History of Russia
Home Up Peter the Great

Russia 2012 Information 1 - Early History 2 - Peter the Great 3 - St Petersburg 4 - Life After Peter 5 - Road to Moscow

The Early History of Russia
Written by Rick Archer
January 2012

Rick Archer's Note:   This is the story of Russia's emergence as a world power.  As you will read, a fascinating feature of Russia's story is its unusually late start onto the world scene.   The dividing point in Russian history is Peter the Great. 

His effect on Russia was so profound that in a manner similar to how we divide history based on the birth of Jesus, there is Russia before Peter and Russia after Peter.

St. Petersburg is one of the world's most beautiful cities.  Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, this city is the jewel in the crown of Mother Russia.  Home to exquisite art masterpieces, magnificent museums, stunning palaces, beautiful waterways, and breath-taking architecture, St. Petersburg is a place that everyone who loves travel will want to visit sometime in their lifetime. 

Thanks to its close association with Peter the Great, St. Petersburg is often considered to be the symbol of Russia's emergence. 

Before Peter came along, this spot was deserted.  This famous picture show Peter scoping out a deserted marsh area where Russia's Neva River emptied into the Gulf of Finland. 

Peter decided this is was the place he would build his new city.  As Russia grew in importance, so did Peter's new hometown. Petersburg now became the new gateway to Russia.

Moscow had been the seat of government for centuries.  Over the bitter objections of all the boyars, the nobles who ruled Russia, Peter unilaterally decided to move the capital to his new city.   Disregarding the protests, Peter told everyone to pack their bags.

This move was typical of Peter.   Peter always got his way.  He dictated this new city was the way it was going to be.  You either followed his orders or you soon lost your head.  Literally.  Peter was fond of beheading people who didn't agree with him.

Sure enough, the Muscovite boyars were soon buying real estate in the new city.  Petersburg became a monument to both the good side of Peter and his evil side as well.  Petersburg was not only a shining example of Peter's attempts to strengthen and modernize Russia, it was also a symbol of his tyrannical rule. 

After Peter's death, Moscow briefly regained its status as capital.  However 4 years later Empress Anna restored St. Petersburg as the capital. 

It took the 1917 Russian Revolution to put a permanent end to the Tsarist Era and Peter's Romanov line. 

Moscow now resumed being the capital.  During the Marxist rule, Petersburg was renamed "Petrograd", then "Leningrad" during the Soviet Era. 

The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union marked the re-emergence of St. Petersburg's name as well as its importance on the world stage.

Over the past twenty years, as Russia has gradually let down its guard, St. Petersburg has become the most visited city in Russia by a wide margin. 

There are many reasons.  As the map shows, St. Petersburg is the only part of Western Russia easily accessible by water.  Second, thanks in large part to Peter himself, St. Petersburg has always been the part of Russia that most identifies itself with Europe.  It is considered the most "Western" in its world outlook.  Third, the city is stunningly beautiful.  Fourth, St. Petersburg is where the early Russian Empire started.  Let's find out how it happened.


The Early Story of Russia

From its very beginning, Russia has suffered from a split identity.  East-West.  European-Asian.  Christian-Moslem.  Viking-Mongol.  Even its people look different. 

The people on the European side have blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin.  The people on the Asian side have black hair, brown eyes, dark skin and high cheekbones.  

The land is so vast and populated by so many different ethnicities that the concept of "national unity" has always been very difficult to achieve.

As opposed to being a "Cradle of Civilization", these far-flung lands that would someday become the largest country in the world were very slow to be populated.  

The Varangians

Out of all the different ethnicities that would populate Russia, it was the Vikings who won the lottery.  The Vikings provided the root stock of the group that came to be the eventual rulers of this vast land. 

The Varangians were Swedish Vikings who sailed from Uppsala, Sweden, to begin exploration of the lands in the eastern Baltic Sea in 862 AD.  The expedition was led by Rurik, a Varangian chieftain

Very little is known about Rurik.   The only information about him is contained in the 12th-century Russian Primary Chronicle, which states that the local tribes "drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them tribute, and set out to govern themselves".

However, in a strange reversal of fortune, after Rurik left, the tribes started fighting each other.  So they decided to invite Rurik back to reestablish order.

If I am reading this correctly, it suggests that after Rurik's departure, the natives suddenly couldn't get along with each other.  Tired of their petty quarreling, someone suggested they invite that nice Viking invader back to make them all behave.  What a fun idea! 

This is not exactly the most plausible story I have ever heard, but that's what it says in Wikipedia.  Wikipedia isn't so sure about the story either, calling it a "Legend".  Exactly.  Like certain tales in the Bible,  I think I will take it with a grain of salt.  However, the one fact that cannot be denied is that Rurik would go on to become the Father Figure of Russia.

Now that Rurik had been magically been welcomed back to become the ruler, upon his return he sailed across the Baltic, up the Gulf of Finland and into northwest Russia using the Neva River as his doorway to the continent.  He then sailed to Lake Ladoga 35 miles further inland from the mouth of the Neva River.

As it turned out, the Neva River was the only waterway in the entire Baltic Sea that provided inland access to the amazing network of Russian rivers.  From this point on, the Neva would provide the pipeline to the Varangian occupation of these new lands. 

From Lake Ladoga, Rurik sailed south on the Volkhov River.  Rurik made Novgorod his capital on a spot on the Volkhov near Lake Ilmen.  Novgorod would be the base that gave birth to the Rurik Dynasty which would rule Russia until the 17th century.

The Varangian Riverboats

The Varangians were absolute wizards at using rivers for exploration.  One river route discovered by the Varangians took them 900 miles from the Neva River to the Black Sea with only two short portages.  Another route shown in the map above took the Vikings 1300 miles from the Neva River to the Caspian Sea again with only two portages. 

In their explorations, the Varangians used longboats known as "Dragon Ships" that were perfect for navigating the rivers of Russia.  

The Varangians were very clever.  As the picture shows, they made their longboats light enough to be carried in portage from one river to another.  This worked like a charm.  As the Varangians would discover, at certain points a portage of less than 30 miles would allow them to reach new rivers that would carry them hundreds of miles further.

The Varangian Route

Most of the early history of the Varangian occupation took place primarily in the areas along the Purple Line seen on the map.

This was a medieval trade route extending from Scandinavia through Kievian Rus to Constantinople and Greece.  The trade route consisted of a series of waterways and portages covering nearly 900 miles from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. 

It began near present-day Stockholm and crossed the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, followed the Neva River, Lake Ladoga, the Volkhov River, Lake Ilmen, and the Lovat River, and connected with the Dnieper River by way of the Western Dvina River.

The route continued all the way along the Dnieper directly to the Black Sea and then followed its western coast to Constantinople.

Russia is home to the longest rivers in Europe.  Indeed, the Volga, the Ural, the Dnieper and the Don are four of the five longest rivers in Europe.  Only the Danube in second place breaks the Russian lock on the top five spots.  

Over time, the Varangians established an impressive system of waterways that allowed them to navigate their way not just across Russia, but throughout Europe as well.

Using their amazing skill at navigation, the Varangians established a very powerful colony all along the trade route marked in ORANGE on the map titled "Rus States". 

As it turned out, the particular group of Varangians who moved into this area were also known as the "Rus". 

Like the Spanish conquests in the Caribbean and the British colonies in America, this area became Sweden's "New World".   The seeds of modern Russia were sown.


The Ural Mountains

The Ural Mountains are Russia's answer to our own Rocky Mountains.  The Urals basically cut the continent in half.  One side is considered Europe, the other Asia.

Although they are not nearly as tall as the Rockies (6,000 feet versus 12,000), they played a major part in the development of early Russia.  Stretching north and south for 2,500 miles, they served as a strong deterrent for migration to the east.   The Varangians were more than content to completely ignore the area to the east beyond the Urals because there were no rivers to use for exploration.  As far as they were concerned, the Urals were the edge of the Earth.  For centuries the Ural Mountains served as a massive barrier to the expansion of the Rus people. As a result, the early Russian civilization developed totally in the west. 

It would not be till 1639 AD - 800 years after the Varangians first settled in Russia - that the Kingdom of Muscovy would finally make it to the Pacific Ocean.  By comparison, the Americans made it to the Pacific within 200 hundred years thanks to the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804.  And why the incredible delay?   Some guy named Genghis Khan.


The Great Steppe

The Great Steppe was a vast open area stretching from Hungary to Mongolia.  There was no river route connecting the East to the West, but the Great Steppe was the next best thing.   Passing just south of the Ural Mountains, the Great Steppe was practically an overland freeway.  The Great Steppe would prove to be just as important in the formation of Russia as the rivers.

The Great Steppe corresponds roughly to America's Great Plains.   The Great Steppe was an invitation to mass migration.  It became home to the majority of the early population in the "non-Varangian" parts of Russia. Over the centuries, conquering hordes and Eurasian nomads would cross these vast grasslands, realize the farming potential and stick around to colonize. 

Sadly, the farmers were always the great chumps of early civilization.  Agrarian societies were incredibly vulnerable to raiding nomads on horses.   The farmers would time and again lose their crops to invading armies passing through.  Horsemen could raid a village and be gone with their loot before a land army could be gathered.  Nor could infantry easily pursue the horsemen.

This harsh reality favored the Varangians to the north.  While the farmers of the Ukrainian Steppe were constantly subjected to raids, the Varangian settlements to the north near Novgorod and Moscow had the forests for protection.

Living in remote areas made inaccessible by thick forests, they were rarely attacked by nomads.  The horses of the nomads were not much of an advantage in the forests.   The forests not only made a quick escape difficult, the brutal cold temperatures made attack in the winter out of the question.  In addition, the forests made it easy for the Varangians to build defensive perimeters. 

This would play a major factor during the Mongol Invasions.  While the people of the Ukraine were slaughtered right and left and their towns were leveled, the Mongols mysteriously left the towns in the forested area known as "Muscovy" largely intact.  They did conquer Muscovy, but didn't damage it very much.

The Mongols were content to allow the Muscovites to act as agents in tax collection, making them lords over the Ukrainians.  The balance of power between the Muscovites and the Ukrainians would never be the same again.


Origin of the Slavs

In a sense, the Slavs were to Russia what our own American Indians were to the USA.  The Slavs were essentially the people who were already living there when the Swedish Rus first began to explore the inland via the waterways.

The Slavs were a major ethnic branch of Indo-European people who lived mainly in central and eastern Europe.   The earliest location of the Slavs has been identified as the Pripet Marshes on the border between northern Ukraine and southern Belarus. 

It appears that the Ukraine was the homeland of the Slavic people as well as the epicenter of the massive Slavic migrations that took place two hundred years before the Varangians first came to visit their territory in 862 AD.

Starting in the early 6th century, the Slavs spread west to inhabit most of the Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.   Many others settled to the east in Siberia and Central Asia using the Great Steppe. 

As the early Slavs were agriculturalists, their migration at this stage was not one of violent conquest by warriors, but one of peaceful colonization by peasants moving about with tents in family groups. 

It is interesting to note that while aggressive people like the Romans, the Mongols, the Spanish, the English, and the Vikings may have conquered vast areas, the peaceful Slavs ended up with the highest ethnic percentage of the population of Europe.   This serves an interesting example of the meek inheriting the earth.

The Slavs were so prolific in colonizing new areas that today over half of Europe's territory is inhabited by Slavic-speaking communities.  Blessed are the meek...

The Slavs are usually broken down into three groups.  Present-day Slavic people are classified into East Slavic which includes Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians.  This is the largest group of people of Slavic descent.  West Slavic including Poles, Czechs and Slovaks.   South Slavic includes Bulgarians and people from Balkan countries such as Macedonians, Slovenes, Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs and Montenegrins.

The Ukraine

The Ukraine was located just to the north of the Black Sea at the western end of the Great Steppe. The Ukraine area was the perfect breadbasket.  Thanks to the good fortune of finding such fertile land and great rivers, the native people known as the Slavs had wonderful farmland to cultivate.

The fair climate and fertile soil compared favorably with our Midwestern states here in America.  For that matter, the Ukraine is parallel to France, another country blessed with warm winds and good agriculture.  Proximity to the Black Sea plus the Dnieper and Don Rivers made it easy to transport goods back and forth through the area.

The Varangians met the Slavs during their river ventures into this territory.  The Slavs were not much when it came to war.  At the time, they were paying tribute to the Khazars, the early predecessors of the Cossacks.  The Varangians, on the other hand, were very warlike.  They made short work of the Khazars and claimed the land. 

Unlike the bitter fight put up by the Indians during the western expansion of the settlers in the USA, the Slavs didn't resist much at all.  They seemed to prefer the Varangians over the Khazars, their previous landlords.  Soon enough the Varangians, also known as the Rus, were installed as the new leaders.  This took place in 880 AD.

The Rus and the Slavs quickly became assimilated and the capital was moved from Novgorod to Kiev.   The united people came to be known as the Kievan Rus.   

For a time, the area was called the "Land of the Rus".  As the territory of the country expanded over time,  it would eventually come to be known as "Rus-sia".

The Cossacks

The word "Cossack" is derived from the Turkic term kazak that means "free man" or "adventurer".  The Cossacks were something of a mystery people.   They appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the 1400s.

The Cossacks occupied the area just to the east of the Ukraine.  This was pretty much the same place where the Khazars, one-time rulers of the Ukrainian Slavs, had lived.  One thing that is curious about this group is that the Cossacks settled in these areas AFTER the Mongol Invasions of the 1200s, but at a when the Mongol Empire still held the Cossack lands within their power.  So where did they come from?

My guess is that these people didn't actually "come" from anywhere, but rather had been living there all along dating back to the days of the Khazars. In fact, one reference suggested the Cossacks were the direct descendents of the Khazars.  During the Mongol Invasions, the people of the region fled to the hills and the forests.  Then later as the power of the Khans began to fade, the indigenous people began to regroup.


Occupying the lands southeast of Ukraine and north of the Caspian Sea, the Cossacks centered their civilization around the Volga River and its many tributaries. 

In addition, the Cossacks occupied the lands directly between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.   Later as the power of the Mongols faded, the Cossacks expanded even further to the east of the Caspian Sea.  This area would someday become the modern Kazakhstan (see map)  If you pronounce this name correctly, it sounds exactly like "Cossack-a-stan". 

Since the Cossacks occupied such a far-flung area, I think it is safe to assume that the Cossacks were simply the descendents of all the people living along the Great Steppe that somehow managed to survive the Mongol Invasions.

The Cossacks were excellent fighters and master horsemen.  They lived nomadic lifestyles similar to that of the gypsies or the American Indians.  When they weren't fighting or riding their horses, you would find them with playing the balalaika or sharpening their swords.

The appearance of the Cossacks coincided with a major infusion of refugee peasants fleeing from Russia.  Thanks to developments over in Russia related to the Mongol Conquests, some pretty nasty rules had been implemented that had turned the serfs into virtual slaves.  In earlier times there were few restrictions placed on the movements of peasants.  They could work for anyone they liked.

However, during the Middle Ages, the land-holding members of Russian society known as the Boyars found ways to bind the peasants firmly to one piece of land.

The Boyars justified the system as the only way to guarantee a supply of peasant labor.  The Boyar landlords would loan the peasants money.  Then they would force 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.  They were trapped and so they remained, year after year, in a condition not much better than bondage.

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.

This was the beginning of 400 years of Russian feudalism.  The majority of the serfs were forced to live and die under the yoke of the hated Boyars.  It doesn't take much to see this was where the bitterness that would lead to the Russian Revolution first started. 

Practically the only way people could find any freedom was to escape and join the ranks of the Cossacks who lived on the edge of the Russian frontier.  The Cossack numbers increased as peasants continued to desert the Muscovites in droves.  They fled to the southern and eastern frontiers of the Russian countryside.  Along the Volga, Dnieper and Don Rivers, these lawless frontiersmen adopted the nomadic life of the barbarians who lived there now. The refugees came to be known as Cossacks as well.

The Cossacks were fiercely independent.  They lived by hunting, fishing, or raiding somebody else; farming was forbidden.  Not only did farming symbolize the oppressive life they had freed themselves from, they also avoided farming because it would make it easier for their enemies to find them.  Apparently they preferred to live near heavily forested areas that allowed them to hide like Robin Hood from the Khan rulers who dominated the area or the Muscovites who came looking for the escaped serfs. 

Once they reappeared, it didn't take long for the Cossacks to become a force to be reckoned with.   The Cossacks were completely independent of Russians to the north and west.  Anytime the Russians attempted to dominate them, they resisted fiercely. 

The Muscovites switched tactics.  They learned that if they left the Cossacks alone, they frequently allied themselves with the Russians when faced by common threats. The Cossack-Russian relationship could best be described by the expression "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". 

Since the Cossacks hated the Poles, Lithuanians, Mongols, Tatars and Turks as much as any other Russian did, they would help the tsar in his foreign wars.  However, 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 River."

After being asked in 1539 by the Ottoman Sultan to restrain the Cossacks, the Grand Duke Vasili III of Russia replied: "The Cossacks do not swear allegiance to me, and they live as they themselves please."

In 1549, Tsar Ivan the Terrible replied to a request of the Turkish Sultan to stop the attacks of the Don Cossacks, stating, "The Cossacks of the Don are not my subjects, and they go to war or live in peace without my knowledge."

In time, the Russians and the Cossacks developed a detente.  This was a smart move because the Cossacks would prove invaluable to the Muscovites on many occasions.  Not only would they help the Russians throw off the rule of the hated Mongol Khans in the 1500s, they successfully blocked the northern expansion of Turkey's Ottomon Empire past the Caspian Sea.  



Just saying the word "Siberia" makes most people shiver.   Siberia is legendary as the place where no one wants to go.

If the Ural Mountains are considered the dividing point between western and eastern Russia, then only one quarter of Russia actually resides in Europe.  The vast eastern part of Russia is considered to be part of Asia.  The term "Siberia" refers to the entire region east of the Ural Mountains.  

The individual territories of Siberia includes immense Asian regions with names most Americans have probably never heard of unless they played Risk as a child.  According to Risk, Siberia consists of obscure places such as the Urals, Irkutsk, Yakutsk, and Kamchatka.  It seems funny to realize that most people's knowledge of Russian geography comes from a kid's war game.

Siberia has always carried the reputation as "No Man's Land".  Historically, anyone who fell into disfavor with Russian authorities was sent to prison in some godforsaken part of this barren, frozen tundra.  Considering most were never seen again, the threat of expulsion to Siberia was quite an incentive to be good!

Due the extreme cold, Siberia is a very harsh place to live.  That said, there is life.  Many people are not aware that Siberia is home to a larger "rain forest" than the Amazon jungle itself.

Life isn't easy in Siberia.  There are problems with living there that most of us can not even conceive of.  I once wrote a very interesting story about a major highway in Siberia that turns completely to mud whenever it rains in the summer. 

This is everyone's worst nightmare because it strands motorists for days in the middle of nowhere!  Not only that, all commerce is brought to a halt until the road dries.  It is an enormous problem. (Russian Highway From Hell).

Today almost all the population lives in the southern parts of Siberia along the route of the famous Trans-Siberian Railway.  Devoted fans of Doctor Zhivago may remember the brutal train ride that took Yuri and Lara from Moscow to his countryside home in the Ural Mountains.  That train ride left an indelible impression that Russia is the very definition of "endless".


The Coming of the Barbarians


In the movie Independence Day, the people of Earth awaken to see alien space craft hovering in the sky.  The threat is so ominous that the entire world trembles in fear.  We consider this story a far-fetched fantasy, but to the people of Asia and Europe, the appearance of Genghis Khan and his barbarian armies on their doorstep was the real thing.  Mass murder and destruction on an unconceivable scale was about to begin.

Genghis Khan forged the initial Mongol Empire in Central Asia, starting with the unification of the central Asian confederations such as Merkits, Tartars, Mongols, and Uighurs. He then continued expansion of the Empire via invasion in what is modern-day Uzbekistan.  His name quickly became synonymous with the term "barbaric". 

Large areas of Islamic Central Asia and northeastern Iran were seriously depopulated.  Any town that resisted the Mongols was subject to destruction. Even the slightest resistance was punished by complete annihilation.   At Termez, a city on the Uzbekistan/ Afghanistan border, "all the people, both men and women, were driven out onto the plain, and divided in accordance with their usual custom, then they were all slain".

Each soldier was required to execute a certain number of persons, with the number varying according to circumstances. For example, after the conquest of Urgench, each Mongol warrior was required to execute 24 people.

The Mongols didn't stop with Asia.  They kept heading west, destroying everything they came in contact with.  In 1223 at the battle of Kalka, a river in the Ukraine, the Russians were beaten badly.

After that victory the Mongols forced the leaders of their captives to lie down while they built a large wooden platform over them. The Mongols then held a feast on the platform, crushing the Russians to death.  They ate their meal without a problem as the men below them screamed in agony.

After they had invaded and destroyed Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde kept on going.  Next up was Poland, then Hungary and many others. Over the course of three years (12371240), the Mongols destroyed and annihilated almost all the major cities of Eastern Europe. 

Giovanni de Plano Carpini, the Pope's envoy to the Mongol Great Khan, traveled through Kiev in February 1246.  He wrote:

"The Mongols attacked Rus, where they made great havoc, destroying cities and fortresses and slaughtering men; and they laid siege to Kiev, the capital of Rus; after they had besieged the city for a long time, they took it and put the inhabitants to death.

When we were journeying through that land we came across countless skulls and bones of dead men lying about on the ground.  Kiev had been a very large and thickly populated town, but now it has been reduced almost to nothing, for there are at the present time scarce two hundred houses there and the inhabitants are kept in complete slavery."

The Mongol Empire

Until the British Empire came along hundreds of years later, the Mongol Empire held the record for the largest Empire of all time.   The Golden Horde of Genghis Khan and his successors would keep Russia subjugated for 250 years. 

Since the Mongol Empire was now too large to be effectively governed from one place, it broke up into four smaller but still formidable states during the next generation. Batu Khan and his heirs were awarded the northwest corner which included the Ukraine, the valley of the Volga, and western Siberia.

They chose not to rule the Russians directly.  In the forests of northern and western Europe, their mounted archers of the steppes would find both their speed and the range of their arrows reduced.  This would put them at a great disadvantage against the natives.  Instead, they gathered tribute. 

In a move that would have far-reaching consequences, the Khan would pick one Russian prince per territory and give him a permit to claim the wealth of Russia for the Khan. If the annual collection of gold and slaves did not meet the Khan's demands, the Mongols would raid the offenders to show they meant business. 

The Russian Prince often grew to become as brutal and ruthless as the Mongols he served.  He resorted to violence without hesitation while doing his collecting.  Under this system the Russians learned a lot about tyranny, brutality, and inhumanity in general.  These traits would appear in the types of governments they would establish in the future.  This led to the system that turned the serfs into slaves.

Before the arrival of the Mongols in 1240, the Russians were generally a friendly, trusting people; unfortunately, in the opinion of some, those traits do not characterize the Russians who have lived since then. 


Dawn of the Russian Empire


The Grand Duchy of Moscow

It could be argued that the Mongol Invasion was the most important event in the development of Russia since the appearance of the Varangians.  In a bizarre turn of events, the 250 years of Mongol domination actually paved the path which would allow this subjugated land to one day become the mighty Russian Empire. 

The Grand Duchy of Moscow was a late medieval Rus' principality centered on Moscow.  Also known as Muscovy, it was the predecessor state of the early modern Tsardom of Russia. 

The politics of the Mongol domination worked greatly to the advantage of Moscow.  Muscovy was conquered just like all the other lands, but managed to acquire a privileged status.  While Kiev had been flattened by the Mongol invasion, Moscow was not badly harmed.

Moscow rose to prominence during the years of the Mongol-Tatar yoke by using a questionable yet highly effective tactic known as "sleeping with the enemy".

Moscow's eventual dominance of northern and eastern Rus was attributable to its strange alliance with the Mongols.  In a move eerily similar with France's Vichy Republic siding with the Nazis, Moscow did exactly the same thing by collaborating with the Mongols.

Back in those days, Moscow was still just one of the pack.  There were several other cities in the lands of Rus such as Novgorod, Vladimir, and Kazimov that had just as many people and just as much influence.  However with the decline of Kiev, another city, Tver, was the largest rival to Moscow. 

Tver was located at a strategic position on the Volga. Surrounded by woods and bogs, the Tver principality was quickly transformed into one of the richest and most populous Russian states after the Mongol invasions due to its secure position.  As the area was hardly accessible for Tatar raids, there was a great influx of population from the recently devastated South. By the end of the century, Tver was ready to vie with Moscow for supremacy in Russia. Both Tver and Moscow were young cities, so the outcome of their rivalry was far from being certain.

Mikhail of Tver, who ascended the throne of Vladimir in 1305, was one of the most beloved of medieval Russian rulers. His policy of open conflict with the Golden Horde led to his assassination there in 1318. His son Dmitry succeeded him and created an alliance with the mighty Grand Duchy of Lithuania that raised Tver's prestige even higher.  In 1327, Dmitry, the Prince of Tver, joined a major rebellion against the Mongols. 

Over in Moscow, Prince Ivan Kalita, soon to be known as Ivan I, was exasperated by Dmitry's growing influence.  He secretly persuaded the Mongols to murder Dmitry.  On hearing the news of this assassination, Tver revolted against the Golden Horde. 

Ivan I joined his own forces with the Mongols in brutally crushing Tver.  He made sure the Mongols devastated its lands.  Many citizens were killed, enslaved, or deported. This was the fatal blow to Tver's pretensions for supremacy in Russia.  They would never be heard of again.

They say the end justifies the means.  In this case, Ivan had sent thousands of fellow Russians to an excruciating death to advance his own political position.  Whether Ivan Kalita was justified in his actions was debatable, but there is no question that Ivan had made a shrewd move.  Ivan had not only eliminated his main rival, he was now able to move the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church to Moscow.  For his complicity, Ivan was granted the title of Grand prince by the Mongols.

As such, the Muscovite prince became the chief intermediary between the Mongol overlords and the Rus lands, which paid further dividends to Moscow's rulers. While the Mongols often raided other areas of Rus, they tended to respect the lands controlled by their principal collaborator. This, in turn, attracted nobles and their servants who sought to settle in the relatively secure and peaceful Moscow lands. 

Emboldened by his status, in 1339 Ivan Kalita dared to make Moscow even stronger by rebuilding a powerful fortress around the city known as the Kremlin. 

If you study the map of the Mongol Empire, the Moscow region was the farthest outpost.  As long as the Russians collected tribute and taxes for the Mongols, the Mongols were content to ignore the lands that they owned and leave them alone. 

"Don't make us come up there and kill you!"

The fact that the Khan accorded certain rulers in Moscow the status of tax collectors worked in their favor.  They quickly learned that all they had to do to keep the Khan off their backs was pay him the money and keep their people in line.  Since the Khan never visited the area unless there was trouble, the Princes of Moscow were now the de facto rulers of Rus.

Another benefit of paying their taxes was security.  As long as they paid their taxes, the Russians were left alone with no serious enemies to worry about. 

Over the course of the next two and a half centuries, the Russians slowly but surely gained a great deal of military power. 

Ivan the Great

Ivan the Great had already been co-ruler of the Grand Duchy of Moscow with his father Vasily for several years when his father died.  At age 22, Ivan was educated and experienced when he took over in 1462.

During his father's reign, the Grand Duchy of Moscow had by this time become a compact and powerful state, whilst her rivals had grown weaker.  This state of affairs very favorable to a statesman of Ivan III's peculiar character.  Ivan was an extraordinarily cautious man who used cunning and patience to his advantage.

Left alone by the Khan, Ivan spent the next 20 years gathering the Russian lands around him by war or diplomacy.  In this time, Ivan managed to triple the territory of his state.  In so doing, Ivan became the supreme leader.  He was named Grand Prince of Moscow and "Grand Prince of all Rus".

During Ivan's rise to power, it did not escape his attention that the Mongols themselves had grown weak through a series of civil wars.  At the time, Ivan also knew Ahmed Khan was preoccupied with his struggle against the Crimean Khanate.

Russia had been paying tribute for nearly 250 years.  Ivan decided the time had finally come to take on the Great Khan.

Ivan didn't bother attacking.  He knew just what to do - stop paying taxes!

In 1476 Ivan III ceased paying annual tribute to the Horde.  It turned out that Ivan was right.  The Khan did not do anything serious except to demand tribute and send a Mongol representative to Moscow.  And then he sent another.  And another.

Ivan just laughed.  The picture on the left depicts Ivan tearing up the Khan's letter. 

For the next four years, Ahmed Khan, the Mongol leader, sent one bill collector after another to Moscow carrying all sorts of dire threats, but these threats accomplished nothing.  The status quo favored Ivan.  He didn't want to fight.  He just wanted to be left alone.  Stick and stones might break his bones, but bills would never hurt him.

Finally, after four years of seeing his threats ignored, Ahmed Khan lost patience and decided to march on Ivan.   In 1480 the Mongol and Muscovite armies met on opposite sides of the Ugra River which was about 100 miles due south of Moscow. 

Right from start, neither side made a move. Ivan, always a cautious man, was reluctant to fight.  Knowing whoever was forced to cross the river first would be at a disadvantage, Ivan had little incentive to attack.  In addition, he was waiting for reinforcements he knew were on the way.

The Mongol leader, Ahmed Khan, was even more cautious than Ivan III.  The Khan had reason to be cautious.  He was astonished at the size of the Russian force.  Thanks to his years of neglect, the Khan had no idea just how powerful the vassal state of Muscovy had grown.  Furthermore, Ivan had used the past four years to build up and train his forces for the day when he would have to stand up and fight.  Ivan's army was impressive.

So for weeks they watched each other, neither willing to cross the river and make the first move.  Meanwhile Ivan's forces kept getting bigger.  As always, Ivan had nothing to lose by waiting.  And Ahmed didn't want to expose his troops to murderous archers while crossing that river.  Stalemate.

Finally the troops got restless and both sides went home. This curious stand-off became known as the "Non-battle of the Ugra".  Ivan was able to end the Mongol domination over Russia without even firing a shot.  Never again did the Russians pay tribute to a foreign power.  It was an amazing accomplishment.

At this same time the Golden Horde was starting to break up of its own accord.  After the assassination of Ahmed, it collapsed completely in 1502.

Meanwhile Ivan would go on to be one of the longest-reigning Russian rulers in history.  Ivan the Great is still celebrated as one of the greatest rulers in Russian history. 


Ivan the Terrible

Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible, was the grandson of Ivan the Great.  He became the First Tsar of Russia in 1547.  Ivan IV was a complex man who suffered from bouts of mental illness.  When he was mad, he was really mad.  For example, in 1581 Ivan beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for wearing immodest clothing.  This caused a miscarriage.  His son was furious and engaged in a heated argument with his father.  Ivan the Terrible lost his temper and struck the young man in the head with his pointed staff, killing him.  Bad move.  Ivan's only other son Feodor was mentally defective. 

On the other hand, when he was lucid, Ivan was an excellent ruler.  Ivan set about expanding Russian territory.  One of his first moves was to attack the remaining Khans.  Not only were the Russians numerically superior to the greatly weakened armies of the Khans, the recent introduction of gunpowder weapons eliminated the old superiority of the mounted archers of the Mongol armies. Ivan quickly conquered all the territory to the foot of the Urals.  

Now the question arose what to do with the land on the other side.  Ivan himself had nothing to do with the conquest of Siberia.  The credit would go instead to the Cossacks.  The annexation of Siberia was one of the greatest triumphs in Cossack history.

A merchant family, the Stroganovs, settled agents in various territories, including Siberia, to expand their fur and lumber trades. In the mid-1550s, Tartar leader Kuchum Khan took over the area in Siberia.  He demanded tribute or he would shut down the Stroganov operation.  The Stroganovs weren't going to give up that easily.  They wanted to protect their lands and their trade business from the Tartars.  So they hired the Cossacks and their leader Yermak Timofeyevich as mercenaries. 

The Door Opens

In September 1581, Timofeyevich led 840 troops to wrest the Siberian city of Sibir from Tartar control. With the use of firearms, the Cossacks easily defeated Kuchum's forces.

With this single battle, Siberia came under complete control of the Russian Empire. 

That conquest opened the door.  The last enemy between Moscow and the Pacific Ocean had just been removed.  Only one problem - no one in Moscow knew the Pacific Ocean even existed.

The next century would be one of exciting exploration eastward.  Following the path of the Great Steppe, the explorers made one discovery after another.

Ironically, the Mongols had done the Russians an enormous favor.  By murdering and destroying countless villagers in their unstoppable path of plunder, they had decimated the population of areas that had few people to begin with. 

Now the tribes the explorers met on the way were much too primitive and too few in numbers to put up much of a protest.  Even better, since the Russian explorers were not murderous savages bent on conquest like the Mongols, the villagers felt no need to defend themselves against the visitors. 

Consequently the explorers rarely had to fight.  Unlike the sad Indian wars characteristic of the American expansion in the West, the Russians had the Mongols to thank for doing the dirty work ahead of time. 

Throughout the 17th century, each year saw a new wave of fur traders and  Cossacks cross the plains and the rivers.  Any Jeremiah Johnson who wanted to get away from it all now had this vast wilderness to lose himself into.

One year at a time, the explorers would establish outposts, settle down for the winter, suffer through months of snow-bound isolation, and then renew progress in the spring.  In 1639 a Cossack named Moscovtin, hiking east from Lake Baikal to Okhotsk, became the first Russian to see the Pacific Ocean.   It had taken 60 years since the Battle of Sibir in 1581 had opened the door for the explorers to finally reach this stunning landmark. 

The fact that it took 60 years just to get from the Urals to the Pacific without any opposition says it all.  The expanse of Siberia was endless.

In a sense, the Russians had annexed an area so harsh, so barren and bitter that no one else wanted it.  Like parts of Alaska and Canada, much of this new territory was practically uninhabitable.  Nevertheless, there were untold amounts of riches locked in those lands waiting for the day when technology could tap those resources.  The gift of Siberia was a present of unimaginable value to Russia.

Even better, very little blood was spilled.  Freed of the necessity of fighting indigenous people willing to defend their lands with their lives, ultimately the Russians were able to explore and settle this huge landmass in far less time than the United States was able to settle its own western frontier. 

Outside of Russia, no one had any idea what was going on.  Jamestown, the first English colony in America, had just been founded.  Galileo was exploring the laws of gravity and suggesting the Earth revolved around the sun.  In Europe, the Thirty Years War was decimating Germany and propelling Sweden to its loftiest status ever.  The Ottoman Empire was expanding rapidly. 

Meanwhile, Russia was quietly becoming a vast empire and no one in Europe had even the slightest idea.  It is important to remember that 17th century Russia existed in near-total isolation from the outside world.

Great events like the Renaissance, the Reformation, the discovery of the Americas and the birth of modern science had no effect on the Russians whatsoever.  Russia had technically been an empire since Ivan IV conquered the Moslems on the Volga, but to westerners the Russian Empire was still called Muscovy, a Medieval state more Oriental than Occidental.

This would change in the next age.  Soon Peter the Great through sheer willpower would drag Russia kicking and screaming into the modern world.


Our Next Story: Peter the Great

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