Alexander Peresvet

The warrior-monk Alexander Peresvet who killed the Tatar champion Chelubej (also known as Temir Murza) but was killed himself in the duel was made a hero after the battle.


Various internet sources
Medieval Russian armies 1250 - 1500 by V. Shpakovsky and D. Nicolle
Battle by R.G Grant