- The Battle of Kulikovo Field (1380) in History and Historical Memory
In 1380, a Russian army led by Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich of Moscow crossed the Oka River and rode into the steppe to meet the army of Emir Mamai of the Jochid ulus in battle on Kulikovo Field (Kulikovo pole).1 The Russians won the battle but suffered extremely high casualties. Mamai regrouped, but his second army deserted to Khan Tokhtamysh, then client of the Central Asian warlord Timur (Tamerlane). After defeating Mamai, Tokhtamysh sacked Moscow in 1382. The battle of Kulikovo has received enormous attention in modern Russian scholarship for two reasons. First, [End Page 853] it was the first time a Russian army had ridden into the steppe to fight the Tatars. Second, uniquely among battles in medieval Rus′/Russia,2 it was the subject of a trilogy of literary works: the epic Zadonshchina, notorious for its crucial role in determining the authenticity of Slovo o polku Igoreve (The Tale of the Host of Igor′); the so-called Letopis′naia povest′ (Chronicle Tale) found within the corpus of Russian chronicles; and Skazanie o Mamaevom poboishche (The Narration of the Battle with Mamai, hereafter the “Narration”). Evaluating the battle devolves into two related but distinct questions: what were the consequences of the battle for Russian–Tatar relations, and how reliable are the narrative details about the battle found in the monuments of the Kulikovo cycle? On the first question opinions differ. Historians in Russia going back at least to Sergei M. Solov′ev considered Kulikovo as Russia’s “liberation” from the “Tatar Yoke” and minimized the importance of Tokhtamysh’s “restitution” of Tatar rule until 1480. Kulikovo was a major turning point in Russian–Tatar relations because it proved that the Tatars could be defeated. Recent Western historians and a rare Russian historian, Anton Anatol′evich Gorskii, have dissented, arguing that Kulikovo did not materially change Russian–Tatar relations. Donskoi’s Pyrrhic victory left him unable to oppose Tokhtamysh effectively. The real victor at Kulikovo was Tokhtamysh.3 Kulikovo symbolizes that Moscow had risen to a point of preeminence in northeastern Russia before 1380, not the overthrow of Tatar rule after 1380.
On the second question, historians who agree on the significance or insignificance of the battle disagree in evaluating the literary depictions of the narrative. The majority accept many if not most “facts” even when they [End Page 854] contradict one another, and a minority takes a much more skeptical view.4 I know of only one Tatar historian who has written about Kulikovo, Rustam Nabi (Nabiev). His Pravda o “Kulikovskoi bitve” (The Truth about the Battle of Kulikovo) concludes that there was no battle at Kulikovo.5 The Kulikovo cycle deliberately misrepresented Russian military assistance to Tokhtamysh in a battle on the Dnieper River against Mamai as a Muscovite victory over Mamai on the Don River in which Tokhtamysh played no role. Nabi’s views are taken seriously, if at all, only in Tatarstan.
The two books reviewed here address the history and the historical memory of the battle of Kulikovo from different disciplinary perspectives: Andrei Amel′kin and Iurii Seleznev are historians, whereas Sergei Azbelev is a folklorist.
Amel′kin and his protégé Seleznev from Voronezh State University previously collaborated on two books, on Batu’s invasion of Rus′ and on Kulikovo in history and historical memory, respectively.6Kulikovskaia bitva v svidetel′stvakh sovremennikov i pamiati potomkov consists of a “substitute for a preface” (vmesto predisloviia), ten chapters, and a conclusion. In the “substitute for a preface” Seleznev explains that Amel′kin passed away in 2007, soon after he and Seleznev had finalized plans for the...