During Dmitri Donskoi’s thirty year reign as Prince of Moscow and Grand Prince of Vladimir, he strengthened Moscow’s position among the princes of Rus’. He expanded the territory left by his father Ivan II, tightened his grip on the pre-existing Muscovite lands, and solidified Moscow’s superior position as Grand Prince of Vladimir. He also proved to be a great military leader, defeating his rival princes and destroying Tatar forces at the Battle of Kulikovo. While he did not free Rus’ from the Tatar yoke, Dmitri Donskoi made Moscow the insurmountable force that would dominate all of Russia.
Dmitri Ivanovich was born in 1350, but became Prince of Moscow at age nine after his father’s untimely death in 1359. The early years of his reign were dominated by the influence of Metropolitan Alexis, who returned from Lithuania in 1360 in order to look after the young prince. Ivan II had left Dmitri a realm surrounded by instability as discord within the Golden Horde prevailed in the 1350s. The Black Death had decimated the population and broken the Silk Road, damaging the Horde economically. Furthermore, the murder of Khan Berdi-Beg in 1359 split the Horde’s leadership into rival factions, leaving the Russian princes with not one, but many khans to parlay.
Dmitri’s earliest confrontation was over the position of Grand Prince of Vladimir. In 1360 Khan Navruz appointed Dmitri Konstantinovich of Suzdal and Nizhny-Novgorod to the grand princely seat. His family had no dynastic claim, but his father Konstantin had opposed the appointment of Ivan II and became a major rival to the Danilovichi after the addition of Gorodets and Nizhny-Novgorod to their Suzdal holdings in 1341. A small coalition of princes backed Dmitri Konstantinovich’s claim, but Khan Navruz was overthrown in 1361. His successor, Khan Murid, recognized Dmitri Ivanovich as Grand Prince of Vladimir. Meanwhile, Mamai had established a rival khanate in the steppe west of the Volga River. He also granted the grand princely seat to Dmitri Ivanovich, but this action caused Khan Murid to transfer his approval from Dmitri Ivanovich to Dmitri Konstantinovich. Dmitri Ivanovich had already expelled Dmitri Konstantinovich from Vladimir and any military support from the Khan would have to get past Mamai, so Dmitri Konstantinovich found himself unable to fulfill the position. Dmitri Ivanovich drove him back to Suzdal and they made peace in 1364. The marriage of Dmitri Ivanovich to Dmitri Konstantinovich’s daughter Evdokiia in 1366 solidified the treaty.
The second threat to Dmitri Ivanovich’s position came from Tver, where Mikhail Alexandreevich had become prince in 1366 with the aid of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Olgerd. Lithuania’s support against Moscow put Mikhail at a disadvantage as it lent him the appearance of a foreign agent. The constant struggle within the ruling family of Tver also detracted from Mikhail’s opposition to Dmitri Ivanovich. In 1367, Dmitri initiated hostilities that would last for the next eight years. Dmitri and Metropolitan Alexis invited Mikhail and his boyars to Moscow in order to take their guests hostage. Moscow commenced an offensive against Tver while Mikhail’s army besieged Moscow. He was unable to penetrate the city’s new stone walls, but Moscow still saw fit to make peace. Tver gained some territory and Dmitri Ivanovich promised not to interfere in the principality’s internal affairs. Dmitri Ivanovich broke this peace in 1370 with a renewed invasion of Tver. Among the towns he captured was Mikulin, the center of Mikhail’s power. Tver received no aid from their former Lithuanian allies as Metropolitan Alexis had negotiated a peace treaty with them, under which Dmitri’s cousin Vladimir Andreevich married one of Olgerd’s daughters. Mikhail did convince Mamai to grant him the grand princely throne at this time, but Dmitri was able to win it back through bribery in 1371. He paid Mikhail’s debt to Mamai and was permitted to take his son, Ivan Mikhailovich, as a hostage. In 1372 Dmitri Ivanovich joined with Novgorod to evict Mikhail’s governors from the important trade city of Torzhok, instigating war between Tver and Novgorod. Mikhail’s last effort to claim the grand princely seat came in 1375, when he again received it from Mamai. Dmitri Ivanovich assembled an army from Novgorod and other loyal Russian cities to crush Tver’s forces. On September 3, 1375, Dmitri Ivanovich and Mikhail Alexandreevich finally made peace. Mikhail acknowledged Dmitri as his “elder brother,” renounced all claims to Novgorod and the grand princely throne, and promised not to conduct independent foreign relations.
Dmitri Donskoi’s greatest victory was the defeat of Mamai at the Battle of Kulikovo on September 8, 1380. His victory brought him great glory and he became an almost mythic figure in Russian culture and popular folklore. Strained relations inside and outside of the Horde brought the two leaders to blows. When Mamai restored Dmitri as Grand Prince of Vladimir in 1371, Dmitri had promised to pay tribute to Mamai. However, after the Hansa cut off silver exports to Novgorod in 1373, Dmitri was unable to raise the proper amounts and halted payments for a few years. Mamai tried to maintain control over the Russian principalities, but his success was minimal. The emissaries he sent to Nizhny-Novgorod in 1374 were massacred upon arrival and granting Mikhail Alexandreevich the grand princely seat in 1375 did not remove Dmitri Ivanovich from power. In 1377, looking to accumulate wealth for their principalities, Dmitri Ivanovich and Dmitri Konstantinovich secured the Volga trade routes by subjugating Bulgar in 1377. That same year Mamai sacked Nizhny-Novgorod as revenge for his murdered representatives. In 1378 Dmitri Ivanovich fought directly against one of Mamai’s vassals long the Vozha River. Mamai had still not received Dmitri’s tribute, which he needed to fight the new power in Sarai. Tokhtamysh, an ally of Tamurlane, captured Sarai in 1378 and centralized the Golden Horde under his power, challenging Mamai’s northern khanate. In 1380 Mamai demanded tribute, and then began to raise an army when that tribute never came. He allied with Grand Duke Jogailo of Lithuania, whose forces he awaited at his encampment on the Kulikovo Pole, near the upper Don River. Dmitri Ivanovich also raised an army from among his loyal princes and secured the aid of two of Jogailo’s brothers. They camped at Kolomna, but Dmitri did not wait for Mamai’s Lithuanian reinforcements to arrive. Instead, he led his Russian army across the Don River and engaged Mamai’s forces. The battle waged for several hours before Prince Vladimir of Serpukhov secured a Muscovite victory by adding his reserve forces to the fight. Mamai fled with the remainder of his army, who were obliterated by Tokhtamysh in 1381. After that battle, Mamai was imprisoned and killed, though chroniclers do not agree by whom. To restore order among the Russian principalities, Tokhtamysh led a punitive expedition in 1382. He sacked Moscow and forced the princes to submit to his will. Once again, Dmitri Ivanovich was given the job of collecting tribute for Sarai as Grand Prince of Vladimir. He remained a loyal servant of the Khan until his death in 1389.
Records of Dmitri Donskoi’s reign tell how he expanded Moscow’s power with the support of the Church and the Golden Horde, but little is said of his subjects. He received the title of “Donskoi,” but the peoples who lived along the Don might have seen him as nothing more than a foreign prince under the rule of another foreign prince. His story tells about Tatar domination of Russian princes, not Russian domination of the steppe.
- Robert O. Crummey, The Formation of Muscovy (New York: Longman, 1987).
- Janet Martin, Medieval Russia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).