Chapter 6

Toward “the Land of Darkness”

Russia and the Eastern Marches of Christendom

June 7: Casimir IV, king of Poland and Grand Prince
of Lithuania, dies.

The messengers turned back. They were on their way from Moscow, the capital or courtly center of Muscovy—an upstart state that had become, in twenty years of aggressive dynamism, the fastest-expanding empire in Christendom. Their destination was the court of Casimir IV, king of Poland and sovereign—“Grand Prince” or “Grand Duke” in the jargon of the time—of Lithuania. Casimir was, by common assent, the greatest ruler in Christendom. His territory stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Its eastern frontier lay deep inside Russia, along the breakwater between the Dnieper and Volga valleys. Westward, it unfolded as far as Saxony and the satellite kingdoms of Bohemia, and Hungary, which Casimir more or less controlled. On the map, it was the biggest and most formidable-looking domain in the Latin world since the fall of the Roman Empire.


The Kremlin, the “citadel of Moscow,” as it appeared to an ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire in 1517, with the stone structures conspicuous among the wooden houses.
S. von Herberstein, Notes Upon Russia (London, 1852). Courtesy of The Hakluyt Society.

The envoys from Moscow, however, were undaunted. They were carrying breathtakingly defiant demands for the surrender of most of Casimir’s Russian dominions, which Muscovites had been infiltrating for years, into the hands of their own prince. They turned back, not because the power of Poland and Lithuania deterred them, nor because the summer roads were hot, boggy, and mosquito-ridden, but because the world had changed.

By rights, the world should have been close to ending. According to Russian reckoning, 1492 marked the close of the seventh millennium of creation, and prophets and visionaries were getting enthusiastic or apprehensive, according to taste. Calendars stopped in 1492. There were skeptics, but they were officially disavowed, even persecuted. In 1490, the patriarch of Moscow conducted an inquisition against heretics, torturing his victims until they confessed to injudicious denunciations of the doctrine of the Trinity and the sanctity of the Sabbath. Among the proscribed thoughts of which the victims were accused was doubt about whether the world was really about to end.

The news that made the Muscovite messengers backtrack reached them in the second week of June. Casimir IV had collapsed and died while hunting in Trakal, not far from Vilnius, where they had been hoping to meet for negotiations. For Russia, the prospects defied the prophecies. Casimir’s death improved Muscovy’s outlook. The messengers rode hard for Moscow. It was time for new instructions and even more outrageous ambitions.

Between the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkan uplands in the south and the Baltic Sea in the north, eastern Europe’s geography is hostile to political continuity. Cut and crossed by invaders’ corridors, it is an environment in which—with its flat, open expanses, good communications, and dispersed populations—states can form with ease, survive in struggle, and thrive only with difficulty. There are forty thousand square miles of marshland in the middle of the region, covering much of what is now Belarus, around the upper Dnieper. Around this vast bog, the steppeland curls to the south and the bleak, ridgeless North European plain—choked with dense, dark forests—stretches uninterruptedly westward from deep inside Siberia. The lay of the land favors vast and fragile empires, vulnerable to external attack and internal rebellion. Armies can shuttle back and forth easily. Rebels can hide in the forests and swamps. Volatile hegemonies have come and gone in the region with bewildering rapidity. In the fifth century the Huns extended their sway from the steppelands to the east around the marshes and into the northern plain. In the ninth century a state the Byzantines called Great Moravia reached briefly from the marshes to the Elbe. In the late tenth and eleventh centuries a native Slav state occupied most of the Volga Valley. The most spectacular empire makers to unify the region arrived sweating from the depths of Asia in the thirteenth century, driving their vast herds of horses and sheep. The Mongols burst into Western history—like a scourge, as some chroniclers said, or, said others, like a plague.

The earliest records of Mongol peoples occur in Chinese annals of the seventh century. At that time, the Mongols emerged onto the steppes of the central Asian land now called Mongolia, from the forests to the north, where they lived as hunters and small-scale pig breeders. Chinese writers used versions of the name “Mongols” for many different communities, with various religions and competing leaderships, but their defining characteristic was that they spoke languages of common origins that were different from those of the neighboring Turks. On the steppes they adopted a pastoral way of life. They became horse-borne nomads, skilled in sheep breeding, dairying, and war.

The sedentary peoples who fringed the steppelands hated and feared them. They hated them because nomadism and herding seemed savage. Mongols drank milk—which the lactose-intolerant sedentarists found disgusting. They drank blood—which seemed more disgusting still, though for nomads in need of instant nourishment it was an entirely practical taste. The sedentarists’ fear was better founded: Nomads needed farmers’ crops to supplement their diet. Nomad leaders needed city dwellers’ wealth to fill their treasure hoards and pay their followers. In the early twelfth century, the bands or alliances they formed got bigger, and their raids against neighboring, settled folk became more menacing. In part, this was the effect of the growing preponderance of some Mongol groups over others. In part, it was the result of slow economic change.

Contact with richer neighbors gave Mongol chiefs opportunities for enrichment as mercenaries or raiders. Economic inequalities greater than the Mongols had ever known arose in a society in which blood relationships and seniority in age had formerly settled everyone’s position. Prowess in war enabled particular leaders to build up followers in parallel with—and sometimes in defiance of—the old social order. They called this process “crane catching,” like caging valuable birds. The most successful leaders enticed or forced rival groups into submission. The process spread to involve peoples who were not strictly Mongols, though the same name continued to be used—we use it still—for a confederation of many peoples, including many who spoke Turkic languages, as the war bands enlarged.

The violence endemic in the steppes turned outward, with increasing confidence, increasing ambition, to challenge neighboring civilizations. Historians have been tempted to speculate about the reasons for the Mongols’ expansion. One explanation is environmental. Temperatures in the steppe seem to have fallen during the relevant period. People farther west on the Russian plains complained that a cold spell in the early thirteenth century caused crops to fail. So declining pastures might have driven the Mongols to expand from the steppes. Population in the region seems to have been relatively high, and the pastoral way of life demands large amounts of grazing land to feed relatively small numbers of people. It is not a particularly energy-efficient way to provide food because it relies on animals eating plants and people eating animals, whereas farming produces humanly edible crops and cuts out animals as a wasteful intermediate stage of production. So perhaps the Mongol outthrust was a consequence of having more mouths to feed.

Yet the Mongols were doing what steppelanders had always sought to do: dominate and exploit surrounding sedentary peoples. The difference was that they did it with greater ambition and greater efficiency than any of their predecessors. In the late twelfth or early thirteenth century a new ideology animated Mongol conquests, linked to the cult of the sky, which was probably a traditional part of Mongol ideology but which leaders encouraged in pursuit of programs of political unification of the Mongol world. Earth should imitate the universal reach of the sky. Mongol leaders’ proclamations and letters to foreign rulers are explicit and unambiguous in their claims: the Mongols’ destiny was to unify the world by conquest.

Wherever the Mongol armies went, their reputation preceded them. Armenian sources warned Westerners of the approach of “precursors of the Antichrist…of hideous aspect and without pity in their bowels,…who rush with joy to carnage as if to a wedding feast or orgy.” Rumors piled up in Germany, France, Burgundy, Hungary, and even in Spain and England, where Mongols had never been heard of before. The invaders looked like monkeys, it was said, barked like dogs, ate raw flesh, drank their horses’ urine, knew no laws, and showed no mercy. Matthew Paris, the thirteenth-century English monk who, in his day, probably knew as much about the rest of the world as any of his countrymen, summed up the Mongols’ image: “They are inhuman and beastly, rather monsters than men, thirsting for and drinking blood, tearing and devouring the flesh of dogs and men…. And so they come, with the swiftness of lightning to the confines of Christendom, ravaging and slaughtering, striking everyone with terror and with incomparable horror.” 1

When the Mongols struck Russia in 1223, the blow was entirely unexpected: “No man knew from whence they came or whither they departed.” 2 Annalists treated them as if they were a natural phenomenon, like a briefly destructive bout of freak weather or a flood or a visitation of pestilence. Some Russian rulers even rejoiced at the greater destruction the Mongols visited on hated neighbors. But the first Mongol invasion was no more than a reconnaissance. When the nomads returned in earnest in 1237, their campaign lasted for three years. They devastated and depopulated much of the land of southern and northeastern Russia and ransomed or looted the towns.

The Mongols’ vocation for world rule, however, was theoretical. They demanded submission and tribute from their victims, but they were not necessarily interested in exercising direct rule everywhere. They had no wish to adapt to an unfamiliar ecosystem, no interest in occupying lands beyond the steppe, and no need to replace existing elites in Russia. They left the Christian Russian principalities and city-states to run their own affairs. But Russian rulers received charters from the khan’s court at Saray on the lower Volga, where they had to make regular appearances, loaded with tribute and subject to ritual humiliations, kissing the khan’s stirrup, serving at his table. The population had to pay taxes directly to Mongol-appointed tax gatherers—though as time went on, the Mongols assigned the tax gathering to native Russian princes and civic authorities. They passed their gleanings on to the state, centered at Saray, where the Mongols came to be known as the Golden Horde, perhaps after the treasure they accumulated.

The Russians tolerated this situation, partly because the Mongols intimidated them by selective acts of terror. When the invaders took the great city of Kiev in 1240, it was said, they left only two hundred houses standing and strewed the fields “with countless heads and bones of the dead.” 3 Partly, however, the Russians were responding to a milder Mongol policy. In most of Russia, the invaders came to exploit rather than to destroy. According to one chronicler, the Mongols spared Russia’s peasants to ensure that farming would continue. Ryazan, a Russian principality on the Volga, south of Moscow, seems to have borne the brunt of the Mongol invasion. Yet there, if the local chronicle can be believed,

the pious Grand Prince Ingvary Ingvarevitch sat on his father’s throne and renewed the land and built churches and monasteries and consoled newcomers and gathered together the people. And there was joy among the Christians whom God had saved from the godless and impious khan.4

Many cities escaped lightly by capitulating at once. Novgorod, that famously commercial city, which the Mongols might have coveted, they bypassed altogether.

Moreover, the Russian princes were even more fearful of enemies to the west, where the Swedes, Poles, and Lithuanians had constructed strong, unitary monarchies capable of sweeping the princes away if they ever succeed in expanding into Russian territory. Equally menacing were groups of mainly German adventurers, organized into crusading “orders” of warriors, such as the Teutonic Knights and the Brothers of the Sword, who took monastic-style vows but dedicated themselves to waging holy war against pagans and heretics. In practice, these orders were self-enriching companies of professional fighters, who built up territorial domains along the Baltic coast by conquest. In campaigns between 1242 and 1245, Russian coalitions fought off invaders on the westernfront, but they could not sustain war on two fronts. The experience made them submissive to the Mongols.

Muscovy hardly seemed destined to dominate the region. The principality owed its existence to the Golden Horde. Muscovite princes proved that they could manipulate Mongol hegemony to their own advantage, but they remained the Mongols’ creatures. Indeed, it was hard to imagine Muscovy unless backed by Mongol power. In the mid–thirteenth century, Alexander Nevsky, prince of Novgorod, showed the way to make use of the Mongols. He created the basis of his own myth as a Russian national hero by submitting to the Golden Horde and turning west to confront Swedish and German aggressors. His dynasty levered Muscovy to prominence by stages. His son Daniel (1276–1303), who became ruler of Moscow, proclaimed the city’s independence from other Russian principalities and ceased payment of tribute, except to the Mongols. Daniel’s grandson became known as Ivan the Moneybag (1329–53) from the wealth he accumulated as a farmer of Mongol taxes. He called himself “Grand Prince” and raised the see of Moscow from a bishopric to an archbishopric.

Muscovy still depended on the Mongols. The principality’s first challenge to Mongol supremacy, in 1378–82, proved premature. The Muscovites tried to exploit divisions within the Golden Horde in order to avoid handing over taxes. They even beat off a punitive expedition. But once the Mongols had reestablished their unity, Muscovy had to resume payment, yield hostages, and stamp coins with the name of the khan and the prayer “Long may he live.” In 1399 the Mongols fought off a Lithuanian challenge to their control of Russia. Over the next few years they asserted their hegemony in a series of raids on Russian cities, including Moscow, extorting promises of tribute in perpetuity. Thereafter, the Muscovites remained meekly deferential, more or less continuously, while they built up their own strength.

They could, however, dream of preeminence, under the Mongols, over other Christian states in Russia. Muscovy’s great advantage was its central location, astride the upper Volga, controlling the course of the river as far as the confluence of the Vetluga and the Sura. The Volga was a sea-wide river, navigable almost all along its great, slow length. Picture Europe as a rough triangle, with its apex at the Pillars of Hercules. The corridor that links the Atlantic, the North Sea, and the Baltic forms one side; the linked waters of the Mediterranean and Black Sea form another. The Volga serves almost as a third sea, overlooking the steppes and forests of the Eurasian borderlands, linking the Caspian Road and the Silk Roads to the fur-rich Arctic forests and the fringes of the Baltic world. The Volga’s trade and tolls helped fill Ivan’s money bags and elevate Muscovy over its neighbors.

Rulership was ferociously contested, because the rewards made the risks seem worthwhile. In consequence, political instability racked the state and checked its ascent. For nearly forty years, from the mid-1420s, rival members of the dynasty fought each other. Vasily II, who became ruling prince at the age of ten in 1425, repeatedly renounced and recovered the throne, enduring spells of exile and imprisonment. He blinded his rival and cousin and suffered blinding in his turn when his enemies captured him: as a way of disqualifying a pretender or keeping a deposed monarch down, blinding was a traditional, supposedly civilized alternative to murder. When Vasily died in 1462, his son, Ivan III, inherited a realm that war had rid of internal rivals. Civil wars seem destructive and debilitating. But they often precede spells of violent expansion. They militarize societies, train men in warfare, nurture arms industries, and, by disrupting economies, force peoples into predation.

Thanks to the long civil wars, Ivan had the most efficient and ruthless war machine of any Russian state. The wars had ruined aristocrats already impoverished by the system of inheritance, which divided the patrimony of every family with every passing generation. The nobles were forced to serve the prince or collaborate with him. Wars of expansion represented the best means of building up resources and accumulating lands, revenues, and tribute for the prince to distribute. For successful warriors, promotions and honors beckoned, including an enduring innovation: gold medals for valor. Nobles moved to Moscow as offices of profit at court came to outshine provincial opportunities of exploiting peasants and managing estates. Adventurers and mercenaries—including many Mongols—joined them. By the end of Ivan’s reign, an aristocracy of service over a thousand strong surrounded him.

A permanent force of royal guards formed a professional kernel around which provincial levies grouped. Peasants were armed to guard the frontiers. Ivan III set up a munitions factory in Moscow and hired Italian engineers to improve what one might call the military infrastructure of the realm—forts, which slowed adversaries, and bridges, which sped mobilization. He abjured the traditional ruler’s role of leading his armies on campaign. To run a vast and growing empire, ready to fight on more than one front, he stayed at the nerve center of command and created a system of rapid posts to keep in touch with events in the field. None of his other innovations seemed as important, to him, as improved internal communications. At his death, he left few commands to his heirs about the care of the empire, except for instructions about the division of the patrimony and the allocation of tribute; but the maintenance of the post system was uppermost in his mind: “My son Vasily shall maintain, in his Grand Princedom, post stations and post carts with horses on the roads at those places where there were post stations and post carts with horses on the roads under me.” His brothers were to do the same in the lands they inherited.5

Backed by his new bureaucracy and new army, Ivan could take the step so many of his predecessors had longed for. He could abjure Mongol suzerainty. In the event, it was easy, not only because of the strength Ivan amassed but also because internecine hatreds shattered the Mongols’ unity. In 1430, a group of recalcitrants split off and founded a state of their own in the Crimea, to the west of the Golden Horde’s heartland. Other factions usurped territory to the east and south in Kazan and Astrakhan. Russian principalities began to see the possibilities of independence. Formerly, once the shock of invasion and conquest was over, their chroniclers had accepted the Mongols, with various degrees of resignation, as a scourge from God or as useful and legitimate arbitrators, or even as benevolent exemplars of virtuous paganism whom Christians should imitate. Now, from the mid–fifteenth century, they recast them as villains, incarnations of evil, and destroyers of Christianity. Interpolators rewrote old chronicles in an attempt to turn Alexander Nevsky, who had been a quisling and collaborator on the Mongols’ behalf, into a heroic adversary of the khans.6


The expansion of Muscovy under Ivan III.

Ivan allied with the secessionist Mongol states against the Golden Horde. He then stopped paying tribute. The khan demanded compliance. Ivan refused. The horde invaded, but withdrew when menaced with battle—a fatal display of weakness. Neighboring states scented blood and tore at the horde’s territory like sharks at bloodied prey. The ruler of the breakaway Mongol state in the Crimea dispersed the horde’s remaining forces and burned Saray in 1502. Russia, the chroniclers declared, had been delivered from the Mongol yoke, as God had freed Israel from Egypt. The remaining Mongol bands in Crimea and Astrakhan became Ivan’s pensioners, for whom he assigned one thousand gold rubles at his death.

The Mongols’ decline liberated Ivan to make conquests for Muscovy on other fronts. From his father, Vasily II, he inherited the ambition, proclaimed in the inscriptions on Vasily’s coins, to be “sovereign of all Russia.” His conquests reflect, fairly consistently, a special appetite to rule people of Russian tongue and Orthodox faith. His campaigns against Mongol states were defensive or punitive, and his forays into the pagan north, beyond the colonial empire of Novgorod, were raids. But the chief enemy he seems always to have had in his sights was Casimir IV, who ruled more Russians than any other foreigner. How far Ivan followed a systematic grand strategy of Russian unification is, however, a matter of doubt. No document declares such a policy. At most, it can be inferred from his actions. He may equally well have been responding pragmatically to the opportunities that cropped up. But medieval rulers rarely planned for the short term—especially not when they thought the world was about to end. Typically, they worked to re-create a golden past or embody a mythic ideal.

To understand what was in Ivan’s mind, one has to think back to what the world was like before Machiavelli. The modern calculus of profit and loss probably meant nothing to Ivan. He never thought about realpolitik. His concerns were with tradition and posterity, history and fame, apocalypse and eternity. If he targeted Muscovy’s western frontier for special attention, it was probably because he had the image and reputation of Alexander Nevsky before his eyes, refracted in the work of chroniclers who turned back to rewrite their accounts of the past, to burnish Alexander’s image, after a spell of neglect, and reidealized him as “the Russian prince” and the perfect ruler. Ivan did not initiate this rebranding, but he paid for chroniclers to continue it in his own reign.

Therefore, when Ivan began turning his wealth into conquests, he first tackled the task of reunifying the patrimony of Alexander Nevsky. Ivan devoted the early years of the reign to suborning or forcing Tver and Ryazan, the neighboring principalities to Muscovy’s west, into subordination or submission, and incorporating the lands of all the surviving heirs of Alexander Nevsky into the Muscovite state. But thoughts of Novgorod, where Alexander’s career had begun, were never far from his mind. Novgorod was an even bigger prize. The city lay to the north, contending against a hostile climate, staring from huge walls over the grain lands on which the citizens relied for sustenance. Famine besieged them more often than human enemies did. Yet control of the trade routes to the river Volga made Novgorod cash rich. It never had more than a few thousand inhabitants, yet its monuments record its progress: its kremlin, or citadel, and five-domed cathedral in the 1040s; in the early twelfth century, a series of buildings that the ruler paid for; and, in 1207, the merchants’ church of St. Paraskeva in the marketplace.

From 1136, communal government prevailed in Novgorod. The revolt of that year marks the creation of a city-state on an ancient model—a republican commune like those of Italy. The prince was deposed for reasons the rebels’ surviving proclamations specify: “Why did he not care for the common people? Why did he want to wage war? Why did he not fight bravely? And why did he prefer games and entertainments rather than state affairs? Why did he have so many gyrfalcons and dogs?” Thereafter, the citizens’ principle was: “If the prince is no good, throw him into the mud!” 7

To the west, Novgorod bordered the small territorial domain of Russia’s only other city-republic, Pskov. There were others again in Germany and on the Baltic coast, but Novgorod was unique in eastern Europe in being a city-republic with an extensive empire of its own. Even in the West, only Genoa and Venice resembled it in this respect. Novgorod ruled or took tribute from subject or victim peoples in the boreal forests and tundra that fringed the White Sea and stretched toward the Arctic. Novgorodians had even begun to build a modest maritime empire, colonizing islands in the White Sea. The evidence is painted onto the surface of an icon, now in an art gallery in Moscow but once treasured in a monastery on an island in the White Sea. It shows monks adoring the virgin on an island adorned with a golden monastery with tapering domes, a golden sanctuary, and turrets like lighted candles. The glamour of the scene must be the product of pious imaginations, for the island in reality is bare and impoverished and surrounded, for much of the year, with ice.

Pictures of episodes from the monastery’s foundation legend of the 1430s, about a century before the icon was made, frame the painter’s vision of the Virgin receiving adoration. The first monks row to the island. Young, radiant figures expel the indigenous fisherfolk with angelic whips. When the abbot, Savaatii, hears of it he gives thanks to God. Merchants visit. When they drop the sacred host that the holy monk Zosima gives them, flames leap to protect it. When the monks rescue shipwreck victims, who are dying in a cave on a nearby island, Zosima and Savaatii appear miraculously, teetering on icebergs, to drive back the pack ice. Zosima experiences a vision of a “floating church,” which the building of an island monastery fulfils. In defiance of the barren environment, angels supply the community with bread, oil, and salt.

Whereas Zosima’s predecessors as abbots left because they could not endure harsh conditions, Zosima calmly drove out the devils who tempted him. All the ingredients of a typical story of European imperialism are here: the more than worldly inspiration; the heroic voyage into a perilous environment; the ruthless treatment of the natives; the struggle to adapt and found a viable economy; the quick input of commercial interests; the achievement of viability by perseverance.8

Outreach in the White Sea could not grasp much or get far. Novgorod was, however, the metropolis of a precocious colonial enterprise by land among the herders and hunters of the Arctic region, along and across the rivers that flow into the White Sea, as far east as the Pechora. Russian travelers’ tales reflected typical colonial values. They classed the native Finns and Samoyeds of the region with the beast men, the similitudines hominis, of medieval legend. The “wild men” of the north spent summers in the sea lest their skin split. They died every winter, when water came out of their noses and froze them to the ground. They ate each other and cooked their children to serve to guests. They had mouths on top of their heads and ate by placing food under their hats; they had dogs’ heads or heads that grew beneath their shoulders; they lived underground and drank human blood.9 They were exploitable for reindeer products and fruits of the hunt—whale blubber, walrus ivory, the pelts of the arctic squirrel and fox—that arrived in Novgorod as tribute from the region and were vital to the economy.

Ivan coveted this wealth, and even sent an expedition to the Arctic in 1465 in an attempt to grab a share of the fur trade. But in the 1470s an opportunity arose to seize Novgorod itself. A dispute over the election of a new bishop rent the city. Partisans on both sides looked for protectors or arbitrators in neighboring realms. Should Novgorod submit to Ivan’s overlordship by sending the bishop-elect to Moscow for consecration? Or should the city try to perpetuate its independence by sending to Kiev, which was safely distant, in the realm of Casimir of Lithuania? For the city’s incumbent elite, Casimir was the less risky bet. He could be invoked in Novgorod’s defense, as a deterrent against a Muscovite attack. But he was so busy on other fronts that he was most unlikely ever to interfere with Novgorod’s autonomy. The city fathers voted to make Casimir their “sovereign and master” and send their bishop to Kiev.

Ivan called their bluff and prepared to attack. He justified war by sanctifying it. The people of Novgorod were, he claimed, guilty of punishable impiety—abandoning Orthodoxy and bowing to Rome. The accusation was false. While encouraging Catholicism, Casimir tolerated other creeds among his subjects, and a bishop consecrated in Kiev would not necessarily be compromised in his Orthodoxy. Ivan, however, claimed to see Novgorod’s bid for independence as a kind of apostasy, whoring after false gods—like the Jews, he said, breaking their divine covenant to adore a golden calf. By conquering them he would save them.10

Ivan’s propaganda also besmirched Novgorod with denunciations, on more secular grounds, as a nest of habitual recalcitrants. “The habit” of the citizens, a chronicler in Ivan’s pay complained, was to

disagree with a great prince and dispute with him. They will not pay respect to him, but instead they are taciturn, obstinate, and stubborn, and do not adhere to the principles of law and order…. Who among the princes would not become angry with them…? For even the great Alexander [Nevsky] did not tolerate such behavior.11

Ivan’s enemies in the Novgorod elite appealed to Casimir IV to rescue them. But they sought to put intolerable restrictions on him, demanding of the Catholic prince that he build no Roman churches, appoint only Orthodox governors, and allow bishops of Novgorod in future to seek consecration outside his realms. They even demanded that he settle territorial disputes between Novgorod and Lithuania in favor of “the free men of Novgorod.” 12 Casimir remained aloof. There seemed no point in spilling blood and spending treasure for such obstreperous allies. Novgorod’s citizen army of “carpenters, coopers and others, who from birth had never mounted a horse,” was on its own.13 When Ivan invaded, he crushed resistance within a few weeks. Simultaneously, with an army of mercenaries and tributaries, he occupied the remote provinces of Novgorod’s colonial frontier.

The terms of the peace were full of face-saving formulas, but the upshot was clear. “You are free to do as you please,” said Ivan, “provided you do as I please.” After a few years, he did away with all pretence of respect for Novgorod’s autonomy. He moved in another army, abolished residual privileges, and annexed the territory to Muscovy. The great bell that had summoned the “free men” to assemble ended up in Moscow in the belfry of the Kremlin. Ivan had, as he wrote to his mother, “subjected Novgorod the Great, which is part of my inheritance, to my entire will and I am sovereign there just as in Moscow.” 14

The conquest of Novgorod shocked Ivan’s most powerful neighbors—Casimir in the west and Khan Ahmed of the Golden Horde in the south. Had they joined in attack, they could have matched Ivan’s power, but Casimir—distracted as ever by rival concerns, and sanguine, as ever, in evaluating the Muscovite threat—relied on Ahmed as a surrogate. When the khan invaded Russia in 1480, Ivan, as we have seen, was free to concentrate his forces and repudiate the Golden Horde’s historic claims to tribute.

Rather as Sonni Ali did in Timbuktu, Ivan dispersed Novgorod’s elite. The first purge came in 1484, when a large force of mailed Muscovites tramped into the city and rounded up suspected foes. In 1487, when Ivan launched the first of a series of border raids against Lithuania, he secured Novgorod by expelling thousands of inhabitants—members of the families of leading citizens—on the alleged grounds that they were plotting against the authorities. Another one thousand expulsions followed in 1489. The expulsees’ property went to some two thousand loyal colonists whom Ivan introduced.15 Meanwhile, the historic principalities that fringed Muscovy’s ancient patrimony to the West—all of which were already under Ivan’s control—were formally annexed.

Muscovy’s sudden and vertiginous rise took all Europe by surprise. The Saxon traveler and diplomatist Nikolaus Poppel, who arrived in Moscow in 1486, thought Ivan must be Casimir’s vassal. He was astonished to find that the Russian ruler had more power, more wealth, and possibly, by that date, more territory than the master of Poland and Lithuania. Fascinated, he contemplated the vast, open, exploitable lands that stretched to the Arctic, full of sable and copper and gold. But Ivan would not let him, or his successor as imperial ambassador in 1492, go there. In the Latin West, Russia assumed the mysterious renown of a fantasy land, an icy Eldorado full of strange wealth, with monster-haunted frontiers reaching toward the unknown. In the circumstances, Casimir might be forgiven for underestimating his eastern neighbor and neglecting the threat from Russia. He was always juggling conflicting responsibilities on other fronts, squeezing Prussia into submission, insinuating his brothers or sons into power in Hungary and Moldova, dueling with the Habsburgs for control of Bohemia.

Ivan could therefore go on provoking Casimir with impunity. As soon as Novgorod fell to the Muscovites, Ivan forbade Lithuanian enclaves within Novgorod’s territory from paying the taxes they owed to Casimir. In the 1480s, complaints lodged by Casimir’s envoys accumulated in Moscow: “thieves” from Muscovy were raiding across the border, burning and pillaging villages, sewing terror. Ivan professed ignorance and claimed innocence, but clearly the raids had his backing. They were part of a systematic strategy for destabilizing the border. Toward the end of the decade they escalated outrageously. In 1487, one of Ivan’s brothers occupied a slice of borderland on the Lithuanian side, and Ivan appointed a governor in districts traditionally part of Lithuania. A raid in 1488 carried off seven thousand of Casimir’s subjects. Many border towns reported repeated raids between 1485 and 1489.

Border warfare was effective. Casimir’s subjects, when he was unable to protect them, transferred their allegiance to the aggressor as the price of peace. Orthodox Russian lords, who had long lived under Lithuanian rule without resentment, began to defect to Muscovy, declaring their lands to be under Ivan’s “jurisdiction and protection.” 16 When Casimir died, Ivan suspended negotiations and adopted the title “Sovereign of all Russia”—an explicit avowal of his intention of stripping Lithuania of all its Russian and Orthodox subjects. He launched full-scale invasions on two fronts, gobbling up the valley of the upper Oka River and advancing through the uplands of the Vyazma region, as far as the headwaters of the Dnieper. Almost everywhere his forces went, local rulers who submitted were reinvested with their rights as subjects of Muscovy. In two decades, Lithuania lost control of seventy administrative districts, twenty-two forts, nineteen towns, and thirteen villages.

The frontier that emerged was both linguistic and religious. Russian identity was measurable in Russian speech. But religious orthodoxy was the identifier Ivan preferred. Doctrinally, Russia was close to Rome. The difference that meant a lot to theologians concerned the emanation of the Holy Spirit: “from the Father and the Son,” said the Western creed; “from the Father,” said Orthodox Russians. This was too arcane a dispute to mean much to most laymen, but the culture and liturgy of the two churches were mutually offensive. Westerners found married, compulsorily bearded clergy alarming and the Slavonic language indecorous in church. Russians felt the same way about clean-shaven celibates spouting Latin. It is tempting to dismiss as mere posturing Ivan’s self-proclaimed role as a crusader for Orthodoxy. But it really seems to have meant a lot to people at the time and to have influenced many defectors from Lithuanian allegiance. Though Ivan had occasional disputes with the Turks, Russian propagandists almost never denounced the Ottomans as “infidels.” They generally reserved that insult for Catholics, and for Orthodox who were in communion with Rome.

To understand the power of anti-Catholic language in Ivan’s rhetorical armory, awareness of the sense of threat that loomed over the Orthodox world is essential. Even when 1492 came and went without provoking the apocalypse, fear that the end of the world could not be far off persisted. Even after two generations, the events of 1453, when the Turks wrenched Constantinople from Christendom and extinguished an empire sanctified by Christian tradition, still disturbed and challenged Orthodox thinkers. Orthodoxy seemed beleaguered. Theologically informed minds in Russia naturally thought of the trials of faith in ancient Israel and regarded stubborn, uncompromising adherence to every peculiarity of their faith as the only way to restore divine favor.

Catholic gains, meanwhile, exacerbated the centuries-old enmity between the churches. Catholic diplomacy and evangelization had seduced many Orthodox communities on the fringes of the Latin world back into communion with Rome. Theological debate, meanwhile, gradually resolved most of the credal issues between the two churches. The main outstanding disagreement was—on the face of it—too arcane to matter to any but the subtlest and most disputatious minds: toward the end of the eighth century, the Western churches added a phrase to the creed, proclaiming that the Holy Spirit “proceeded” not from the Father alone, as the Easterners continued to say, but also from God the Son. Each church regarded the other’s formula as an offense against the unity of God. Westerners said the Eastern formula degraded the Son. Easterners said the Westerners were relegating the Holy Spirit to a sort of second-rank Godship.

In the 1430s, on Byzantine initiative, the leaders of the churches of Rome and Constantinople agreed to leave the controversy unresolved and to patch up their differences in order to collaborate against the Turks. Russian sees, including that of Moscow, had representatives among the seven-thousand-strong Eastern contingent at the Council of Florence in 1439, where the deal was clinched and the reunion of Christendom proclaimed. But outstanding issues remained. When the archbishop of Moscow returned to his see, the local clergy and citizens were outraged at what they denounced as betrayal. They flung the newcomer into prison and elected a successor who would stand up for the independent traditions of Orthodoxy. Most other churches in the Greek tradition also reneged on the deal, but in Byzantium, the emperors adhered to it. The monarchs who, more than all others, bore the responsibility of defending Orthodoxy seemed to have sold out to heresy.

What happened in the Byzantine empire mattered in Moscow, because even when the Russians emerged from the Mongols’ thrall, they remained under the spell of Constantinople. Toward the end of the tenth century, the founder of the first documented Russian state applied to Constantinople for his religion and his wife. In politics and aesthetics Russians’ models remained Byzantine for the rest of the Middle Ages. It is not surprising that the Russians, who owed so much to Byzantine culture, revered the Byzantine emperors. The Turks, who owed Byzantium nothing, and reviled Christianity, revered them, too. By the time Ivan III ruled in Muscovy, the Turks had Byzantium surrounded. The empire was reduced to a rump. The city was at the sultan’s mercy. But the victors held back, unwilling to break the traditions of the people who still called themselves Romans. Of course, there were solid reasons for keeping Byzantium independent. The Turks could control the city’s elites with threats and promises. The emperor and patriarch could guarantee the loyalty of the Ottomans’ Christian subjects. But whenever the Turks contemplated the extinction of the empire, there was something numinous about Byzantium that stayed their hands.

When they finally lost patience, the blow came quickly and inevitably. The accession as sultan of Mehmet II in 1451 at the age of nineteen marked the end of counsels of prudence. He resented foreign control of a stronghold that dominated the Dardanelles—a strait vital for the communications of his empire. He fancied himself in the Roman emperors’ place. Every contrivance of the siege engineer’s craft prepared the fall of the city. Huge forts, known respectively as the castles of Europe and Asia, rose on either shore to command access to the Bosporus. The heaviest artillery ever founded arrived to batter the walls. Ships came overland in kit form to outflank the defenders’ boom. The Byzantine church made submission to Rome in order to secure Latin help, which came reluctantly and too late. In the end, sheer weight of numbers proved decisive. The attackers climbed the breaches over the bodies of dead comrades. The corpse of the last Constantine was identified only by the eagle devices on his foot armor.

Formerly, there had been other contenders for the role of the third Rome, but they had all dropped out of the running. In the middle of the thirteenth century, the recently Christianized Serbian kingdom already housed, in monasteries founded by kings at Sopocani and Mileseva, some of the most purely classical paintings—modeled, that is, on those of ancient Greece and Rome—of the Middle Ages. About a century later, the Serbian monarch Stefan Dusan dreamed of beating the Turks to the conquest of Constantinople, and described himself with pride—if a little exaggeration—as “lord of almost the whole of the Roman Empire.” His younger contemporary the Bulgarian czar John Alexander claimed lordship over “all the Bulgarians and Greeks” and had himself painted in boots of imperial scarlet—a fashion exclusive to emperors—with a halo of gold. A translator at his court, working on a version of a Byzantine chronicle, substituted for “Constantinople” the name of John Alexander’s capital at Trnovo, and called it “the new Constantinople.” 17 Serb and Bulgarian bids for empire, however, proved too ambitious. Both states fell to the Turks.

Even at Byzantium’s last gasp, in 1452, when the Russian church reluctantly transgressed its tradition of deference to the see of Constantinople—defying the Byzantine rapprochement with the Latin communion by electing a patriarch of its own—Vasily II felt obliged to apologize to the emperor: “We beseech your sacred majesty not to blame us for not writing to your Sovereignty beforehand. We did this from dire necessity, not from pride or arrogance.” 18 When the imperial city fell, Russia felt bereft. What did God mean by allowing it to happen? How did he want the Orthodox faithful to respond? One obvious answer began to gain acceptance in Muscovy: responsibility for safeguarding Orthodoxy must move from Constantinople to Moscow.

Ivan staked a claim to a Byzantine inheritance when he married a Byzantine princess. Surprisingly, perhaps, the idea was the pope’s. In 1469, when the marriage was first mooted, Ivan was a twenty-nine year-old widower. Zoe—or Sophia, as Russians called her—was a twenty-four year-old spinster, plump but pretty, who was, as her tutor reminded her, “a pauper,” but who embodied the prestige of the Byzantine imperial dynasty and legacy. She was the niece of the last Byzantine emperor. She lived in Rome, as the ward and guest of the pope, a fugitive from the Turkish conquest. Pope Paul II offered Ivan Sophia’s hand. This shows that Rome was relatively well informed about Russia. The pope knew that Ivan would find a Byzantine pedigree hard to resist. He hoped that Sophia would make Ivan an ally in a new crusade against the Ottomans and would provide the Russians with a shining example of conversion from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. But for Sophia the long journey to Russia was a spiritual homecoming that reunited her with the church of her ancestors. As she traveled across country, through Pskov and Novgorod to Moscow, she worshipped with reverence wherever she went. She did not jib at rebaptism in the Orthodox rite, before her marriage in 1472, or at the orders Ivan gave her entourage forbidding them to display their crucifixes in public.

In the 1470s—hesitantly and unsystematically at first—Ivan began to call himself “Czar” of all Russia, in allusion to the title of “Caesar” that Roman emperors had affected.19 Previously, the monarch of Constantinople and the khan of the Golden Horde were the only rulers Muscovites had flattered with so resounding a title. In the next decade Ivan’s escalating pretensions became obvious during his sporadic negotiations with the Holy Roman Empire. When Frederick III offered to elevate Ivan from the rank of Grand Prince and invest him as a king, Ivan replied disdainfully.

By God’s grace we have been sovereigns in our own land since the beginning, since our earliest ancestors. Our appointment comes from God, as did that of our ancestors, and we beg God to grant to us and our children to abide forever in the same state, namely as sovereigns in our own land; and as before we did not seek to be appointed by anyone, so now do we not desire it.20

When Nikolaus Poppel offered to arrange for Ivan’s daughter to marry Frederick’s nephew, the margrave of Baden, Ivan’s response was equally peremptory. “It is not fitting,” read the instructions he gave to his own ambassador. The lineage of the rulers of Muscovy was more ancient than that of the Habsburgs. “How could such a great sovereign hand over his daughter to that margrave?” 21 When, in answer to the prophets who foresaw the imminent end of the world, Patriarch Zosima of Moscow recalculated the calendar in 1493, he took the opportunity to reinvent “the pious and Christian-loving Ivan” as “the new Czar Constantine,” in allusion to the first Christian emperor, who founded Constantinople. Moscow, he continued, was “the new city of Constantinople, that is to say, The New Rome.” Soon after, a false genealogy circulated in Muscovy, tracing the dynasty back to a mythical brother of Augustus, first emperor of Rome. In a work addressed to either Ivan III or his son, a pious monk, Filofei by name, in the frontier-state of Pskov proclaimed Moscow “the Third Rome” after Rome itself and Constantinople. The first had fallen through heresy. The Turks

used their scimitars and axes to cleave the doors of the second Rome,…and here now in the new, third Rome, your mighty empire, is the Holy Synodal Apostolic Church, which to the ends of the universe in the Orthodox Christian faith shines more brightly than the sun in the sky. Pious czar, let your state know that all Orthodox empires of the Christian faith have now merged into one, your empire. You are the only czar in all the Christian universe.22

Filofei called Orthodoxy “synodal” to distinguish it from Catholicism, which exalted the pope above other bishops.

In endorsing the notion of the third Rome, Ivan appropriated what seems originally to have been a propaganda line spun in Novgorod to exalt that city’s bishop as a rival to Moscow’s. In 1484, the clergy of Novgorod elected a bishop whom Ivan rejected, and claimed that Novgorod had received a white cowl from Rome at the behest of Constantine, the first Roman emperor, as a sign that “in the third Rome, which will be Russia, the Grace of the Holy Spirit will be revealed.” 23 Toward the end of his reign Ivan adopted a new seal: a double-headed eagle, which, whether he copied it from the Byzantines or from the Holy Roman Empire, was an unmistakably imperial motif.

He rebuilt Moscow to clothe it in grandeur befitting its new imperial status and, perhaps, to array it for the apocalypse expected in 1492. The new palace chapel of the archbishop of Moscow was dedicated to Our Lady’s Robe—a holy relic that had protected Constantinople many times before the failure of 1453. There could be no clearer symbol that Moscow had taken over Constantinople’s former sanctity. Other buildings contributed to the general embellishment of what was still a modest-looking city, built mainly of wood. The Kremlin acquired formidable brick walls. Agostino Fioravanti—one of Ivan’s imported Italian engineers—made the Cathedral of the Assumption rise over the city in gleaming stone in celebration of the conquest of Novgorod. In the 1480s the Cathedral of the Assumption followed to provide a space for the czar to worship in, while the archbishop’s palace acquired a sumptuous new chapel. Other Italian technicians built a new audience chamber for Ivan, the Palace of Facets.

By taking his wife from Rome and architects from Italy, Ivan tugged the Renaissance eastward. He set a trend that reached Hungary in 1476, when King Mathias Corvinus married an Italian princess, abandoned the gothic plans for his new palace, and remodeled it on Italian lines in imitation of one of the most famous architectural texts of antiquity: the younger Pliny’s description of his country villa. One of the Italian humanists the king employed was explicit about the building’s inspiration. “When you read,” he told Mathias, “that the Romans created gigantic works that proved their magnificence, you do not permit, invincible prince, that their buildings should surpass yours,…but you revive once again the architecture of the ancients.” 24 The king also compiled a much envied classical library. Over the next couple of generations, Renaissance taste would dominate the courts of Poland and Lithuania. Revulsion from Catholicism made Russia a tough environment for Latin culture of any sort, but Ivan showed at least that the cultural frontier was permeable.

Ivan turned Russia into the uncontainable, imperial state that has played a major role in global politics ever since. In his reign, the extent of territory nominally subject to Moscow grew from fifteen thousand to six hundred thousand square kilometers. He annexed Novgorod and wrenched at the frontiers of Kazan and Lithuania. His priorities lay in the West. He defined Russia’s championship of Orthodoxy. He drew a new frontier with Catholic Europe, but, while excluding Catholicism, he opened Russia to cultural influences from the West. He discarded the Mongol yoke and reversed the direction of imperialism in Eurasia. From his time on, the pastoralists of the central Asian steppes would usually be victims of Russian imperialism rather than empire makers at Russian expense. In all these respects the influence of his achievements has endured and helped shape the world in which we live, in which Russia seems to teeter on the edge of the West, never utterly alien but maddeningly inassimilable. But the most striking effect of his reign on the subsequent history of the world has usually gone unremarked: the opening of Russia’s way east, toward what contemporaries called “The Land of Darkness”—Arctic Russia and Siberia, which, of all the colonial territories European imperialists conquered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is the only land where empire endures today.

Here, to the northeast, Ivan’s armies ventured into little-known territory, along a route explored by missionaries in the previous century, following the river Vym toward the Pechora. The object of this thrust into the Land of Darkness was the effort to control the supply of boreal furs—squirrel and sable—for which there was enormous demand in China, central Asia, and Europe. Sable was black gold, and fur was to the Russian empire what silver was to Spain’s and spices to Portugal’s. In 1465, 1472, and 1483, Ivan sent expeditions beyond the reach of Novgorod’s empire, to Perm and the Ob, with the aim of imposing tribute in furs on the tribespeople who lived there. The biggest invasion was that of 1499, when the city of Pustozersk was founded at the mouth of the Pechora. Four thousand men crossed the Pechora on sleds in winter and made for the Ob, returning with a thousand prisoners and many pelts. Ivan’s ambassador in Milan claimed that his master received a thousand ducats’ worth of fur in annual tribute. The region remained occluded by myth. When Sigmund von Herberstein served as the Holy Roman Emperor’s envoy to Moscow in 1517, he picked up some of the stories of monstrously distended giants, men without tongues, “living dead,” fish with men’s faces, and “the Golden Old Woman of the Ob.” Nonetheless, by comparison with the previous state of knowledge, Russian acquaintance with the boreal north and with Siberia was transformed by the new contacts.

Something of the feel of this new adventure is detectable in the testament Ivan left at his death. The laws of succession of Muscovy were vague. That is why Ivan’s father had fought long wars against his cousins. Ivan imprisoned two of his own brothers. In an attempt to preempt rebellions, every ruler of Muscovy left a testament, bequeathing his lands and revenues to his heirs. Ivan’s conquests made his testament especially long, brimming with the names of exotic communities and distant frontiers. After pages devoted to the many communities gained from Lithuania, and among lists of the appurtenances and possessions of the independent Russian principalities Muscovy had absorbed, with the territories Ivan confiscated from his brothers, the document turns to the eastern borderlands and the strange, vast empire acquired with the conquest of Novgorod. The Mordvins appear—pagan forest dwellers, speakers of a Finnic tongue, who occupied the slopes of the Urals and the strategic frontier along the northern border of Kazan. The lands of their neighbors the Udmurts are listed, which Ivan seized in 1489. The “Vyatka land” is mentioned—but not its once indomitable people. These herdsmen of the northern plains had tried to remain independent by shifting allegiance between the Russians and the Mongols. When Ivan lost patience with them, he invaded with overwhelming force, put their leaders to death, carried off thousands of Vyatkans into captivity, and resettled their territory with reliable Russians. Novgorod’s territories are painstakingly enumerated, with eighteen places dignified as cities, and the five provinces into which the territory was divided, stretching north to the White Sea and, beyond Novgorod’s colonial lands, the valley of the northern Dvina, and the savage tributaries known as the Forest Lop and the Wild Lop. Pskov is bestowed, even though it remained a sovereign city-state, allied with Ivan but outside his empire.

And from the pages of Ivan’s testament, the sources and rewards of his success gleam. After bestowing sealed coffers of treasure to various heirs, and the residue of his treasury to his successor, Ivan listed the small change of empire:

rubies, and sapphire, and other precious stones, and pearls, and any articles of dress decorated with precious stones, and belts, and golden chains, and golden vessels, and silver ones, and stone ones, and gold, and silver, and sables, and silk goods, and divers other belongings, whatever there is, as well as whatever is in the treasury of my bedchamber—icons and golden crosses, and gold, and silver, and other belongings—and whatever is in the custody of my major-domo…and my palace secretaries—silver vessels and money, and other belongings

and similar hordes in the care of other officials and in provincial palaces, “my treasure and my treasures, wherever they shall be.” 25

The year 1492 was the decisive one for the reign, not only because the world failed to end but also because a new world began for Russia when Casimir IV died. His sons divided his inheritance. The only power capable of challenging Muscovy in the vast imperial arena between Europe and Asia dissolved. The frontier between Orthodoxy and Catholicism wavered a great deal in future centuries, but it never strayed far from the lines laid down in the treaties Ivan and his son made with Casimir’s heir. Muscovy became Russia—recognizably the state that occupies the region today. Russia was able to turn east toward the Land of Darkness and begin to convert the great forests and tundra into an empire that has remained Russia’s ever since.

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