Ivan the Great


Now from Chapter 3 of my Russian history series, here is how Ivan III, also called Ivan the Great, made Moscow great.

Ivan the Great

Because of the Golden Horde’s troubles from 1395 onward, Vasili I did not have to pay the full tribute the Mongols demanded; he paid nothing until 1412, and just sent the khan "gifts" after that. The next prince, Vasili II, was only ten years old when the crown passed to him, so he enjoyed a long reign (1425-62), but most of it was spent in a struggle over who was in charge. The trouble happened because Vasili I and his predecessor, Dmitri Donskoy, had written wills that conflicted with one another; Vasili I had understandably declared his son Vasili II would be his heir, while Dmitri’s will stated that if Vasili I died before his brother Yuri, Yuri would get the crown next. Now Vasili I did not have any sons while Dmitri was alive, but Yuri insisted it was too late to amend the will, and looked for a way to stake his claim. First, he tried to get the khan of the Great Horde to declare him prince, but the khan recognized Vasili II instead. Next, in 1433 Yuri raised and army and attacked Moscow. A see-saw struggle went on for a year, where Yuri won first and sent Vasili to the town of Kolomna, Vasili came back with a new army, Yuri withdrew to the town of Galich, and then marched on Moscow a second time. Vasili fled to Nizhny Novgorod, and Yuri captured his family and treasury; Yuri was planning to go after Vasili when he died suddenly in 1434. Yuri’s eldest son, Vasili the Cross-Eyed, immediately proclaimed himself the new Grand Duke, but the other son, Dmitri Shemyaka, joined the faction supporting Vasili II. When Vasili II returned to Moscow in 1435, Vasili the Cross-Eyed was captured and blinded, removing him as a contender.

The next challenge came from the new Khanate of Kazan. Vasili II had to flee when the Mongols attacked Moscow in 1439; in 1445, during a battle at Suzdal, they captured him, and held him until Moscow paid the ransom they demanded. Unfortunately for Vasili, his cousin Dmitri Shemyaka had run Moscow while he was held prisoner by the Mongols, and Dmitri had not forgotten what Vasili did to his brother. As soon as Vasili was returned, Dmitri had him blinded, so sometimes we refer to Vasili II as "Vasili the Blind." Then Dmitri had him exiled to outlying towns, first to Uglich, then to Vologda. But Vasili remained more popular than Dmitri, and by the end of 1446 he managed to gather enough supporters behind him to regain the throne. Dmitri withdrew northward, and a civil war waged between them until 1453, when Dmitri was poisoned. The sons of Dmitri fled to Lithuania, and Vasili removed the local princes that had supported Dmitri. Finally, during the civil war a Mongol prince named Qasim defected from Kazan, and Vasili installed him as prince of Novy Nizovoy, a town near Ryazan (1452). Soon that town was renamed Kasimov, and Qasim’s family ruled it until 1681. In that way, Vasili reversed the roles of lord & vassal that had existed for the past two centuries.

During the last nine years of his reign the blind Vasili was able to rule in peace, with the help of some boyars and the head of the Russian Church, Metropolitan Jonah. He also crowned his son Ivan III as co-ruler, which gave Ivan plenty of experience before Vasili’s death in 1462.

Ivan III (1462-1505), was a cautious man who "always took two bites at a cherry," preferred to let his troops go into battle without him (uncommon in the age of chivalry), and was afraid of the dark. Nevertheless, once he ruled alone, Ivan proved to be a shrewd leader, and is known to us as "Ivan the Great" for these accomplishments: the unification of Russia under Muscovite authority, the end of Mongol domination, and the transformation of the government into an absolute monarchy. These are described in more detail below.

1. Unification under Moscow: Like his ancestors, Ivan used every trick in the book to gain more land–cash purchase, inheritance, treaties signed under duress, and when all else failed, war. He started by buying Yaroslavl (1463) and Rostov (1474). He also conquered Novgorod (1478) and Tver (1485), and persuaded many Russian nobles in Lithuania to transfer their allegiance to Ivan; this move started the rolling back of the Polish-Lithuanian frontier. Ivan bequeathed to his son Vasili III a great nation covering 55,000 square miles, 110 times the size of the 500 sq. mi. fief that Alexander Nevsky had given Daniel 242 years earlier.

Ivan’s greatest triumph was the conquest of Novgorod, the last stronghold of Kievan Russian culture. We saw previously how the fortunes of "Lord Novgorod the Great" were riding high in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Its government, dominated by the Veche, was the most democratic one that Russia ever had; it could even, and often did, vote the prince of the city out of office. Ivan’s covetous eye upon Novgorod’s wealth, combined with large numbers of Muscovites moving to Novgorod’s lands in the Urals, brought a war in 1478. When Novgorod fell Ivan dissolved the Veche, carried the Veche’s bell (a symbol of liberty) off to Moscow, and deported the Novgorod boyars to remote areas, starting a practice for removing troublemakers that tsars and communist officials have used ever since. Finally, the lands held by Novgorod gave Moscow access to the White Sea and the Baltic Sea (via the Gulf of Finland). On the Baltic shore, next to the German town of Narva, Ivan built the fortress of Ivangorod in 1492, so two hundred years before Peter I, Russia had its first "window to the west."

2. Liberation from the Mongols: Ivan spent the 1470s forming alliances against the Golden Horde, with the Kazan and Crimean Khanates, and even Uzun Hasan, the current Turkish leader in western Iran. Once all those states were on his side, he announced he wasn’t going to pay tribute anymore. In 1480 the Mongols sent an army, the Muscovites sent theirs, and the two forces met on opposite banks of the Ugra River, 150 miles south of Moscow. Ahmed Khan was even more cautious than Ivan III, so for weeks they watched each other, neither willing to cross the river and make the first move. Ivan did not want to cross the river because he wasn’t confident he could win on the Mongol side, while Ahmed Khan was worried that troops from the Crimean Khanate would strike in the rear of his army. Finally the troops got restless and both sides went home. This curious stand-down, sometimes called "the non-battle of the Ugra," marks the end of Mongol domination over Russia. Nomad raids on Russia would be a problem as late as the eighteenth century, but never again did the Russians pay tribute to a foreign power.

Ahmed Khan was killed the following January, in a raid from his Siberian rivals, the Shaybanids. The last twenty-one years of the Golden Horde’s history saw constant fighting between three of Ahmed Khan’s sons: Shaykh Ahmed, Sayyid Ahmed II, and Murtada. This state of anarchy ensured that nothing the mini-khans tried would be successful. When they invaded Poland-Lithuania in 1487, they got as far as the Polish city of Lublin, before going down in defeat. Then in 1500 Muscovy went to war with Poland-Lithuania, and the Golden Horde allied itself with the latter, to stop Ivan III. But Ivan’s alliance with the Khanate of the Crimea was still good; in 1502 Mengli Giray, the Crimean khan, marched to the Volga, sacked Sarai, and the Golden Horde was no more. Finis.

3. The establishment of absolute monarchy: Ivan’s wife was Sophia Paleologus, a niece of the last Byzantine emperor, who had died fighting the Turks when they took Constantinople in 1453. This marriage made Ivan heir to whatever was left from Byzantium. He made the two-headed eagle, a symbol of the Byzantine emperors, the emblem of Moscow’s rulers, and gave himself a new title, Tsar, meaning "Caesar" (Czar in Polish). The Church helped by making some contributions of its own. Among them was a remarkable genealogy invented for Ivan that traced his lineage (correctly) back to the founding Varangian father, Rurik–but then went on to trace Rurik’s forefathers back through 15 fictitious generations to a brother of Caesar Augustus, "proving" that Ivan III was the heir of Rome & Byzantium not only by marriage, but by blood as well.

Ivan III

Ivan III.

More interesting to us is the "Third Rome" theory, first proposed at this time by a monk named Philotheos. Basically, it stated that when Rome fell to the barbarians in the fifth century, God gave His earthly authority to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. But eventually Constantinople also fell into sin, culminating with its submission to the pope in 1438, in a last-ditch effort to bring in help from the West before the city fell to the Turks. Now God’s city on earth was Moscow, the capital of the last Orthodox Christian nation; as Philotheos put it, "Two Romes have fallen, a third stands, and a fourth there shall not be." To those who subscribe to this theory, the Roman Empire’s final end came with the death of the last tsar in 1918.

Life under an autocratic Russia became more oppressive as time went on. The first to feel it were the boyars, who lost most of their privileges to Ivan III and his successors. Those who suffered the most, however, were those on the bottom of the social ladder–the peasants. In earlier times there were few restrictions placed on the movements of peasants, and they could work for anyone they liked. But the only way to guarantee a supply of peasant labor when it is needed is to bind each peasant firmly to one piece of land. The way the boyar landlords did that was to loan them money, forcing the peasants to keep working for the same landlord until the debt had been paid. Unfortunately most peasants could never earn enough to do that; most could barely meet the excessive interest rates charged them, and so they remained, year after year, in a condition not much better than bondage. This was the beginning of 400 years of Russian feudalism.

For those peasants who could not take this kind of life, the answer was to run away, to the southern and eastern frontiers of the country. Along the Dnieper and Don Rivers, these lawless frontiersmen adopted the nomadic life of the barbarians who had lived there before and came to be known as Cossacks. The Cossacks were fiercely independent, electing their leaders (known by the title of "hetman") by popular vote, and living by hunting, fishing, or raiding somebody else; farming was forbidden, because it symbolized the oppressive life they had freed themselves from. Since they hated the Poles, Lithuanians, Mongols and Turks as much as any other Russian did, they would help the tsar in his foreign wars, but if the tsar or the boyars tried to get their runaway peasants back, the Cossacks would proudly boast, "There is no extradition from the Don."

The next tsar, Vasili III (1505-33), was too colorless to be mentioned in most history books, but he completed the work of reunification that his father had started, annexing Pskov (1510) and Ryazan (1521), and taking Smolensk from Lithuania (1514). This left about three and a half million Russians still under Lithuanian rule, and it would take nearly three centuries before all of them were brought under the rule of the tsars.

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