Politics of Mikhail, Prince of Chernigov
The last Grand Prince of Kiev, Mikhail Vsevelodovich, a senior prince in the Ol’govichi family tried to unite Southern and Norther Rus. The Ol’govichi withdrew from the succession to the Kievan throne during the time of Vladimir Monomakh, when they were given Chernigov as their eternal principality. However, Mikhail’s grandfather and father usurped the throne in the late Twelfth- and early Thirteenth-Centuries.
Although they obtained the throne illegally, Mikhail could assert some claim to the Kievan throne according to the old succession rule that stated only descendants of Grand Princes could ascend the throne. Martin Dimnik wrote a monograph about Mikhail “to show that the significance of the political activity of Mikhail Vsevoldovich, prince of Chernigov and grand prince of Kiev, has been underestimated in the past.”(p.7)
Mikhail’s political achievements have been overshadowed by his martyrdom for the Orthodox Church. Mikhail refused to worship a statue of Chingis Khan at Baty Khan’s court. The Mongols executed Mikhail for this refusal.
Mikhail took control of Chernigov as its prince in 1224. At the time, three princely families dominated Kievan Rus’. Mikhail headed the family, which ruled Chernigov in southern Rus.
The Vsevolodivichi ruled the northern Rostov-Suzdal and exercised the most influence over Novgorod. Grand Prince Yury commanded the family and upon his death, his younger brother Yaroslav became Grand Prince.
While Mikhail’s relations with his brother-in-law Yury, who was married to Mikhail’s sister, were good, he did not coexist as well with Yaroslav. Politically, Yaroslav would influence Mikhail’s success in Novgorod and later Kiev.
The Rostislavichi ruled both Kiev and Galich in southern Rus’. Vladimir was Grand Prince of Kiev and Daniel was Prince of Galich. Mikhail desired to rule over all of southern Rus causing him to covet these principalities. He would ultimately be successful in taking over these cities and if not for the invasion by the Tatars, Mikhail would have continued to hold southern Rus under his domination.
In 1224 after becoming Prince of Chernigov, Mikhail reigned as Prince of Novgorod in northern Rus for three months. His brother-in-law Grand Prince Yury responded to Novgorod, where the town’s people had elected his older brother Vsevolod. Yury demanded the boyars accept Vsevolod as Prince of Novgorod but they adamantly refused.
Yury could either sack the town or reach a political compromise. Yury offered the town Mikhail as Prince, which they accepted. Yury took three months’ worth of supplies from Novgorod as punishment for their independence.
“Mikhail arrived in Novgorod in March of the following year (1225). The chronicler states that after he took over command of the town ‘things were easier in the district of Novgorod’.”(p.21) Mikhail stayed only a short time but he did intercede with Yury, who returned the all the supplies he had taken back to Novgorod. When Mikhail left, “they ‘saw him off with honor’.” (p.21)
After Mikhail left, Novgorod boyars invited Yury’s younger brother Yaroslav to become Prince. Mikhail’s political successes helped the Vsevolodvichi maintain supremacy in northern Rus.
In 1228, Yaroslav would fall out of favor with some Novgorod boyars, who would invite Mikhail back to Novgorod to become Prince. Contrary to the previous goodwill between Yury and Mikhail, Mikhail decided to announce his acceptance of the princedom. This political move angered Yaroslav and would eventually lead Yury to side with his brother against Mikhail.
Mikhail did not regain the throne but his actions did almost lead to war between the Vsevolodvichi and Ol’govichi. Mikhail’s actions do not make political sense unless Dimnik’s assertions about his actions are correct.
Dimnik asserts Mikhail was already planning to attack Kiev and Galich in an attempt to gain suzerainty over southern Rus. If the Rostislavichi concluded a peace settlement with the Vsevolodvichi, the alliance could possibly stop his plans. Mikhail’s actions with Yaroslav were meant to keep the Vsevolodvichi concentrating on maintaining their grip in the north, while he conquered the remaining areas of the south. The Vsevolodvichi and Rostislavichi would eventually unite but it would be too late to stop Mikhail from reaching his goals.
In 1228, the Grand Prince of Kiev, Mstislav the Bold, died. Prior to his death, Mikhail would not have challenged the Rostislavichi due to Mstislav’s military renown. When Vladimir Ryurkovich assumed the “golden throne”, Mikhail began to formulate his plan.
First, he formed an alliance with Vladimir to attack Mstislav’s son-in law Daniel Romanovich, Prince of Volyn, for control of all Galich. However, Daniel was successful in repelling their attack. Embarrassed by the defeat, Mikhail attacked Vladimir and Kiev.
Vladimir made peace with his former enemy Daniel and they opposed the invasion by Mikhail. Mikhail had solicited the assistance of the new King of Hungary, Bela IV, who sent troops to assist Mikhail. Mikhail drove Vladimir from Kiev. Mikhail assumed the title of Grand Prince of Kiev.
Daniel realized the limited resources he would receive from Vladimir, so he concluded a peace with the Vsevolodvichi. Daniel’s political machinations were too little too late to regain control of Kiev or to hold Galich. Mikhail retained the support of Bela IV and he convinced his brother-in-law Prince Conrad of Poland to refrain from taking part in the battles.
Mikhail was able to achieve his goal of controlling southern Rus by 1236 through both foreign relations and marital ties. The Vsevolodvichi were too far away to be of real assistance to Daniel and they had to worry about attacks from Poland if they became too involved.
Historical accounts of the time indicate Mikhail was a popular ruler because his policies did much to increase trade in the area. His plan seemed to be coming to fruition until something he did not foresee happened and led to his eventual martyrdom.
Mikhail’s hold on southern Rus was disrupted by the invasion of the Tatars. The Tatars attacked Rus in 1236/1237 and turned Rus politics on its head. The Tatar invasion drove Mikhail to seek asylum in Hungary with Bela IV.
Bela would not join Mikhail in fighting the Tatars. After the Tatars sacked Hungary in 1238, Bela exiled Mikhail from his court. Mikhail was forced to seek sanctuary in Conrad’s Polish court.
Yaroslav and Daniel pledged subservience to Baty Khan, who rewarded them both. Khan named Yaroslav Grand Prince of all Rus. He also returned all of southern Rus to Daniel. Daniel achieved a peace agreement with Mikhail, who was given back the principality of Kiev. Mikhail did not return to Kiev, however. He lived alternately in Poland or Chernigov.
In 1246, Mikhail became the last Rus prince to make the trek to Baty Khan’s court to swear allegiance to the new order. Unlike other Rus princes, Baty Khan ordered Mikhail to worship the statue of Chingis Khan. Mikhail refused to worship the statue citing his Orthodox Christian beliefs. Instead of accepting his explanation, Baty Khan had Mikhail executed on September 20, 1246. Mikhail was approximately 60 years of age.
Due to his martyrdom, Mikhail became an Orthodox Church Saint. He was the first Rus martyr to be executed for his beliefs. The Orthodox Church celebrated Mikhail’s martyrdom with numerous icons, which were still being replicated into the Twentieth-Century. Mikhail’s place in church history is secure even if his historical one is a bit obscure.
Dimnik argues his martyrdom inhibits the understanding of his political effectiveness. Dimnik asserts “…Baty’s reason for insisting that Mikhail worship the idol becomes clear; similar to other Christians, he expected the prince to refuse and this would give the khan a pretext for executing him.” (p.132) Dimnik holds the only conceivable reason for the khan to execute him was to snuff out his political abilities, which could be used to oppose the Tatars.
Mikhail’s actual reign as Prince and Grand Prince lasted only from 1224 to 1238. In that time, he conquered all of southern Rus, negotiated alliances with two foreign powers, acquired the golden throne, and held off the two most powerful families in Rus besides his own. These developments cause one to wonder what could have happened in southern Rus if the Mongols had not invaded.
Dimnik, Martin. Mikhail, Prince of Chernigov and Grand Prince of Kiev 1224-1246. Political Institute of Medieval Studies: Toronto, 1981.