RISE OF MUSCOVY AND THE EARLY TSARS OF RUSSIA

RISE OF MUSCOVY

The development of the Russian state can be traced from Vladimir-Suzdal' through Muscovy to the Russian Empire. Muscovy drew people and wealth to the northeastern periphery of Kievan Rus'; established trade links to the Baltic Sea, the White Sea, and the Caspian Sea and to Siberia; and created a highly centralized and autocratic political system. Muscovite political traditions, therefore, exerted a powerful influence on Russian society. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

When the Mongols invaded the lands of Kievan Rus', Moscow was an insignificant trading outpost in the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal'. The outpost's remote, forested location offered some security from Mongol attack and occupation, and a number of rivers provided access to the Baltic and Black seas and to the Caucasus region. More important to Moscow's development in what became the state of Muscovy, however, was its rule by a series of princes who were ambitious, determined, and lucky. In 1327 the Orthodox metropolitan transferred his residency from Vladimir to Moscow, further enhancing the prestige of the new principality. *

In the fourteenth century, the grand princes of Muscovy began gathering Russian lands to increase the population and wealth under their rule. The most successful practitioner of this process was Ivan III (the Great; r. 1462-1505), who conquered Novgorod in 1478 and Tver' in 1485. Muscovy gained full sovereignty over the ethnically Russian lands in 1480 when Mongol overlordship ended officially, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century virtually all those lands were united. Through inheritance, Ivan obtained part of the province of Ryazan', and the princes of Rostov and Yaroslavl' voluntarily subordinated themselves to him. The northwestern city of Pskov remained independent in this period, but Ivan's son, Vasiliy III (r. 1505-33), later conquered it.

Tsars

The title tsar (czar) was derived from Caesar and was the Russian title for the Byzantine emperor or the Great Khan. It was first used by Ivan III to describe an absolute monarchy endowed by "the grace of god." The historian Sergei Letin told National Geographic, "One of the main features of our outlook was the faith in the kind tsar. A Russian tsar wasn't just the head of a big government but the head of a big family."

By the fifteenth century, the rulers of Muscovy considered the entire Russian territory their collective property. Gradually, the Muscovite ruler emerged as a powerful, autocratic ruler, a tsar. By assuming that title, the Muscovite prince underscored that he was a major ruler or emperor on a par with the emperor of the Byzantine Empire or the Mongol khan. At first, the term autocrat connoted only the literal meaning of an independent ruler, but in the reign of Ivan IV (r. 1533-84) it came to mean unlimited rule. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The development of the tsar's autocratic powers reached a peak during the reign of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible). Ivan IV was crowned tsar and thus was recognized, at least by the Orthodox Church, as emperor. An Orthodox monk had claimed that, once Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Muscovite tsar was the only legitimate Orthodox ruler and that Moscow was the Third Rome because it was the final successor to Rome and Constantinople, the centers of Christianity in earlier periods. That concept was to resonate in the self-image of Russians in future centuries.

The tsar's symbol—the double head eagle-came from the Byzantine Empire. After the break up of the Soviet Union the double-headed eagle was adopted as the symbol of Russia. It now adorns the nationalist flag.

Fragmentation and Decline of the Mongols

In the 1440s, the Golden Horde fragmented into several khanates, including Kazan, Astrakhan and Crimea. They held on until 1502. Tamerlane's battles with the Gold Horde in southern Russia, weakened the Mongol’s hold in that region, allowing Russian vassal states to gain power and eventually throw the Mongols out.

The Moscow princes colluded with their Mongol overlord. They extracted tributes and taxes from their subjects and subjugated other principalities. Eventually they grew strong enough to challenge their Mongol overlords and defeat them. The Mongols burned down Moscow a couple of times even after their influence had waned.

The Grands Dukes of Muscovy eventually formed an alliance against the Mongols. Duke Dimitri III Donskoi (ruled (1359-89) defeated the Mongols in a great battle at Kulikovo on the Don River in 1380 and drove them from the Moscow area. The Mongols crushed the Russian rebellion with a costly three-year campaign. Over the decades they had become weak and were eventually defeated by Tamerlane in the 14th century. Unable to completely unify, the Russian prince remained vassals of the Mongols until 1480.

In 1552, Ivan the Terrible drove the last Mongol knanates out of Russia with decisive victories in Kazan and Astrakhan. This opened the way for the expansion of the Russian empire southward and across Siberia to the Pacific. In 1783, Catherine the Great annexed the last Mongol stronghold in Crimea, where the people (Mongols who had intermarried with local Turks) were known as Tartars.

Rise of Lithuania-Poland

As the power of Mongols in the west declined, the power of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom in the east rose. The Duchy of Lithuania began expanding into Kievian Rus in the 14th century but was mostly a nuisance until the Lithuanian ruler Jogaila married a the Polish queen Jadwiga in 1386 creating a union between two of Europe's most powerful states.

The pagan Lithuanians embraced Catholicism like their Polish allies and took control of much of the Ukraine and parts of western Russia. The Dukes of Muscovey attempted to halt Lithuanian-Polish expansion and portrayed the Catholic and the Pope as heretics and declared that Russian Orthodoxy was Christianity in purest form.

After the death of Dimitri Donskoi’s son in 1425, the Dukes of Muscovy were ousted as the heirs to Rurik dynasty—with Mongol and Lithuanian help—and a period of princely rivalry continued until Ivan the Great appeared on the scene.

Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky (ruled 1252-1263) is regarded as a Russian century hero and later a saint in the Russian church. He defended Russia against an invasion of Teutonic knights and defeated the Swedes on the Neva river in 1240 near present-day St. Petersburg. Nevsky was one of the Russian princes who collaborated with the Mongols. The Mongoleader Batu Khan made him the Grand Prince of Russia. He and his successor acted as go-betweens between the Mongols and other Russian princes, who often feuded among themselves. .

Nevsky was the subject of a famous film by Sergei Eisenstein. After recovering from a long illness Eisenstein made Alexander Nevsky (1938), a patriotic historical epic about Nevsky’s defense the against invasion of Teutonic knights from Germany. The composer Sergei Prokiev did the score for the film—regarded as one of the best ever—in collaboration with Eisenstein. The battle scenes were based on descriptions of war in heaven in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Alexander Nevsky was Eisenstein's first film with sound and is regarded as one of the great battle films of all time. Set in 1242, it is an operatic epic with massive crowd scenes that appear to stretch beyond the horizon, battle scenes that suggest slaughter without graphic violence, and themes that were both intimate and heroic.

The focus of the film is essentially one battle: the Battle on the Ice of Lake Chudskoe in 1242 between orderly, organized Teutonic knights and a rough-hewn Russian peasant army, armed with only staves and axes. Featuring of hand-to-hand combat scenes mixed with large crowd scenes and shots takem from slanting and diagonal perspectives, the battle is broken into five movements: 1) The German advance; 2) The Russian counterattack; 3) the German retreat; 4) the massive drowning that occurs when the ice breaks under German soldiers ; and 5) the aftermath with bodies of the dead and wounded, floating with chunks of ice down a river, followed by a Mother Russia figure, holding a torch, singing “If you died for Russia as a brave man dies/ I will plant a kiss on your eyes.”.

Grand Dukes of Moscow

Alexander' Nevskys son Daniil Aleksandrovich (ruled 1276-1303) was the first leader to be called the Duke of Muscovy and first ruler of the principality of Muscovy. His successor Ivan I kept the title. Daniil Aleksandrovich (d. 1303) secured the principality for his branch of the Rurik Dynasty.

Prince Ivan I (ruled 1325-1340) was nicknamed Ivan Kalita ("Money Bags"), for his tax collecting skills for the Mongols. He was the first Russian leader to be recognized as Grand Prince by the Mongols. He cooperated closely with the Mongols and collected tribute from other Russian principalities on their behalf. This relationship enabled Ivan to gain regional ascendancy, particularly over Muscovy's chief rival, the northern city of Tver'. He obtained the title "Grand Prince of Vladimir" from his Mongol overlords.

The Dukes of Muscovy were strengthened when the Orthodox Church moved to Moscow from Vladimir in the 1320. In time they became regarded as the leaders of Russia and later still became the Russian tsars. Among the Dukes of Muscovy were three Ivans. The Orthodox church remained headquartered in Kiev until 1300, when it moved to Vladimir and then moved again to Moscow in the 1327.

Duke Dimitri III and the Mongols

The Grands Dukes of Muscovy eventually formed an alliance against the Mongols. Duke Dimitri III Donskoi (ruled (1359-89) defeated the Mongols in a great battle at Kulikovo on the Don River in 1380 and drove them from the Moscow area. He was canonized after his death.

The Mongols crushed the Russian rebellion with a costly three-year campaign. Over the decades they had become weak and were eventually defeated by Tamerlane in the 14th century. Unable to completely unify, the Russian prince remained vassals of the Mongols until 1480. In 1552, Ivan the Terrible drove the last Mongol knanates out of Russia with decisive victories in Kazan and Astrakhan. This opened the way for the expansion of the Russian empire southward and across Siberia to the Pacific.

Ivan III

Ivan III (born 1440, ruled 1462-1505) is also known as Ivan the Great. He is credited with making Russian an independent state, expanding Russian territory and creating an administration system capable of holding the state together. By the fifteenth century, the rulers of Muscovy considered the entire Russian territory their collective property. Various semi-independent princes still claimed specific territories, but Ivan III forced the lesser princes to acknowledge the grand prince of Muscovy and his descendants as unquestioned rulers with control over military, judicial, and foreign affairs. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Ivan III was the first Muscovite ruler to use the titles of tsar and "Ruler of all Rus'." He competed with his powerful northwestern rival Lithuania for control over some of the semi-independent former principalities of Kievan Rus' in the upper Dnepr and Donets river basins. Through the defections of some princes, border skirmishes, and a long, inconclusive war with Lithuania that ended only in 1503, Ivan III was able to push westward, and Muscovy tripled in size under his rule.

Ivan III made Moscow into a strong military state and slowly pieced together a bona fied state by conquering the other Russian principalities one by one. Novgorod was conquered in 1478. Tver fell in 1485, followed by Vyatka in 1489. By 1480, Ivan III was strong enough to refuse the payment of the customary tribute to the Great Khans. The Mongols sent an army against him at the Ugra River southwest of Moscow but they withdrew without fighting. This marked the end of Moscow's subjugation to the Mongols.

After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Ivan III married Sophia Paleologue, the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. This gave credibility to the claim that Moscow (the "Third Rome") was the successor to Constantinople and that Orthodox Russia was the successor the Byzantine Empire. Ivan III marriage also meant that Russia tsars became the leaders of the Orthodox Church. Sophia introduced Byzantine court etiquette to the Kremlin. The Muscovite court adopted Byzantine terms, rituals, titles, and emblems such as the double-headed eagle.

Ivan III and Serfdom

Serfdom began in the medieval period and has its roots in the rule of Ivan III. When he captured Novgorod in 1478 he threw out West-leaning governors and closed Russia's "Window to the West." He replaced the traditional patrimonial system ( votchina), in which noblemen had absolute control over their land and people, with a new system of land tenure ( pomestie, or "estate"), in which noblemen had to answer Ivan III. Those that didn't had their land confiscated.

The move was mainly political: to keep the princes from acting too independently and rebelling and causing trouble. The new system changed society. The new landowners were often little more than administrative civil servants, mostly interested in maintaining in control. Before 1500, peasants often had a fair amount of freedom. After meeting the needs of their landowner, they were free to work for themselves and even change their masters. The new system tied them to the land.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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