January 13, 2019

A Great Overlooked Victory


A Great Overlooked Victory
The Lopasnya River near where the Battle of Molodi occured. vow (cc)

It is said that history is written by the victors. Yet not all victories (or victors) are equal. So some are remembered less frequently than others, even by those who won them.

The Battle of Molodi (began July 29, 1572), while not a well-remembered battle, was an important one in Russia’s history. Russian forces emerged victorious in their battle against the Crimean Tatars, despite being heavily outnumbered. And it was this victory that hammered the final nail in the coffin of Tatar and Ottoman aspirations during this era to take Russian territory.

Of course the first significant defeat of the Tatars was two centuries before, in 1380, at the Battle of Kulikovo Field, when Russia was still known as Rus’. Many principalities of Rus’ banded together under the leadership of Prince Dmitry of Moscow (nicknamed “Donskoy” after the battle) to defeat the Tatar forces led by the Mongolian Khan Mamai and his “Golden Horde”.

At Kulikovo, Dmitry’s forces were able to turn the tide of Tatar expansion and inspire unity among the many principalities that fought together on the fields of Kulikovo; some feel it is the main reason that Russia exists today with Moscow as its capital.

Ivan IV’s victory at Molodi in 1572 was also very impressive, especially given the geopolitical situation Russia found itself in. To the west, Russia was in a drawn-out war against Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania over Livonia (which includes modern-day Latvia and Estonia). Internally, Ivan had divided the country’s lands and created the oprichnina – instituting a reign of terror rooted in his growing paranoia. To the south, the Ottoman Empire was attempting to conquer parts of Russia. In fact, just a year before the Battle of Molodi, the Crimean Tatars (vassals of the Ottomans) had successfully pillaged Moscow, decimating the capital and taking 60,000 prisoners.

Ivan, sensing an existential threat from the Ottoman-Tatar forces, proposed a military alliance that with the Tatars and offered them Astrakahan. But Khan Devlet Girei had bigger plans. He

had boasted to the Turkish Sultan that he would conquer all of Russia and lead the Grand Prince to the Crimea as a prisoner and occupy Russia with his nobles.

According to the contemporaneous account of Heinrich von Staden

 

Devlet Girei felt that the Russians would be unprepared, and so he led 120,000 Crimean Tatars toward Moscow once again, anticipating an easy victory. And at first it looked like it would be, when the Tatars broke through Russian defenses along the Oka River and began their final march on Moscow.

But then the Russians, led by Mikhail Vorotynsky, re-engaged the Tatars in battle centered near the Lopasna River, near the village of Molodi, where the two sides engaged in battle at close quarters with swords and spears, which did not allow the Tatars to take advantage of their talent for archery. A decisive element in Russia’s tactical arsenal was a mobile barricade (гуляй-город) that allowed Russian forces to infiltrate and attack the enemy from their rear. In the end, the defeated invaders returned home with just 20,000 men.

Gulyai Gorod reconstructions
Gulyai gorod reconstructions / Lapot (cc)

The Battle of Molodi became one of Ivan’s most significant military victories, and also led to the end of the oprichnina, so it is unclear why this battle is not very well known. Perhaps simply because it was overshadowed by subsequent events, including Ivan’s descent into madness, the murder of his son, and, well, the conquest of Siberia.

Or perhaps it is because Vorotynsky, credited with the leading the forces to victory, was later arrested and tortured by Ivan for an allegedly (the accusation came from one of Vorotynsky’s servants) plotting the tsar’s death through the use of magical charms.

 

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