|Prince Mstislav of Kiev meets his fate|
But this characterization is ahistorical in the sense that it lessens the amount of history that must be processed in order to explain and understand the Mongols as they were. They are reduced to a cipher, an inhuman force of nature that simply blew in from the steppe, and then blew out again. A recent article even went so far as to explain the ebbing of the Mongol tide by referring to tree rings and the rain patterns they revealed in Central Europe in the 13th century. You can't get more impersonal than tree rings!
But the Mongols, despite their flat, burnished faces and savage cruelty, were all too human, and certain individuals mattered very much indeed, none more so than Sabutai, who has one of the best claims to be considered the greatest general of all time. In a career stretching from 1216 to 1248, he won dozens of battles and conquered a greater width of territory than even Alexander the Great. It was also his genius that enabled the Mongols to crush Russia, leaving an indelible mark on the Russian soul that continues to resonate to modern times.
The first real taste that Europeans had of this military genius happened 793 years ago today (May 31st, 1223), when a Mongol force led by Sabutai crushed a joint Russian and Cuman army, reportedly much larger, at the Kalka River, near the Sea of Azov in Southern Russia.
The battle came about because the Mongols, who had advanced into Azerbaijan after destroying the Turkic Khwarazmian Empire, decided to go round the Caspian Sea and attack their other enemies, the Kipchaks, who were based in what is now Kazakhstan, from an unexpected direction.
This led them to attack in turn the Georgians and the Alans, and then Cumans, a Turkic tribe based in Southern Russia. After being defeated, the Cuman Khan fled to the court of his son-in-law, Prince Mstislav the Bold of Galich, a Russian state on the borders of Poland. Prince Mstislav decided to help his father-in-law to fight the Mongols, and also brought on board Prince Mstislav III of Kiev, and other Russian forces.
Outnumbered by around four-to-one, Sabutai retreated eastwards from the Dnieper River, but careful observation revealed that the enemy army was under the uncoordinated command of several commanders.
Using a feigned retreat, Sabutai drew out the enemy army into a straggling and disorganized advance for nine days, and then, at the Kalka River, turned and attacked the enemy, defeating each of its units in detail, one by one. Using superior mobility and archery, the Mongols wore down each component of the advancing Russian and Cuman army until they collapsed in panic. When Mstislav of Kiev and his 10,000 men arrived on the field of battle, it was already too late. Demoralized, they retreated Westwards back to the Dnieper, where they were surrounded on a hill by the Mongols and foolishly surrendered, hoping for mercy. Mstislav was buried alive while his army was simply massacred.
Of an estimated 80,000 Russian and Cuman troops, over 70,000 were killed. But despite the decisiveness of the victory, the Mongol army was a long way from its base, and the surrounding political situation was complicated and treacherous. So, instead of advancing, the Mongols retreated Eastwards, crossing the Volga, and leaving Russia alone for another fourteen years, until they could secure their lines of communication, whereupon they returned with an army six times bigger, again under the command of Sabutai, and finally conquered most of Russia.