The Unification of Russia



IN 1300 Russia did not exist. The north belonged for the most part to three self-governed city-states: Novgorod, Viatka, Pskov. The western and southern provinces were dependencies of Lithuania. In the east the principalities of Moscow, Ryazan, Suzday, Nijni Novgorod, and Tver all claimed individual sovereignty, and were united only in common subjection to the Golden Horde.

The Horde took its noun from Turkish ordu, camp, and its adjective from the domed tent, covered with cloth of gold, that had served as headquarters for Batu the Splendid, grandson of Ghengis Khan. Having conquered southern Russia and western Asia, these marauding Asiatics built their capital at Sarai on a branch of the lower Volga, and there received annual tribute from the Russian princes. The Horde was partly agricultural, partly nomad pastoral. The ruling families were Mongol, the rest were mostly Turks. The name Tatar came to the Horde from the Ta-ta tribes of the Gobi, who in the ninth century had started the Mongol avalanche toward the West. The chief results from the long subjection of Russia to the Horde were social: the autocracy of the Moscow dukes, the servile loyalty of the people to their princes, the low status of woman, the military, financial, and judicial organization of the Muscovite government on Tatar lines. The Tatar domination deferred for two centuries the attempt of Russia to become a European Occidental state.

The Russian people faced the most arduous conditions with silent stoicism, except that amid their tribulations they found the courage to sing. Their enemies called them coarse, cruel, dishonest, cunning, and violent;1 doubtless toil and trouble and a trying climate toughened them; but their patience, good humor, friendliness, and hospitality redeemed them—so much so that they were inclined to believe themselves, more humano, the salt of the earth. They were beaten into civilization by barbarous laws and frightful penalties; so, we are told, a wife who murdered her husband was buried alive up to the neck, sorcerers were burned alive in an iron cage, and counterfeiters had liquid metal poured down their throats.2 Like any people fighting cold, the Russians drank alcohol abundantly, sometimes to drunken stupor; even their food was seasoned to warm them. They enjoyed hot baths, and bathed more frequently than most Europeans. Religion bade women hide their tempting forms and hair, and branded them as Satan’s chosen instrument; yet they were equal with men before the law, and often joined in public pastimes or the dance—which was forbidden as a sin. The Russian Church preached a strict morality, and prohibited conjugal relations during Lent; presumably the severity of the code was a counterpoise to the tendency of the people to indulge excessively in almost the only pleasure left to them. Marriages were arranged by the parents, and came early; girls of twelve, boys of fourteen, were considered nubile. Wedding ceremonies were complex, with ancient symbolism and festivities; through all these the bride was required to keep a modest silence; her revenge was deferred. On the morrow she was expected to show to her husband’s mother the evidence that he had married a virgin. Usually the women of the household remained in an upper apartment or terem, away from the men; and the authority of the father was as absolute in the family as that of the czar in the state.

Piety sublimated poverty into a preparation for paradise. Every house of any size had a room decorated with icons as a place of frequent prayer. A proper visitor, before saluting his hosts, saluted the icons first. Good women carried rosaries wherever they went. Prayers were recited as magic incantations; so, said the Domostroi—a famous manual of the sixteenth century—a certain prayer repeated 600 times a day for three years would cause the incarnation, in the re-petitioner, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.3But there were many beautiful features in this superstitious religion. On Easter morning people greeted one another with the joyful words, “Christ is risen.” In this hope death was in some measure eased; facing it, a decent man would pay his debts, relieve his debtors, free one or more of his bondmen, leave alms to the poor and the Church, and breathe his last in confident expectation of eternal life.

The Russian Church stimulated this piety with architecture, murals, icons, powerful sermons, hypnotic ceremonies, and massive choral song that seemed to rise from the most mystical depths of the soul or the stomach. The Church was a vital organ of the state, and her services in teaching letters and morality, disciplining character, and buttressing social order were lavishly rewarded. Monasteries were numerous and immense. The Troitsa-Sergievskaya Lavra—the Monastery of the Trinity founded by St. Sergius in 1335—had amassed by 1600 such extensive lands that over 100,000 peasants were needed for their cultivation. In return the monasteries distributed charity on a Russian scale; some fed 400 people daily; in a famine year the monastery at Volokolamsk fed 7,000 in one day. Monks took a vow of chastity, but priests were obliged to marry. These “papas” were mostly illiterate, but that was not held against them by the people. The metropolitans of Moscow were in many cases the ablest, as well as the most learned, men of their generation, risking their silver to preserve the state, and guiding the princes toward national unity. St. Alexis was the virtual ruler of Russia during his tenure of the Muscovite see (1354–70). With all her faults—which may have been dictated by her tasks—the Russian Church in this formative age served as the supreme civilizing agent among a people brutalized by the hardships of life and the predatory nature of man.

In 1448 the Russian Church, repudiating the merger of Greek with Roman Christianity at the Council of Florence, declared her independence of the Byzantine patriarch; and when, five years later, Constantinople fell to the Turks, Moscow became the metropolis of the Orthodox faith. “Know now,” wrote a fervent monk to a Grand Prince of Moscow about 1505, “that the sovereignty of all Christendom has been united in thine own. For the two Romes have fallen, but the third doth endure. A fourth there shall never be, for thy Christian empire shall last forever.” 4

The Church was almost the sole patron of letters and the arts, and therefore their dictator. The best literature was unwritten. The songs of the people, passing from mouth to mouth, from generation to generation, celebrated their loves, weddings, sorrows, seasons, holydays, or deaths; and there were popular lays of cherished saints, ancient heroes, and legendary exploits, like those of Sadko the merchant of Novgorod. Blind men or cripples went from village to village singing such songs and lays and sacred chants. Written literature was nearly all monastic, and served religion.

It was the monks who now brought icon painting to a finished art. Upon a small panel of wood, sometimes covered with cloth, they applied a glutinous coat; on this they drew their design; within this they laid their colors in tempera; they covered the painting with varnish, and enclosed it in a metal frame. The subjects were determined by ecclesiastical authority; the figures and features were derived from Byzantine models, and went back in continuous evolution through the mosaics of Constantinople to the paintings of Hellenistic Alexandria. The best icons from this age are the anonymous Christ Enthroned in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Moscow; the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, from the school of Novgorod; and The Holy Trinity of the monk Andrei Rubliov in the Monastery of the Trinity. Rubliov and his teacher, Theophanes the Greek, painted frescoes, half Byzantine and half Byzantine El Greco, in Vladimir, Moscow, and Novgorod, but time has had its way with them.

Every ruler signalized his splendor, and eased his conscience, by building or endowing a church or a monastery. Forms and motives from Armenia, Persia, India, Tibet, Mongolia, Italy, and Scandinavia joined with the predominant Byzantine heritage to mold Russian church architecture, with its picturesque multiplicity of units, its central gilded dome, its bulbous cupolas admirably designed to shed rain and snow. After the fall of Constantinople and the expulsion of the Tatars the dependence of Russia upon Byzantine and Oriental art subsided, and influences from the West entered to modify the Slavic style. In 1472 Ivan III, hoping thereby to inherit the rights and titles of the Byzantine emperors, married Zoë Palaeologus, niece of the last ruler of the Eastern Empire. She had been brought up in Rome, and had imbibed something of the early Renaissance. She brought Greek scholars with her, and acquainted Ivan with Italian art. It may have been at her suggestion that he sent the first Russian mission to the West (1474), with instructions to secure Italian artists for Moscow. Ridolfo Fieravante of Bologna, called Aristotle because of the range of his abilities, accepted the invitation; and further Russian forays netted Pietro Solario, Alevisio Novi, and several other artists. It was these Italians who, with Russian aides and labor, rebuilt the Kremlin.

Yuri Dolgoruki had founded Moscow (1156) by raising a wall around his villa, which was strategically situated at the confluence of two rivers; this fortress (kreml) was the first form of the Kremlin. In time the enclosure was enlarged, and churches and palaces rose within a massive wall of oak. Ivan III set himself to transform the entire ensemble. It was apparently Fieravante who (1475–79) reconstructed, in the Kremlin, the old Cathedral of the Assumption (Uspenskiy Sobor), where future czars were to be crowned; the design remained Byzantine, with Italian decoration. Architects from Pskov added, in the enclosure, the little Cathedral of the Annunciation (Blagovyeschenskiy Sobor, 1484–89); and, again in the Kremlin, Alevisio raised the Cathedral of the Archangel (1505–09). Solario and others rewalled the circuit in pink brick (1485–1508), in the style of the Castello Sforzesco at Milan.5 It was from this many-templed center of Russia, this overpowering union and concentration of secular and ecclesiastical authority, that the grand princes and the metropolitans of Moscow spread their rule over nobles, merchants, and peasants, and laid in blood and bones and piety the foundations of one of the mightiest empires in history.

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