A tumultuous discussion raged in the hall of Mstislav III “The Old” Romanovich, the Grand Prince of Kiev, in March 1223. An embassy of Turkic-speaking Polovtsian nomads humbly stood before the throne of the Russian prince. The embassy had arrived earlier in the day bearing rich gifts that included a bounty of gold and silver, exotic fabrics from the East, and slave girls.
They also bore news of disturbing developments on the steppe lands to the south. They reported that a large Mongol army had passed through the Caucasus Mountains several years earlier. During their march through the mountains, the Mongols had defeated the Georgians. They emerged into the Russian steppe where they had been encamped with no sign of leaving any time soon. During that time, the Mongols had also routed several Polovtsian tribes.
The Mongol victory over the Georgians and several Polovtsian tribes had been so thorough that it unnerved Khan Kotyan, one of the senior Polovtsian khans in the delegation. He appealed directly to Mstislav Romanovich for military assistance against the Mongols. While the grand prince was considering the request, shouting erupted among the nobles of his court and his generals.
The uproar was a negative reaction to the request given that the Polovtsians were traditional enemies of the Russians. Their frequent raids had caused extensive destruction throughout southern Russia. Many of Mstislav Romanovich’s nobles had lost kin fighting the Polovtsians. Neither the grand prince nor his advisors were familiar with the Mongols and, therefore, it was difficult for them to judge the severity of the threat. Although some of those present were all too glad to hear about the misfortunes that had befallen the Polovtsians, Mstislav Romanovich knew it was important to examine the situation from all angles before making a decision.
The sexagenarian grand prince was a veteran of the dynastic intrigues and internecine wars that embroiled Kievan Rus. Once the dominant power in medieval Russia, by the beginning of the 13th century Kievan Rus had disintegrated into a number of squabbling principalities. Upon the death of a ruler succession often went not to his sons as it traditionally had, but to his brothers. This resulted in clannish struggles that pitted brothers against uncles. Princes ruling small principalities constantly maneuvered to take control of bigger, richer, and more prestigious ones.
After some consolidation, a dozen principalities emerged. The two most prestigious and powerful of them, centered on the cities of Kiev and Vladimir, were titled grand principalities and their rulers were called grand princes. Other substantial principalities were Novgorod in the north, Galicia-Volhynia in the south, and Smolensk and Chernigov in the center.
Bordering Russian territory in the south was an extensive steppe land north of the Black Sea known as the Wild Field, which stretched from the Dniester River in the west to the Don River in the east. The most powerful of the numerous nomadic tribes in the region were the Polovtsians. They occupied the lands from north of the Black Sea to the Aral Sea. There was certainly a precedent of making alliances with the Polovtsians, for Russian princes often enlisted their assistance against their rivals. Indeed, Russian princes frequently married pretty Polovtsian princesses, who upon marriage converted to Christianity. The intermarriage flowed only one way, though, for no Russian prince would allow his daughter to marry a shamanistic nomad.
One such matrimonial union for political purposes was that of a daughter of Khan Kotyan to Prince Mstislav “The Lucky” Mstislavovich, a ruler of the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia in modern-day Ukraine. The principality was the result of a union between the neighboring provinces of Galich and Volyn. Prince Mstislav of Galicia was an experienced, well-respected, and widely feared war leader who had proven himself in the Kipchak Wars. His protégé was young Prince Daniel Romanovich of Volyn, a famous warrior in his own right. Although the Grand Principality of Kiev was nominally senior to Galicia-Volhynia, Mstislav did not hold himself junior to his namesake, who was jealous and cautious of the other man’s reputation.
Even though Khan Kotyan was related to Mstislav of Galicia by marriage and could count on at least some military assistance from his son-in-law, it was a shrewd move to turn to Mstislav Romanovich of Kiev first. Not only were the lands of Kiev closer to a possible Mongol invasion, but such a display of deference was sure to play to Mstislav Romanovich’s vanity and desire to enhance his reputation as a great warrior.
Although Mstislav Romanovich decided to assist the Polovtsians, he met fierce resistance from his nobles. Many of the nobles vehemently opposed aiding the Polovtsians. Some went so far as to make veiled hints that Mstislav Romanovich was bought by the bounty of gifts the Polovtsian khans had brought him. But Mstislav Romanovich believed it was essential to assist the Polovtsians; otherwise, they might strike a deal with the Mongols and turn against Russia.
Sensitive to both sides, Mstislav Romanovich crafted a compromise. He not only intended to assist the Polovtsians, but also summoned the Russian princes to attend a subsequent military council for the purpose of planning how to defend the Russian principalities against the Mongols. He promptly dispatched messengers to both grand and minor princes of roughly a dozen principalities requesting that they attend the council.
To Mstislav’s chagrin, many princes did not respond to his summons. Some replied that that they had more pressing affairs, while others did not response at all. Nevertheless, 20 princes of various ranks gathered in Kiev. The most important of them was Mstislav of Galicia, who was accompanied by Prince Daniel Romanovich.
Several other princes attended the council. Prince Mstislav “The Mute” Yaroslavovich arrived from Lutsk. In his younger days, Mstislav of Lutsk had been wounded in the face by a spear, which left his jaw and tongue badly mangled and resulted in his nickname. He could only speak in a whisper as a result of his wounds and therefore was accompanied by an attendant who would listen to what the prince whispered and repeat it in a clear voice. In addition, Mstislav Svyatoslavovich of Chernigov attended with his sons Vsevolod and Dmitriy. Also arriving to participate in the council was Vladimir Rurikovich, the Prince of Ovruch, who had been designated to represent the Principality of Smolensk.
A heated discussion occurred as to whether the Russians should furnish assistance to the Polovtsians. Many princes were categorically opposed to aiding the Polovtsians. They held that the looming clash between the Polovtsians and Mongols was simply a rebalancing of power in the steppe. As proof of their theory, they pointed to how the Polovtsians had ejected the Pecheng tribes in the late 11th century. In contrast, another faction, which was headed by Mstislav of Galicia, was spoiling for a fight. It had the support of many of the younger princes.
Mstislav Romanovich’s sons Rostislav and Vsevolod pulled their father aside to protest in private against the campaign. They said that they had their own problems with rivals in Polotsk and Grodno. Although this caused Mstislav Romanovich great frustration, he nevertheless gave his sons leave to attend to their personal affairs.
These arguments lasted three days before Mstislav Romanovich prevailed and the majority of the princes reluctantly agreed to participate in his campaign against the Mongols. Then, a new point of contention emerged. Mstislav of Galicia and Mstislav Romanovich quarreled over who should command the joint Russian forces. As the most senior prince, Mstislav Romanovich demanded to be placed in command, while many other princes wanted to see the more experienced Mstislav of Galicia in charge. Arguments threatened to collapse the fragile alliance before it even began. Vladimir Rurikovich, cousin of both princes, whose son Andrey was married to Mstislav Romanovich’s daughter, brokered a compromise. Mstislav Romanovich would command the forces of Kiev, Chernigov, and Smolensk, and Mstislav of Galicia would lead the forces of Galicia-Volhynia and Lutsk.
The Russians began preparing for war against the Mongols in mid-March 1223, and the Russian forces began gathering at the designated rendezvous point in early April. The campaign was scheduled to officially begin immediately following Orthodox Easter, which fell on April 23.
The rendezvous point was the great bend in the Dnieper River where the old trade route, Zalozni Way, began on its way southeast to the Sea of Azov. The infantry from Kiev, Chernigov, and Smolensk sailed down the Dnieper in longships while the cavalry rode along the west bank. The forces of Galicia-Volhynia, including men from Lutsk, Pinsk, and Turiv, journeyed by boat down the Dniester River to the Black Sea then along its north shore to the mouth of the Dnieper River, and then up the river to the staging areas. Polovtsian war bands steadily trickled in to join the Russians.
While the Russian forces were gathering, an embassy of six Mongol envoys accompanied by two Muslim interpreters arrived at Mstislav Romanovich’s camp. The Russian leaders where not impressed by what they saw. Specifically, the Mongols were short of stature and their stocky torsos were supported by bow legs. As for their haughtiness, the Russians were greatly offended by it.