What was the significance of Kievan Rus society? What is the significance of the fall of Kievan Rus society to the Mongols?

Russia, as well as regions that were a part of the former Soviet Union, constitute one-sixth of the land surface of the entire earth, which is larger than the United States and Canada combined. This region contains every sort of terrain and biosphere; deserts, beaches, inland seas, plains, mountains, forests, and frozen tundra.[1] Because of its massive size and diverse landscape early Russian civilizations, such as the Kievan Rus and the Muscovites, faced constant threat of enemy invasion from all directions. Vikings from Scandinavia, Mongol Tatars from the south Asian steps, Lithuanians, Poles, and Byzantines in Constantinople. Russia would become a mix of the different cultures that surrounded it. The people of the Kievan Rus were descendants from Vikings who used Russia’s rivers for trade and conquer. Orthodox Christianity came to Russia from Constantinople. However, living with the constant threat of invasion also effected the development of the Russian identity. The governments of early Russian society had to allocate many resources and manpower to defend and control its large territories. Thus, the governments of the Kievan Rus was decentralized and did not resemble the strong autocratic states that are associated with Russian history. The Mongols would exploit a decentralized Kievan Rus and subjugate the peoples of Russia for near 300 years.

Prior to the Tatar invasion, Kievan Rus society was at a high-water mark. Historian John Thompson argues that, “Considered as a whole, Kievan Rus’ culture and civilization in the 1000s and 1100s was probably at a higher level than Western European civilization at the same time.”[2] Kievan Rus had developed a society based on religion and clearly defined class lines; princes, nobles, artisans, peasants, and slaves. The adoption of Christianity in 988 from the Byzantines effected not only the religious beliefs of but influenced law, education, literature, and the arts as well.

When the Mongols invaded in 1237 Kievan Rus society fell apart before the wrath of the Tatars and the new civilization that emerged under Mongol rule had economic, political, and psychological effects. The Mongols were fierce in their treatment of conquered cities even if cities offered no resistance upon Tatar arrival. Thompson says, “the usual pattern was to raze a town’s main buildings, to slaughter or enslave up to a quarter of the population, and to demand future subordination to Mongol rule.”[3] Many fled the exposed plains to seek protection in the thick forests constituting a dramatic population shift to the northeast that became the base for rise of the city of Moscow.[4] Live under Mongol rule resulted in a fear of foreign invasion, even centuries after Russia was freed from Tatar control, and Russia’s cultural development was put on hold as it fell behind with the developing societies to the west.

The brutality of the Mongol invasion lives on the in Russia’s historical and cultural imagination the destruction of one city in particular, Ryazan, is remembered for its ruthlessness. In 1237, after breaching the defenses of Ryazan, the Mongols showed no mercy. As Frank Trippet describes, “The prince, with his mother, wife [and] sons, the boyars and the inhabitants, without regard to age or sex, were slaughtered. … Some were impaled, some shot at with arrows for sport, others were flayed or had nails or splinters of wood driven under their fingernails. Priests were roasted alive, and nuns and maidens ravished in the churches before their relatives. No eye remained open to weep for the dead.”[5]

A recollection of the destruction of Ryazan was written down many years after the fact, however, many of the events in the story match up with historical evidence. In the Tale of the Destruction of Ryazan, the Mongols are presented as godless heathens, the Rus Princes are honorable and heroic even in their defeat, and throughout the story there is a general sense of grief and despair. The themes shown in the retelling of this tragic event indicates the impact of defeat and disintegration of Kievan Rus society.

And when Prince Ingvar Ingvarevich saw this great number of corpses lying on the earth, he shrieked bitterly, like a trumpet resounding.  He fell to the ground, and tears flowed from his eyes in a stream.  And Prince Ingvar spoke in great sadness:

“O my dear brethren and warriors!

O my treasured lives!

How could you close your eyes

And leave me alone in such misfortune?

How could you disappear from my sight,[6]

Sources Cited

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