Moscow remained an obscure village until Daniel Alexandrovitch, toward the end of the thirteenth century, extended its hinterland and made it a minor principality. Historical hindsight6 attributes Moscow’s growth to its position on the navigable Moscow River, which was connected by short overland portage with the Volga on the east and the Oka, Don, and Dnieper on the south and west. Yuri Danielovitch—son of Daniel—Prince of Moscow, coveted the neighboring principality of Suzdal, with its relatively rich capital, Vladimir; Michael, Prince of Tver, coveted the same; Moscow and Tver fought for the prize; Moscow won; Michael was killed and canonized; Moscow grew. Yuri’s brother and successor, Ivan I, took the double title of Grand Prince of Moscow and Grand Duke of Vladimir.
As collector of Russian tribute for the Tatar khan, Ivan I exacted more than he remitted, and prospered wickedly. His rapacity won him the nickname Kalita, Moneybag, but he gave the principalities thirteen years’ respite from Tatar raids. He died as a tonsured monk, censered with the odor of sanctity (1341). His son Simeon the Proud inherited his flair for taxgathering. Claiming authority over every province, he called himself Grand Prince of All the Russias, which did not prevent his dying of the plague (1353). Ivan II was a gentle and peaceable ruler, under whom Russia fell into fratricidal war. His son Dmitri had all requisite martial qualities; he defeated every rival, and defied the khan. In 1380 Khan Mamai assembled a horde of Tatars, Genoese mercenaries, and other flotsam, and advanced toward Moscow. Dmitri and his Russian allies met the horde at Kulikovo, near the Don, defeated it (1380), and won the cognomen Donskoi. Two years later the Tatars attacked again, with 100,000 men. The Russians, deceived and exhausted by victory, failed to raise a comparable force; the Tatars captured Moscow, massacred 24,000 of the population, and burned the city to the ground. Dmitri’s son Vasili I made peace with the Tatars, annexed Nijni Novgorod, and compelled Novgorod and Viatka to accept him as their overlord.
The Grand Princes of Moscow adopted the Tatar technique of despotism, perhaps as the alternative to an illiterate chaos. Under an autocracy of violence and craft a bureaucracy on Byzantine lines administered the government, subject to a Council of Boyars advising and serving the prince. The boyars were at once the leaders of the army, the governing lords of their localities, the organizers, protectors, and exploiters of the semifree peasants who tilled the land. Adventurous colonists migrated to unsettled regions, drained the swamps, fertilized the soil by burning the woods and brush, exhausted it with improvident tillage, and moved on again, until they reached the White Sea and the Urals, and seeped into Siberia. In the endless plains towns were many but small; houses were of wood and mud, calculated to burn down within twenty years at most. Roads were unpaved, and were least agonizing in winter, when they were covered with snow packed by sleds and patient boots. Merchants preferred rivers to roads, and by water or ice carried on a plodding trade between north and south, with Byzantium, Islam, and the Hanse. Probably it was this spreading commerce that overcame the individualism of the princes and compelled the unification of Russia. Vasili II (1425–62), called Tëmny, the Blind, because his foes gouged out his eyes (1446), brought all rebels to obedience with torture, mutilation, and the knout, and left to his son a Russia sufficiently strong to end the ignominy of Tatar rule.
Ivan III became “the Great” because he accomplished this task, and made Russia one. He was built to need: unscrupulous, subtle, calculating, tenacious, cruel, guiding his armies to distant victories from his seat in the Kremlin; punishing disobedience or incompetence savagely, whipping, torturing, mutilating even the boyars, beheading a doctor for failing to cure his son, and so sternly dominating his entourage that women fainted at his glance. Russia called him the Terrible until it met his grandson.
The easiest of his conquests was Novgorod. He looked with hungry anticipation upon that thriving taxable mart, and the merchants of Moscow urged him to destroy their competitors in the north.7 The Grand Prince controlled the plains between Moscow and Novgorod; there the mercantile republic bought its food and sold its goods; Ivan had only to close that granary and market to Novgorod’s trade, and the city-state must go bankrupt or yield. After eight years of alternating war and truce, the republic surrendered its autonomy (1478). Seven thousand of its leading inhabitants were transplanted to Suzdal, the Hanse was expelled, the merchants of Moscow inherited the markets, their Prince the revenues, of Novgorod.
Absorbing the colonies of the dead republic, Ivan extended his rule to Finland, the Arctic, and the Urals. Pskov submitted in time to preserve its republican forms under the sovereignty of the Grand Prince. Tver sought preservation by allying itself with Lithuania; Ivan marched in person against the city, and took it without a blow. Rostov and Iaroslavl followed. When Ivan’s brothers died he refused to let their appanages descend to their heirs; he added their territories to his own. One brother, Andrei, flirted with Lithuania; Ivan captured and imprisoned him; Andrei died in jail; Ivan wept, but confiscated Andrei’s lands. La politique nía pas d’entrailles.
Liberation from the Tatars seemed impossible and proved easy. The remnants of the Mongol-Turkish invaders had settled down in three rival groups centering at Sarai, Kazan, and in the Crimea. Ivan played one against another until he was assured that they would not unite against him. In 1480 he refused tribute. Khan Akhmet led a great army up the Volga to the banks of the Oka and Ugra south of Moscow; Ivan led 150,000 men to the opposite banks. For months the hostile hosts faced each other without giving battle; Ivan hesitated to risk his throne and life on one throw, the Tatars feared his improved artillery. When the rivers froze and no longer protected the armies from each other, Ivan ordered a retreat. Instead of pursuing, the Tatars too retreated, all the way to Sarai (1480). It was an immense and ridiculous victory. From that time no tribute was paid by Moscow to the Horde; the Grand Prince called himself autocrat (Samoderzhets), meaning that he paid tribute to none. The rival khans were maneuvered into mutual war; Akhmet was defeated and slain; the Golden Horde of Sarai melted away.
Lithuania remained. Neither the Grand Prince nor the metropolitan of Moscow could suffer peace so long as the Ukraine and Kiev and western Russia were under a power perpetually threatening Moscow, and inviting Orthodox Christians into Latin Christianity. An alleged Polish plot to assassinate Ivan gave him a casus belli and let loose a holy war for the redemption of the seduced provinces (1492). Many Lithuanian princes, uneasy under the Polish-Roman-Catholic union, opened their gates to Ivan’s troops. Alexander, Great Prince of Lithuania, made a stand at Vedrosha, and lost (1500). Pope Alexander VI arranged a six-year truce; meanwhile Moscow kept the region it had won—west to the river Sozh, including Chernigov and reaching almost to Smolensk. Ivan III, now sixty-three, left the redemption of the remainder to his heirs.
His reign of forty-three years was as important as any in the history of Russia before the twentieth century. Whether inspired by lust for wealth and power, or by a conviction that the security and prosperity of the Russians required the unification of Russia, Ivan III achieved for his country what Louis XI was doing for France, Henry VII for England, Ferdinand and Isabella for Spain, Alexander VI for the Papal States; the simultaneity of these events revealed the progress of nationalism and monarchy, dooming the supernational power of the papacy. The boyars lost their independence, the principalities sent tribute to Moscow, Ivan took the title “Sovereign of All the Russias.” Possibly at the behest of his Greek wife he assumed also the Roman-Greek title of czar (Caesar), adopted the Imperial double eagle as the national emblem, and claimed inheritance to all the political and religious authority of defunct Byzantium. Byzantine theories and ceremonies of government, and of the Church as an organ of the state, followed Byzantine Christianity, the Byzantine Greek alphabet, and Byzantine art forms, into Russia; and so far as Byzantium had been Orientalized by its proximity to Asia, so Russia, already oriented by Tatar rule, became in many ways an Oriental monarchy, alien and unintelligible to the West.