Battle of the Kalka River (edition of V. Shovkun)

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  • UkraineZaporizhia regionЮльївка

Battle of the Kalka River

Zaporizhzhian land is rich in historical events. Let’s concentrate on one of these events, namely on the first battle of Russian soldiers with Tatar-Mongols in May of 1223. The place where this battle took place cannot be considered to be completely ascertained in historiography.

Where do we have to look for the Kalka River, where is location of the “stone place” where the military camp of Kiev Knyaz Mstislav Romanovich was fortified?

Zaporizhzhian local historians, whose names are V.N. Shovkun and V.G. Arhipkin, are pursuing these answers insistently. Their longstanding investigations resulted in statements and conclusions given in the article published below.

Chronicles says that Russian Knyazes helping the Cumans (they are also called as Kipchaks and Polovtsy – translator’s note)  in fight against the Tatars have gathered their forces on the Dnepr River, near Khortytsa Island, in "Protolchiy Brod".  When Ruses’ regiments defeated Tatar-Mongols’ troop, they chased the Tatar-Mongols through the far steppe and in eight days they reached Kalka River where the main fighting forces of Tatar-Mongols were.  Right here the famous battle has happened.

In accordance with Lavrentiyevskaya and the Fourth Novgorodian Chronicle, Mongol invasion to Russian lands was unexpected: «В лето в 6731, того же лета появиша языци, их же никто добре не весть, кто суть и отколе изидожа». At that time Russian chroniclers didn’t know that troops of Jebei Noyon and Sübodei Bahadur, and «dreaded dogs of war» of Genghis Khan in number of three tumen (30 thousand) passed by the southern shore of the Caspian Sea and commenced the invasion of Caucasus people, destroyed Shemaha town and stormed Derbent town. Then, moving around to the north-west they crushed alliance army of the Alans and the Cumans.  The Cuman troop of Khan Yury, who was Konchak’s son, had to fell back along the Azov Sea to the Dnepr River, there the part of the troop rafted on the right shore, to the settlement of the Cuman Khan Koten, and another part of the troop advanced the eastern region of the Crimea, where the Tatar-Mongols commenced the invasion. There, in January of 1223, the Tatar-Mongols sacked the Surozh fortress (today it is called Sudak).

In the early spring of 1223 the Cuman Khan Koten, who «бе тесть Мстиславу князю Черниговскому и Мстиславу Удалому и, посла с поклоном дары многи злато и кони, паволоки, а глаголя ще тако: шли дары по русским князем, днесь нас не будет, а Вас заутра», came in great hurry to Mstislav Mstislavich Udaloy (the Bold) for help. At the initiative of Mstislav Russian knyazes have gathered together for the meeting in Kiev where it was decided to come down the bank of the Dnepr River bypassing left streams full of spring floods, then they had to move-up quickly along south and dried steppes up to «the Cumans Wall» (“the trench”), and they were going to «дать бой па чужой земле» the Tatar-Mongols there.

«И подняли землю русскую всю против татар, и пришли до реки Днепра на Заруб до острова Варяжского (Хортицы - авт.), а выгонцы Галичские на лодьях по Днестру, и вышли они в море, и по Днепру стали около реки Хортицы и брода «Протолчи».

However there was no consolidated governance in Russian and Cuman troops because of feudal conflicts. And they reached Khortytsa Island singly. Druzhina of northern knyazes were delayed because of spring bad roads. The Ruses met Tatar ambassadors near Khortitsa Island and put the ambassadors to death, then they moved across the right bank and went down the river in boats, but they could reach only “Oleshia” located in marshy part of the Dnepr River. Here the Tatar-Mongols were waiting for the Ruses.

On the south the ground has dried faster and this gave the Tatar-Mongols a possibility to leave the Crimea, march on the north through “the Cumans steppe” and dispose their main forces on the right bank of the Kalka River before arrival of the Russian troops.  As a result the strategic plan of the Ruses to «дать бой на чужой земле», near the trench was disrupted.

The Galich Knyaz Mstislav the Bold together with his Cuman allies crossed the Kalka River and attacked the Tatars without notifying another knyazes about his jointing battle. The Cumans were subjected to the pressure of the Tatars and had to fell back «потопташа бежище станы князей русских», who had no time “to rise in arms”.

Druzhina of Knyaz Mstislav Romanovich had to quickly build fortification around their camp with «каменьем и колием, беже ту место камянисто», and resisted the enemy’s attacks for three days. The Russ soldiers being armed with dangerous combat weapons like battle-axes and clubs have defeated the Tatar-Mongols heavily. Genghis Khan’s eldest son and Batu Khan’s father – Jochi (Tossuk) was killed.

On the third day of ineffective battle the Tatars proposed to conclude peace treaty which they infringed traitorously. In accordance with their treaty giving druzhina possibility to «идти на Русь», the Tatars attacked the Russ soldiers who were going to the Dnepr River and a lot of Russ soldiers were killed.
After having crossed the river the Galich Knyaz Mstislav the Bold together with rest of druzhina «повеле лодии жещи, а иные сещи, и отринути от берега». Near the position of the battle of the Kalka River the Tatars left the camp with booty gained in the Crimea, also they left wounded and ill nukers there, and together with three tumen which were thinned out very much they advanced the north across the left bank of the Dnepr River.

The part of the Russ army has been left near the Kalka River, they betook in marshy and reedy banks impassable for horse cavalry.

Notwithstanding that the Tatars faced fierce opposition and suffered heavily they could reach only Pereyaslav. But from here, when it was no distance to their aim, i.e., to Kiev, the Tatars suddenly turned back.
How to explain this?
And where is that Kalka River?

It is widely believed that the battle took place in area of “Stone tombs” on the territory of our and Donetsk Regions in five kilometers to the south from the Rozovka Station and that the Kalka River is known to us as the Kalchik River, influx of Kalmius.

Though it is difficult to believe that when the Tatar-Mongols left the Crimea and advancing the north turned from the “Oleshia” to the Cumans steppe that was devastated by themselves so that after advancing at 200 kilometers to the east to make a camp for the battle with Rus troops at drying steppe rivulet. It is also unlikely that the Russ troop marching down the right bank of the Dnepr River got the left bank across the river to “Oleshia” and advanced to the steppe being dismounted without train.

Besides, analysis of ancient names of rivers of our region led to idea that the name “Kalka” is Cyrillic transcription of the Cuman name Kalkan-Su (that means “Water Shield”). And the Tatar name of the same river was Iol-Kinsu (means “Horse Water”). The Chinese annalist of XIII century named Yuan Shi wrote that the battle of Ruses with the Tatar-Mongols took place at the A-li-gi River. In word-for-word translation it means “Horse Watering Place”. This means that one can concede that the present Konka River is that mysterious Kalka River and «stone place» is a hill that rises on the left bank of the Konka River in two kilometers from Yulievka Village.

It’s hard to wish for better place for the fortified camp of Kiev Knyaz Mstislav Romanovich. On the mesa plain, at the only narrow entrance we have discovered a heap of stones that were remains of “stone” fortification.  It is characteristic that the pear-shaped mountain with height more than 40 meters and width (in the widest place) of 160 meters. «The tail» joints the “peach” with the continent of width only 8 – 10 meters. This is a unique peninsular which is bounded by waters of the Konka River on the east and south, with waters of stagnant and impassable Gorodysskaya Gully on the west. Local population calls this hill Saur-Grave (see picture). Sometimes one can find “pieces of rusty iron” and arrow heads and once one could excavate an ancient iron anchor on the shore. On the south facing slope of the Saur-Grave in 12 meters from the bottom we have found a sword handle, bronze seal with rough depiction of lion and several arrows.

Nowadays westward of the railroad bridge across the Konka River one can see a group of small islands. These are remains of Velikie Kuchugury, flooded with water-storage bassin.

Today almost all the islands reserve remains of medieval city. Different sources give them different names. During the battle of the Kalka River this city had name of Turco-Cumans origin Samys (Kurcemal), and Slavonian people called its population as “Bulgarians”.

Together with a quantity of copper and silver coins of different periods one could find locks, keys, arrow heads, pieces of chain armors, copper icons worn on the breast, stirrup irons and remains of horse harness, neck ten-copeck coin and other things of Kiev Rus period.

Household articles and warlike stores were found there, for example pieces of cavalry sword, baselards and arrow heads of the Golden Horde period. This gives rise to suppose connection between the city and the battle of the Kalka River.

There are remains of the Russian army in marshy and reedy banks that were inaccessible for the Tatar cavalry, and when after the battle of the Kalka River the Horde advanced the north together with Samys inhabitants, i.e. “Bulgarians” and attacked the camp left by the Tartar-Mongols and destroyed it. On their way to Pereyaslav the outrunners informed Tatars about this. Understanding that their weakened tumen are not able to occupy Kiev,  the «dreaded dogs of war» decided to come back to the Kalka River for the purpose to revenge the Ruses for daring attack and grab their booty gained in the Crimea.

The Chronicles says that the Tatars coming back “attacked the Bulgarians” who in further investigations were accepted as “Volga Bulgarians”.

The modern historians consider the battle of the Kalka River in 1223 to be deep and strategic developing attack. But this is also the battle when the brotherhood of Old Russ’ nations was ratified with blood.

So, comparison of written documents, armament supplies and places where the battle took place permits to assert that battle of the Kalka River is that event that took place on the banks of the Konka River in the fortified camp, remains of which are near Yulievka Village of Zaporizhzhian region. Existence of burying can exactly indicate the place where the battle of Mstislav the Bold and the Cumans took place. There are a lot of graves of unknown origin on the hillsides in seven kilometers from Saur-Grave on the way to Komishuvaha and in four kilometers from Yulievka Village. Probably the answer is right here... It is known that dead bodies of the Tatars traditionally were cremated. And now we found out that not far away is a place reserved where remains of three unique stoves. These stoves are round pits with diameter up to three meters and depth up to four meters with hard-fired walls. Several melted pieces of bronze have been found in cremains (are these arrows sticked in body or belt fasteners?).

We shall be glad if our findings help historians to determine the place which we told as the place of the famous battle of the Kalka River.

V.SHOVKUN is worker of the Zaporizhzhian By-Product Coke Plant, active member of Geographical Society of Academy of Sciences, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

V.ARHIPKIN is pensioner.

“Industrial Zaporizhzhzia” Newspaper 1988






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