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Prominent Russians: Dmitry Donskoy

October 12, 1350 – May 18-19, 1389

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Dmitry Ivanovich was the Grand Prince of the Moscow Principality (1359 – 1389) and the Grand Prince of Vladimir (1362 – 1389). His father, Ivan II the Meek of Moscow (1326 – 1359), reigned from 1353 – 1359. Ivan II was an easy-going, good-natured man whose six-year rule did not augment the influence of Moscow. Upon his death, he left several minor children; the oldest was nine-year-old Dmitry. Under the effective regency of Metropolitan Alexis (1353 - 1378), Dmitry inherited a portion of the Moscow principality but failed to keep the patent for the grand principality of Vladimir (which had been held by Muscovite princes from 1328 to 1359).

At the time, the Golden Horde was severely weakened by internal discord and dynastic rivalries. In 1360 Khan Navruz of Sarai gave the Vladimir patent to Prince Dmitry Konstantinovich of Suzdal and Nizhny Novgorod. A year later, Navruz was overthrown in a coup and the Golden Horde split into eastern and western sections ruled by rival Tatar-Mongol warlords. The Chingissid Khan of Sarai to the east, recognized Dmitry Donskoy as the Grand Prince of Vladimir in 1362. In 1363, however, Dmitry accepted a second jarlikh (patent) from Khan Abdullah, supported by the non-Chingissid lord, Mamai, who had taken control of the western Horde establishing himself at Sarai and claiming authority over all the Russian lands. Offended, Khan Mourout withdrew Dmitry Ivanovich's patent and awarded it to Dmitry Konstantinovich. But Alexis was loyal to Ivan II's children and appealed to the khan in the name of his young ward. Mourout decided in his favor, and in 1363 Muscovite forces moved swiftly into Vladimir where they drove Dmitry Konstantinovich from his seat before plundering the Suzdalian lands. During that campaign Dmitry took Starodub and Galich, annexing the principalities to his domain, and possibly Belozero and Uglich as well. By 1364 he had forced Dmitry Konstantinovich to capitulate and sign a treaty recognizing Moscow’s sovereignty over Vladimir. The pact was sealed in 1366 when he married Dmitry Konstantinovich's daughter Eudoxia. The couple had at least 12 children.

To secure his seniority, Dmitry Ivanovich sent Prince Konstantin Vasilyevich of Rostov to Ustiug in the north and replaced him with his nephew Andrey Fyodorovich, a supporter of Moscow. As a precedent, Dmitry gave his cousin, Prince Vladimir Andreyevich of Serpukhov, independent sovereignty over Galich and Dmitrov, thus establishing the de facto right of the Moscow princes to retain hereditary lands, while disposing of conquered territory.

An important event during the early years of Dmitry's reign was the construction of the first stone Moscow Kremlin, completed in 1367. The new fortress made it possible for the city to withstand two sieges by Olgierd in 1368 and 1370. A third attempted siege in 1372 ended in the Treaty of Lyubutsk signed in the summer of 1372 between Olgierd (Algirdas), the Grand Prince of Lithuania, and Dmitry, resulting in a seven-year peace.

The only principality Dmitry did not subdue was Tver. Conflict was triggered by the succession in 1366 of Mikhail Konstantinovich as the Grand Prince of Tver, with the help of his brother-in-law Olgierd. The hostilities lasted eight years (1368 - 1375), and included an unsuccessful attempt by Mikhail in 1368 to capture Moscow, and the successful capture of the town of Mikulin by Dmitry in 1370. Four times Dmitry overcame Mikhail. Four times Mikhail, aided by Olgierd, gained the victory. At length the fiery Olgierd died, and in 1375 Mikhail yielded, acknowledging himself as Dmitry's vassal. Other princes of Northern Russia also accepted Dmitry’s seniority.

When Dmitry was summoned before the Khan to Sarai in 1371, he became convinced that the Tatar-Mongols were no longer able to uphold their authority. He did not hesitate to engage in a struggle with Ryazan, although it was supported by a Tatar-Mongol army, and when orders from the khan arrived, Dmitry ignored them. In 1376, he sent a large army to Kazan on the Volga, and forced two Tatar chiefs to pay tribute. Growing internecine conflicts in Lithuania triggered by Olgierd's death in 1377 also worked to Moscow's advantage. Moscow started to curtail the amount of tribute and finally stopped paying all together. The Tatar-Mongols could not reconcile themselves to the fact that the Muscovite Prince actually proclaimed independence from the Horde. Mamai tried to punish Dmitry and in 1378 sent an army, but it was defeated by Dmitry's forces in the Battle of the Vozha River near Ryazan, which made Dmitry exclaim: “Their time is up, and God is with us!” A year later the khan sent an army to ravage Ryazan, and started preparations to reestablish his authority over Moscow. Urgently in need of funds to stop Tokhtamysh, who had made himself khan of Sarai, and wishing to avenge the defeat at Vozha, Mamai launched a massive military campaign against Russia in the late summer of 1380.

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As soon as Dmitry learned of his enemy’s plans, he left for the St. Trinity Monastery near Moscow to seek counsel from its hegumen (abbot) St. Sergey of Radonezh (c. 1314 - 1392), who was known both for his ardent prayers for the Russian land and as a shrewd politician. He gave his blessing to Prince Dmitry’s plans to fight the enemy tooth and nail: “Pluck up your courage, Prince! You ought to take care of the God-given flock, which will assist you in gaining the victory. There will be a horrible bloodshed, many warriors will lay down their lives, but you will win and return glorified, while the impious Mamai will find his death.” St. Sergey was speaking of the forthcoming victory as if it were obvious to anyone. He allowed two monks, Aleksandr Peresvet and Andrey Oslyabya, known for their courage, to keep Dmitry Ivanovich company and to set a good example for his troops to follow. Making the sign of the cross on their cowls, he said: “Behold a weapon which faileth never!”

Confronting great danger, a large number of princes assembled in Moscow; all the Russian princes except those of Tver and Ryazan, who dreaded Moscow's power, lent their aid. At the head of a large army, Dmitry Ivanovich

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marched through Ryazan to the upper Don where the Tatar-Mongols were drawn up, awaiting the reinforcements of their ally Jagellon, the new Grand Prince of Lithuania. Dmitry resolved to fight before the enemies could join their forces. He crossed the Don and approached the Tatar-Mongols on the Kulikovo field (the Field of the Woodcocks) between the Don River and a small tributary called Nepryadva. “Yonder lies the foe,” said Dmitry to his associates. “Here runs the Don. Shall we await the enemy here or cross and meet him with the river at our backs?” It was unanimously agreed to cross the river.

At once the order was given and the troops were ferried across the stream, at a short distance from the opposite bank where the enemy was positioned. No sooner had they landed than Dmitry ordered all the boats to be cast adrift. It was to be victory or death; flight meant death by drowning; fight meant death by the sword. Of the two, the latter seemed best to the Russians and Dmitry Ivanovich was well aware the men would fight with double valor in such desperate straits.

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On 8 September 1380 the combined armies of Mamai approached Dmitry Donskoy's troops so that a narrow strip of land separated them. Suddenly the Horde champion Chelubey galloped out from behind the Tatar battle formation. He brandished his spear menacingly and challenged any Russian warrior to come out for a single combat. Peresvet rode out wearing no armor or helmet, only his special monastic garments embroidered with crosses to show that he was Christ’s warrior. The monk flung himself onto the enemy in a lightning-like movement. The combatants came together and hit each other with their heavy spears with such a force that they fell down dead at once. This signaled the start of the battle.

The Tatar-Mongols discharged their impetuous assault, which had so often carried them to victory. The Russians defended themselves with fiery valor, and so fiercely was the field contested that multitudes of the fallen were trampled to death beneath the horses' hooves. At length, however, numbers began to tell. The Russians grew weary while the vast host of the Tatar-Mongols enabled them to replace with fresh troops those worn out in the fight.

Dismay crept into the Russian ranks. They would have broken in flight, but no avenue of escape was left. The river ran behind them, unruffled by a single boat. At this critical moment, when Dmitry’s troops were wavering between panic and courage, ready to drop their swords through sheer fatigue, an unexpected diversion inspired their shrinking souls. The Grand Prince had stationed a detachment of his army commanded by Prince Vladimir Andreevich of Serpukhov as a reserve, which had taken no part in the battle. Now, fresh and furious, they were brought up, and fell vigorously upon the rear of the Tatar-Mongols, who, filled with sudden terror, thought that a new army had come to the aid of the enemy. A moment later they broke and fled the battlefield, pursued by their triumphant foes. Mamai's camp, his chariots and camels were captured.

The Russian armies paid dearly for their victory. The dead strewed the ground by the thousands. Dmitry was found in a swoon from loss of blood. Eight days were occupied by the survivors in burying the slain. According to legend, “the Grand Prince stood on human bones for three days and three nights as he tried to extract all the dead bodies, and then he had them buried with honors. To bury them, he ordered deep holes to be dug in the hills nearby, and 300,000 such holes were dug in all.”

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The victory on the Kulikovo field was of paramount importance for the unification of separated Russian principalities to form a single centralized state under the aegis of Moscow. Essentially, the Kulikovo battle became the source of Russian statehood, and therefore every Russian saw Kulikovo as a sacred place. Dmiry Ivanovich was surnamed “Donskoy” (of the Don), in honor of this triumph.

The gains made in the battle, though regarded as instrumental in breaking the Tatar-Mongol hold on Moscow, were largely reversed shortly afterward. Tokhtamysh, who seized the opportunity to overthrow Mamai in 1381, became the last khan of the White Horde, who unified the White Horde and Blue Horde subdivisions of the Golden Horde into a single state and reasserted his claims as lord of the Russian lands. In 1382 Tokhtamysh's army besieged Moscow and Dmitry went to Kostroma to collect troops. Meanwhile Moscow was captured by ruse and delivered up to fire and sword. It is said that 24,000 inhabitants were slaughtered. Vladimir and some other towns suffered the same fate. It is said that Dmitry wept when he saw the charred remains of his capital. However, there was nothing left but to make peace with Tokhtamysh. Dmitry pledged his loyalty to the khan and was reinstated as the Grand Prince of Vladimir, having agreed on paying a much higher tribute to Tokhtamysh for the Vladimir patent than he had originally paid to Mamai.

But his heart was sore against the Princes of Tver and Ryazan who had abetted Mamai, and Novgorod, which had used the opportunity of Moscow's distress to plunder some of its towns. After the country had sufficiently recovered, he compelled the Prince of Ryazan to conclude “a perpetual peace” and Novgorod, in 1386, was forced to pay an indemnity in addition to agreeing to an annual tribute.

Meanwhile, Dmitry Donskoy skillfully used the church to serve his political and commercial interests. He sponsored a 1379 mission, headed by the monk Stephen, to Christianize Ustyug and establish a new bishop's see in Perm which secured Moscow's control over areas central to the lucrative fur trade. After Metropolitan Alexis's death in 1378, Dmitry moved to prevent Cyprian, who had been invested as Metropolitan of Lithuania, from claiming authority over the Moscow see. Instead he supported Mikhail, who died under mysterious circumstances before he could be invested by the patriarch. Dmitry's second choice, Pimen, was invested in 1380 and with a brief interruption (Cyprian was welcomed back by Dmitry after the Kulikovo battle until Tokhtamysh's siege of 1382) served as Metropolitan of Moscow up until his death.

In May 1389 Dmitry Donskoy died, leaving Moscow the most powerful of all Russian principalities. He stipulated in his will that his son Basil should be the sole inheritor of his patrimony, including the grand principality of Vladimir. Thus Dmitry was the first Grand Prince to bequeath his titles to his son without consulting the khan. As some historians note, the latter, by accepting the proviso, acknowledged the grand principality as an integral part of the Moscow prince's inheritance (votchina).

In contrast to other Moscow princes, Dmitry Donskoy did not become a monk on his deathbed. Notwithstanding, chroniclers eulogized him as a saint. The 1563 Book of Degrees, written in the Moscow metropolitan's scriptorium portrays Dmitry and his wife Eudoxia as chaste ascetics with miraculous powers of intercession for their descendants and their land, thereby laying the ground for their canonization. Unofficially revered since the late 15th century, Dmitry was only canonized by the Orthodox Church almost 600 years after his death, in 1988.


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