On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.
But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.
The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.
Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.
Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.
Then the Mongols returned in force.
From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.
As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.
Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.
For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.
* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.
** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.
† As well as points south.