The Rise of Muscovy

No, not Muscovy ducks.  We’re talking about the country that used to be called Muscovy, until it ruled all of Russia.  From Chapter 3 of my Russian history series.


The Rise of Muscovy

Novgorod was the most important Russian city in the late thirteenth century. We saw how Alexander Nevsky kept the Mongols from plundering Novgorod, and being part of the European trade network made it the richest Russian city as well. The goods exported from Russia in the past remained in demand, especially amber, but with living standards improving in Europe (for Europeans, the best years of the Middle Ages occurred in the thirteenth century), the demand for furs increased greatly. One reason for the increased demand was because Europeans had more money to spend. The other reason was that the supply of fur-bearing animals was running low in other parts of Europe, thanks to over-hunting by fur trappers and the cutting down of forests to make room for more farms and towns. Even around Russian cities which had been important in the past, like Kiev, it was getting harder to make a living by fur trading; the trappers had literally killed the fox with the golden pelt, so to speak. However, the northern taiga had not yet been fully exploited, and Novgorod’s northern location, combined with the Mongols sacking the other north Russian cities, meant Novgorod was the city best suited to take advantage of the fur trade moving north.

Map of the Republic of Novgorod, 1400.
Territory held by the Republic of Novgorod, 1400. The city of Novgorod itself is located in the lower left corner of the green area.
Picture source:

Novgorodian fur traders set up outposts as far away as the northern Urals, and in the process of exploring the land, they reached the mouth of the Ob River, in northwest Siberia. This allowed Novgorod to claim all land north of the other Russian cities, making it the largest Russian state in the thirteen and fourteenth centuries (see the above map). As you might expect, the traders bagged some of the fur-bearing animals, but more often they enlisted the Finno-Ugric tribes of the taiga, like the Komi, to do the hunting for them. If both the traders and the natives were in a friendly mood, they could exchange furs for Russian-made goods, such as iron cooking pots and axes; otherwise the traders might demand a certain number of furs as a tax or tribute, and the indigenous people would pay up to avoid trouble.

1658 woodcut of a squirrel hunt.

For the European market, the furs most in demand were squirrel pelts, because it had become fashionable to edge woolen pieces of clothing with squirrel fur. Unfortunately, we now think the Black Death got started when the hunters caught some Russian squirrels infected with bubonic plague. Picture source:

At this point I like to speculate on a question fit for alternate history: What if Novgorod became the capital of a reunited Russia, instead of Moscow? Would Russia have become a commercially-oriented state, less traumatized by Mongol oppression, and less inclined to have an authoritarian/totalitarian government? In this universe, it was not meant to be, for in the fourteenth century, power among the independent Russian city-states would shift back to where it had been in the twelfth century — to one of the cities in the northeast. The city of Vladimir never fully recovered after the Mongols sacked it in 1238, but the strongest prince in this region was still called the Grand Duke of Vladimir, allowing him to call his state the Great Principality of Vladimir, whether he lived in Suzdal, Moscow or wherever. Probably the first sign that things were changing came in the 1330s, when the prince of Moscow began “flipping” the fur traders in the Urals, persuading them to switch their loyalty from Novgorod to him.

Before 1300 Moscow was an insignificant city, dwarfed by larger neighbors such as Rostov, Ryazan, Suzdal and Tver. Its true importance was illustrated by Alexander Nevsky’s last will & testament; the lands he ruled were divided between his thirteen sons, and Moscow went to Daniel, the youngest. Daniel proved to be a more than competent leader, though, by conquering two neighboring tracts of land, including the city of Kolomna, and claiming a third when its owner died childless. When Daniel’s reign ended in 1303, he left his heirs a principality that was twice as big as when he started.

The next important Muscovite prince was Ivan I (1328-41), nicknamed Kalita, or “Moneybag.” Ivan was so good at acquiring money that once the Mongols gave him the yarlyk, or tribute-collecting permit, he kept it for his entire reign, and he used it to enrich Moscow greatly. As a token of respect for his efficient leadership, the Khan also gave Ivan the title of Grand Duke of Vladimir, and he looked the other way when Ivan added to it the portentous phrase “and of all Russia.”


How Muscovy grew, 1300-1462.

The next eight monarchs that ruled Moscow, from Simeon to Ivan IV, were all successful at enlarging the Muscovite state, never passing up an opportunity to grab some more land for Moscow. That was one reason why Moscow grew to become the most important city of modern Russia, and others are listed below:

1. Moscow’s central location between the other surviving Russian city-states of the fourteenth century.

2. Muscovite princes were long-lived and more competent than their counterparts in other cities.

3. Russian princes were still following the custom of dividing their estates equally between their sons, though it had caused nothing but trouble since Kievan times. Moscow modified this practice: one son was given the lion’s share of the inheritance, forcing the other sons to submit to him if they wished to keep the scraps of land left to them.

4. The support of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1300 the leader of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan of Kiev, transferred his see (headquarters) to Vladimir, but only stayed there for a few years before he decided he liked living in Moscow better. From this time on the clergy actively helped manage the state, and they used the weapon of excommunication against Moscow’s enemies.

It was under the prince Dmitri Donskoy (1359-89) that Moscow became strong enough to do what was once unthinkable: fight the Golden Horde and win. In 1378 he stopped paying tribute, and the Mongols gathered together 200,000 troops for the usual punitive expedition. Unlike the times before this, the other Russian city-states stopped their petty bickering and helped Moscow assemble an army of 150,000, and the Church sent its blessings as well. At the battle of Kulikovo Pole (Snipe’s Field, September 8, 1380), the Mongols were defeated and sent fleeing back south, but at a awful cost; only 40,000 able-bodied Russians survived, and Dmitri himself was found half dead and surrounded by corpses, his armor shattered and pounded in. Dmitri became a national hero, and the memory of Kulikovo Pole made the Russians stop asking if the Mongol yoke can be thrown off; the new question was, “When will liberation come?”

Pavel Ryzhenko's painting of Kulikovo.

The battle of Kulikovo Pole. From a 2005 painting by Pavel Ryzhenko.

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