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Russia on the Rise

A great state once existed in Russia, a state centered on the capital of Kiev. Not exactly European and not exactly Asian, Russia spanned immense territory and included a people known as the Slavs. The name Slavs came from an ancient word meaning “slave.”

In the thirteenth century, the great Golden Horde, or the armies of the Mongols, conquered all of China, then Hungary, then Russia. Once the Russians grew strong enough and the Mongols weak enough, the Russians withdrew their loyalties and created their own state. The Russians, though independent, remained geographically isolated from the rest of Europe and never advanced at the rate of other European nations. Finally, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Russians made strides to catch up.

No More Mongol Yoke

While the Mongols frequently destroyed entire cities along with the people who lived there, they also left many cities. The Mongols then used local princes to collect taxes. The Mongols were too busy sacking other places to hang around and collect tributes. Each year the local princes that the Mongols allowed to stay in power paid tribute and gave slaves to the Mongols. Those who tried to rebel against the Mongols soon suffered their wrath. As long as the prince continued to pay, the Mongols let him stay. This unpleasant arrangement has been called the Mongol Yoke.

Define Your Terms

Nobles who were granted land and titles on the condition that they serve in the army were called service nobility.

Beginning in the thirteenth century, the great prince in Moscow took the initiative to put down popular uprisings so the Mongols didn’t have to, and grew powerful and wealthy under the so-called Mongol Yoke. The most significant of these early princes in Moscow grew enormously wealthy, so much so that his nickname was Ivan Moneybags. Ivan I (1288-1340) put down a rival’s uprising and reaped great rewards from the Mongols. Over the next century, the Prince of Moscow became a powerful, hereditary position. By the time of Ivan III (1440-1505), Moscow not only collected taxes from but also controlled all of the Russian lands. Though still technically under Mongol control, the prince of Moscow had absolute control over all the major cities of Russia and the Slavic peoples. As Ivan III conquered land, he kept half and gave half to his service nobility. Because there was nowhere for the nobility to turn for help, they were forced to do as Ivan said. Ivan eventually grew wealthy and powerful enough to renounce his loyalties to the Mongols and ceased payments. The Mongols had spread themselves too thin throughout their holdings and lacked the military might to challenge Ivan, who began calling himself Ivan the Great. Russia had officially rid themselves of the Mongol Yoke. 

Hail Czar

The position of the Prince of Moscow had gained so much power that Ivan the Great began to see himself as the same kind of all-powerful ruler as the Roman Caesars, hence the title czar (also frequently spelled tsar) for Russian rulers. In a sense, Ivan claimed the divine right of kings as justification for his power. Furthermore, because the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia took up residence in Moscow, the Orthodox clergy began to speak of Moscow as the “third Rome”; Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire of old and birthplace of Eastern Orthodoxy, was thought of as the second Rome. Ivan even married the daughter of the last of the Byzantine emperors. The Russians developed a superiority complex and looked at the Eastern Orthodox Church as the only true church.

Define Your Terms

An Orthodox clergyman remarked after the Muslim sack of Constantinople, “Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands, and a fourth there will not be."

All others in Europe were heretical. All that was left for the czars of Russia was to create an empire that rivaled that of Rome.

Was Ivan Really Terrible?

The centuries-long struggle for power and for land by Russian princes culminated in Ivan IV (1530-1584). In 1533, at the age of 3, he became Prince of Moscow and then, in 1547, Czar of All Russians. Not long after his ascension he launched attacks on the fading Mongol empire in the east and on lands to the west.

To say that the mentally unstable Ivan ruled as an absolutist would be an understatement. Ivan used terror, torture, and the threat of execution to enforce his will in every part of Russia. Ivan really flipped when his wife, Anastasia, died. He had already been struggling to subdue the boyars, those nobles who traditionally inherited lands and titles. Being the paranoid psychotic he was, Ivan blamed them for Anastasia’s death. Ivan turned on the boyars in a horrifying display. Ivan used a secret police force called Oprichniks, men in black clothes riding black horses, to arrest and execute the boyars, take their lands, and terrorize their families.

Ivan forced the nobles to serve in the military to keep their titles. He forced the peasants to serve in the military to keep their lives; the peasants who didn’t serve were bound to the land by serfdom. Ivan took over trade and commerce so that all craftsmen, artisans, and businessmen essentially worked for the czar. He practically enslaved all of Russia and no one dared challenge his authority. The people’s fears were justified: Ivan the Terrible once sent his thugs to execute as many as 50,000 in the city of Novgorod.

As a Matter of Fact

Some peasants fled into the frontier wilderness to escape the reaches of Ivan's police forces. These outlaws, who joined other warriorlike peoples in the wilderness, became known as Cossacks. The Cossacks made their living, and their reputation, by pillaging lands held by the Ottomans and land held by the vassals of the Ottomans including Russian lands. An Ottoman official once informed the Grand Duke of Russia that the Cossacks would not respond to Ottoman threats because “The Cossacks do not swear allegiance to me, and they live as they themselves please." The Cossacks eventually played a large role in the expansion of Russia north into Siberia and south into the Caucasus.

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