The Appanage Period, 1240–1462





In 1237, thousands of Mongol cavalrymen, clad in leather armor and riding small, sturdy horses, trotted onto Rus territory. They had come to stay; their wives, children, slaves, extra horses, and flocks trundled along behind them. Three years later the Mongols had conquered all the princes. Rape was a weapon in their arsenal, as it has been in the arsenals of so many armies; tens of thousands of Rus women probably fell victim to their assaults. Serapion, a thirteenth‑century bishop, summed up the disaster when he wrote, “There fell upon us a merciless people who devastated our land, took entire cities off to captivity, destroyed our holy churches, put our fathers and brothers to death, and defiled our mothers and sisters.”14 The Mongols had already cut a swath of conquest from China through Central Asia, but the Rus did not know this, and so they came to see their defeat by the rampaging infidels as God’s punishment for their sins.

The Mongols, so brutal in conquest, proved to be tolerant overlords. As long as Rus rulers paid their taxes on time and performed occasional obeisance before the khan, the Mongol king, the Mongols mostly left the Rus rulers and people alone. Indeed, the Mongols who conquered the Rus did not even live among their subjects, as their cousins in China did. Instead, christening themselves “the Golden Horde,” they settled in the grasslands along the Volga River, far to the south of the centers of Rus population. There they could pasture their enormous flocks and stay in touch with their people’s extended trade networks. They got along amicably with the Orthodox church, despite their own conversion to Islam. Indeed, Mongol rulers practiced religious toleration throughout their vast empire. They did interfere in Rus politics by backing princes who were favorably disposed toward them, and this meddling had consequences for the history of the Rus, but it had little impact on Rus political institutions.

Those changed largely because of developments within the Rus polity that had started long before the conquest. As the Rus expanded across their huge territory in the Kievan period, regions far from the capital city came to contain princely families. Since every son of a prince was a prince, the list of claimants to titles and property kept growing. This was particularly true in the northeast, the forested region that was to become central Russia. The earliest important political centers there were Rostov, Suzdal, and Vladimir. The titular leader of the northeast Rus princes was the grand prince of the city of Vladimir. Galicia and Volynia to the west of Kiev, and Chernigov and Smolensk to the north, also contained ambitious dynasties and a growing population by the early thirteenth century.

This process of territorial diffusion, begun before the Mongols came, continued apace thereafter. Kiev, no longer an economic or political center, slipped into obscurity and was taken over by energetic Lithuanian rulers in the fourteenth century. The Lithuanians also established themselves as overlords of much of the southwestern Rus lands, with the result that only the northeastern principalities remained independent of all outsiders save the Mongols. The Mongols’ control over them weakened in the fourteenth century, as internecine warfare between the leaders of the Golden Horde intensified.

“Appanage” is a term from French medieval history that refers to grants, often of land, given by sovereigns to their junior sons. It was adopted by Russian historians as the name of the period from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries when Rus lands were divided into a multiplicity of small princedoms. Never does the meekness and forgiveness preached by the monks seem to have fallen on deafer ears than during this time, when the princes employed their armies in almost constant warfare. They betrayed one another to the Mongols; they took oaths that they quickly broke; brothers killed brothers and uncles and cousins. Out of this deadly pursuit of power there emerged by the mid‑fourteenth century the Danilovichi, a family that made its headquarters in Moscow. “They were a warrior band,” Nancy Kollmann has written, “united in the quest of booty and benefit.”15 The Danilovichi proved to be luckier and cleverer than the other princely families. They were particularly good at cultivating the support of the Mongols and the church. Their most successful prince was Vasili II, who ruled from 1425 to 1462, during which time he completed the subjugation of the other independent princes. With the ascent of his son, Ivan III, to the role of pre‑eminent prince in 1462, another political era in Russian history, the Muscovite, began.


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