With Byzantine Christianity came many changes. As Russians adopted their new written language, a class of educated Russian priests emerged. Russians adapted Byzantine religious art, music, and architecture. Byzantine domes, capped with colorful, carved “helmets,” became the onion-shaped domes of Russian churches.
Byzantine Christianity set the pattern for close ties between Church and state. Kievan princes, like the Byzantine emperor, controlled the Church and made it dependent on them. As the Russian Orthodox Church evolved, it remained a pillar of state power, not a rival as in Western Europe.
Kiev enjoyed a golden age under Yaroslav the Wise, who ruled from 1019 to 1054. To improve justice, he issued a written law code.
A scholar, he translated Greek works into his language. He arranged marriages between his children and the families of royal rulers in Western Europe.
Kiev declined in the 1100s, as rival families battled for the throne. Also, Russian trading cities like Kiev declined because Byzantine prosperity was fading. As Russian princes continued to feud among themselves, Mongol invaders from central Asia struck the final blow.
Why did Kiev become an important city?
In the early 1200s, a young leader united the nomadic Mongols of central Asia. As his mounted bowmen overran lands from China to eastern Europe, he took the title Genghis Khan (GENG is kahn), or “World Emperor.”
Between 1236 and 1241, Batu, the grandson of Genghis, led Mongol armies into Russia. Known as the Golden Horde because of the color of their tents, these invaders looted and burned Kiev and other Russian towns. So many inhabitants were killed, declared a Russian historian, that “no eye remained to weep for the dead.”
From their capital on the Volga, the Golden Horde ruled Russia for more than 150 years. Areas that were not directly controlled by the Mongols were raided by Mongol armies.
Skilled warriors, Mongol armies swept through southwest Russia. They were called the Golden Horde because of the color of their tents that presented a sea of golden cloth that stretched for miles.
The Mongols, while fierce conquerors, were generally tolerant rulers. Russian princes had to acknowledge the Mongols as their overlords and pay heavy tribute. But as long as the tribute was paid, the Mongols left the Russian princes to rule without much other interference.
Historians have long debated how Mongol rule affected Russia. Peasants felt the burden of heavy taxes to pay tribute to the Mongols. Some fled to remote regions, while others sought protection from Mongol raids by becoming serfs of Russian nobles. Even though the Mongols had converted to Islam, they tolerated the Russian Orthodox Church, which grew more powerful during this period. The Mongol conquest also brought peace to the huge swath of land between China and Eastern Europe, and Russian merchants benefited from new trade routes across this region.
The absolute power of the Mongols served as a model for later Russian rulers. Russian princes developed a strong desire to centralize their own power without interference from nobles, the clergy, or wealthy merchants. Perhaps most important, Mongol rule cut Russia off from contacts with Western Europe at a time when Europeans were making rapid advances in the arts and sciences.