Bulgaria on the Volga

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Bulgaria on the Volga


the first state formation of the peoples of the Middle Volga and Kama regions. It was formed in the tenth century and played a significant role in the medieval history of Eastern Europe. By the 12th century its territory extended from the Samara bend to northern Chuvashia and the Southern Urals region. The major written sources on the history of Bulgaria on the Volga are reports of Arab-Persian writers (ibn-Fadlan, ibn-Hawqal, al-Istakhri, ibn-Rustah, Qardizi, and others), the works of Rashid ad-Din, Khazar documents, Russian chronicles, lives of saints, and epigraphic remains of the Bulgars. Archaeological material, which has become available through extensive excavations of Bulgar princely castles, cities (particularly Bulgar and Suvar), rural settlements, and burial grounds, has contributed greatly to the study of Bulgaria on the Volga. The main excavations were conducted by A. P. Smirnov beginning in the 1930’s.

Many Finno-Ugric tribes were involved in the formation of Bulgaria on the Volga. In the seventh century a large group of Turkic-speaking Bulgar tribes, which were on the verge of forming a class society, came from the area near the Sea of Azov to the Middle Volga Region. Their arrival played a significant role in the subsequent development of the population of the Volga-Kama region and in the creation of their state. By the tenth century the nomadic Bulgars had almost completely shifted to a settled way of life. Plow farming became their main economy. Before the tenth century the Bulgar tribes were subordinate to the Khazar Khanate. In 922, Almas, the khan of the city of Bulgar, began to unite the Bulgar tribes. Having nominally become subject to the Caliph Muktadir and having adopted Islam, he relied on Arabic support in his struggle with the Khazars and internal opponents. After Prince Sviatoslav Igorevich’s defeat of the Khazars in 965, the Volga Bulgars were completely freed from their submission. By the end of the tenth century feudal relations predominated. Archaeological data permits us to assume the presence of large-scale land ownership.

Bulgaria on the Volga was situated on the trade routes connecting Eastern Europe with the East. In the tenth century it actively traded with the Arab Caliphate, Byzantium, and Rus’. Its cities were transformed into great trade and artisan centers. A trade agreement with Rus’ was concluded in 1006. However, there were also clashes between the Bulgars and the Russian princes—for example, the campaigns of Russian princes against the Bulgars in 977,985,994, and 997. After the 11th century, the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality became the main military and trade rival of Bulgaria on the Volga. The Bulgars repeatedly attacked Russian cities; these attacks, in turn, provoked military campaigns of the Russian princes against Bulgaria on the Volga (1120, 1164, 1172, 1183, and 1220). The constant threat from the Russian princes compelled the Bulgars to transfer their capital from Bulgar to Biliar. In 1229 peace was concluded between Bulgaria on the Volga and Rus’.

In the 1220’s, Bulgaria on the Volga was the first European state to receive a blow from the Mongols. The attack in 1223 was successfully repulsed. Only in 1236 did the Mongols take Biliar, and by 1241 they had completely subjugated Bulgaria on the Volga which, having retained some autonomy, became part of the Golden Horde. The culture of Bulgaria on the Volga was an important component in the formation of the Golden Horde’s culture of the Lower Volga Region. In the second half of the 13th century the cities of Bulgaria on the Volga again became great trade and artisan centers; Bulgar became the leading city. Merchants from many countries, including China and India, assembled here. Foreign craftsmen, including Armenians and Russians, worked along with the Bulgars in the city. From 1240 to 1428 the Bulgars minted their own money in Bulgar. Having recovered from the defeat inflicted by the Mongol-Tatars, the Bulgar princes began to expand their domain, mainly in the areas of the Viatka and Kama rivers. Two main principalities—the Bulgar and Zhukotin—developed as distinct entities within Bulgaria on the Volga. Kazan, the northern center of Bulgaria on the Volga, also began to play a major role. The economic rise of Bulgaria on the Volga in the 14th century caused the Bulgar princes to strive for independence. Their participation in palace disturbances in the Golden Horde provoked punitive expeditions by the Golden Horde khans against Bulgaria on the Volga. The best known was the 1361 campaign of Bulak-Timur. Weakened by the Horde and divided into two principalities, Bulgaria on the Volga could not defend itself against the renewed campaigns of the Russian princes (from 1360) and the numerous raids of the Ush-kuiniks.

Historians suppose that in the mid-1390’s, Bulgaria on the Volga was destroyed, along with the Golden Horde, by Timur, and in the 1430’s, Russian feudal lords conquered the Bulgar lands south of the Kama. Only Kazan, which became the capital of the Kazan Khanate, remained independent.


Smirnov, A. P. Volzhskie bulgary. Moscow, 1951.
Ocherki istorii SSSR IX-XV vv. Part 1. Pages 717–23; Part 2. Pages 423–33. Moscow, 1953.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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