By the early thirteenth century Genghis Khan had consolidated under his command the Mongolian nomads of central Asia—Huns, Avars, and Polovtsky—who had repeatedly erupted into Europe.
Having conquered northern China and Asia from Manchuria to the Caspian Sea, Genghis Khan led his Tatars across the Caucasus Mountains and into the steppes of southern Russia, defeating the Russians and dissident Polovtsky together near the Sea of Azov in 1223. He then retreated to Asia, where he died in 1227. Batu Khan (d. 1255) brought the Tatars back again in the 1230s, sacked Moscow in 1237 and Kiev in 1240, and moved into the western Russian regions and into Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia.
Tatar success seems to have been due largely to excellent military organization: unified command, general staff, clever intelligence service, and deceptive battle tactics. Though Batu defeated the Poles and the Germans in 1241, political affairs in Asia drew him eastward, and the Tatars never again appeared so far to the west. Batu retreated across Europe, and at Sarai, near the great bend of the Volga, he founded the capital of a new state—the Golden Horde—which accepted the overlordship of the far-off central government of the Mongols in Peking.
Other Mongol leaders ended the Abbasid caliphate in 1258 and were defeated by the Mamluks in 1260. The enmity between Mongols and Muslims led the leaders of western Europe to hope that they could convert the Mongol rulers to Christianity and ally with them against the Muslims. Several embassies were sent to Mongolia and China during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with this end in view. Nothing came of it except a great increase in geographical knowledge derived from the accounts of the European ambassadors.
The most lasting effect of the Tatar invasions was in Russia. Here the Tatars’ main purpose was the efficient collection of tribute. Although they ravaged Russia while they were conquering it, after the conquest they shifted to a policy of exploitation. They took a survey of available resources and assessed tribute at the limit of what the traffic would bear.
They did not disturb economic life as long as their authority was recognized. They did draft Russian recruits for their armies, but they made the local Russian princes responsible for the delivery of manpower and money, and they stayed out of Russian territory except to take censuses, survey property, and punish rebels. Each tributary Russian prince traveled to Sarai or to China on his election to do homage.
Toward the end of the fourteenth century the Russians grew bolder. The first Russian victories over the Tatars, scored by a prince of Moscow in 1378 and 1380, were fiercely avenged. Yet they showed that the Tatars could be defeated. The Golden Horde did not disintegrate until the early fifteenth century, and even then the Tatars did not disappear from Russian life. Three separate khanates, or Tatar states, were formed: one at Kazan on the middle Volga; one at Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga on the Caspian; and one in the Crimea.
There was no inherent reason why Russia in the late twelfth century should not have developed as a European state with characteristics of its own. After two centuries of Tatar domination, however, it had not advanced, as measured against the material progress of western Europe. Contemporaries felt that the Tatar yoke was a calamity, and historians have yet to prove otherwise. When the Tatar power was finally shattered in the fifteenth century, Russian civilization was far less complex than that of the West.