Effects of Black Death in Russia


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

In Russia, the effects of the Black Death at first seem to be similar to what we find in the European West—the people hardest hit were the aristocracy, who might have all kinds of land, but a shortage of bodies to work it. The nobility or great landowners were, for the most part, were considered subject to a central ruling elite in Moscow.

A medieval church.
After the Black Death hit Russia, the economy’s balance started to tip, putting pressure on aristocrats. (Image: gusenych/Shutterstock)

Black Death’s Pressure on Moscow

A medieval church in Moscow
Between the two waves of the Black Death that hit Russia, people got a chance to take a breath, and maybe if the Black Death had not returned for a second wave, Russia’s future might have been different. (Image: Zhenya Voevodina/Shutterstock)

Economically they were now in a pattern of having to pay much higher wages in order to have their land plowed and harvested, and once the numbers of their own class finally began to increase again after the first wave of the plague had passed, there simply wasn’t as much in the way of resources as a Russian nobleman might expect or want. This, in turn, led members of the aristocracy to start flocking to Moscow in an attempt to find power, status, and money there.

So, Moscow and the Kremlin princes found themselves under considerable pressure from the aristocracy who were seeking security. While Moscow was the center of power in Russia in the mid-1350s and the decades after, it was not quite powerful enough to cope successfully with the extreme social and economic pressures the Black Death brought with it. 

As the scholar Gustave Alef argues:

Had the great plagues of the 14th century not arrested the growth of the population, when Moscow was small and more vulnerable to pressure than it would become a century later, and when the powers of the Kremlin princes were far weaker, no doubt the history of the Russian northeast would have turned out far different.

The Second Wave Ruins Expectations

As the population began to recover in the early 15th century, it looked for a time as if the powers of the monastic states might start to be checked a bit, and the countryside would return to more of a balanced state, something like it had been before the plague. 

But then, when later waves of the plague struck in the 15th century, this produced a famine, which in turn created more population loss, which then cemented the powers of the monastic estates. As scholar Lawrence Langer puts it:

In effect, the Black Death forced Russian princes to rely increasingly upon the monasteries to develop rural agriculture and manufacture. Plague and famine gave form and direction to monastic estates’ growth and the political tensions that later occurred between the monasteries and Russia’s rulers.

Learn more about medieval theories about the Black Death.

The Mongol Empire and Russia

What was really devastating for the Russian countryside and urban centers is that prior to the arrival of the Black Death, they had had to deal with a series of invasions by the Mongols. From 1237–1240, Mongol armies had swept out of the east and established their rule over several Russian territories. 

A statue of a Mongol Leader
The Mongol empire’s attention shifted from Russia because of Öz Beg Khan. (Image: Strelyuk/Shutterstock)

They completely devastated the principality of Kiev, and in the aftermath of this invasion, most of the other Russian principalities had become subject territories of the Golden Horde, having to pay taxes, supply able-bodied men for military service, and so on. A few territories in the west had elected to make themselves subject to the newly-developed state of Lithuania and, thus, escaped the yoke of Mongol rule.

But then something happened to turn the attention of the Mongols away from Russia and focus it on the south. In 1313, a new khan assumed the throne of the Mongols, and this man, Öz Beg, was a recent convert to Islam. 

He worked hard to get the elite of the Mongol horde to join him in practicing this religion, and he was much occupied for most of his reign with putting down rebellions and dealing with assassination attempts. But, in the end, he was successful, and when Jani Beg Khan came to the throne in 1342, Islam was the official state religion of the Mongols.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

How did Black Death ironically both Saved and Ruined Russia?

During his reign, Jani Beg was preoccupied with getting Christian merchants out of the territories that were controlled by the Mongols near the Black Sea . Who were these Christian merchants? Why they were represented in particular by the Genoese, who had long-established trading posts and fortifications along the Black Sea and in the Crimea, including the city of Caffa?

In 1343, the Genoese merchants fled from their trading center of Tana to the fortified city of Caffa, and Jani Beg and his forces, then, laid siege to it. During that siege, the plague found its way into the Mongol ranks. Then, in 1346, it supposedly found its way into the city of Caffa when Jani Beg launched the corpses of plague victims into the city via trebuchet. The Genoese fled back to Genoa, stopping off in the port of Messina in Sicily on the way. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The great irony here is that it was the appearance of the Black Death among the Mongols way back in 1346 that finally gave Russia’s political and social systems some breathing room and a chance to recover from over a century of Mongol rule. 

By 1353, a sense of normalcy and a stable population with a reliable supply of craftsmen and laborers was just starting to get itself back in place in most of Russia. But then along came the Black Death, again—the very thing that had so briefly allowed for some recovery and growth. The reappearance of the plague in Russia dealt the struggling labor, economic, and political systems another serious blow that would have repercussions for centuries.

Learn more about plague saints and popular religion.

Common Questions about Effects of Black Death in Russia

Q: Why did members of the Russian aristocracy go to Moscow in the aftermath of the plague?

One of the Effects of the Black Death was that wages for harvesting became higher and resources were scarcer than the aristocrats wanted so they went to Moscow in search of money, status, and power.

Q: Why did the Mongols shift their attention away from Russia?

In 1313, a new khan named Öz Beg claimed the throne, and his focus was on preventing himself from being assassinated and making Islam the main religion of the empire. The upcoming effects of the Black Plague in Russia were postponed because of this.

Q: How did the plague get to Caffa?

When the Genoese merchants fled to Caffa, the Mongols surrounded the city. As the effects of the Black Death were becoming obvious in the Mongol ranks, they catapulted the corpses into the city which led to Caffa becoming contaminated.

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