6 reasons why the Mongols managed to seize Kyiv

Dmytro Kyrylovets

In the fall of 1240, the Mongol army of Batu Khan besieged Kyiv. The aftermath was sad. WAS is trying to find out whether this battle could have ended differently.

In 1235, the Mongol army set out to fulfill Genghis Khan’s will to conquer all the lands up to ‘the last sea.’ The special importance of the western campaign is evidenced by the participation of ten grandsons, a great-grandson, and the youngest son of the great khan. The campaign was led by Batu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, who inherited the steppes west of the Irtysh River, as well as Russia and Europe, which still had to be conquered.

Moving westward, early next year, the Mongols defeated and conquered Polovtsians, Volga Bulgars, Mordvins, Burtases, and Alans. Rus’ was next.

It took the Mongols no more than a week to storm every large city in Northeastern Rus’: Ryazan, Vladimir, Pereyaslavl-Zalessky. Chernihiv, Putyvl, Hlukhiv, and many others did not withstand the onslaught.

Kyiv was besieged for three months. Other sources claim that it fell in nine days. Why was the city unable to defend itself?

Reason 1. Political crisis

By the time the Mongols arrived, Rus’ was split, and Kyiv’s importance declined. The city retained its prestige, but control over it no longer meant supremacy over other principalities.

Before the Mongols, Kyiv was stormed and plundered by local princes twice: in 1169, by the son of Prince Mstislav Andreyevich of Vladimir-Suzdal, and in 1203, by Prince Rurik Rostyslavych of Ovruch. Rarely did anyone manage to stay in Kyiv for more than a year at that time. Local conquerors relied on small armies and, when a larger army appeared under the walls, immediately fled to their hereditary lands. No one was engaged in serious repairs of the city fortifications.

When the Mongols approach, there was no prince in Kyiv at all. The city belonged to Danylo Romanovych, the ruler of the distant principality of Galicia-Volhynia. He left a governor in Kyiv, a Voivode named Dmytro. Dmytro could neither inspire the city’s inhabitants to resist the invaders nor raise the necessary resources for defense.

Укріплення Стародавнього Києва, діорама. Джерело: Національний музей історії України / Олена Попова / [email protected]
Укріплення Стародавнього Києва, діорама. Джерело: Національний музей історії України / Олена Попова / [email protected]

Reason 2. Outdated fortifications

Kyiv consisted of the Upper City and Podil. The Upper City was located on a hill with steep slopes and was surrounded by two lines of fortifications. It was protected by a 100-feet-thick and 40-feet-high rampart. There was a moat under the rampart, and a wooden wall with a gallery for the garrison on top. To protect it from arson, it was greased with clay and whitewashed with lime. At the same time, Podil, the commercial district on the banks of the Dnipro, remained effectively unprotected.

Kyiv’s fortifications were developed two hundred years ago, during the reigns of Volodymyr the Great and Yaroslav the Wise. At that time, the city was threatened by Slavic princes and tribes of Black Sea nomads who had no siege machines and no experience in storming fortresses. It was much more difficult to resist Batu. The Mongols borrowed engineering knowledge from China and Central Asian civilizations. They set up an armada of 32 stone-throwing machines against the city ramparts.

‘They conquer fortifications in the following way. If they come across a fortress, they surround it; moreover, sometimes they enclose it so that no one can enter or leave; at the same time they fight very bravely with guns and arrows and do not stop fighting for a single day or night, so that those who are in the fortifications do not have rest; the Tatars themselves rest because they divide their troops, and one replaces the other in battle, so they do not get too tired,’ the Italian monk Plano Carpini, who visited the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, wrote.

План Києва від 988 до 1240 року, тобто до руйнування його Батиєм. Джерело: Закревський Н.В. «Опис Києва», Москва, 1868 рік. Т.2 / Wikipedia

Reason 3. No one to fight

After the deaths of nine princes in the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223, there were no experienced commanders left in Rus’ capable of leading a large army. And there was no large army either because of the disunity of the princes.

Historians estimate the number of Kyiv’s defenders at 4-5 thousand, including only a few hundred professional vigilantes of the Voivode Dmytro. The small militia gathered among the townspeople could not hold the ramparts, which were about 3.5 km long. Most Kyivans were armed only with spears and axes.

Some Kyiv residents fled the city to the surrounding forests. Mostly wealthy people with their servants remained. As much as the Mongols, they were afraid of the robbery of their estates by the local poor.

Військо Київської Русі (зліва), фрагмент ікони 14 ст. Монгольські вершники (праворуч), ілюстрація з Джамі ат-таваріх Рашид ад-Діна. Джерело: Wikipedia / Columbia University

Reason 4. Mongolian force

Batu’s army numbered up to 40-50 thousand soldiers. Each man had 2-3 bows and 60-100 arrows capable of piercing armor in three hundred paces. The armor of the heavy Mongol cavalry was made of buffalo leather plates covered with water-repellent varnish. They were as strong as iron, but much lighter. Lightweight shields were woven from vines. A metal protrusion was attached in the center to deflect blows.

When storming fortresses, the Mongols used trebuchets (throwing machines with counterweights), vortex catapults (circular stone throwers on a vertical support column), and blids (light stone throwers with a throwing lever). The most powerful were Chinese-type stone throwers. Their lever consisted of several poles, and the tension rope was pulled by two people.

By 1240, the Mongols, in addition to nomadic tribes and small peoples, had defeated the Jin Empire, the Kara-Khanid Khanate, the vast Khorezm state, and the Volga Bulgars.

Монгольська армія на марші. Сучасна реконструкція. Фото: Onetwo1 / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia

Reason 5. Lack of support

Before Batu’s invasion, two rulers of Rus’ tried to enlist the support of Hungarian King Bela IV. Prince Mykhailo Vsevolodovych of Chernihiv was the first to propose a military-dynastic alliance. The king refused, not taking the Mongol threat seriously. Then Prince Danylo Romanovych of Galicia-Volhynia and his son Lev arrived in Pest. He did not receive an army and was not even able to make his way back to his native lands. Later, Danylo Halytskyi unsuccessfully sought an alliance with Prince Konrad I Mazowiecki in Poland.

During the Mongol invasion of Hungary, King Bela IV himself would ask for help from Duke of Babenberg, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, and Pope Gregory IX. But no help would come.

Reason 6. Assault tactics

Batu concentrated the bulk of his troops and stone-throwing machines in the most vulnerable part of the city, the swampy lowland opposite the Lach Gate (modern-day Maidan Nezalezhnosti square). There were no steep natural slopes here, and the swamp was already frozen.

The attack began when throwing machines damaged the rampart and the walls. In this battle, the Voivode Dmytro was wounded, and the defenders of Kyiv were pushed out of the rampart.

«The Tatars climbed the walls, and sat there day and night.»

Облога і штурм Києва монголами. Автор: Дмитро Вортман для xlegio.ru

The townspeople used the pause in the battle to retreate to the citadel on Starokyivska Hill. Excavations of the 1980s proved that the moat that ran between the two lines of walls was hastily fortified with a palisade and the remains of wooden log cabins.

But this could not save the city from the Mongols. The next day, they stormed the central part of the city, massacred and burned the Church of the Tithes, where the last defenders of Kyiv had taken refuge. According to legend, Voivode Dmytro was taken prisoner.

The exact date of the fall of Kyiv is unknown. Sources name November 19 and December 6, 1240.

«…surrounded Kyiv, which was the capital of Russiya, and after a long siege they took it and killed the inhabitants of the city; when we traveled through their land, we found numerous heads and bones of dead people lying in the field; for this city was very large and very populous, and now it has been reduced to nothing: there are only two hundred houses, and the people of the city are held in severe slavery,» the monk Plano Carpini wrote after visiting Rus’ in 1245-1247.