Warfare in 12th century Russia, according to the Kievan Chronicle

The Kievan Chronicle is one of the most important historical works for the history of medieval Russia, especially with regards to events in Kiev and the surrounding lands. This work covers events between 1118 and 1200, and is often concerned with wars and campaigns. In the following section, a campaign from 1185 is narrated, where Igor’ Svjastoslavic, a cousin to the ruler of Kiev, leads a force against a steppe people known as the Polovci. Igor and the other Russians meet the Polovci in battle, and are successful at first, but are then defeated.

In that same time [1185] Igor’ Svjatoslavic, grandson of Oleg, left Novgorod in the month of April on the twenty-third day, on Tuesday, taking with him his brother, Vsevolod from Trubcevsk and his nephew Svjatoslav Ol’govic from the city of Ryl’sk, and his son Vladimir from the city of Putivl’. And he asked for and got help from Jaroslav: Ol’stin Oleksic, Proxor’s grandson, with Koui from Cernigov. And so they went quietly, gathering their retinues, for they had with them very heavy horses.

They reached the Donec River towards evening. Igor looked up into the sky and saw the sun looking like a moon, and he said to his boyars and his retinue: “Do you see? What is this sign?” They looked up and all saw, and lowered their heads. And the men said: “Prince, this sign is not good.” Igor’ said: “Brothers and retinue, no one knows the mysteries of God, and God is the creator of the sign and all His world. But what God is doing to us, good or bad, we will see.” And saying that, he forded the Donec.

And then he came to the city of Oskol and waited two days for his brother Vsevolod, who had and waited come by another route from Kursk. And .from there they went to the Sal’nica River. There guards, whom they had sent to capture a prisoner for interrogation, came to them and said: “We went and saw the enemies riding, prepared for battle. So either go quickly or return to our homes, for it is not our time.” Igor’ and his relatives said: “If we return without being victorious, then our shame will be worse than death; but let it be as God wills for us.”

And having thus conferred, they traveled throughout the night; the next day on Friday at noon they met the Polovci troops. For they (the Polovci) had put their camps near them, and they sent to them (the camps); they themselves gathered from small to great, and were standing on the other side of the Sjujurlij River.

And they (the Russians) deployed into six regiments: Igor’s troops in the middle, his brother Vsevolod’s on the right, his nephew Svjatoslav’s on the left, and in front of him were his son Vladimir’s and Jaroslav’s regiments, which were with Ol’stin and the Koui, and a third regiment in front [consisting] of archers who had been taken from all the princes. And thus they deployed their troops.

And Igor’ said to his relatives: “Brothers, we have sought this, so let us march.” And then they went against them, placing their hope, in God. And when they were at the River Sjujurlij, archers came out from the Polovci­ army and shot at the Russians and then fled. The Russians had not yet crossed the Sjujurlij River when the other Polovci, who were farther across the river, also took to flight. Svjatoslav Ol’govic and Vladimir Igor’evic and Ol’stin with the Koui archers pursued them; but Igor’ and Vsevolod, with only a few men, did not send their troops. The foremost of the Russians defeated them (the Polovci).

The Polovci fled through their camps, and the Russians reached the camps and captured many prisoners. The others came at night to the troops with prisoners. And so all of the Polovci [whom they had captured] were gathered. And Igor’ said to his two brothers, and to his men: “Lo, God by His power gave us victory over our enemies, and [gave] us honor and glory. We have seen the Polovci army, of which there were many. And were all of them there? Now let us ride throughout the night, and let the rest follow us tomorrow; then they all will go. But the best horsemen will go on, and let it be with us as God wills.”

And Svjatoslav Ol’govic said to his two uncles: “I have pursued the Polovci a long distance, and my horses cannot go if I have to go today, but will have to leave them in the road.” And Vsevolod agreed with him that they should sleep there. And Igor’ said: “Yes, is it not strange?” – understanding his brothers would die. And they spent the night there.

When Saturday was dawning, the Polovci troops began to appear, like wild boars. The Russian princes were confused as to who of them should go after whom (of the Polovci), for there was a countless multitude of them. And Igor’ said: “I see they have brought against us the entire earth: Koncak, Koza Burnovic, Toksobic, Kolobic, Etebic, and Ter’trobic:” And then, having conferred, they all dismounted from their horses, for they wanted to fight their way to the Donec River. For they were saying: “If we flee, we ourselves.will escape, but we will abandon the common people; then we will have sinned before God in surrendering these people. But whether we die or live, let us be together in one place.” And saying that, they all dismounted from their horses and set out, fighting.

And then by the will of God, they (the Polovci) wounded Igor’ in the arm and he lost the use of his left arm. And there was great sadness among his troops. And they captured the commander in front, who had been wounded. And so they fought heavily that day until evening, and many were wounded and killed among the Russian army.

When Saturday night had come, they set out [again], fighting. When.Sunday had dawned, the Koui detachment became alarmed and took to flight.

Igor’ at that time was on his horse, since he was wounded, and he went to the (the Koui) regiment, wanting to return them to the other troops. Realizing how far he had gone from his people, he took off his helmet and hurried back to the army. Because of that, – had they recognized the prince, they would have returned, – no one returned except Mixalko Jur’evic: recognizing the prince, he returned. For the good men had not panicked with the Koui, except for a few of the commoners and some of the boyars’ young men. For all the good ones were fighting on foot, and Vsevolod was in the middle of them, showing not a little bravery.

And as Igor’ came near to his troops, they came across [to him]. And there they captured a lone archer, cut off from his army. Igor’, seeing his brother Vsevolod struggling mightily, asked for death himself, so that he would not see his brother’s fall. Vsevolod was fighting this much, although no weapons has reached his hand. And they were fighting, going in a circle by the lake.

And then on the day of the holy resurrection, God brought down His anger upon us. In place of happiness He brought down upon us weeping, and in place of celebration, sadness, at the Kajal River. Igor’ said: “I remember my sins before God, how I have brought about much bloodshed and death in the land of Christians; how I have not spared Christians; but I stormed Gleb’s city of Perejaslavl’. For then guiltless Christians underwent not a little evil, who from their birth were sepeated from their fathers, and brother from brother, and friend from friend, and women from their women friends, and daughters from their mothers, and females from their female friends, and everything was made miserable by captivity. And there was grief then – the living envied the dead; and the dead rejoiced that, like the holy martyrs, they had left this life through trial by fire. Old warriors rushed into the battle, while wild youths endured merciless wounds, men were cut across and through, women were defiled.”

“And I did all that ,” said Igor’.

“I am not worthy to live. And lo, now I see the vengeance from my Lord God. Where is my beloved brother? Where now is my brother’s son? Where is the child I gave birth to? Where are the boyars I conferred with?, Where are my brave men? Where are the warriors of my army? Where are the horses and expensive armaments? Have I not lost all of that? And I have been given over in chains into these lawless hands. The Lord brought this down upon me for my lawlessness and for my evil. And today my sins have come down upon my head. The Lord is right; and His judgments are very just. Thus, I will not be with my living friends. Lo, today I see others receiving the wreath of martyrdom, for which I alone am guilty, and for all this I will not receive the death of martyrs. But, my Lord God, do not reject me completely. But as is Your will, Lord [I believe You will be] merciful to us, Your servants.”

And then he was finished, and the troops were scattered and everyone went to his own camp. Igor’ had been captured by one of Tarogol’s men. Cilbuk, and Roman Kzic’ captured his brother, Vsevolod, and Eldecjuk Vobur cevic [captured] Svjatoslav Ol’govic. And Kopti Ulasevic [captured] Vladimir. Then, in camp, Koncak vowed to become Igor’s keeper since he [Igor’] was wounded.

Out of so many people only a few were saved by some chance, for there had been no way to flee, since they were surrounded as if by strong walls by the Polovci troops. But our Russians escaped with fifteen men and fewer Koui, and the rest drowned by the sea.

This text is from The Kievan Chronicle: A Translation and Commentary, by Lisa L. Heinrich (PhD diss. Vanderbilt University, 1977).

This entry was posted in Primary Sources and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.