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A History of Russia


1300 to 1682

This chapter covers the following topics:
The Rise of Lithuania
The Rise of Muscovy
The Golden Horde Breaks Up
Ivan the Great
Ivan the Terrible
North to the Orient
The Time of Troubles
The Conquest of Siberia
Russia Under the Early Romanovs
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The Rise of Lithuania


Map of the Baltic tribes.

This map appeared in the previous chapter, but you will probably need to see it again, to keep track of the tribe names. From Wikimedia Commons.

After their defeat on Lake Peipus, the Teutonic Knights did not go for a rematch with the Russians because back in their home base of Prussia, a revolt broke out at the same time. The rebel tribes destroyed all but three forts and settlements belonging to the Germans, and it took seven years for the Knights to regain control (1242-49). To prevent any more trouble, the Papacy urged the Knights to be lenient with their opponents. The result was the 1249 Treaty of Christburg, which promised that Prussians who became Catholics would have the same rights as Germans and Poles; they could buy, sell and litigate on equal terms with the other groups, and even become priests and knights.

The last pagan stronghold in Europe, a group of people the Christians could never conquer, were the Lithuanians. When civilized nations first encountered them, the Lithuanians were divided between two tribes, the Samogitians (lowlanders) and the Aukštaitians (highlanders), with several chiefs over each tribe. Then in the early thirteenth century, threats from the Poles, Russians, Crusaders and Mongols persuaded the Lithuanians to pull themselves together into one state. After they won the battle of Saule in 1236, five senior dukes and their followers fought among themselves, until an Aukštaitiai duke, Mindaugas, came out on top in 1240. At this point, Mindaugas became the first Grand Duke, borrowing a title used by the leaders of major Russian city-states. At this stage, if you count the Samogitians, whom Mindaugas did not firmly control, the infant Lithuanian state had almost the same borders as Lithuania has today. But he did not stop there; he expanded southward, conquering the cities of Hrodna, Brest, Navahrudak and Slonim, a territory in modern-day Belarus called Black Ruthenia. To the east, he had relatives installed as the princes of Minsk, Polotsk and Vitebsk.

Suddenly in 1251, Mindaugas accepted baptism from the Teutonic Knights. Then he made this arrangement with the Crusaders: they could have the land of the Samogitian tribe, an acquisition that would link their Prussian and Livonian territories, and they could even have his lands should Mindaugas die without an heir, which was likely in those violent times. In effect Mindaugas was doing the opposite of what Alexander Nevsky did -- he joined his opponents in the west so he could concentrate on fighting his adversaries to the east.

The delighted pope sent a crown, and Mindaugas was crowned as Lithuania's first (and only) king on July 6, 1253. For this reason July 6, the anniversary of the coronation, has been a holiday since present-day Lithuania became independent in 1991. However, the conversion did not last because the Samogitians wanted nothing to do with Christians. In fact, in 1260 they inflicted a major defeat on the Teutonic Knights in 1260, at Durbe in Latvia's Kurland peninsula; 150 knights were killed, including the Livonian Grandmaster, and in the aftermath, more revolts broke out in Latvia and Prussia. Then the Samogitians offered to submit to the rule of Mindaugas if he renounced his Christianity, so in 1260 he went back to being a pagan, a move which also made him leader of the anti-Crusader rebellion. The church he had built in his capital, Vilnius, became a pagan temple; today it is part of Vilnius Cathedral. However, Mindaugas did not remain in charge for long; he was assassinated by a brother-in-law in 1263, the monarchy was abolished, and a civil war broke out among the dukes, which lasted for a generation.

Even with Lithuania in anarchy, it did not break up, and it took a while before the Christians enjoyed any more success. By now the pagans had copied the weapons, tactics and military organization of their opponents, allowing them to beat the Crusaders at their own game. In the early 1260s, the pope had been planning a Crusade against the Mongols, but the situation for the Teutonic Knights looked so bad that he told the Crusader recruits to go to the Baltic instead, promising that all their sins would be forgiven if they fought for the Order, even if only for a little while. They put down the pagan rebellion in Kurland by 1267, and the rebellion in Prussia by 1274. Settlers from northern Germany came to the secured areas, especially in Prussia. By 1283, the conquest/subjugation of Prussia was complete. The indigenous Prussians disappeared as an ethnic group; those who did not emigrate to Lithuania had to learn German. Even the name "Prussian" was appropriated by the German settlers for themselves. That is why, when a "Kingdom of Prussia" appeared in 1701, it would be a German-speaking state. In 1291 the Teutonic Knights reconquered Semigalia, the part of Latvia around Riga, and since they lost their original headquaters, at Acre in the Middle East, in the same year, the Baltic now became the main center for Crusader activity. For a few years they had their headquarters at Venice, but then in 1309 they moved it to Marienburg in the Vistula River delta; here they built Malbork, which eventually became the world's largest brick castle.

For Lithuania, order returned when Vytenis (1295-1316) became Grand Duke. He successfully defended the realm from Crusader attacks, and began a wave of expansion to the east, annexing the city of Polotsk in 1307. Because of this annexation, Polotsk is one of the two medieval Russian cities that never paid tribute to the Mongols (the other is Turov, in southern Belarus). Evidently the Russians in this area saw pagan Lithuanian rule as an acceptable alternative to the Mongol yoke. To the west, he got involved in Poland's succession disputes, because his favorite candidate, Boleslav II of Mazovia, was married to a Lithuanian duchess. However, the biggest success of Vytenis required both arms and diplomacy -- an alliance with Riga, a city you would expect to be his enemy. The Archbishop of Riga and the city burghers disagreed with the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights on how to run Riga, and tensions between the two sides grew until open fighting broke out in 1297. Because the Knights were his archenemy, Vytenis offered his services to the residents of Riga, they accepted, and the Lithuanians marched in, destroying a castle north of Riga, and killing twenty-three Livonian Knights in battle, including the master of the order. Between 1298 and 1313 Vytenis sent eleven raids into Prussia, kept a garrison stationed outside of Riga, and traded with the Rigans. Pope Boniface VIII demanded an explanation of what was going on, representatives of Riga and the Archbishop told him how the Knights had become heavyhanded ruffians, and the Knights in turn pointed to all the converts they had made over the past century, so the pope ordered everyone to accept a compromise.

The next Lithuanian Grand Duke, Gediminas (1316-41), inherited a realm that was hard pressed by attacks from the Teutonic Knights, who claimed their mission was to convert Lithuania, but were simply raiding it. At first he allied himself with the Mongols against the Germans, then granted concessions to the Dominican and Franciscan monks already preaching in Lithuania; in 1323 he even accepted baptism as a Catholic, and had his daughter Aldona baptized so she could marry King Casimir III of Poland. Only the marriage was a success. Prussian bishops, who had always supported the Teutonic Knights, refused to accept Gediminas as a convert, while Russians denounced him for embracing what they saw as a heresy, and pagan Lithuanians were upset that he had abandoned their ancestral faith. Thus, less than a year after his baptism, Gediminas returned to paganism. He did better when it came to enlarging the realm, adding a southward expansion to the previous eastward expansion. These acquisitions included Vitebsk, Brest, Pinsk, Turov, and the Berezina River basin, so that by the end of his reign, the Lithuanian state ruled all of present-day Belarus, in addition to Lithuania. Finally, at home he built a wooden castle in Vilnius, the oldest part of the Vilnius castle complex; although it was replaced by a brick castle in the next century, it is still called Gediminas Tower in memory of him, and has become the most important landmark in the capital.

Lithuanian map thumbnail.

The growth of Lithuania, 1200-1500. This is a thumbnail picture, click on it to see the full-sized map (874 KB, opens in a separate window). From Wikimedia Commons.

After Gediminas' death, he was given a pagan funeral; he was cremated, and his favorite servant and several German slaves were burned on the pyre with him. His third son, Jaunutis, took over, only to be deposed in 1345 by his elder brothers, Algirdas and Kestutis. These two then shared the realm: while Algirdas ruled from Vilnius, Kestutis built himself a castle in the Trakai district, a few miles to the west. This meant that Kestutis would defend the western lands from the Teutonic Knights, and Algirdas would handle military affairs in the south and east. With the Golden Horde declining, and the Russian states in the Ukraine fighting among themselves, Algirdas was able to make spectacular gains, such as Chernigov, Kursk, Bryansk and Kiev; Lithuania now challenged Mongol control over the western Ukraine. However, the remaining Russian state in the region, Galicia, was conquered by Poland, and when Algirdas fought a war with the new state of Muscovy (see below), he besieged Moscow twice, in 1368 and 1370, but did not take that city.

Algirdas died in 1377, and he was cremated on a pyre with eighteen horses and many of his possessions, like a chieftain from an earlier time. His son Jogaila succeeded him in Vilnius, but he could not get along with his uncle Kestutis. A civil war broke out between them in 1380, and Kestutis won the first round, driving Jogaila from Vilnius and proclaiming himself the new Grand Duke. However, Jogaila was preferred by his father's vassals, allowing him to raise an army and come back in 1382. From Vilnius, Jogaila marched to Trakai, and Kestutis and his son Vytautas went there as well, expecting to negotiate a settlement; instead Jogaila seized the two and threw them into prison. There Kestutis died a week later, while Vytautas escaped, fled to the Teutonic Knights, and was baptized in Marienburg.

An invasion of Lithuania by the Teutonic Knights in 1383 showed they were still a serious menace. So much of a menace, in fact, that Jogaila and Vytautas buried the hatchet; in return for Vytautas turning against the Knights, Jogaila gave back his fiefdom in Trakai. Fortunately for the Grand Duke, the Knights had made enemies of their other neighbors, and Jogaila could get one of them on his side if he became a Christian. The question was: Should he convert to Orthodoxy in order to secure help from Muscovy, or join Catholicism to gain an alliance with Poland?

A vacant Polish throne decided the answer. Poland's Casimir III had died without leaving an heir in 1370, and he bequeathed his crown to his nephew, Louis I of Hungary. Louis was a very capable ruler for both countries, but then he made the same mistake as Casimir by leaving only daughters. The eldest daughter, Mary, received Hungary, and the second, Jadwiga or Hedwig, became the queen of Poland. Both of them were minors, so they would need husbands to survive in the medieval world, and Jogaila found out he could marry Jadwiga if he was a Catholic. Therefore he accepted baptism in 1386, the wedding took place, and Jogaila became King Wladyslaw II Jagiello of Poland. However, the Lithuanian nobility would not accept the new arrangement while Jogaila was both Grand Duke and king, and the Poles soon decided he was giving too much attention to Lithuania and not enough attention to them. To satisfy both groups, he made Vytautas, his cousin and former enemy, the next Grand Duke. A wave of baptisms followed: the Lithuanian nobility were baptized fairly quickly, the Aukštaitians were baptized in 1387, and the Samogitians underwent baptism in 1413. In that way Lithuania accepted Christianity at last. Equally important, the Polish-Lithuanian union formed by the 1386 wedding would last for 400 years. Though it was a dual monarchy, in effect one nation with two governments, as long as both heads of state were in agreement on military affairs and foreign policy, the union worked better than you might expect.

Re-enactor dressed as a knight.

Just for fun, here is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who followed the example set by the Polish-Lithuanian union. Should we say he got medieval on his girlfriend?

Lithuania's best years began with the reign of Vytautas (1392-1430). To the east, Lithuania captured Smolensk (1395); this acquisition put the eastern frontier within striking distance of Pskov, Novgorod, and Moscow. To the south, Lithuania gained loose control over the Black Sea shore. To the southeast, Lithuania contested with Muscovy for control of the Verkhovsk district. Sophia, the daughter of Vytautas, married Vasili I, the prince of Moscow, so for most of the fiteenth and sixteenth centuries, Moscow's rulers had both Lithuanian and Russian ancestry.

However, the most important achievement was in the west -- the breaking of the power of the Teutonic Knights. The Knights reached their peak in 1398, when the latest round of fighting ended with Vytautas ceding the Samogitian district to them; the Knights now ruled Estonia, Latvia, Prussia, and the western half of present-day Lithuania. As long as Lithuania had practiced paganism, slavery and human sacrifice, the Teutonic Order could claim its cause was a righteous one, but now that Lithuania was Christian, the Baltic Crusades were over; any conflicts after this were ordinary wars. To justify continued hostilities, the Knights claimed that the conversion of the Lithuanians was not genuine, or that they actually practiced a heresy. Most Europeans did not buy it, though, so when Vytautas and Wladislaw launched an invasion of Prussia with their combined armies, Russians from Smolensk, Mongols from the Golden Horde, and mercenaries from central Europe went with them. Against this, the Teutonic Knights could only call on more mercenaries. Figures on the numbers of soldiers involved are not available; all we know for sure is that the Polish-Lithuanian coalition was larger, and this was one of the largest battles fought in medieval Europe. Because the Teutonic Knights wore heavier armor, had more artillery (100 cannon, compared with 16 cannon for the coalition) and a more fearsome reputation, the battle would not be decided by numbers alone.

The site of the showdown is called Tannenberg in German, Grünwald in Polish, and Žalgiris in Lithuanian. Here the opposing armies met on the morning of July 15, 1410, and fought for ten hours. The initial clashes drove the Lithuanians from the field, and the Teutonic Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen, launched a charge against the Poles, in the hope of killing King Wladyslaw. Instead, some of the Lithuanians returned at this point, and von Jungingen was the one killed. Now with the Grand Master and the most of their leadership dead, it was the Knights' turn to flee. Some escaped into the forest, while others went to a nearby village and tried to build a defensive barricade by chaining wagons together (an early example of "circling the wagons"). But that only caused the village's residents to join the victors in killing the Knights; it was said that more bodies were found in the village than anywhere else after the battle.

The Polish-Lithuanian coalition went on from Tannenberg to Marienburg, where they razed the town, but Malbork Castle was too strong for them to take. In the treaty ending the war, the Teutonic Order did not lose much land; they mainly had to give Samogitia back to Lithuania. For them the real loss came from the number of knights lost, the reparations they had to pay, and the cost of paying the ransoms for all of their soldiers captured. Those losses and expenses sent the Order into a death spiral. After Tannenberg they won no more victories. With the Thirteen Years War (1454-66), which began with the revolt of the burghers and nobles in Prussia, Poland invaded and took away Marienburg, forcing the Grand Master to set up a new capital at Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad). The end result of this war was that West Prussia went to Poland, and the Teutonic Knights had to swear vassalage to the king of Poland to keep the rest.

In the past few sections of this narrative, we have gone to great length to tell what non-Russians were doing in territories that have been considered Russian more recently. The most important effect of all these activities is that because the Eastern Slavs had been divided and conquered politically, they also were permanently divided ethnically. The Slavs under Lithuanian rule developed cultural and linguistic differences from their brethren and became known as "White Russians," Byelorussians, or Belarusians. Those who lived under the Mongol thumb became the Ukrainians or "Little Russians" of today. The Russians in the city-states along the Volga intermarried with the Finns who had inhabited the area before the twelfth century, and became the "Great Russians," the group that by virtue of numbers has dominated Russia ever since.

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The Rise of Muscovy

Novgorod was the most important Russian city in the late thirteenth century. We saw how Alexander Nevsky kept the Mongols from plundering Novgorod, and being part of the European trade network made it the richest Russian city as well. The goods exported from Russia in the past remained in demand, especially amber, but with living standards improving in Europe (for Europeans, the best years of the Middle Ages occurred in the thirteenth century), the demand for furs increased greatly. One reason for the increased demand was because Europeans had more money to spend. The other reason was that the supply of fur-bearing animals was running low in other parts of Europe, thanks to over-hunting by fur trappers and the cutting down of forests to make room for more farms and towns. Even around Russian cities which had been important in the past, like Kiev, it was getting harder to make a living by fur trading; the trappers had literally killed the fox with the golden pelt, so to speak. However, the northern taiga had not yet been fully exploited, and Novgorod's northern location, combined with the Mongols sacking the other north Russian cities, meant Novgorod was the city best suited to take advantage of the fur trade moving north.

Map of the Republic of Novgorod, 1400.
Territory held by the Republic of Novgorod, 1400. The city of Novgorod itself is located in the lower left corner of the green area.
Picture source:

Novgorodian fur traders set up outposts as far away as the northern Urals, and in the process of exploring the land, they reached the mouth of the Ob River, in northwest Siberia. This allowed Novgorod to claim all land north of the other Russian cities, making it the largest Russian state in the thirteen and fourteenth centuries (see the above map). As you might expect, the traders bagged some of the fur-bearing animals, but more often they enlisted the Finno-Ugric tribes of the taiga, like the Komi, to do the hunting for them. If both the traders and the natives were in a friendly mood, they could exchange furs for Russian-made goods, such as iron cooking pots and axes; otherwise the traders might demand a certain number of furs as a tax or tribute, and the indigenous people would pay up to avoid trouble.

1658 woodcut of a squirrel hunt.
For the European market, the furs most in demand were squirrel pelts, because it had become fashionable to edge woolen pieces of clothing with squirrel fur. Unfortunately, we now think the Black Death got started when the hunters caught some Russian squirrels infected with bubonic plague. Picture source:

At this point I like to speculate on a question fit for alternate history: What if Novgorod became the capital of a reunited Russia, instead of Moscow? Would Russia have become a commercially-oriented state, less traumatized by Mongol oppression, and less inclined to have an authoritarian/totalitarian government? In this universe, it was not meant to be, for in the fourteenth century, power among the independent Russian city-states would shift back to where it had been in the twelfth century -- to one of the cities in the northeast. The city of Vladimir never fully recovered after the Mongols sacked it in 1238, but the strongest prince in this region was still called the Grand Duke of Vladimir, allowing him to call his state the Great Principality of Vladimir, whether he lived in Suzdal, Moscow or wherever. Probably the first sign that things were changing came in the 1330s, when the prince of Moscow began "flipping" the fur traders in the Urals, persuading them to switch their loyalty from Novgorod to him.

Before 1300 Moscow was an insignificant city, dwarfed by larger neighbors such as Rostov, Ryazan, Suzdal and Tver. Its true importance was illustrated by Alexander Nevsky's last will & testament; the lands he ruled were divided between his thirteen sons, and Moscow went to Daniel, the youngest. Daniel proved to be a more than competent leader, though, by conquering two neighboring tracts of land, including the city of Kolomna, and claiming a third when its owner died childless. When Daniel's reign ended in 1303, he left his heirs a principality that was twice as big as when he started.

The next important Muscovite prince was Ivan I (1328-41), nicknamed Kalita, or "Moneybag." Ivan was so good at acquiring money that once the Mongols gave him the yarlyk, or tribute-collecting permit, he kept it for his entire reign, and he used it to enrich Moscow greatly. As a token of respect for his efficient leadership, the Khan also gave Ivan the title of Grand Duke of Vladimir, and he looked the other way when Ivan added to it the portentous phrase "and of all Russia."

How Muscovy grew, 1300-1462.

The next eight monarchs that ruled Moscow, from Simeon to Ivan IV, were all successful at enlarging the Muscovite state, never passing up an opportunity to grab some more land for Moscow. That was one reason why Moscow grew to become the most important city of modern Russia, and others are listed below:

1. Moscow's central location between the other surviving Russian city-states of the fourteenth century.

2. Muscovite princes were long-lived and more competent than their counterparts in other cities.

3. Russian princes were still following the custom of dividing their estates equally between their sons, though it had caused nothing but trouble since Kievan times. Moscow modified this practice: one son was given the lion's share of the inheritance, forcing the other sons to submit to him if they wished to keep the scraps of land left to them.

4. The support of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1300 the leader of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan of Kiev, transferred his see (headquarters) to Vladimir, but only stayed there for a few years before he decided he liked living in Moscow better. From this time on the clergy actively helped manage the state, and they used the weapon of excommunication against Moscow's enemies.

It was under the prince Dmitri Donskoy (1359-89) that Moscow became strong enough to do what was once unthinkable: fight the Golden Horde and win. In 1378 he stopped paying tribute, and the Mongols gathered together 200,000 troops for the usual punitive expedition. Unlike the times before this, the other Russian city-states stopped their petty bickering and helped Moscow assemble an army of 150,000, and the Church sent its blessings as well. At the battle of Kulikovo Pole (Snipe's Field, September 8, 1380), the Mongols were defeated and sent fleeing back south, but at a awful cost; only 40,000 able-bodied Russians survived, and Dmitri himself was found half dead and surrounded by corpses, his armor shattered and pounded in. Dmitri became a national hero, and the memory of Kulikovo Pole made the Russians stop asking if the Mongol yoke can be thrown off; the new question was, "When will liberation come?"

Pavel Ryzhenko's painting of Kulikovo.
The battle of Kulikovo Pole. From a 2005 painting by Pavel Ryzhenko.

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The Golden Horde Breaks Up

That liberation was still a century away. Part of the reason for Dmitri's success was that the Golden Horde had been in turmoil for the past twenty years; there was a general, Mamai, but no khan. East of the Urals, the Golden Horde's vassals, the White Horde, went through a similar spell of anarchy in the 1370s, until a member that ruling family, Tokhtamysh, came out on top. When Tokhtamysh heard about Kulikovo Pole, he charged west, defeated Mamai near the Sea of Azov, and made himself ruler of the Golden Horde as well. Next, he demanded tribute from the Russians, and when they refused, he marched against the Russian states to the north, sacking cities like Suzdal, Vladimir, Yuriel and Mozhaisk. He got to Moscow in August 1382; Dmitri fled from the city, Tokhtamysh persuaded the defenders to open the gates by promising a truce, and proceeded to burn down Moscow and kill 24,000 people. The Lithuanians tried to intervene in Russia at this point, so on his way home, Tokhtamysh defeated them near Poltava. Dmitri only kept his job by pledging loyalty to Tokhtamysh and to the Golden Horde, and thus was reinstated as chief Mongol tax collector and Grand Duke of Vladimir. Upon Dmitri's death in 1389, his son Vasili I (1389-1425) inherited his titles, and he was the first Grand Duke to do this without first getting the khan's permission.

Tokhtamysh at Moscow.
A sixteenth-century picture of Tokhtamysh at the gates of Moscow. This was the first battle we know of where the Muscovites used firearms, hence the cannon in one tower. Twenty-two years later (1404), a clock tower was built in Moscow; it was the first mechanical clock in Russia.

Fortunately for the Russians, the restoration of the Golden Horde was short-lived. Tokhtamysh was only successful because Timur (also called Tamerlane), the new Turkish ruler of Uzbekistan, had been supporting him since 1376. Tokhtamysh had been defeated more than once while competing with his relatives for rule of the White Horde, and each time that happened, Timur gave him refuge and enough soldiers to win the next battle. Now that he had triumphed in Russia, and was ruler of a realm stretching from the Black Sea to Lake Balkhash, Tokhtamysh turned against his patron. With the Mongols gone from China and the Middle East, and those of Central Asia reduced to mere puppets of Timur, Tokhtamysh was the last descendant of Genghis Khan who was doing well. This gave him the idea that he could rebuild Genghis Khan's empire, and he started by striking south of the Caucasus, invading the lands that the Golden Horde claimed, but never could keep. He got as far as Tabriz, in northwest Iran, and plundered it before returning home. That was a really bad move, for Timur had captured this area a few years earlier, and he was a better warrior; unlike Tokhtamysh, he never lost a battle.

Bust of Timur.
Timur / Tamerlane.

Timur retaliated with two invasions of Mongol-held Russia. For the first invasion, in 1391, he started from Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, passed through Kazakhstan, failed to find Tokhtamysh there, continued west across the Urals, and defeated his opponent in a battle on the Kondurcha River, near Samara. Tokhtamysh fled, and Timur did not follow, because he was already too far from home. When Timur came back for the rematch, in 1395, he chose a more direct route -- from Iran through the Caucasus, aiming for the Golden Horde's heartland. The critical battle came at the Terek River, where Timur won again; Tokhtamysh was overthrown, and Timur sacked Sarai and all other Golden Horde cities along the Volga, helping himself to a century and a half's worth of accumulated wealth. To run the Mongol state, Timur installed rivals of Tokhtamysh: Temür Qutlugh as khan of the Golden Horde, Koirichak as khan of the White Horde, and Edigu as vizier for both.

The looting of the Mongol cities must have encouraged Timur to loot the Russians, too, because next he marched up the Don River, toward Moscow. The Russians couldn't resist such a terrible conqueror, and Timur got as close as Yelets, a town 219 miles away, when he suddenly turned back. He never explained why he called off the campaign, and the Russians thought God had changed his mind; on the same day that Timur ordered the retreat, a popular icon, Our Lady of Vladimir, arrived in Moscow and was paraded around the top of the city walls. This is the first of several mysterious occasions where the Russians believed that divine intervention saved them.

This time Tokhtamysh fled to Lithuania and tried to get the help of Grand Duke Vytautas in regaining his thrones, but they were defeated in 1399 near the Vorskla River, a tributary of the Dnieper, by Temür Qutlugh and Edigu. Then Tokhtamysh fled to Siberia, where he was killed in the Tyumen district in 1406, by Edigu's agents. With him gone, Muscovy resumed its growth, and the Khanate resumed its devolution. From 1395 to 1433 the Golden Horde had twelve khans, making for an average reign of only three years. During the first half of this period Edigu was the one who held the most power, becoming in effect a "majordomo of the palace"; in 1408 he led a raid against the Russian cities, which had not paid tribute since 1395. The arrangement came undone, though, in 1412, when the crown of the Golden Horde passed to the sons of Tokhtamysh, and they didn't like being told what to do; one of them had Edigu assassinated in 1419. However, Edigu's tribe, the Nogai Horde, became a significant player in Mongol politics; some of them joined the Crimean Khanate (see below), while the rest settled on the north shore of the Caspian Sea until the 1630s, when another Mongolian tribe, the Kalmyks, moved into the area.

East of the Urals, the White Horde was more stable, having just four khans over a fifty-year-span. That ended with the overthrow of the White Horde in 1446 by Abu'l-Khayr Khan, a descendant of Shiban, a grandson of Genghis Khan we mentioned in the previous chapter. This faction and the Turkic tribe it led have been known by several names over the ages. In the thirteenth century they were the Grey Horde; in the fifteenth century they were the Shaybanids; today they are called Uzbeks. Likewise two sons of Baraq, a khan of the Golden Horde overthrown in a 1427 coup, claimed the land between the Ural and Syr Darya Rivers, and thus became the founders of the Kazakh Khanate.

Gradually the Shaybanids moved southward, no surprise since Central Asia must have looked more appealing than the frozen lands they were leaving. Behind them a new Mongol state appeared, the Khanate of Sibir; it is from this state that Siberia got its present-day name. Founded some time between 1405 and 1428 by Taibuga, a prince of uncertain origin, it was centered in the valleys of the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers; it also claimed the lands to the north of those rivers, all the way to the Arctic Ocean, and everything east as far as the Yenesei River. Most of its rulers followed Islam, making the Khanate the northernmost Moslem state that ever existed, but because the area they ruled included Finno-Ugric tribes like the Samoyeds, Khanty and Mansi, a large portion of the population remained pagan/shamanist. Control over the realm was contested between two families, Taibuga's descendants and the Shaybanids. At first the capital was at Chimgi-Tura (modern Tyumen); in the 1490s it was moved to Qashliq (Sibir in Russian).

Among the fifteenth-century Golden Horde khans, Küchük Muhammad (1435-59) had the longest reign, but he was no more effective than the rest. The Circassians, a Christian tribe on the north side of the Caucasus, were independent by 1424, and under Küchük Muhammad, other areas on the periphery of the Khanate broke away. One of his predecessors, Ulugh Muhammad, had ruled as khan twice, and after he was deposed the second time, he escaped upstream to the city of Kazan. Here he declared independence, founding the Khanate of Kazan in 1438. This state, in terms of its location on the upper Volga and its Moslem population, very much resembled the Volga Bulgar kingdom that had existed before 1236.

The next part of the Khanate to go was the Crimean peninsula. The leader of the tribesmen living in this area was Hajji Giray; he traced his ancestry to Tuq-Timur (also spelled Toqa Temür), the thirteenth son of Genghis Khan's son Juchi, so while he was not part of the royal family ruling the Golden Horde, he was a distant relative. At some point in the 1420s, he began to fight for independence, but he does not appear to have succeeded before 1441, when the first coins bearing his name were minted. Then in 1449, after some rivals were defeated, Hajji Giray was crowned first khan of the Crimea. He ruled until his death in 1466, and his subjects thought he looked so impressive that they nicknamed him Melek, meaning Angel. For his capital, he built a fortress at Qirq Yer in the southern Crimea; the modern town of Bakhchysarai would spring up next to it later. Finally, we believe Hajji Giray acquired the chunk of Ukrainian territory that the Crimean Khanate held in the late fifteenth century: everything between the Dnieper and Don Rivers, extending north as far as Yelets and Tambov.

The Khanate of the Crimea never took over the trading ports the city of Genoa owned on the Crimean peninsula's coast, like Kaffa. Hajji Giray let their commerce continue freely, allowing his government to share in the profits, and his descendants did the same at first. But then in 1475 a fleet arrived from Sultan Mohammed II of the Ottoman Empire, the new power in the Middle East. The current khan, Mengli Giray, took part in the defense of the Italian ports, until the Ottoman Turks captured him, took him to Constantinople, and threw him in prison. They let him return in 1478, when Mengli Giray swore fealty to the sultan; now both he and the Khanate were vassals of the Turks. However, this worked to the benefit of the Khanate. Because the Turks now controlled the Black Sea, they could send ships and men to aid Mengli Giray and his successors, so as long as the Turks were stronger than the Russians, the defense needs of the Khanate were assured. In fact, the Turks remained stronger for the next three hundred years, and that is exactly how long the Khanate lasted; the Russian couldn't take it until they had beaten the Turks first.

Küchük Muhammad had two sons, Ahmed Khan bin Küchük and Mahmud bin Küchük. Mahmud ruled first (1459-65), but he could not get along with his brother Ahmed, and eventually was forced to flee. He went to Xacítarxan (Astrakhan in Russian), a city in the Volga River delta, and there in 1466 he founded yet another breakaway state, the Khanate of Astrakhan. With the Volga delta gone, the only land left for Ahmed Khan (1465-81) to rule was the Golden Horde's core territory, the middle Volga valley. Historians sometimes refer to the Golden Horde at this point as the Great Horde, to distinguish it from the smaller states that were part of it before the fifteenth century. By now Ivan III was in charge of Muscow, so let us return to the leading Russian state and see how the Muscovites gained the initiative against their opponents.

Map of Europe in 1487.
A map of Europe in 1487. I am posting it here because on the right you can see the last remnant of the Golden Horde, surrounded by the states the seceded from it: the Khanates of Kazan, the Crimea, and Astrakhan. From The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History.

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Ivan the Great

Because of the Golden Horde's troubles from 1395 onward, Vasili I did not have to pay the full tribute the Mongols demanded; he paid nothing until 1412, and just sent the khan "gifts" after that. The next prince, Vasili II, was only ten years old when the crown passed to him, so he enjoyed a long reign (1425-62), but most of it was spent in a struggle over who was in charge. The trouble happened because Vasili I and his predecessor, Dmitri Donskoy, had written wills that conflicted with one another; Vasili I had understandably declared his son Vasili II would be his heir, while Dmitri's will stated that if Vasili I died before his brother Yuri, Yuri would get the crown next. Now Vasili I did not have any sons while Dmitri was alive, but Yuri insisted it was too late to amend the will, and looked for a way to stake his claim. First, he tried to get the khan of the Great Horde to declare him prince, but the khan recognized Vasili II instead. Next, in 1433 Yuri raised and army and attacked Moscow. A see-saw struggle went on for a year, where Yuri won first and sent Vasili to the town of Kolomna, Vasili came back with a new army, Yuri withdrew to the town of Galich, and then marched on Moscow a second time. Vasili fled to Nizhny Novgorod, and Yuri captured his family and treasury; Yuri was planning to go after Vasili when he died suddenly in 1434. Yuri's eldest son, Vasili the Cross-Eyed, immediately proclaimed himself the new Grand Duke, but the other son, Dmitri Shemyaka, joined the faction supporting Vasili II. When Vasili II returned to Moscow in 1435, Vasili the Cross-Eyed was captured and blinded, removing him as a contender.

The next challenge came from the new Khanate of Kazan. Vasili II had to flee when the Mongols attacked Moscow in 1439; in 1445, during a battle at Suzdal, they captured him, and held him until Moscow paid the ransom they demanded. Unfortunately for Vasili, his cousin Dmitri Shemyaka had run Moscow while he was held prisoner by the Mongols, and Dmitri had not forgotten what Vasili did to his brother. As soon as Vasili was returned, Dmitri had him blinded, so sometimes we refer to Vasili II as "Vasili the Blind." Then Dmitri had him exiled to outlying towns, first to Uglich, then to Vologda. But Vasili remained more popular than Dmitri, and by the end of 1446 he managed to gather enough supporters behind him to regain the throne. Dmitri withdrew northward, and a civil war waged between them until 1453, when Dmitri was poisoned. The sons of Dmitri fled to Lithuania, and Vasili removed the local princes that had supported Dmitri. Finally, during the civil war a Mongol prince named Qasim defected from Kazan, and Vasili installed him as prince of Novy Nizovoy, a town near Ryazan (1452). Soon that town was renamed Kasimov, and Qasim's family ruled it until 1681. In that way, Vasili reversed the roles of lord & vassal that had existed for the past two centuries.(1)

During the last nine years of his reign the blind Vasili was able to rule in peace, with the help of some boyars and the head of the Russian Church, Metropolitan Jonah. He also crowned his son Ivan III as co-ruler, which gave Ivan plenty of experience before Vasili's death in 1462.

Ivan III (1462-1505), was a cautious man who "always took two bites at a cherry," preferred to let his troops go into battle without him (uncommon in the age of chivalry), and was afraid of the dark. Nevertheless, once he ruled alone, Ivan proved to be a shrewd leader, and is known to us as "Ivan the Great" for these accomplishments: the unification of Russia under Muscovite authority, the end of Mongol domination, and the transformation of the government into an absolute monarchy. These are described in more detail below.

1. Unification under Moscow: Like his ancestors, Ivan used every trick in the book to gain more land--cash purchase, inheritance, treaties signed under duress, and when all else failed, war. He started by buying Yaroslavl (1463) and Rostov (1474). He also conquered Novgorod (1478) and Tver (1485), and persuaded many Russian nobles in Lithuania to transfer their allegiance to Ivan; this move started the rolling back of the Polish-Lithuanian frontier. Ivan bequeathed to his son Vasili III a great nation covering 55,000 square miles, 110 times the size of the 500 sq. mi. fief that Alexander Nevsky had given Daniel 242 years earlier.

Ivan's greatest triumph was the conquest of Novgorod, the last stronghold of Kievan Russian culture. We saw previously how the fortunes of "Lord Novgorod the Great" were riding high in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Its government, dominated by the Veche, was the most democratic one that Russia ever had; it could even, and often did, vote the prince of the city out of office. Ivan's covetous eye upon Novgorod's wealth, combined with large numbers of Muscovites moving to Novgorod's lands in the Urals, brought a war in 1478. When Novgorod fell Ivan dissolved the Veche, carried the Veche's bell (a symbol of liberty) off to Moscow, and deported the Novgorod boyars to remote areas, starting a practice for removing troublemakers that tsars and communist officials have used ever since. Finally, the lands held by Novgorod gave Moscow access to the White Sea and the Baltic Sea (via the Gulf of Finland). On the Baltic shore, next to the German town of Narva, Ivan built the fortress of Ivangorod in 1492, so two hundred years before Peter I, Russia had its first "window to the west."

2. Liberation from the Mongols: Ivan spent the 1470s forming alliances against the Golden Horde, with the Kazan and Crimean Khanates, and even Uzun Hasan, the current Turkish leader in western Iran. Once all those states were on his side, he announced he wasn't going to pay tribute anymore. In 1480 the Mongols sent an army, the Muscovites sent theirs, and the two forces met on opposite banks of the Ugra River, 150 miles south of Moscow. Ahmed Khan was even more cautious than Ivan III, so for weeks they watched each other, neither willing to cross the river and make the first move. Ivan did not want to cross the river because he wasn't confident he could win on the Mongol side, while Ahmed Khan was worried that troops from the Crimean Khanate would strike in the rear of his army. Finally the troops got restless and both sides went home. This curious stand-down, sometimes called "the non-battle of the Ugra," marks the end of Mongol domination over Russia. Nomad raids on Russia would be a problem as late as the eighteenth century, but never again did the Russians pay tribute to a foreign power.

Ahmed Khan was killed the following January, in a raid from his Siberian rivals, the Shaybanids. The last twenty-one years of the Golden Horde's history saw constant fighting between three of Ahmed Khan's sons: Shaykh Ahmed, Sayyid Ahmed II, and Murtada. This state of anarchy ensured that nothing the mini-khans tried would be successful. When they invaded Poland-Lithuania in 1487, they got as far as the Polish city of Lublin, before going down in defeat. Then in 1500 Muscovy went to war with Poland-Lithuania, and the Golden Horde allied itself with the latter, to stop Ivan III. But Ivan's alliance with the Khanate of the Crimea was still good; in 1502 Mengli Giray, the Crimean khan, marched to the Volga, sacked Sarai, and the Golden Horde was no more. Finis.

3. The establishment of absolute monarchy: Ivan's wife was Sophia Paleologus, a niece of the last Byzantine emperor, who had died fighting the Turks when they took Constantinople in 1453. This marriage made Ivan heir to whatever was left from Byzantium. He made the two-headed eagle, a symbol of the Byzantine emperors, the emblem of Moscow's rulers, and gave himself a new title, Tsar, meaning "Caesar" (Czar in Polish). The Church helped by making some contributions of its own. Among them was a remarkable genealogy invented for Ivan that traced his lineage (correctly) back to the founding Varangian father, Rurik--but then went on to trace Rurik's forefathers back through 15 fictitious generations to a brother of Caesar Augustus, "proving" that Ivan III was the heir of Rome & Byzantium not only by marriage, but by blood as well.

Ivan III
Ivan III.

More interesting to us is the "Third Rome" theory, first proposed at this time by a monk named Philotheos. Basically, it stated that when Rome fell to the barbarians in the fifth century, God gave His earthly authority to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. But eventually Constantinople also fell into sin, culminating with its submission to the pope in 1438, in a last-ditch effort to bring in help from the West before the city fell to the Turks. Now God's city on earth was Moscow, the capital of the last Orthodox Christian nation; as Philotheos put it, "Two Romes have fallen, a third stands, and a fourth there shall not be." To those who subscribe to this theory, the Roman Empire's final end came with the death of the last tsar in 1918.

Life under an autocratic Russia became more oppressive as time went on. The first to feel it were the boyars, who lost most of their privileges to Ivan III and his successors. Those who suffered the most, however, were those on the bottom of the social ladder--the peasants. In earlier times there were few restrictions placed on the movements of peasants, and they could work for anyone they liked. But the only way to guarantee a supply of peasant labor when it is needed is to bind each peasant firmly to one piece of land. The way the boyar landlords did that was to loan them money, forcing the peasants to keep working for the same landlord until the debt had been paid. Unfortunately most peasants could never earn enough to do that; most could barely meet the excessive interest rates charged them, and so they remained, year after year, in a condition not much better than bondage. This was the beginning of 400 years of Russian feudalism.

For those peasants who could not take this kind of life, the answer was to run away, to the southern and eastern frontiers of the country. Along the Dnieper and Don Rivers, these lawless frontiersmen adopted the nomadic life of the barbarians who had lived there before and came to be known as Cossacks. The Cossacks were fiercely independent, electing their leaders (known by the title of "hetman") by popular vote, and living by hunting, fishing, or raiding somebody else; farming was forbidden, because it symbolized the oppressive life they had freed themselves from. Since they hated the Poles, Lithuanians, Mongols and Turks as much as any other Russian did, they would help the tsar in his foreign wars, but if the tsar or the boyars tried to get their runaway peasants back, the Cossacks would proudly boast, "There is no extradition from the Don."

The next tsar, Vasili III (1505-33), was too colorless to be mentioned in most history books, but he completed the work of reunification that his father had started, annexing Pskov (1510) and Ryazan (1521), and taking Smolensk from Lithuania (1514). This left about three and a half million Russians still under Lithuanian rule, and it would take nearly three centuries before all of them were brought under the rule of the tsars.

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Ivan the Terrible

1533 to 1584

Ivan IV was only three years old when his father Vasili III died. From that time until he grew up, the government was run first by his mother, then after her death by the boyars. The latter had seen enough of autocracy from the first two tsars, so they tried to regain their lost privileges while they had the opportunity. According to Ivan's own account, the boyars treated him with contempt verging on cruelty. They kept him separated from his friends and favorite servants and lolled about on his late father's bed with their boots on. A group of them once burst into the boy's chamber at dawn and engaged in a furious argument, frightening him into a panic. In public they beat their foreheads on the ground before him, but when alone Ivan had to go hungry and without proper clothes. Perhaps as a result of this, Ivan began very early to display the streak of sadism that marked him all his life; his earliest amusement was throwing small animals from the window of a Kremlin tower. In 1543, at the age of thirteen, Ivan had the most troublesome boyar murdered by the Kremlin dogkeepers, and thereafter he was ruler of Russia in fact as well as in name.

The early part of Ivan's reign, up until about 1560, was his "good" period; most of the time he was rational, an able ruler who surrounded himself with advisors from all walks of life, including those from a peasant background; Ivan knew that ability and status are not necessarily found in the same people. He rewrote the law code and asked for forgiveness, both from God and from the people, for the past sins he had committed. Up until this time the boyars had been a most difficult group to control, since they had inherited large amounts of land and felt that they had no responsibilities to the tsar and the state beyond paying taxes. Many of them had private armies and dispensed justice within their own territories, making their lands virtually independent states within the state. Moreover, they could look across the border into Poland-Lithuania and see how much the nobility can do when the king is not watching them all the time; sometimes only anti-Catholic prejudice could keep them loyal to Muscovy. Ivan required the boyars to supply officers and men for his military campaigns, and used arbitrary confiscations and an occasional murder on those who disobeyed. Since the boyars were not trustworthy even when they complied, Ivan created a new nobility that was: the service gentry. Those who made up the service gentry were officers, given small to medium-sized estates as a reward for their service. Since the tsar could give or take away their lands at the drop of a hat, the service gentry remained loyal to him, and he used them as a check against the hereditary nobility.

Another way to limit the influence of the boyars was to limit what the boyars' assembly, the Duma, could do. In 1550 a new assembly, the Zemsky Sobor ("Assembly of the Land"), convened for the purpose of checking the Duma. Its membership was made up of service gentry, clergy, merchants and a few loyal boyars. This was not a true parliament in the Western sense; its members were appointed, not elected, and it was meant to approve the tsar's proposals, not debate or veto them. Still Ivan listened carefully to the grievances that were presented and took steps to remedy the causes of some of them.

Ivan IV
Ivan IV.

It was in his military campaigns that Ivan acquired his epithet, "the Terrible"; not because he was terrible to the Russians (though he was), but because he was terrible to Russia's enemies. The introduction of gunpowder weapons had eliminated the old superiority of the mounted archer vs. infantry, and now the numerically superior Russians took the offensive. The Mongol Khanate of Kazan was conquered in 1552.(2) In 1554 Ivan installed a puppet ruler over the Khanate of Astrakhan, and when this individual rebelled, the Russians conquered Astrakhan, too (1556).

After the Volga conquests, Ivan IV gave tax breaks and vast land grants between the Volga and the central Urals, to Anikey Stoganov, one of the country's richest merchants, who in turn organized settlement of the lands, farming, hunting, saltworks, fishing, ore mining, trade with Siberian tribes -- whatever brought a profit. The local tribes gave the Stroganov family no trouble until 1563, when a member of the Shaybanid family, Kuchum, took over the nearest state, the Khanate of Sibir. In the 1570s he sent raids against the nearest Russian communities, including Perm. Ivan's land grants included authorization to defend the lands against attacks by Russia's enemies, so the sons of Anikey Stroganov hired a Cossack hetman named Yermak Timofeyevitch to command the defenses. A military expedition was organized, and 840 armed men crossed the Urals in late 1581. Following a three-day battle with Kuchum's forces (the battle of Chuvash Cape, 1582), they captured Qashliq/Sibir; Yermak presented the Khanate, along with 5,200 furs collected from the natives, as gifts to the tsar. However, Kuchum could still gather reinforcements; in 1584 they attacked at night, took back Sibir and killed Yermak. The Cossacks had to withdraw to the European side of the Urals -- their biggest gain at this point was the knowledge gained from exploring Siberia's northwest corner -- and this area saw a seesaw struggle between Russians and Siberians until 1598, when Kuchum conceded he was getting too old to keep on fighting, and went into exile. In 1587 Tobolsk was founded, where the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers meet and about twelve miles from the ruins of Sibir; this was the first Russian city in Siberia.

The one Mongol state remaining, the Khanate of the Crimea, could not be conquered because as we saw earlier, it was backed by the the Ottoman Empire. In fact, a devastating raid on Moscow by the Crimean Tatars in 1571 killed 100,000 people, showing that Russia's weak spot was in the south.

Russia 1598

Russian expansion under Ivan IV and Fyodor I.

Ivan first turned his eyes toward Europe in 1553, when the English explorer Richard Chancellor, while searching for a "northeast passage" to the Orient, sailed into the White Sea. We will talk more about this expedition in the next section. From the White Sea Chancellor journeyed overland to Moscow and "discovered" Russia, a nation his countrymen knew almost nothing about. There was a political reason for this isolation; all of the states on Russia's western frontier--Sweden, Poland, and the Ottoman Turks--were enemies, and they would not allow commerce between Russia and the rest of the world to pass through their territories. The king of Poland made this clear when he told England's Queen Elizabeth I, "Up to now we could conquer him only because he was a stranger in education and did not know the arts." Despite this a trade agreement between England and Russia was signed, and the seaport of Archangel was built at the mouth of the Northern Dvina River to handle the trade. For most of the time between Ivan IV and Peter the Great, this would be Russia's only port.(3)

On the shores of the Baltic, the Protestant Reformation finished off the Teutonic Knights; the last Grand Master dissolved the Order when he became a Lutheran in 1525, and while he continued to rule Prussia, he did so as a secular duke. However, the branch of the Order that had ruled Estonia and Latvia, the Livonian Knights, stayed in business, and now reappeared on the map of eastern Europe. Ivan looked west, saw that the Baltic lands were loosely organized and poorly defended, and thought this was an opportunity for an easy western victory to match his nearly bloodless ones in the east. At first it looked like it might work that way; the Livonian Knights suffered a crushing defeat in 1560 and were dissolved a year later. But Sweden, Poland and Denmark were in agreement that the eastern shore of the Baltic must not become Russian, so all of them now entered the fight. Thus, the Livonian War dragged on for 24 years (1558-82), and ended with a division of the disputed territory among the three Baltic powers: Sweden got northern Estonia, Denmark got the Estonian island of Saaremaa, and the rest went to Poland.(4)

In the same year that Ivan met the English expedition, he began slipping into the "bad" period of his life. First he suffered a nearly fatal illness, and he called the boyars to swear loyalty to his infant son. None of them did, and when he recovered he hated them more than ever. Then in 1560 his wife died, and Ivan really went crazy. Convinced that the boyars had poisoned her, he conducted a bloody purge in which not only boyars but their families and servants were murdered or imprisoned. Then he took his treasures and a few trusted servants, and moved to the town of Aleksandrov, 60 miles away. He stayed there in seclusion for a month, until thousands of people, both rich and poor, came there and begged Ivan to return; to them even a mad tsar was better than no tsar at all.

Ivan agreed to return on condition that he be given unlimited power against the "traitors" to the state. To do this he divided the country into two states within the state; the loyal half of Russia became the Oprichnina, and the rest was called the Zemshchina. The borders between Oprichnina and Zemshchina were a fantastic gerrymander that almost defies description; some streets in Moscow were part of the Oprichnina, for instance, but not others. Even individuals were divided; service gentry, the Stroganov family and English traders were classified as Oprichniks while most boyars and other Russian merchants were not. Then the citizens of the Oprichnina were turned loose to destroy all potential rebels, and anyone in the Zemshchina was fair game. For the next eight years (1564-72) lawlessness and terror swept the land, with people killed and dispossessed everywhere. Ivan went back to Aleksandrov and ruled a weird parody of a monastery. His Oprichniks were "monks" and he was the "abbot." After prostrating himself before an altar with such vehemence that his forehead would be bloody and covered with bruises, he would preach sermons on Christian virtues to his drunken retainers, fresh from torturing and raping victims in the cellars (He often participated in that, too.). Afterwards he would send lists of the victims to the Church so that prayers could be said for their souls; when the bloodbath killed so many that he lost track of the victims, Ivan merely remarked, "God knows their names."

When Ivan finally dissolved the Oprichnina, all resistance to his rule was dead, but the hereditary aristocracy had not been eliminated as a class; after they recovered they would cause trouble in the next generation. Ivan returned to Moscow and spent his last days wandering and howling through the palace, his cries audible to those outside. No longer even pretending to be a Christian, he brought in witches from parts of the far north where paganism still existed. One day in 1584 he looked better and called for his chessboard, but before he could begin the game he suddenly toppled backward and died. He was only 54.

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North to the Orient

In the late fifteenth century, the explorers of Portugal discovered that one could sail to Asia by going around Africa, and soon the explorers of Spain found an alternate route around South America. Both routes were jealously guarded by the Iberian nations, so to France, England and the Netherlands it seemed that their only hope for reaching the Orient lay in discovering a northern path around the continents. The little bit that was known about conditions in the Arctic should have discouraged all thoughts of sailing through it. They didn't have to worry about thirst, thanks to ice and snow, but storms and scurvy were just as dangerous; furthermore the peoples living here, like the Inuit (Eskimos) and the Saami (Lapps), were unpredictably friendly or hostile. Add to that the ice packs that caught and crushed many ships. No seaman would face a tiger or an elephant, but many would fall victim to polar bears. On top of all that, compass readings in the far north are inaccurate, because the geographic and magnetic poles are in different locations; this made mapping much more difficult, and explorers couldn't be sure if the straits, fjords and islands they discovered had been visited before.

At any rate, the first part of the search was done by the English, who tried sailing along the northern edge of Eurasia. They thought that after passing Cape Tabin (a mythical headland that was placed in the same location as the Taymyr peninsula in northern Siberia), the north coast of Asia would quickly slope southeast into temperate waters, allowing easy access to the riches of Asian nations like Cathay (China). In 1553 the first part of this "Northeast Passage" was successfully navigated with three ships by Sir Hugh Willoughby. The fleet was scattered by storms off Norway, but Willoughby regathered two of the ships and discovered the southwest coast of Novaya Zemlya. By this time summer was ending, so he withdrew to winter in Lapland. Ignorant of the shelter igloos can provide, Willoughby and his men remained on board ship; when spring came the entire crew was dead from the cold or scurvy. Meanwhile, Willoughby's second-in-command, Richard Chancellor, took the third vessel into the White Sea, made landfall on its southern shore, and met the Russians. We saw in the previous section that the Russians took Chancellor to Moscow, where he signed a valuable trade agreement with Ivan the Terrible. As a result, London declared the expedition a success and looked forward to even richer contacts beyond Novaya Zemlya.

The Northeast Passage.

Where Europeans thought the "Northeast Passage" was. From Wikimedia Commons.

The next expedition was led in 1556 by Stephen Burrough, who had a single tiny vessel, the Searchthrift, and a crew of eight. The boat faced constant perils from storm, fog, ice--and once from a whale as large as the Searchthrift herself that surfaced alongside it--before it sighted Vaigach Island, set like a stepping stone between Novaya Zemlya and the mainland, and sailed past it into the Kara Sea. There Burrough made contact with the Samoyeds, Siberian nomads related to the Finns who were, alas, very un-Cathayan. He wrote that their idols were "the worst . . .that I ever saw. The eyes and mouth of sundry of them were bloody. They had the shape of men, women and children very grossly wrought, and that which they made for other parts was also sprinkled with blood." One of the men, Richard Johnson, described a grotesque rite where a priest heated a sword in a fire and pretended to thrust it through his body; then he pulled out the sword and sat down before they could figure out how this trick was done.

Like Willoughby, Burrough was turned back by the ice. He wintered in the White Sea near Archangel, and returned home the following spring.

In 1557 the newly formed Muscovy Company sent its chief factor, Antony Jenkinson, to Moscow. Like Chancellor, he was well received by Tsar Ivan, who gave him letters of introduction to help him on later journeys. He got as far as Bukhara in Uzbekistan, which gave him hope that he would blaze a trail overland to China; at Bukhara, however, the Mongol khan, being an enemy of Russia, turned him back. On his second try, Jenkinson went south instead of southeast, reached Qazvin (the capital of sixteenth-century Persia), and returned to Moscow with a load of trade goods.

Follow-up expeditions were delayed for a generation because it looked like there was a better chance of finding a "Northwest Passage" around America. The next ships to try the northeastern route were commanded by Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman. They left England on May 30, 1580, but were no more successful at getting past the Kara Sea. They dodged icebergs, lost sight of each other among them, dropped an anchor on one to catch their breath, then hurriedly cast off to avoid hitting another block of ice. Finally in August they turned back in exhaustion. Pet battled storms and made it home with his crew almost dead from exposure, while Jackman's crew perished off the coast of Norway.

The English gave up after that, but the Dutch were willing to have a go at it. In the 1590s, Willem Barents, a great Dutch navigator, made three attempts at the northeast passage. The first two failed, so in 1596 he set a wildly unrealistic course due north, in an effort to reach China by sailing over the North Pole. He discovered Spitzbergen, then sailed east to Novaya Zemlya, where the ice trapped him in a bay and forced him to winter on the northeast shore of that island.

Barents' crew were lucky enough to find enough driftwood to build a house, guarded by a polar bear that they killed, allowed to freeze and then set up on its stiffened feet. There they passed the winter, with the snow rising past the door, scurvy afflicting the crew, and with the ship rising higher every day from the pressure of the ice. When spring came they could not free their vessel, so they set off in two open boats. Barents and one of the crew members died on the way, but the others lasted until they were picked up by Russian boats; eventually they all made it back to the Netherlands. Nearly three centuries later, a Norwegian seal hunter, Captain Elling Carlsen, found the house where the Dutch had wintered; among the pitiful relics inside was a note written by Barents telling how he had been held up by ice en route to Cathay.

A few more expeditions came after that, the most noteworthy being one led by Henry Hudson in 1607. These got as far as the mouth of the Ob, Siberia's longest river, before they encountered a solid wall of ice that prevented all further progress. By the 1620s it was clear to everyone that a viable northeast passage did not exist. It was not until 1878-79 that a Swedish vessel, Baron Nils Nordenskiold's Vega, made it all the way around Siberia. A Soviet icebreaker, the Arktika, made it to the north pole in 1976-77.

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The Time of Troubles

1584 to 1613

For 29 years after the death of Ivan the Terrible there was no competent leadership in Moscow. Part of this was Ivan's fault; in 1581, in a moment of rage, he killed his only promising son (also named Ivan) with a blow from the iron staff he habitually carried around. That left two other sons, the mentally retarded Fyodor and an infant named Dmitri. Unfortunately, with a monarchy you have to take what the royal family gives you, so Fyodor received the crown by default. He spent his 14-year reign saying prayers and listening to church bells, while his father-in-law, a member of the service gentry named Boris Godunov, ran the daily affairs of the country.

Ivan IV by Repin
Ivan the Terrible reacts with horror upon realizing that he killed his son. Painting by Elias Repin.

Halfway through the "reign" of Fyodor I, his brother Dmitri was found dead with his throat cut. It was never proved whether this was an accident or a murder. Official investigators, appointed by Godunov, declared that Dmitri suffered an epileptic seizure while playing with a knife and killed himself. Some Russians (including the nineteenth century writer Pushkin) believed that Godunov was responsible, in order to give himself a better claim to the throne; it is also possible that a boyar committed the deed, in an act of revenge against the family of Ivan the Terrible. Whatever the case, it was the death of this ten-year-old boy that caused all of the tragic events that followed in this period.

Seven years after Dmitri, Tsar Fyodor died childless, and with that the 700-year-old dynasty founded by Rurik came to an end. The Zemsky Sobor elected Boris Godunov to be the next tsar. Boris had proven himself to be a good prime minister, but after he became tsar nothing went right. The people never accepted him wholeheartedly because he could not trace his ancestry to the Rurikide tsars. Many boyars, including the influential Romanovs, opposed him for personal reasons, and the Church denounced his attempt to set up a Western-style university in Moscow as "foreign contamination." Boris accused the head of the Romanov family, Fyodor Romanov, of treason, and exiled him to a monastery outside Moscow, where he was forced to become a monk and change his name to Philaret. On top of all this, there were disastrous crop failures every year from 1600 to 1603. Those familiar with the "big picture" will know that worldwide, temperatures were lower than they are today, because this was in the middle of the period we call the "Little Ice Age" (1300-1700). But this time the harvests were so bad that we think another factor affected the climate, like a major volcanic eruption filling the atmosphere with ash clouds. Whatever caused the famine, the result was armed mobs of desperate men roaming the countryside, plundering the estates of the rich.

Boris Godunov.
Boris Godunov.

On top of all this, a mysterious young man appeared (modern historians call him "False Dmitri"), who claimed that Dmitri's assassins bungled their assignment and killed the wrong boy; now he, the "real" Dmitri, was coming out of seclusion to claim his rightful throne. He went to Poland, promised to make Russia a Catholic country if he gained the throne, and got a Polish army to back him up. Then he marched on Moscow, his band of warriors swelled by Cossacks and peasants along the way. Boris Godunov went to fight him, but bad luck intervened one more time; he had a fatal heart before he could battle the pretender. False Dmitri triumphantly entered Moscow, removed Godunov's son (Fyodor II) from the throne, and was crowned tsar.

The young ruler, whoever he was, only lasted thirteen months. His obnoxious Polish guards & retainers offended the Muscovites. The Russian Orthodox Church was offended because he married a Polish noblewoman after becoming tsar, but allowed her to remain a Catholic. Some Muscovites suspected that he was not even a Russian at all, because he never took a bath.(5) A conspiracy, led by a boyar named Vasili Shuisky, slaughtered the Poles and False Dmitri. Shuisky was elected tsar and he showed what he thought of False Dmitri by burning his remains, stuffing them into a cannon and shooting it off in the direction of Poland.

Vasili IV, the "boyar tsar" (1606-10), found himself even less popular than his predecessors. A second False Dmitri appeared, as well as a "False Peter," who claimed to be the non-existent son of Fyodor I. In the south a former slave named Ivan Bolotnikov led a mass revolt of Cossacks, runaway peasants and vagabonds against all authority; the rebellion got all the way to the gates of Moscow before it was driven back. Vasili IV was in such a desperate situation that he appealed to Sweden for military assistance in stopping False Dmitri II, and the king of Poland, Sigismund III, let Swedish intervention become his excuse to launch a second Polish invasion. The Poles took Smolensk in 1609, and Moscow in 1610; they removed Vasili, and persuaded the boyars to elect Sigismund's son Wladislaw as the next tsar. However Sigismund opposed this move, partly because Wladislaw was a minor, and partly because the boyars expected Wladislaw to convert to Orthodoxy, so Sigismund claimed the throne for himself. Later, when Sigismund realized the Russians would never accept him as their ruler, he agreed to a compromise where he would act as regent until Wladislaw came of age. At any rate, the situation in Moscow was too dangerous for the Polish king and prince to stick around, so they left without a coronation taking place, meaning that for three years there was no tsar. To the northwest, Sweden launched its own invasion to get the Poles out of Moscow, taking Novgorod in 1611 and supporting a third False Dmitri's claim to the tsar's throne.

It looked like Russia would disintegrate completely as a nation, but it was saved by a miraculous reuniting of the people. Since we last saw him, Philaret had become a metropolitan (archbishop), and now he used the pulpit to rally the people in the name of patriotism and Orthodox Christianity; Holy Moscow, the "Third Rome," must not be allowed to fall to the Catholic "heretics" of the West. The Poles arrested Philaret and sent him to Poland as a prisoner, but his message went forth. Russians who heard it gave up one third of their possessions to finance a war of liberation, and soon a great national army--which to the Poles must have appeared to spring spontaneously out of the earth--marched on Moscow, led by a butcher named Kuzma Minin and a boyar named Dmitri Pozharsky. Praying, fasting, and implacable, it wiped out the Poles and liberated Moscow in November 1612, though it would take several more years and concessions of land to get the Poles and Swedes out of Russia altogether.

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The Conquest of Siberia

The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were hard times for the Russian people, but after the Time of Troubles ended, the nation itself prospered. The most spectacular gain made during this period was Siberia; when the Cossacks conquered the Mongol Khanate of Sibir in 1581, they removed the last barrier keeping Russians out of this region. The tribes they met in Siberia were too primitive and too few in numbers to resist, so Russia practiced what video gamers call the "4 Xs" -- exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating in the "wild East," much like how the United States tamed the "wild West" in the nineteenth century.

Map of Siberian ethnic groups.
Siberia's ethnic groups.

Today Siberia is known as a place for exiles and those who really want to "get away from it all"; to subdue this land armed Cossacks led the way. East of the Urals the main landmarks/obstacles are very large, northward-flowing rivers like the Ob, Yenisei, and Lena. Every time the Cossacks encountered one of these rivers, they sent a detachment to its mouth, so expansion was northward as well as eastward. By 1610 they had finished subjugating the Ob River basin, and in 1619 they built their first outpost on the Yenesei, which they naturally called Yeniseysk. At this point it had taken them thirty-eight years to advance 1,250 miles, or 28 percent of the way to the Pacific; they covered the remaining 3,100 miles more quickly, in thirty years.

Siberia is famous for being huge, cold, and mostly covered with forests, meaning it has more furry animals than anyplace else. The Russians were already familiar with fur trapping and trading, having done it in the forests of European Russia for as long as they could remember, so a Russian seeking his fortune in Siberia naturally turned to furs. Bears, wolves, foxes, tigers, squirrels--you name them, Siberia has them. Even extinct mammoths were fair game; in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as much as half of the world's ivory came from mammoth tusks picked up in Siberia.

The first thing the Cossacks did when they entered a new area was put the natives to work collecting furs for them. Here they were copying the practice of previous furtraders, like those from Novgorod; they called this tribute the Yasak. If a tribe did not deliver the specified number of pelts for that year, severe punishment followed. They could justify their behavior because no other civilized nation was active in Siberia, stating that "The inhabitants of those lands do not belong to anybody ...[therefore] ...they should belong to the Russian sovereign." Unfortunately the quotas for pelts were always set high--usually higher that what the natives could obtain. Nowadays the typical hunter is enough of a conservationist that he will practice hunting at a sustainable level, making sure there is enough game left over for next year; that is why we have game laws. The Cossacks were too greedy to think ahead like that, and thus were more like poachers than hunters. Consequently they would make a big haul during their first year in a new area, and then the yields would fall off, no matter how cooperative the natives were or how bad the Cossacks terrorized them. To stay in the fur trade, the Cossacks would have to move on; it was the lure of getting rich quick in a virgin wilderness that kept them going, and helps explain why they moved faster as time went on.

A Cossack named Peter Beketov was sent to collect taxes from the Buryats, a Mongolian tribe living east of Lake Baikal, in 1627. This made him the first Russian to enter Buryat territory, and he built an ostrog (fort) there, Rybinsky. In 1630 other Cossacks founded Ilimsk on the Ilim River, a tributary of the Angara, which in turn is a tributary of the Yenisei. This village became the departure point for the final phase of Russian expansion. One year later Peter Beketov followed a trail from Ilimsk, the Ilmin portage, east to the Lena River. At the Lena he built another ostrog in 1632; this became Yakutsk, one of the most important cities in eastern Siberia today. Another Cossack, Ivan Moskvitin, led a scouting party that departed Yakutsk in 1639 and reached the Sea of Okhotsk, making him the first Russian to gaze on the Pacific. He returned to Yakutsk two years later, with a report about the tribes living on the coast and that a great river--the Amur--flowed into the sea not too far to the south.

Vasili Poyarkov led the expedition that followed up on this (1643-47). First getting lost in the east Siberian forest, they eventually found the Amur and followed it to the sea. They alienated the tribes along the Amur, the same way the Cossacks did elsewhere, by demanding furs from the natives and inflicting murderous reprisals when they failed to comply. This time, however, the tribes could call on another tribe that was strong enough to fight back--the Manchus. The Amur was the northern frontier of Manchuria, the Manchu homeland. Though the Manchus seldom came as far north as the Amur (they mainly did it on hunting trips), the natives on the Amur were vassals of theirs, so pleas from them could not be ignored. In the mid-1640s the Manchus were busy conquering China, but the next time a Cossack expedition came to the Amur, that of Erofei Pavlovich Khabarov (1649-50), there was a force of 800 to 1,000 Manchu soldiers waiting for them. Although the Russians won the first battle, the Manchus are considered the real winners in this confrontation. The Manchu presence restricted Russian movement, the Manchus soon had the resources of all China to draw upon, and their supply lines were far shorter than those of the Russians. After 1650 the Cossack forts set up along the Amur were attacked by the Manchus and Chinese, until both empires sent diplomats to negotiate a solution. The result was the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, which moved the Sino-Russian border several hundred miles north of the Amur, giving the Manchus control over all lands drained by that river, not to mention a very large buffer zone. It definitely was not a border of Russia's choosing.

The most remarkable Cossack expedition of all has to be that of Semyon Dezhnev. Between 1644 and 1649 Dezhnev followed the Kolyma River to the Arctic, sailed along Siberia's north coast until he got to the Chukchi peninsula, and rounded it to enter the Bering Sea, going as far as the Anadyr River (see the map below). By doing this, Dezhnev proved there is no land bridge connecting Asia to North America. Unfortunately, this epic journey made no difference to Russia or the world community. Dezhnev's report was filed away in the archives of Yakutsk and forgotten, so Peter the Great ended up hiring a Danish navigator, Vitus Bering, to rediscover the Bering Sea 80 years later. In addition, being semi-literate at best, Dezhnev wasn't much of a navigator; he doesn't seem to have known how far east he went. In the seventeenth century, most people with an interest in geography believed a waterway existed between Asia and North America; Spain called it the Strait of Anián, and others called it the Northwest Passage. However, until Bering repeated Dezhnev's achievement, maps were published showing the end of Asia near the same longitude as the island of Sakhalin, meaning people believed you could get to the Arctic by sailing north from Japan.

Siberia 1689
Russian expansion into Siberia, 1598-1689. Source: An Atlas of Russian History, by Allen F. Chew.

Speaking of Sakhalin and Japan, another European nation, the Netherlands, was exploring the waters around them at this time. After opening up trade with the nations of the Far East, the Dutch East India Company sent a few explorers to look for the rich "Gold and Silver Islands" that supposedly existed northeast of Japan (they didn't, in case you're wondering). The most important of these expeditions involved two ships, the Breskens and the Castricum, which entered the north Pacific in 1643. Separated by a storm, the Breskens was blown to Yamada, Japan; because of Japan's isolationist policy, the crew was detained, interrogated and sent to Deshima, the Dutch trading post which was the only place in the country where foreigners were permitted. The Castricum continued to the Kurile Islands, sailed between two of them (Iturup and Urup), and mapped the northeast coast of Hokkaido and the east coast of Sakhalin. However, the Castricum's captain, Maarten Gerritsz Vries, drew some faulty conclusions about the local geography. First, he thought Hokkaido was joined to Sakhalin and both were joined to the mainland, making them a large peninsula like Korea or Kamchatka. That may have been true during the ice age, but it certainly isn't now. Second, he imagined North America had another long peninsula, and Urup was the tip of it. In truth Alaska has a long peninsula like that, but it ends 2,200 miles northeast of where Vries put it.

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Russia Under the Early Romanovs

1613 to 1682

After the Poles were driven from Moscow, Russia needed a new tsar, and the Zemsky Sobor met to choose one in February 1613. After rejecting some other candidates, it unanimously elected sixteen-year-old Michael Romanov. Michael proved to be acceptable to everybody, because his father, the metropolitan Philaret, was the nephew of Anastasia, the first wife of Ivan the Terrible; thus, the all-important link to the Rurikide monarchs existed, by marriage if not by blood. However, they couldn't crown him right away; it took a month to track down the boy to the monastery where he and his mother were hiding. And Michael didn't really want to become tsar, because he was poorly educated and physically weak; he was persuaded to do it by appeals to his patriotism. And then he had to wait several weeks before going to Moscow, because the city was in such bad shape that it did not have suitable accomodations for him; much of it had been burned down by the Poles. The coronation was finally held in July 1613, and with that the Time of Troubles formally came to an end. Michael's descendants would rule Russia for the next 304 years, until the Russian monarchy was ended by the revolutions of 1917.

Michael Romanov
Michael Romanov.

Michael's first priority was ending the wars with Poland and Sweden. Russia was in no shape to defeat either nation, what with its primitive technology and backward society, and all the damage it had suffered so recently. The 1569 Treaty of Lublin (see footnote #4) had transformed the Polish-Lithuanian union from a partnership into a single superstate, so Poland was near the peak of its size and strength right now. Nor could Sweden be taken lightly, for Sweden's greatest king, Gustavus Adolphus, had begun to rule in 1611. Therefore peaceful settlements had to be negotiated with each.

The first agreement, the Peace of Stolbovo, was reached with Sweden in 1617. Sweden returned Novgorod, but kept three-quarters of the land around Lake Ladoga, and all of the Russian land on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, then called Ingria. This meant Russia lost access to Western Europe by way of the Baltic, which is exactly what the Swedes and Poles wanted.

Poland was a more serious threat, because the Poles were closer to Moscow then the Swedes. King Sigismund lost interest in pursuing his claim to the Muscovite throne after Michael was crowned, but his son Wladyslaw had another army march on Moscow in 1618; only when it failed to take the capital did he agree to a cease-fire. This agreement, called the Truce of Deulino, was signed in December 1618. Poland gained a big strip of territory along Russia's western border, which included Smolensk. It is also worth noting that after the agreement was signed, Michael's father Philaret was released from Polish captivity, and he became patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Deulino map thumbnail.
Map of Poland in 1618. The Truce of Deulino transferred the orange land from Russia, bringing the Polish state to its greatest size ever. Click on the map to see it full sized (746 KB, opens in a separate window). From Wikimedia Commons.

Neither settlement was expected to be permanent. Indeed, the Truce of Deulino was scheduled to expire in fourteen years and when it did, Poland and Russia fought an inconclusive war over Smolensk (1632-34). Likewise, Gustavus Adolphus would spend the rest of his reign fighting Catholics, first in Poland and then in Germany during the Thirty Years War, but some day his successors would return to Russia for a rematch.

The first three Romanov tsars, Michael (1613-45), Alexis (1645-76), and Fyodor III (1676-82), were not strong rulers. Michael, for example, at first had to let his mother rule for him, and after Philaret returned, the father and son shared in the decision making. Most of Russia's accomplishments in the seventeenth century were made by ordinary people, with little direction from the Kremlin. The early Romanovs, however, were instrumental at strengthening their authority even further than it already reached. This trend was helped by the dissolution of Russia's embryonic legislature; both the Zemsky Sobor and the Duma broke into competing factions and stopped holding meetings by the middle of the century. Thus, instead of developing into a democracy, the Russians were left with a government, that for all its hideous abuses and imperfections, was the only one they ever knew.

At the same time the caste system started by Ivan III & IV grew more rigid. The most important need for prosperity was a stable population of peasants, businessmen and craftsmen to perform three functions: work the lands of the rich, pay taxes, and provide common soldiers for the army. But the Muscovites were anything but stable; as mentioned previously, whenever life got too tough for them they would flee to the frontier or to any landlord that would keep them out of sight from the census taker and the tax collector. To keep paying for the expenses of government, those peasants who stayed behind were taxed even more, causing them to run away in even greater numbers.(6) Since slaves were exempt from taxation and military service, a surprising number of people, including impoverished members of the service gentry, sold themselves into slavery, where they had more profit and liberty than they had enjoyed as "free men." Tsar Alexis reacted to this in 1649 by rewriting the laws, reducing the peasants to feudal serfs. Whereas in earlier ages the peasant was free to move where he liked when all debts were paid, they were now required to work for the same landlord for life, under threat of torture, exile, or death. Furthermore, the institution of serfdom became hereditary; sons could not leave the households of their fathers. Slavery was also gradually abolished, meaning that the peasants would be forced to remain "free." The new laws failed to halt the flight of peasants, but now landlords had the legal right to keep as many peasants on their lands as possible and reduce their life to actual slavery in everything but name.

We looked at Russia's eastern gains in the previous section; Russia's western gains were smaller but equally important. All-out war between Poland and the Dnieper Cossacks, led by Bogdan Khmelnitsky, broke out in 1648, and the Cossacks ravaged all of eastern Poland. Poland had the world's largest Jewish community at this time, and they suffered most of all; Khmelnitsky's Cossacks saw them as tax collectors, bankers, and other agents of the Polish king, so they considered acts of anti-Semitism to be proper behavior. 200,000 Jews died in this war, more than in any other time or place before the Holocaust; it's no coincidence that seventeenth-century Polish synagogues look like fortresses! In 1654 Khmelnitsky submitted to the tsar's authority, bringing Russia into the war; soon Sweden and the Crimean Tatars got involved as well. When the Truce of Andrusovo ended the fighting in 1667, Poland was crippled, and Russia had gained almost everything east of the Dnieper. For the first time in 400 years Kiev, the cradle of Russian civilization, was back in Russian hands, and the Ukrainians, whether they liked it or not, were reunited with their big brothers.

Andrusovo map thumbnail.
Map of Poland in 1667, showing the land transferred to Russia by the Truce of Andrusovo (the blue-green areas on the right). Also note that Poland no longers holds southern Estonia and northern Latvia, including Riga; Sweden (dark blue) took this territory in the Polish-Swedish War of 1626-29. Again, click on the map to see it full sized (1 MB, opens in a separate window). From Wikimedia Commons.

Previously Poland had been stronger than Muscovy; after the Russo-Polish War the situation was reversed. Likewise, in the eighteenth century Peter the Great would cut Sweden down to size, and Catherine the Great would break the power of the Ottoman Empire, but those are subjects for the next chapter of this work.

Another important Cossack who lived at this time was a drunken, illiterate but extremely charismatic leader named Stenka (Little Stephen) Razin. Originally a Caspian pirate, he attracted thousands of followers, poor desperate men who had nothing to lose, when he returned from a highly successful raid against Persia. From there he got the idea to become a rebel, standing up for the rights of underdogs everywhere. He advanced up the Volga, gaining more support from the Moslem tribes there, until he had 200,000 men on his side. But this was a disorganized rabble rather than a fighting force, and Razin had no plans for the future beyond looting the rich; he did not want to become a tsar, for example. Consequently, when his horde met the tsar's army at Simbirsk in 1670, it was shattered, and Razin's support fled as quickly as it came. Razin was captured, taken to Moscow, and subjected to death by torture, but he made no outcry, giving him even more respect in the eyes of the people. Even today the Russians tell fables about Razin, crediting him with supernatural powers.(7)

One other story about the Cossacks is an amusing lesson in diplomacy. Ivan Sirko (1605-80), the hetman of the Cossacks on the lower Dnieper, made several raids on the Ottoman Empire and its Crimean allies in the 1660s. The Ottoman sultan, Mohammed IV, warned the Cossacks not to do it again with this letter:

"I, the Sultan, son of Mohamed, brother of the Sun and Moon, grandson and vicegerent of God, sovereign of all kingdoms: of Macedonia, Babylonia, and Jerusalem, of Upper and Lower Egypt: king of kings, ruler of all that exists; extraordinary, invincible knight; constant guardian of the grave of Jesus Christ; trustee of God himself; hope and comfort of Moslems, confusion and great protector of Christians, command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to surrender to me voluntarily and without any kind of resistance, and don't permit yourselves to trouble me with your attacks!"
Turkish Sultan Mohamed

In response, Sirko wrote the most offensive letter ever sent from one head of state to another:

"Thou Turkish Satan -- Thou damned brother of the Devil! What manner of beast art thou? The Evil One vomits up what thou swallowest! We fear not thy army, thou Babylonian cook, Macedonian stavebinder, brewer of Jerusalem, Alexandrian goat-thief, Egyptian swineherd, tartar ram, Kamenetz hangman, Podolian evildoer, seed of the very Devil, clown of Hades, swinesnout and mare's ass, red-haired she-dog, unbaptized skull. May the Evil One catch thee!
The date we know not for we have no calendar. The moon is in the sky, the year is in the book, and outside of this it is the same day here as with thee, so you can kiss us you know where!"

Zaporogian Cossacks

Ivan Sirko writes his caustic letter, in a famous painting done by Elias Repin, more than two hundred years after the incident. Judging from the looks on the faces of the Cossacks, they must have been roaring drunk!

The sultan paused long enough to have the messenger who brought the letter put to death. Then he sent an army of 55,000 men against Sirko, but none of them ever returned. Eventually, however, the author of that defiant letter offended the tsar as well. One night Sirko was kidnapped and sent to Tobolsk, Siberia, where he died in exile.

Finally, mention should be made of an important controversy in the seventeenth-century Church. It all began in 1652 when the patriarch Nikon, perhaps the most brilliant man who ever led the Russian Church, declared he would reform its practices; he had been to the monasteries of Greece and was appalled at the divergences between Greek and Russian Orthodoxy. This was not a reformation in the sense of the one that created Protestantism; beliefs were never an issue here, only the way in which they were expressed. Among the changes Nikon proposed were:

1. Making the sign of the Cross with three fingers, instead of two.
2. Having outdoor processions face towards the sun, instead of away from it.
3. Spelling the name of the Savior Iesus in Cyrillic letters, not Isus.

These differences may seem trivial to us, but to the Russian who lived by ritual, they put one's salvation on the line. Most Russian Christians refused to accept these changes, feeling that it was the Greek Church that was in error, not the Russian; furthermore, many felt that it was a sure sign that the Second Coming was near if the "One True Church" fell into error. Those who opposed Nikon's reforms found a leader in the extremely pious archpriest Avvakum. The tsar, who favored the reforms, struck back savagely, equating resistance with both heresy and treason. Avvakum was exiled to Siberia, and later burned at the stake; his memoirs of his experiences are still emotion-gripping today. Nikon's reforms were imposed upon the Church by force, but eventually Nikon himself was exiled because he was too independent-minded for the tsar's liking. Those Christians who never accepted the reforms are called "Old Believers", and they can still be found in parts of Russia today.

The most important thing to remember about seventeenth-century Russia is the near-total isolation it had from the outside world. The reason for this was given previously; this isolation meant that great events in the West like the Renaissance, Reformation, and the birth of modern science went by without having any effect on the Russians whatsoever. Russia had technically been an empire since Ivan IV conquered the khanates on the Volga, but to westerners the Russian Empire was still called Muscovy, a medieval state more Oriental than Occidental. This would change at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Peter the Great through sheer willpower dragged Russia kicking and screaming into the modern world.

This is the End of Chapter 3.


1. Because of the constant fighting between nomads in the fifteenth century, several Mongol and Turkish families moved out before the end of the khanates. As you might expect, they preferred to go to other parts of the Islamic world, like Egypt, Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, but a surprising number moved to Russian cities like Moscow, Tver and Smolensk. While these folks did not have to travel very far geographically to reach their new homes, they traveled further mentally and spiritually; they had to give up their nomadic lifestyle for a sedentary one, and eventually converted to Christianity. Present-day Russians with surnames like Chaadayev, Timiryazev, and Turgenev are descended from them.

2. Russia's most famous building, the dazzling St. Basil's Cathedral, was built to commemorate the victory over Kazan. Legend says that when it was finished, its beauty made Ivan so jealous that he blinded the architect, so that he would never build anything as gorgeous for somebody else.

3. Ivan once sent a marriage proposal to England's Queen Elizabeth I, which she promptly turned down. It's just as well; neither of them knew what they were missing!

4. In case you are wondering what happened to Lithuania, the Lithuanian government was dissolved with the signing of the Treaty of Lublin in 1569. Henceforth the Polish-Lithuanian union, now run by an elective monarchy, will be referred to as simply Poland.

5. A common practice at the time. Russians bathed regularly but most Europeans avoided it as much as possible, thinking it unhealthy (!) and morally questionable, because the bathhouses of early medieval times were a good place to get your personal possessions ripped off.

6. To give an example, at one time on an estate personally owned by Tsar Alexis, it was found that the occupants of 481 out of 664 homesteads had run away.

7. Razin had the last laugh in another way. Exactly 200 years after his defeat, the ultimate anti-tsarist rebel, Lenin, was born in Simbirsk.

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