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In the Beginning…

The chain of events which led to the foundation of Muscovy and its eventual emergence as a sovereign power is lengthy and convoluted. Among the many difficulties it faced in its ascent were lengthy subjection to the Golden Horde, raids conducted by fragmenting Mongol khanates and Timur’s rogue lieutenants, a civil war (instigated by Iurii Dmitrievich, following a dispute over the system of succession instituted by Vasilii I) and the waning of Byzantine power (and so too the power of the Orthodox Church). Even then, Russian history is characterised by internal disputes, as each city strove to best its neighbours (although it must be remembered that each city claimed territory equivalent to that of a western European kingdom). Amid the clamour, Muscovy became the dominant power. It must be understood why this is the case and what ramifications this fact has before a chronology of events and policies can have any significant meaning.

Nobody could have predicted - even at the beginning of the 14th century - that Moscow would become the foremost power in Russia. It began life inauspiciously, as a mere fortified frontier post for the principality of Suzdal (first mentioned as such in 1147). It seems to have become an independent political entity around the time of Aleksandr Nevskii’s death in 1263 (as it was given to his two-year-old son, Daniil). Other principalities began to recognise its power in 1301-1304, as it expanded by annexing Mozhaisk, Pereiaslavl and Kolomna. It now had control of almost all of the Moscow River and its tributaries as far as the Oka confluence, as well as the upper basin of the Kliazma River, with sufficient (and relatively fertile) territory to provide access to Vladimir itself.

As a consequence of this confused origin, Muscovy seems to have displayed an acute schizophrenia in its first steps as a sovereign state. There were, after all, many questions to be answered as to the nature of the state itself and much confusion as to what or whom it owed its identity. Was it a European kingdom? The sheer geographical isolation of its position would suggest not, although political links with Byzantium, Lithuania, Poland, Germany (the Holy Roman Empire and Teutonic Knights) and other Russian cities ensured that it was not entirely cast adrift. Was it, perhaps, a steppe khanate? Two centuries of Mongol domination (and the constant press of nomads against its borders) must surely have left their mark, after all. Much more appealing than either, though, was the notion that Muscovy would become a successor to the city of Constantinople (lost in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks) as the heart of Orthodoxy (a ‘Third Rome’, as it was thought). This too engendered some confusion, however, as there was disparity over whether the greatest significance lay in the concept of imperial authority or fastidious Orthodox belief; it can certainly be seen that the prosperity of the Orthodox Church was linked to the will of the ruler.

Hierarchy and Geography

In truth a little of all three ideals was incorporated into the new nation, but the lattermost factor was the most symbolic with regard to the strengthening national ideal of Rus, for it meant that a strong political and spiritual authority became an inherent characteristic of the state. Despite the eagerness of the church to adopt the titles of samoderzhets (‘autocrat’) and tsar (‘basileus’, or ‘emperor’), however, there were some misgivings amongst the grand princes as to which of these titles they could legitimately lay claim and what exactly they engendered. At first, the title tsar (a derivation of Caesar, by way of Russian tsisari and Old Slavonic tsesari; further allusions to Roman heritage) was merely used in the same sense as ‘khan’ (meaning that they had authority to grant safe passage across the steppes, for it was seen that they had legitimately supplanted the Kipchaks in this regard). Thereafter the term was cautiously expanded and affiliated with gosudar vseia Rusi (‘sovereign of all Rus’, 1493). Small steps were taken (such as the adoption of the double-headed eagle, in its Byzantine form, on the princely seal) until Ivan IV’s coronation in 1547, at which point the term tsar became the official title for all grand princes of Moscow from that point onward. So too was the role of the peasantry cemented in tradition - the reverence shown toward the mir (‘village’, but also ‘world’ or ‘peace’), and the doctrine of serfdom (which attempted to ensure a settled population) would long be Russian characteristics.

Women were afforded a surprisingly broad gamut of rights. Any woman not directly provided for by a husband or father was able to inherit land in the interests of her subsistence. Her property was also kept distinct from her husband’s upon marriage, and for the same reason. Indeed, in contravention of the prevailing stance on gender equity at the end of the 15th century, women were able to own and dispose of property (both estates and transportable possessions) on a level almost on par with their male counterparts. Unfortunately, the rights of some well-enfranchised women were curtailed as the centralised state continued to grow in the 16th century; the line which indicated joint property ownership was blurred (generally to the detriment of the woman, although the same consideration for well-being was generally shown) and noble women were sequestered in such an extreme manner as nearly to prevent contact with any unwanted (or merely unknown) male visitors. This was probably derived from the Byzantine practice, and the Orthodox Church’s reprimands with relation to sexual impropriety were severe (exemplified by the handbook Domostroi).

The state’s identity, the rights of its people and the authority of its monarch having been settled, the immediate situation called for appraisal. Muscovy was situated in a unique position, tethered to Europe by political relations and simultaneously seated astride the nigh-endless steppes of Asia. The absence of natural borders and the semi-nomadic nature of much of its population meant that its borders were the least stable of any major power, but also that they had the greatest capacity to expand. Hence, Muscovy’s (and later Russia’s) greatest power and most crippling weakness would always be the vast space it occupied. This said, it must be noted that territorial expansion was not necessarily beneficial to Muscovy, for although such actions brought more lands and resources under its sway it also appeared to be threatening to the remnants of the Golden Horde (now merely a semi-agricultural realm, but with power enough to harm the state), Sweden, Lithuania-Poland, the Teutonic Knights, Denmark, the Ottoman Empire and the khanates of Crimea, Siberia, Kazan and Astrakhan. Muscovy was anything but secure, despite its new-found stability.

Ivan III and Vasilii III: Sovereignty of all Rus

Nonetheless, Ivan III (1462-1505) began a ruthless and effective campaign to gain control over all the lands of Rus. He had little emotional attachment to family members, at one stage marrying his daughter to a Lithuanian then abandoning her to imprisonment and death in that country. His son Vasilii III (1505-1533), although only chosen as heir after lengthy deliberation, proved a worthy successor. Between the two of them and a mixture of dynastic marriage, inheritance, political pressure and outright force the princely territories of Iaroslavl, Rostov, Tver and Riazan fell to Moscow’s sway. The greatest acquisition, though, was Novgorod (annexed in 1478). Weakened after centuries of feuding between boyar clans (there had been no single ruler since Aleksandr Nevskii’s death in the early 14th century) and capitulation between external powers (usually Tver or Moscow), it was held to be both an economic giant and a political weakling and although much of its wealth had been dependent on the Golden Horde’s patronage, it nonetheless permitted Muscovy direct access to the Baltic Sea, as well as some three million acres of populated agricultural land.

While these successes were achieved in the north, though, a threat was arising in the south. In the 1460s, Akhmat Khan (although not recognised as Kipchak Khan by any of the other successor states) gathered several clans and attempted to force Moscow to pay tribute. By 1480 he had concluded an alliance with Lithuania and made efforts to instigate dynastic conflict by asking for help from two of Ivan III’s brothers, Andrei and Boris. Ivan responded by forming an alliance with the Crimean Khan (thereby creating a similar threat for Akhmat as he faced from Lithuania) and gathering an army of comparable size to that commanded by his nemesis. Unable to force passage across the river into Muscovite territory, the Tatars quickly fell to anarchy and began to undertake petty raids in surrounding districts. Many people consider this (virtually nonexistent) war of the 1480s to be the official end of the Mongol Tatar yoke over eastern Europe and although for three centuries after this point they would continue to launch slave-gathering raids and even raze towns, they would no longer constitute a threat to the Russian state. In fact, it was immediately evident that none of the successor states was strong enough to mount a similar challenge for the collection of tribute. In 1502 overlordship of the Golden Horde passed to Mengli Girei, the Crimean Khan, and all of its nomadic resources were moved south and west into his territory.

Having captured all the foremost lands of Rus and removed whatever threat had existed in the south, Muscovy’s attention turned to Lithuania which, although far too strong to be annexed outright, could be slowly worn away. Indeed, a policy of steadily gnawing away its eastern territories was adopted and Smolensk was recaptured in 1514, assisted by the defection of several prominent Lithuanian boyar families.

In summation, Muscovy had systematically removed all immediate threats and was now in command of an immense territory. There was no question that it possessed all of the resources it required, but communication and transportation would inevitably be a problem. The issue was, essentially, getting the resources where they needed to go, so as to feed the population, raise armies to maintain order and continue to enhance the grandeur of the state. The institution of civil and military bureaucracies was now necessary, and it was no longer possible for the monarch to know all of his servants. It is said that the greatest triumph of the west during the Renaissance was the creation of governmental agencies which had outgrown the personalities of their leader, and so it was the case with Muscovy. The posts of dvorestskii (‘majordomo’), koniushii (‘equerry’) and kaznachei (‘treasurer’) were transformed from domestic posts to major governmental appointments, responsible for many state functions. Diaki (state secretaries) were charged with keeping detailed written records of all transactions and as it was important to reduce bias wherever possible, they were not recruited from among the boyar clans.

Furthermore, Ivan III instituted a postal system (obviously replicating that of the Mongols; he even used the same word - iam - to describe it). Each iam was comprised of a postal station and inn and couriers, foreign envoys or people with high status could produce a podorozhnaia (‘route pass’) in order to secure lodging, food, horses and coaches (or sledges, according to seasonal variation). Iamy connected important routes, radiating outward from Moscow to Pskov, Novgorod, Smolensk (via Mozhaisk and Viazma), Murom and the Oka-Volga confluence (and so to Nizhnii Novgorod and Kazan). Sigismund von Herberstein, a Habsburg envoy, reported that it allowed him to travel around 500 Kilometres in 72 hours and that it was therefore the most efficient road system in Europe.

The military also enjoyed a significant degree of advancement. Where previously it had been comprised of a smattering of druzhina cavalry and serf levies led by boyars and princes, it was transformed into a markedly more efficient force, able to mobilize and dispatch units swiftly (in a similar fashion to steppe armies). Nobles were required to provide a number of infantrymen and auxiliary troops, fully outfitted for battle, and as gunpowder weapons became more widespread, arquebusiers (then musketeers) and artillery operators were recruited from the urban population. Artillery was used sparingly (the first cannon foundry was set up in Moscow in 1475) as there was no equipment to transport it.

It is also significant that to the original Muscovite families whose scions led armies in battle (the Obolenskie, Saburovy, Koshkiny, Khovriny, Cherliadniny and Morozovy) were added the Kholmskie of Tver, the Iaroslavkie of Iaroslavl and the Belskie, Vorotynskie, Belevskie, Mezetskie and Novosilskie of Lithuania. This had the effect of consolidating conquered territories under Muscovite rule (there is a conspicuous absence of terms like ‘de’ or ‘von’, suggesting that families were not tied to any particular locality), thereby further solidifying the state, although the destruction of the powerful Patrikeevy family on Ivan III’s whim certainly bears evidence of the near-absolute power which resided within the grand prince’s grasp.

Near, say I, but it would be an erroneous assumption to say that the grand prince or tsar was able to bend all opponents to his will - the destruction of the Patrikeevy likely reflected the interests of prominent boyar clans, and the monarch was nevertheless bound to work always for the benefit of the state (albeit due to a divine mandate, as it was thought). It was the simple truth that both grand prince/tsar and boyar had a vested interest in projecting the all-powerful image of the monarch, and as boyars had the right of access to the court, it was common for the monarch and his underlings to work together (in the Boyar Duma, although the term was invented in the 19th century) - even to make compromises - in resolving conflicts; one example of such a compromise was the Subednik of 1497, which universalised legal proceedings. Essentially, the boyars made suggestions and the grand prince passed resolutions.

Ivan IV and the Kingdom of God

At any rate, Muscovy was becoming ever more grandiose and fervent when Ivan IV (known as ‘the Terrible’) ascended to the throne at the tender age of 3 in 1533. Novgorod and its subordinate territories had been completely assimilated and despite certain inherent weaknesses, Muscovy was seeking to be considered foremost among all Christian states; in fact, we could terminate the history of the principality of Muscovy here and commence the history of the Russian Empire, but it is important to illustrate the transition more fully. Unfortunately, the Teutonic Knights retained some power in the Baltic, Lithuania had a comparable claim to the heirdom of Kievan Rus (as well as more fertile soil), Sweden and Denmark were both rising and ambitious powers and the successor states to the Golden Horde - although diminished in their ferocity - were backed by the Ottoman Empire, ensuring a constant drain on Muscovy’s resources. It is obvious that Muscovy was still at risk of collapsing from within, as much political feuding (especially between the Glinskie, Belskie and Shuinskie boyar clans) had surrounded the circumstances following his father’s death.

Ivan disliked the boyar clans - a prejudice developed early in life from the poisoning of his mother, the exile of his nurse and (despite the fact that he was never directly threatened) the general climate of violence in which he was raised. He also believed implicitly in the divine mission of Muscovite Rus, forging connections with Byzantine coronation (including the shapka Monomakha and an official endorsement from the Patriarch of Constantinople). He believed implicitly in the Divine Right of Kings, coupled with the notion that he was responsible for the salvation - or damnation - of all people, and as such should be afforded unconstrained power - “though I am a sinner as a man, as Tsar I am righteous.”

Much of Ivan’s reign was concerned with the attempt to reduce squabbling between boyar clans (which he compared to the aristocratic disunity in the face of the Ottoman threat towards Byzantium, which culminated in the ill-portented fall of Constantinople). The establishment of the Council of Reconciliation (a term of modern invention; it had no such formal recognition at the time) in 1549 was designed to extricate the gosudavero delo (‘state’s affairs,’ such as military conflict) from court intrigues and it achieved significant success with the appointment of prikazy (bodies responsible for streamlining the state’s business by offering feedback from local communities). Other notable achievements of Ivan IV include the enlargement of the army (including a 1,000-man elite cavalry force which could be called to arms very rapidly and in a number of capacities), the issuing of a decree (Ulozhenie o sluzhbe) which stated the military duties of all who held landed estates (remarkable because it established the doctrine that all land was held at the monarch’s whim, the inception of new military tactics (which focused more on the use of gunpowder and infantry), the use of Cossacks in the annexation of Kazan and Astrakhan (although his plans to conquer other khanates were aborted), the commissioning of a new style of icon painting (the Church Militant) and the establishment of trading links with England (in 1553).

The expansion of Russian trade in the Baltic under Ivan IV deserves special mention because it is, in many ways, the reason that the Riurikovich dynasty failed. In 1558, Ivan demanded that Russia’s trade (passing, in the main, through Riga and Reval) no longer be left to Livonian merchants. Meeting with an unfavourable reply, he sent an army under A.D. Basmanov which captured the trading port of Narva and began construction of a new fortress-city, Ivangorod. In the next few years Polotsk and Derpt were seized and local landowners were stripped of their estates in order to reward Russian immigrants. Unfortunately, Denmark and Sweden were eager to participate in the dismantling of Livonia; Denmark seized the large island Ösel, while Sweden conquered Reval and north Estland. Worse still, Gustav Kettler (head of the Livonian Order) placed his state under the protection of Lithuania and, in 1569, Poland and Lithuania merged. Ivan’s successes gradually evaporated and he lost control of Polotsk, Narva, Ivangorod and Derpt, as well as strategically important territory in Karelia and in the Gulf of Finland. If this were not enough, a Crimean Tatar army under Devlet-Girei bypassed Muscovy’s fatigued southern defences and sacked Moscow itself. Church bells rang, then fell silent after crashing to the ground.

Although not a lethal threat, these seeming-failures began to drive boyar families away from Muscovy and towards Lithuania. People spoke out against the arbitrary nature of his rule and corruption was rife. He attempted to withdraw from Moscow and create a separate realm - an oprichnina (the word used for a widow’s inheritance; some have posited that he viewed it as being akin to the Spanish Inquisition or the knightly orders), where he could rule as he pleased. Boyars became brigands and by the end of his reign, much of central Muscovy was deserted for fear of taxes and of Ivan himself; he is renowned for murdering his son, Tsarevich Ivan, who endeavoured to protect his wife from his father’s violence. Ivan IV died, penitent and having taken the vows of a monk, in 1584.

The death in 1598 of his mentally retarded son, Fedor Ivanovich, terminated the Riurikovich dynasty. It might seem that, at this juncture, Muscovy was on the brink of collapse. This is deceiving, though, for it was merely a matter of it having overstepped its capacities - essentially, it failed to play an appropriate geopolitical role in attempting to be all things. It becomes evident that the death of the dynasty also symbolises the incontrovertible termination of the principality of Muscovy and the beginning of the Russian Empire. Boris Godunov, regent for Fedor, was elected tsar and during his reign attempted - in the face of extreme adversity - to rebuild Russia and to strengthen its empire.


  • The Times Atlas of World History, various authors; edited by Geoffrey Barraclough.
  • Russia and the Russians, Geoffrey Hosking.

  • Internet:
  • http://www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/classes/muscoviteculture.html (‘Muscovite Culture’)
  • http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/russian/history.html (‘Russian History’)
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