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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Two diplomats

Daniel of Galicia and Alexander Nevsky: politics under Mongol domination
26 May, 2011 - 00:00

There are no two people, no matter how close they are by nature, who would behave totally in the same way under the same circumstances. This also applies to well-known historical personalities. It turns out that, at a closer examination, what at first seems as similar actions (victory in a desperate struggle, diplomatic cunning, humiliating concessions to an enemy that wields a many times greater military and political force) are in fact dissimilar. For there are many different reasons behind displays of striking military valor (an emotional, thoughtless and “chivalrous” outburst or a quiet, well-considered readiness to give one’s own life for such super-personal values as Fatherland, idea, and social justice) or for deliberately opting for a seemingly inevitable surrender to the enemy (a certain spiritual collapse, outright treason, or cold calculation: to preserve strength, wait until things make over, or avert a new and doomed bloody war). The devil is in the details.

This article deals with the diplomatic activity of two famous mid-13th-century princes — Daniel of Galicia (Danylo of Halych) and Alexander Nevsky. Both of them were not only well-known military leaders and statesmen but also prominent politicians, for they tried — and often managed — to foresee the consequences of their actions. Daniel, the ruler of the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia, the only state that had survived at the time in western Ukrainian lands, and Alexander Nevsky, the Grand Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal and Prince of Novgorod, appeared as politicians in the 1260s, immediately after the Mongol invasion which became (and perhaps remained until the late 20th century) the most terrible misfortune in the history of Eastern Europe. They were both forced to accept humiliating negotiations with the invaders, albeit not in the same way.

To begin with, a few words about the most horrible moment in the life of Daniel of Galicia, a gallant soldier, state-builder, and a proud and undaunted person. It was when he was to go to see and bow to the powerful Batu Khan of the Golden Horde, thus showing recognition of his power. The Hypatian Chronicle, which mentions this legend on the basis of Galician sources, dates these events to 1250. Here is an excerpt from this chronicle:

“In the year 1250 the Mongol khan sent his envoys to Daniel of Galicia to tell him: ‘Give me Halych!’ Daniel was in great sorrow, for he had not reinforced his land with towns. So, after consulting with his brother, he went to Batu Khan, saying: ‘I will not give even a half of my homeland, but I will go to Batu myself.’

“And Daniel arrived in Pereiaslav (the center of the South Rus’ Principality. — Author), and the Tatars received him. And, seeing that they were not kind, he felt pain in his heart. He saw they were possessed by the devil, he saw their witch-like goings-on and Genghis Khan-style nasty dreams, frequent bloodshed, and sorcery. They would lead the visiting kings, princes and other rulers around a shrub to pray to the sun, the moon, the devil, as well as to their dead parents, grandparents, and mothers in hell. Oh this accursed temptation of theirs!

“From there, Daniel came to see and bow to Batu Khan on the Volga. Once there, he was approached by a man of Prince Yaroslav (Alexander Nevsky’s father who traveled to the Horde back in 1246, only to be poisoned there. — Author), who said to him: ‘Your brother Yaroslav worshipped a shrub, and you should do the same.’ And Daniel answered: ‘The devil is speaking with your lips. May God shut your lips, and may your word not be heard.’

“Meanwhile, Daniel was taken to Batu Khan, and God absolved him from this diabolism and sorcery. He entered and bowed to Batu as their custom had it. Batu said to him: ‘Daniel, why haven’t come before? But it is good that you have now come. Do you drink our black kumiss — fermented mare’s milk?’

“Daniel answered Batu: ‘I have not drunk it up before, but now that you’ve ordered me to do so, I will.’ And Batu said: ‘You are now one of us, a Tatar. So take our drink.’

“Daniel drank it, bowed as their custom had it, and made his speech.”

Then, when the conquerors “graciously” allowed Daniel to take some wine (“For you are not used to drinking milk,” the Tatar grand princess said), the chronicler could not resist the temptation to make this impressive comment:

“Oh, the Tatar honor, the evil of all evils! Danylo Romanovych, once a grand prince who owned Rus’, Kyiv, Volodymyr [-Volynsky], Halych, and other lands, is now sitting on his bent knees (Daniel sat with the Tatars according to their custom, with his legs tucked up beneath him. – Author) and is called slave, while they intimidate him and demand tribute. Oh the wicked Tatar honor! His father (Prince Roman Mstyslavovych. – Author) was a tsar in Rus’: he conquered the Cuman land and fought other countries. When even his son failed to defend his honor, who else will be able to do so? For there is nothing compared to Tatar malice and flattery.”

And the chronicler sums it up: “Prince Daniel was there for 25 days and was set free, and his land was entitled to him (i.e., he received Batu Khan’s sanction for princedom. – Author). And he came to his land, and his brother and sons met him, and they wept over his humiliation and rejoiced at him being good.” 


So did Daniel of Galicia become a “Tatar” after bowing to the omnipotent khan? To properly answer this question, one should analyze not only the further events and Daniel’s actions but also the overall situation in Rus’. Rus’s largest cities, including Kyiv and Chernihiv, were in ruin (evidence of the scale of the Mongol sacking is found in the notes of the Catholic monk and diplomat Plano Carpini who visited Ancient Rus’ a few years after the seizure of Kyiv by Batu Khan on his way to Karakorum, the Great Khan’s capital: scorched ruins, dearth of people, almost uncultivated land… However, present-day historians consider Carpini’s evidence somewhat exaggerated); the entire political structure was destroyed, and there were almost nothing to offer resistance with. It is easy to imagine how unbearably painful it was for Daniel to see all this, for he, still a 20-year-old youth, had victoriously fought in the first ranks of the Rus’ army in the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River against Genghis Khan’s warlords Jebe and Subutai… But what could he do?

Daniel answered this question to himself as follows: avoiding an open conflict with the Mongols and maintaining, whenever possible, friendly relations with them (such relations, albeit very much resembling vassalage, allowed for restoring the ruins and preserving basic statehood), one should reinforce the military, economic, and political independence of Galicia-Volhynia and all the Ukrainian lands and seek allies in Western Europe and among the western, northern, and southern neighbors. This would make possible some sort of anti-Mongol coalition; it is beyond any doubt that Daniel did not forget Batu Khan’s insult.

First of all, one should find out what strategy the Mongols (above all, the Golden Horde which Batu Khan led until his death in 1255) pursued towards the seized Slavic territories in Eastern Europe. This strategy basically boiled down to causing a clash between the principalities of Vladimir-Suzdal and Galicia-Volhynia, the largest Eastern Slav political entities. Taking into account the major successes in state-building which Daniel of Galicia managed to achieve (he won several battles against aggressive Polish and Hungarian neighbors, the most illustrative example of this being the Battle of Yaroslavl in 1245; he then strengthened his position and assumed control of all the historical Galician and Volhynian lands; Western European rulers held Daniel in high esteem, and Pope Innocent IV sent Daniel a royal crown), the Horde’s leadership considered it better to establish a strong and lasting counterpoise to the “self-willed” Galician-Volhynian prince. The best candidate for this role was Alexander Yaroslavich, called Nevsky, the famous victor over the Swedes and the German “dog knights,” the “Most Orthodox and Saint” prince of Vladimir-Suzdal, Novgorod, and, for some time (in 1250 to 1253 at the Mongols’ consent) Kyiv.

As we said above, Daniel of Galicia visited Batu Khan in the Horde only once, in 1250, and that visit was brilliantly described in a chronicle, whereas Alexander Nevsky visited the Mongol capital at least three (some historians claim five) times. What is more, chronicles very much stint on details, only saying that the prince was there, saw the khan, and came back. So what did the “Saint and Most Orthodox” Alexander do in the headquarters of Batu and his successors? The answer is in the historical events of the 1250s-1260s. Let us recall them.

Pursuing a policy of “checks and balances” and not allowing one prince to get stronger at the expense of another, the Mongol khans nevertheless came across an unexpected event — a rapprochement, on an anti-Horde platform, between Prince Daniel of Galicia and Andrei Yaroslavich, Alexander Nevsky’s younger brother and the grand prince of Vladimir-Suzdal since 1250 under a Mongolian yarlyk. According to a medieval custom, the alliance of the two princes was consolidated with a family dynastic union — the marriage of Andrei Yaroslavich and Daniel’s daughter. Thus, bowing to the Horde, Daniel and Andrei were masterminding a large-scale uprising against the Mongol domination.

And what did Alexander Nevsky, an all-triumphant fighter against the foreign invaders of Rus’, do? In 1252 he went to Batu Khan’s headquarters (historians still argue whether he did so on his own or was summoned by the khan who, incidentally, had just managed to place his protege onto the great khan’s throne, thus greatly strengthening his position) to lodge a complaint against his brother Andrei for allegedly having usurped the grand prince’s power and, still worse, delaying the payment of tribute to the Horde. Can you imagine? Nevsky, incidentally, a winner of the giant 2009 TV competition “Name: Russia,” complained to the murderers who had poisoned his father Yaroslav Vsevolodovich, the Grand Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal, six years earlier for political considerations. Nevsky literally begged Batu’s son Sartak to give him a Mongol military unit in order to topple his brother from his throne.

As the chronicler says, once Andrei came to know that his brother had visited the Horde and the Mongol troops were approaching, he exclaimed in a righteous wrath: “Good Lord! What is this? How long shall we quarrel and set the Tartars against each other?!” But this still happened. The Horde’s army commanded by tsarevich Nevruy marched towards the Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal. This invasion went down in history as Nevruy’s Expedition. The First Sophia Chronicle says that Prince Andrei took his regiments against Nevruy, and there was a fierce battle on the River Klyazma. Daniel of Galicia, who was too far away, could not send help to his ally Prince Andrei in time, and, besides, he had enough problems to tackle on his own western frontiers. The Vladimir, Suzdal and Tver forces were defeated in the Battle of Klyazma, Prince Andrei fled to Novgorod and then to Sweden. The sacking of Vladimir and Suzdal was almost as horrible as Batu Khan’s nightmare of 1238-40. Alexander Nevsky re-ascended the throne of the Vladimir-Suzdal grand prince.

Daniel, whose positions had been noticeably weakened, in spite of the royal crown given a bit later by Pope Innocent, and who pinned very little hope on European help, still decided to fight the Horde. In 1257 he drove Mongol basqaqs (tribute collectors) and Horde garrisons away from Galician and Volhynian cities. Remembering that Batu Khan was once unable to take Kremenets and Kholm, Daniel of Galicia hurried to reinforce the cities. In 1259 the troops of Kuremsa, a Horde prince and general, tried to take back what they had lost but had to retreat. Yet the Horde sent a stronger army with basqaq Burundai at the head, who, well aware that the Galicians’ strength lies in fortresses, demanded that Daniel have fortress walls in all the cities torn down. The price had to fulfill this demand because he, unfortunately, had no military means to resist Burundai. Yet, until his death in 1264, Daniel of Galicia was a political adversary of the Horde and posed a serious threat to the latter.

What did Alexander Nevsky do in those years? He “very successfully” put down a 1257 Novgorod uprising caused by the Horde’s intention to hold a census in this city (which, incidentally, Batu Khan had failed to occupy before) in order to facilitate tribute collection. Naturally, the Novgorodians, especially the have-nots (the “lesser people”), were extremely indignant. When the “accursed blood-thirsty Tatars Berkai and Kasachik” arrived to rob the burghers, the latter rebelled. So Berkai and Kasachik rushed for help to Prince Alexander, who was in Novgorod at the time, imploring: “Give us guards so that we are not killed!” Which “the great protector of the Russian land” did without hesitation, according to the 1st Novgorod Chronicle. Moreover, as soon as the Novgorodians announced that they refused to take part in the census, he immediately mustered the Suzdal and Vladimir regiments and allowed the Horde officials to enter Novgorod under the protection of his troops. He sent into exile his son Vasily for insubordination and support for the rebels and had many active “mutineers” executed. Is any comment needed? 


 Alexander Yaroslavich died on November 14, 1263, under still unclear circumstances on the way back from his third (or, maybe, fifth) visit to the Horde, where he must have received some new instructions. The fact is that it is at the time of Daniel of Galicia and Alexander Nevsky that the historical ways of the Galicia-Volhynia and Vladimir-Suzdal principalities became further estranged: the former increasingly looked to the West, where it sought allies against Batu’s descendants (unfortunately for Ukraine, those Western allies proved to be too aggressive), and the latter began to search for a longtime “coexistence” with a despotic East. Nikolai Karamzin, a loyal monarchist (and, in his youth, a Republican deep in his heart), aptly commented: “The long obsequiousness to the Tatars could not, unfortunately, but reflect on the moral image of the Muscovite state…”