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Kulikova Bitva - Sources

Russian language:

The campaign and battle are mentioned in several contemporaneous accounts in chronicles. These are scattered in the "Polnie Sobranie" which is a later collection of these. The battle or aspects of the campaign are also mentioned in Arab and Persian records. The Russian accounts may be found in Polnoe sobranie russkikh letopisei, especially vols V-VI, VIII and XI, St Petersburg and Moscow 1851-1963. Probably the most convenient English language translation of a chronicle account is by Basil Dmytryshyn in his Medieval Russia, A Source Book, 900 - 1700, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1967, pp 133-136. It is from the Polnoe Sobranie vol 23, pp 124-127. Comparison of this chronicle account with the others mentioned below quickly shows the discrepencies between even the earliest available accounts.

However epics devoted specifically to the campaign came later. The three closest accounts are The Zadonshchina (Deeds beyond the Don) or also titled Slovo o belikom knyaze Dmitrii Ivanovichye i o bratye ego, knyaze Vladimire Andreeviche kak pobedili supostata svoyego tsarya Mamaya) Tale of great prince Dmitri Ivanovich and his brother prince Vladimir Andreevich as victors over tsar Mamai), The Tale of the Battle on the Don in the Simon and Ermolinsky chronicles and the Skazanye o Mamaevom poboishchye (Tale of the Rout of Mamai). The Ermolinsk Chronicle is in Stranitsy proshlogo nashei stranu, IX-XIX vv, ed by Buganov, V. I, Moscow, 1972.

The Zadonshchina and the Skazanie were published in a very nicely illustrated and annotated edition along with several other similar medieval epics in the book - Za Zemlyu Russkuyu - in Moscow in 1980 on the occasion of the anniversary of the battle.

An English language version of the Zadonshchina is in Medieval Russian Epics, edited by Serge Zenkovsky, published in paperback in 1974.

According to the notes in the Russian publication the earliest extant copy, out of some 100 still in existence, of the Skazaniya dates from the 16th century. The date of its composition is unknown and it seems that existent copies have interpolations in them. And this work contains information not found in the Zadonshchina. For instance it speaks of the action of the Zasadni polk, the critical event in the battle. This was the polk commanded by Dmitri's brother, prince of Serpukhov Vladimir Andreevich. The notes comment also that a series of events in the Skazanie have a ?fantastic character'. Also there are two glaring anachronisms in the text. The author wrote that Mamai's ally was Lithuanian prince Ol'gerd, who died in 1377. It was really Yagailo. And the text says the metropolitan whom Dmitri met to bless the campaign was Kiprian. But Kiprian in 1380 lived in Kiev and Dmitri was blessed by Abbot Sergei.

The Zadonshchina comes down in 6 copies. The earliest of them dates from the 70's of the 15th century. (In other words nearly 100 years after the battle. The other copies (which contain differences) date from the 16th and 17th centuries. From these the editors of this publication have reconstructed a composite version. Nevertheless the editors consider that the original composition was created fairly soon after the battle because of its emotional characteristics. From start to finish the Zadonshchina follows the style of the earlier Slovom o polky Igoryevye - the Tale of the Campaign of Prince Igor. Sergei Golitsin in the book discussed below is more unequivocal. He states that the author was Sofonii Ryazanyets, a contemporary from Ryazan who had access to witnesses and reports about the battle. Golitsin is clear that Sofonii was a fervent patriot who was writing with the purpose of increasing Russian nationalist feeling, but he accepts the information in the epic as genuine.

While both these epics are wonderful examples of medieval Russian literature, a reading shows that neither is much of a source for the detail required to construct a military analysis of the campaign. They provide specific information on the participating Russian units and leaders, but suffer from the typical tendency of such epics to exaggerate both the numbers in the armies and size of the losses. Their is no description of the details of tactical layout or methods and the narrative of the battle itself is couched in generalities. More important, both epics are obviously hagiographic in character and purpose.

There is also an excerpt from the Skazaniye in L. Beskrovnii's book - Khrestomatiya po russkoi boyennoi istorii, Moscow, 1947.

Those who want to learn about these original Russian sources for Kulikovo should also read Charles Halperin's book, The Tatar Yoke, Slavica Publishers, 1986. This book is a study of the political and social concept of "Tatar Yoke" and its influence in and on Russian history. The author focuses on the ideological content of medieval Russian texts including all those related to Kulikovo battle. He is intent on discovering what the contemporary Russian conception of the Tatars was and in what terms they related this conception. He does not discuss the actual battle at all, but in the course of a very close reading of all the relevant chronicle texts discusses their authenticity and political outlook. He describes also the opinions advanced by a large number of Russian experts about these controversial documents.

An important Russian book on the battle is - Kulikovskaya bitva, v istorii I kul'ture nashyei Rodini - Kulikova Battle in the history and culture of our fatherland, published in Moscow in 1983. It was prepared by the usual editorial collective and contains separate articles by several different authors. The sum of the articles certainly shows the importance of the battle in Russian national consciousness, but the brief description of the battle itself leaves a lot to be desired. The book was prepared as part of the anniversary celebration. The book suffers from a bit of Russian chauvinism as well as the usual bow toward Marxism. The best part is the two articles on the details of arms and armor employed by both sides. As might be expected, Mikhail Gorelik's contribution on Mongol-tatar defensive armor is outstanding.

One of the better references for the overall aspects of Muscovite military operations in the middle ages is Ye. A. Razin's Istoriya voyennogo iskusstva II Voyennoye iskusstvo feodal'nogo perioda voini. (History of military art II, Military art in the Feudal period of warfare). Published in Moscow in 1957. It has nice illustrations of the field formations employed and describes the role of the various polki. There is a diagram of the battle. I have based the account of Kulikovo primairly on Razin's text. He has the best analytic treatment of the question of possible strengths of the two sides. Razin was a professional military officer and historian, but his book was written at the height of Stalin's repression and even though Razin did his best to conform, within intellectual limits, he was nevertheless in Stalin's personal dog house. In my opinion the book is worth translating, but that view is not shared by any publisher I have discussed it with.

The battle is also included in some detail in General Major A. Stroikov's Voyennoe iskustvo Rusi perioda feodal'noi rozdroblennosti, Moscow, 1949. There is also an article by Tikhomirov, "Kulikovskaia bitva 1380 goda" in Voprosi istorii, #8, 1955.

A well illustrated and interesting description of the battle appeared in the Soviet journal, Tekhnika Molodyeshi, number 9 of 1980. There were several articles for the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the battle. Considering the purpose and their publication in a Soviet magazine for youth one must treat them carefully. Nevertheless Victor Prishchyepyenko's article on "Russkoye Oruzhiye 1380 goda" (Russian weapons in 1380) has much useful detail based on the work of Kirpichnikov. The article by Vasilii Petreniko "Slavnaya Pobeda" recounts the beginnings of the Tatar Yoke. Prishchyepyenko's article "I gryanul boi" is a series of 4 highly annotated battle maps depicting 4 phases of the battle. There are also 9 colored illustrations from medieval manuscripts. Most interesting, he gives a very detailed tactical layout of the forces with specific strength figures for each subunit.

This issue of Tekhnika Molodyeshi generated responses from the readers. One of these was published in issue 12 at "Zashchitniki zyemli russkoi" (Defense of the Russian lands" by Dmitrii Zenin. And there was a rejoinder by Victor Prishchyepuenko.

We now are fortunate to have two recent accounts. One is in A. Mityayev's book, Vetri Kulikova Polya: Rasskazi o Voinskoi Doblyesti Predkov (Winds of Kulikovo field) published in Moscow in 1984. This is part of the major effort underway now to instil a sense of Russian history as a basis for a new civil patriotism in the post-Communist youth. Despite its title there are chapters on each of the major highlights of Russian military history from the ancient Slavs in Kiev down to Suvorov and Ushakov. The text is basic for the high school reader and the illustrations are exceptionally fine and copious in quantity. The background political setting for Kulikovo is fully discussed as is the campaign. There is a colorful diagrammatic rendering of the battlefield complete with foot and horsemen figures showing the basic course of the battle. There are many illustrations of medieval armor taken from Viskovatov.

Even more interesting is Sergei Golitsin's book - Skazaniya o zemlye moskovskoi (Tales of the Muskovite lands) published in 1991. The author has effectively taken the corpus of Russian "skazaniya" "blini" "povesti" and chronicle accounts and melded them into a story of the development of Russian history from Kievan times to the lifting of the "tatar yoke". This work is a continuation of the author's Skazaniya o belikh kamnyak, which I have not seen. Apparently this other ?tales' covers Kievan times in more detail, because in the present work the period prior to the advent of the Mongols, 1237, is only sketched lightly for background, while the period 1240 - 1480 is covered in rich detail. The word pictures describing personalities and events are very effective in evoking the spirit of the times but with a strong feeling of the historical importance and necessity of the 'gathering' of the lands under the strong, sure hand of Moscow. The author has interspersed quotations from the chronicles and other texts and supplied conversations between leading figures such as Dmitri and Sergei to create a very lively story.

The book (if it were about American history) would be a kind of combination of patriotic version of the world significance of the American Revolution with a strong cheer for "manifest destiny". Considering the huge gap in awareness let alone appreciation for their heritage that Russian school children suffer from due to the grip of Marxism-Leninism, this is all to the good. I can admit that, having grown tired of reading banal and tendentious Soviet historiography for about 40 years, I welcome the fresh breath of great Russian nationalism.

The text is in large print and simple Russian (ancient words in the quoted texts are translated into modern Russian). The illustrations are exceptionally vivid. The book includes the very same diagrammatic map of the battle of Kulikovo as appears in Mityayev's book. Similar maps are supplied for other battles and campaigns, for instance Alexander Nevski's victory on the ice.

A biography of Dmitri is included in Illustrirovannaya istoriya rossii, edited by V. Knyazeva and published in St Petersburg in 1994. This short book has biographies of all the rulers from Rurik to Sofia.

I have reviewed Mikhail Gorelik's article on Kulikovo in the references on medieval Russian arms and armor, since that is the major content of the article.

English Language:

I consider the best account of the Kulikovo Battle itself to be Edward Sokol's article of that name in the Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History, Vol 18, pages 152-159, published by Academic International Press. This is an excellent explanation of the contemporary and subsequent importance of the battle in Russian history. Sokol wisely refrains from attempting a detailed description of the battle, but provides the general outline found in the primary sources. He does sometimes seem to put ideas and motives into Dmitri's head. The article has an excellent bibliography of references in several languages. One can supplement this with other entries in this massive encyclopedia on other related topics. These would include the entry on Dmitri Ivanovich by David Goldfrank in volume 9.

The battle and its entire historical setting and importance is found in Alexander E. Presniakov's The Formation of the Great Russian State, trans A. Moorhouse, Chicago, Quadrangle Books, 1970. This is a translation of the Russian Obrozovanie veliko russkogo gosudarstva, Petrograd, 1918. Presniakov was among the last of the great tsarist era historians. He died in 1929. He was not a Marxist, but accepted the revolution as a necessary and inevitable stage in the social development of Russia. His book is a major reinterpretation of the nature of the social-political processes that formed Muscovy. It is a 'must read' as part of any effort to understand the "rise of Muscovy".

To learn about the intricacies of Tatar-Mongol politics as well as much detail about the organization of the Mongol military one needs to read George Vernadsky's The Mongols and Russia, New Haven, Yale, 1953. The battle and its setting are well described. The role of the Genoese in Crimea is included. This one is essential reading.

A briefer account is available in Charles Halperin's Russia and the Golden Horde, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1985.

The battle is discussed essentially from the Tatar side in Rene Grousset's The Empire of the Steppes: a History of Central Asia, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1970. In this as well as Vernadsky's pioneering work we learn most of the complex conflict from Mamai's point of view. He also gives considerable attention to the role of Sogdalia and Kaffa in Tatar commercial activities throughout the centuries.

While Michael Florinsky's two volume Russia A History and an Interpretation, being a very thorough but general study covering the entire span of Russian history from pre-Kievan times to the First World War, can only devote a couple of pages to Kulikovo, nevertheless Florinsky succinctly zeros in on its background and significance. He quotes Presniakov (see above) whom I might have quoted on this point, to note that "the general feeling in the country on the eve of Kulikovo encounter was not unlike that of Greece on the eve of Marathon: one of deep despondency and apprehension." That this point would be made by two of the premier historians of Russia struck me, because I had the same view, but not only about the similarity of pre-battle mood. Rather it is the place that Kulikovo has assumed in post-battle national feeling over the centuries that the most striking similarity lies. Like the Greeks at Marathon, who 'saved' western civilization from the 'barbarians' so too the Russians at Kulikovo struck a resounding blow for European Christianity against the 'barbarian and infidel' orient. However, Halprin demonstrates with his textual analysis of the primary sources that this was not the feeling at the time.

Florinski quotes and in general supports the views of the great mid-19th century Russian historian Sergei Soloviev, whose monumental work is slowly being published in English. Unfortunately I don't have the volume relevant to Kulikovo.

Another important work for general background is Alexander Presniakov's The Tsardom of Muscovy, translated by Robert Price and published by Academic International Press, 1978. But most of this short work is concerned with further developments in the following two centuries. This is also the case with Richard Hellie's Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1971. But the extensive descriptions of Muscovite military organization and methods provided in these books is important also for an understanding of the earlier period.

Nicholas Riasanovsky doesn't have much to say about Kulikovo in his A History of Russia, New York, Oxford Univ Press, 1977. Nicholas Fr.-Chirovsky briefly describes the battle in his A History of the Russian Empire, Vol I, New York, Philosophical Library, 1973. But he accepts without comment the inflated Tatar strength of 200,000 troops and 150,000 for Dmitri's forces.

When one is studying Vernadski's multiple volumes, which is essential just as a basic start for Russian history, one should also read Dmitri Obolensky's fine essay "Professor Vernadsky's History of Ancient and Medieval Russia," which first appeared in the Oxford Slavonic Papers, V, 1954 and is reprinted in Sidney Harcave's Readings in Russian History, New York, Thomas Crowell, 1962.

Bernard Pares' A History of Russia has recently been republished, (original 1953). He has all the incidents leading up to Kulikovo right, but writes that Dmitri's army has been variously estimated at 150,000 to 400,000 men. Well, I guess the statement is correct, as such estimates have been recorded, but that does not excuse one from making one's own guess. He writes that Dmitri had "only" 40,000 men left afterwards. He has the events of Tokhtamish's successful siege all messed up. But what can one expect from an author how insists on calling all the Ivans "John" and the Vasilii's "Basil".

There is nothing worthwhile on the Tatars in Sir Charles Oman's brief description of the Mongol campaigns up to 1240 in volume II of A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, and nothing at all on any events after that. Trevor Dupuy placed great stress on the excellence of the Mongol armies during their heyday and provides several pages on their organization and tactics in his The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History. David Nicolle's The Age of Tamerlane, and Steven Turnbull's The Mongols, both in the Osprey Men at Arms series are very valuable references for Tatar-Mongol organization, tactics, and weapons. Mikhail Gorelik's Warriors of Eurasia, Montvert Publications, 1995 has excellent illustrations of all the participants including the much touted Genoese. I mentioned elsewhere his comment in his excellent article on Kulikovo weaponry. In Warriors... he writes "The armed forces of Italian colonies numbered but a handful of soldiers' some dozens of highly paid European mercenaries and one or two hundred gazarians, the local nomads (descendants of the Khazars?) Who served as mounted police. The Europeans were armed with crossbows, swords, halberds, bows and later with hand-guns and cannon. Only the highest officials (the consul, the commander of armed forces) wore the full knight's armor panoply." He describes this in text and a fine illustration.

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