Charles E. Ziegler


The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations
Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling, Series Editors
Greenwood Press / Westport, Connecticut London / 1999

Maps: The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History / 1992

The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia / 1995










Muscovite Russia, 1240-1613

Moscow itself is great: I take the whole town to be greater than London with the suburbs: but it is very rude, and stands without all order. Their houses are all of timber, very dangerous for fire. There is a fair castle, the walls whereof are brick, and very high: they say they are eighteen feet thick. . . . The Emperor lies in the castle, wherein are nine fair Churches, and therein are religious men. . . . The poor are very innumerable, and live most miserably. . . . In my opinion, there are no such people under the sun for their hardness of living.

Captain Richard Chancellor, English explorer and trader, 1553




In comparison with the major cities of Kievan and appanage Russia, Moscow in the twelfth century was merely a small and obscure town. Moscow was not even mentioned in the chronicles until 1147, when Iurii Dolgorukii, prince of Novgorod, reputedly established the town as a commercial and strategic center. The evolution of Moscow from a pro- vincial town to the capital of a unified, centralized state is the result of several factors--the impact of Mongol conquest and rule, favorable geographic location, and in part luck.

Moscow's rise to preeminence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries involved cultivating favor with the Golden Horde, the Mongol tribe that ruled Russia from Sarai, while struggling for supremacy with the larger northern cities--most notably Tver and Novgorod. Daniel, the youngest son of Aleksandr Nevskii, became the ruler of Moscow in 1263, and the city was granted the status of a separate principality. Daniel enlarged Moscow and expanded his authority along the length of the Moscow River. After Daniel's death in 1303, his son Iurii Danilovich ( 1303- 1325) annexed Mozhaisk in the east and contested with Prince Michael of Tver for control of Vladimir and Novgorod.



The Golden Horde supported Iurii in this struggle, granting him the title of Grand Prince and conferring on him the right to extract tribute from all the northeastern towns. Iurii, like his grandfather, Aleksandr Nevskii, owed his strong position in Novgorod to a businesslike acceptance of Mongol suzerainty. The Mongols, in turn, supported Moscow in the struggle against its major Russian rival--Tver--and against powerful Lithuania and the Teutonic Knights.

Novgorod's elite also contributed to Moscow's rise through their tendency to engage in self-destructive feuding. This ancient city's institutions, as we saw in Chapter 2, embodied some partially democratic ideas, most notably through the veche, and a strong tradition of independence. Admirable as these traits might be from a twentieth-century perspective, in the climate of intrigue and factional struggle of the fourteenth century they combined to weaken Novgorod's chances for dominating post-Kievan Russia.

In the first century after the Mongol invasion, Moscow benefited greatly from its location. Shielded in the forested north, the city avoided periodic Mongol raids that threatened southern Russian cities. Moscow's location at the intersection of several major trade routes facilitated its development. Moscow also enjoyed Mongol support against its powerful neighbors. After about 1350, however, Moscow had become sufficiently powerful to challenge declining Mongol authority.



Late mediaeval Moscovy Russia, Europe and the Near East (click on the map for better resolution)


Moscow's power was greatly enhanced when the city assumed Kiev's former role as the center of Russian Orthodoxy. The city of Vladimir hosted the metropolitan, or head of the Orthodox Church, after 1300. Metropolitan Peter ( 1308-1326) was not on the best terms with Prince Michael of Tver, who had supported another candidate to lead the Or thodox Church. Peter developed close ties with Prince Iurii of Moscow and, after his death in 1325, with Prince Ivan I (Kalita, or "Moneybag"). When Peter died, he was buried in Moscow; his successor, a Greek bishop named Theognostus, assessed Tver's eroding position and decided to shift his permanent residence to Moscow.

Theognostus ardently supported Ivan's efforts to unify Russian lands under Moscow's control. Ivan deliberately ingratiated himself with the Golden Horde by serving as an effective tax collector. By collecting tribute from the other Russian princes he strengthened his political position and amassed enough revenue to purchase a number of appanages, substantially expanding the territory under Moscow's control.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, Mongol power was declining, while that of Lithuania to the west was growing under the Jagellonian dynasty. A crucial event marking Russia's challenge to Mongol authority was the Battle of Kulikovo Field, in 1380. Grand Prince Dmitrii Donskoi ( 1359-1389), aided by the farsighted Metropolitan Alexis, unified Russia's princes against the Lithuanian threat. Mongol unity had been undermined by division into the khanates (roughly, principalities) of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Crimea, and by the struggle between Tokhtamysh (representing the Central Asian warlord Tamerlane) and Mamai, Prince of the Horde, for control of Russia. Russia had taken advantage of the opportunity this provided to challenge the Horde's right to rule and collect tribute. In response, Mamai concluded an alliance with Lithuania and engaged the Russians in battle at Kulikovo, on the upper reaches of the Don River. Dmitrii, whose cause was reputedly endorsed by the Abbot Sergius, moved before the Lithuanians could reach Mamai and inflicted a surprising defeat on the Mongols.



The Battle of Kulikovo


The Battle of Kulikovo Field destroyed the myth of Mongol invincibility and strengthened Russia's national awakening. No matter that Mamai would return to sack Moscow a mere two years later. As the Mongol rulers continued to war among themselves, the Golden Horde's control over Russia waned. Tamerlane (Timur the Lame), a ruthless warrior from Central Asia, further eroded Mongol power by destroying many of their largest cities and repeatedly defeating Tokhtamysh, the Mongol chieftain who had himself beaten Mamai for supremacy. Tamerlane's destructive campaign played a significant role in weakening the Golden Horde. By the middle of the fifteenth century the once-powerful Mongol empire had been reduced to a scattering of small khanates along the lower Volga, in Kazan, Astrakhan, and the Crimea.

Vasilii II ( 1425- 1462) ruled Moscow during a period of constant civil strife and repeated Tatar incursions. Lithuania threatened Moscow from the west, while in the east the fragmentation of the Golden Horde enabled Vasilii II to consolidate his power and eliminate virtually all the surviving Russian appanages by 1456. His predecessor, Vasilii I ( 13891425), had taken advantage of Mongol disunity to annex NizhniiNovgorod, several hundred miles east of Moscow. Vasilii II defeated his chief rival, Dmitrii Shemiaka, in ancient Novgorod, ensuring that city's subordination to Moscow's authority. In 1452 Moscow extended its rule over the Tatar khanate of Kasimov, and the same year ceased paying tribute to the Golden Horde.

An event of equal significance for Muscovite Russia was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. As we have seen, Byzantium's cultural, political, economic, and religious influence on Russia had been enormous. However, Russia's ties to Byzantium had been eroded by the Mongol conquest and the growth of the northern trade routes. Byzantine influence on Russia had peaked between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, and declined thereafter. Under threat from the Muslim Turks, the Greek Orthodox Church at the 1439 Council of Florence recognized the supremacy of the Roman pope, antagonizing Russia's Orthodox hierarchy. This "betrayal" by the Greek church, and the subsequent "punishment" in the form of Turkish conquest, convinced many Russians that they were left as the sole defenders of true Christianity. In the sixteenth century this conviction would find expression in the doctrine of Moscow as the third and final Rome. These developments enhanced Russia's sense of its uniqueness and its isolation from the mainstream of European culture, and contributed to Russian xenophobia.



Ivan III


Ivan III ( The Great, 1462- 1505) continued the process of "gathering together" the Russian lands, expanding and centralizing the Muscovite state and effectively ending the appanage period. When Tver concluded an alliance with Lithuania in 1485, Ivan invaded the principality and incorporated it into Muscovy. Ivan attacked Tatar Kazan in the 1460s, incorporated Novgorod under Moscow's control in the 1470s, and invaded Tver in 1485.


Новгородцы Олег Губареу

Soldiers of Moscow (left) and Novgorod (right) / Modern miniatures by Oleg Gubarev


Ivan III used the vast lands acquired through his conquests as rewards, forming a centralized, loyal contingent of army officers among the upper classes to whom he granted estates. He deported Novgorod landowners, redistributing their lands to his supporters on condition that they serve in his military campaigns. This system, called pomest'e, assured the grand prince of a loyal and dependent cavalry and curtailed the military resources available to the remaining appanage princes.

Governing and defending an enlarged Russia required the creation of a small bureaucracy and more professional armed forces. Ivan III appointed governors and district chiefs to administer Russia's new territories, arranging for them to provide Moscow with revenue, most of which went to support the army, through a system of "feeding" (kormlenie). The feeding system both enhanced the independent authority of regional governors and, since they were allowed to keep a surplus of what they collected, also encouraged corruption. A national law code enacted in 1497, the first Sudebnik, standardized judicial authority, restrained administrative abuses, limited peasant mobility, and helped in tegrate an expansive Moscow.

Vasilii III ( 1505- 1533) continued the process of consolidation, expansion, and centralization pursued by his father. Pskov was annexed in 1510 and its veche bell taken down; Riazan was incorporated into the Muscovite empire in 1517. The owners of large estates in these former appanages were deported, and their lands were redistributed to Vasilii's servitors. Vasilii III was a strong ruler, yet he consulted regularly with the boyars in the Duma.

Muscovite Russia developed an imperial and national ideology, bolstered by Russian Orthodoxy, during the reigns of Ivan III and Vasilii III. Both rulers occasionally used the title tsar (or caesar), implying sovereign authority and the rejection of subordination either to the Mongols or to Byzantium. With the fall of Constantinople, the seat of Greek Orthodox Christianity, to the Muslim Turks in 1453, Russians increasingly thought of Moscow as the last citadel of "genuine" Christianity. A letter from Abbot Filofei to Vasilii III in 1510 drew on biblical references to enunciate the doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome: "two Romes have fallen, the Third stands, and there shall be no Fourth." This doctrine legitimized Russia's imperial expansion and the divine right of Russian autocracy.

The concept of Russia's divine mission as the center of Christianity and the role of the tsar as God's direct representative on earth were further elaborated during the long reign of Ivan IV ( 1533- 1584), who is better known in the West as Ivan the Terrible. Ivan IV, who succeeded to the throne at age three, witnessed bitter factional fighting among the boyar families before he formally assumed the crown in 1547. Terrified by a massive fire that consumed much of Moscow later that year, and convinced God was punishing him for his transgressions, the young tsar formed a Chosen Council of nobles and church leaders to serve as an advisory body. In order to enhance public support Ivan IV consulted openly with Moscow's elites, calling the first full zemskii sobor ("assembly of the land") in 1549. He issued a new law code ( Sudebnik) in 1550, to ensure that the same laws were applied equally throughout the newly acquired territories and to protect the lower gentry's interests against abuses by regional governors. Ivan Sudebnik reflected the growing division of Russian society according to rank and position.



Ivan IV


Ivan IV also created a series of central chanceries to run Moscow's growing bureaucracy and to provide more efficient mobilization of resources for war. Finally, in 1551 Ivan and the priest Sylvester, author of the Domostroi, a manual for governing upper-class households, imposed a series of reforms on the Orthodox Church entitled the Stoglav (Hundred Chapters). The Stoglavsought to control the Church's accumulation of wealth, criticized corrupt monastic practices, proscribed a number of pastimes as indecent (including chess, playing the trumpet, and enjoying pets), condemned shaving one's beard as a heretic Catholic practice, and prescribed certain modifications in church rituals. The Stoglav and Domostroi infused religious content into virtually all aspects of sixteenthcentury Russian life by condemning secular pursuits as frivolous or sinful.

The central thrust of Ivan IV's rule was to consolidate and strengthen centralized rule, which meant weakening the influence of the top boyar families. Ivan was extremely suspicious of the boyars, in part due to his experiences as a child and in part as a result of the unseemly political maneuvering during his grave illness in 1553. Angered by Ivan's capricious rule and dismayed by Russia's poor performance in the Livonian War of 1558-1582 (fought to expand Russia's territory westward and secure access to the Baltic Sea), a number of the boyars had defected to Lithuania, Livonia, or Poland. Among the disaffected boyars was Prince Andrei Kurbsky, a literate man whose vitriolic correspondence with the tsar has given scholars a record of the clash between Ivan IV and the upper classes.

Late in 1564 Ivan IV took a calculated risk designed to enhance his power. Taking a large retinue, he left Moscow for a small settlement in the northeast, Aleksandrovskaya Sloboda, from which he announced his intention to abdicate. Thrown into consternation, the tsar's followers begged him to return to Moscow and resume his office. Ivan IV agreed, but with certain conditions. Ivan demanded complete autonomy, including freedom from the moral strictures of the Church, to punish traitors as he saw fit.

To carry out his revenge against the treacherous boyars, Ivan divided Russia into two separate states. Within the oprichnina, consisting of some two dozen cities, eighteen districts, and part of Moscow, the tsar exercised total power. In the remainder of Russia, the zemshchina, direct rule theoretically would be exercised by the boyar Duma. However, Ivan created a loyal militia, the oprichniki, to wage a form of civil war against nobles and property owners in the zemshchina. The fearsome oprichniki, some 6,000 strong, dressed in black and carried a dog's head and broom on their horses to symbolize their mission of hunting down and sweeping away the tsar's enemies. Ivan used the oprichniki to arrest, torture, imprison, and execute any of the nobility, the clergy, their families, and supporters whom he imagined posed a threat to his rule.

For seven years Ivan IV carried on a vendetta against his own people. Early in 1570 Ivan led his oprichniki against the city of Novgorod, whose inhabitants once had the temerity to call their town "Lord Novgorod the Great." Apparently infuriated by the city's refusal to submit abjectly to his authority, Ivan spent five weeks torturing, raping, and slaughtering his subjects. In all he is estimated to have massacred between 15,000 and 60,000 people, or about three-fourths of the population. After Novgorod, Ivan set out to destroy the city of Pskov. However, one of the so-called holy fools of Pskov, the monk Nicholas, threatened Ivan the Terrible with heavenly destruction should he harm the city. Frightened, Ivan withdrew to Moscow, and Pskov was spared. Two years later he executed most of the leaders of the oprichniki, bringing an end to this bloody period of Russian history.

Although Ivan IV adhered to the rites of the Russian Orthodox Church and considered himself God's representative on earth, by the time of the oprichnina he had rejected the Church's traditional role as moral conscience of the tsar. Those religious authorities who tried to remonstrate with the tsar--the Metropolitan Philip, for example--were tortured, banished, or killed. The clergy had acted as a restraining influence on the tsar during the early years of his reign; by the latter part of his rule, however, he had terrified the Church hierarchy into abjectly supporting his cruel tyranny. With the nobility and the clergy completely broken, there were no checks on Ivan's despotic rule. All Russians were the tsar's slaves.




From a modern Western perspective it is difficult to imagine how a people would accept such a cruel, debauched ruler as Ivan the Terrible. At one point he had a giant skillet constructed in Red Square in which his hapless enemies were roasted alive. Ivan also reveled in personally torturing prisoners, often after attending mass or before retiring to one of his wives or mistresses. Frequently, Ivan shared drunken orgies and torture sessions with his older son, Ivan, in a type of medieval male bonding. The two also enjoyed turning wild bears loose on unsuspecting Muscovite crowds and watching the fun.

The Russian people were terrified of their tsar, but few contemplated any sort of uprising against him. Some, like Prince Kurbsky, condemned him from afar. The few who were courageous enough to oppose his bloody methods and remain in Russia did not generally survive. One must recognize that a dominant strain in Russian Orthodoxy was the theme of achieving spiritual rewards through suffering. The tsar, the earthly king, was no less justified in visiting calamities on his people than was God the heavenly king. The decisions of both were likely a just punishment for their transgressions, and in any case could not be questioned or even understood by most Russians.

The last years of Ivan's reign were marked by foreign policy adventures and domestic failures. In the 1550s Ivan's forces had subjugated the Tatars of the Kazan and Astrakhan khanates, to the east and south, ending the raids that had threatened Moscow periodically. To celebrate his victory over the Kazan khanate, Ivan commissioned the construction of the famous St. Basil's Cathedral, in Moscow's Red Square. Toward the end of Ivan's reign the Cossack Ermak conquered the Kuchum khanate in western Siberia, the first step in an extended process of expansion eastward to the Pacific Ocean and eventually into North America.


ioann the terrible

Moscovy Russian expansion under Ivan the Terrible


Ivan the Terrible's successes in dealing with the Muslim Tatars in the east were more than offset by his failures in the wars with his Christian neighbors to the west. In 1558 Ivan, determined to expand Muscovy's frontiers to the Baltic Sea, and thereby enhance Russian commerce, launched the war against Livonia in what is now Latvia and Estonia. By 1560, the year his beloved first wife Anastasia died, Ivan's initial successes were reversed with the entry of Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden into the war against Russia. The Livonian War dragged on for twenty five years, draining the Muscovite treasury, dividing the court, and feeding Ivan's paranoia and his obsession with traitors.

Ivan's cruelty and depravity reached their apogee when, in a fit of rage, he struck and killed his eldest son with the iron-tipped staff he always carried. This poignant moment, captured in a famous painting by the nineteenth-century artist Ilya Repin, signaled the close of Ivan's bloody regime. Following his death in 1584 his son Feodor ascended the throne. However, Feodor was weak and incompetent, and could not manage the legacy of war and internal division bequeathed him by his father. Russia was soon immersed in the chaos of dynastic struggle and civil war referred to as the "Time of Troubles," which lasted until the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in 1613.


Soldiers of Ivan the Terrible







Religion was by far the dominant influence in medieval Russian culture. The Orthodox Church mobilized Russian national identity, legitimized political authority, molded social relations, dominated literature and architecture, and controlled a significant share of the economy. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, for example, the Church owned between one-quarter and one-third of Russia's arable land.

Russian church architecture had recovered by the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Vassilii II and Ivan III undertook huge construction programs, using Italian and later German and Dutch builders. The great Moscow Kremlin ("fortress") was reconstructed in the fifteenth century; most of the cathedrals housed within the Kremlin were built at this time. In 1552 Ivan IV had St. Basil's Cathedral constructed on the edge of what is now Red Square, to commemorate his victory over the Tatar khanate in Kazan. Based on the pattern of Russian wooden churches, St. Basil's, the quintessential backdrop for television reporting from Moscow, is a colorful group of nine octagonal churches topped by golden cupolas and set on a single foundation.


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In the fifteenth century several sects and divisions appeared in Russian religious life. There were the Judaizers, not really Jews but rather Russian Christians who rejected parts of the New Testament and certain teachings of the Orthodox Church. The strigolniki (shaved ones) also denied the authority of the Church, criticizing it as corrupt, and sought individual salvation through Buddhist-like contemplation. As in the Europe of that time, such heretics were not easily tolerated by the dominant church, and were frequently burned at the stake.


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Russian icons of the 15th century


A major schism of the late fifteenth century within the Orthodox Church was between the so-called possessors and non-possessors. The non-possessors, led by Nil Sorskii, insisted that the Church should renounce worldly wealth, monks should adhere to vows of poverty, and church and state should be separate. However, a Church council of 1503 supported the possessors, led by Joseph of Volotsk, who advocated a rich, powerful Church glorified by the splendor of icons, extensive land holdings, and impressive ritual. The possessors stressed the importance of a close, harmonic relationship between Church and ruler, which strengthened the concept of the divine right of the tsar.

Literature and art represented religious themes almost exclusively during this period, in contrast to the secular intellectual currents developing in Europe. Medieval Russian literature, according to historian Victor Terras, was a vehicle of religious devotion, ritual, and edification, written by monks, for monks, about monks. Hagiographies, or saints' lives, were one of the most common forms of literature. The purpose of these stories was to glorify God and His loyal servants, and not to present accurate biographies. Similarly, Russian chronicles, another prominent genre, mixed history with political propaganda and morality tales. Among the more important of these were the Life of St. Sergius of Radonezh by Epiphanius , the story of the founder of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery, and the Tale of the White Cowl of Novgorod, which promoted the concept of Moscow as the Third Rome.

Religion was an important influence in popular culture, although not through literature. Few Russians, and virtually no members of the lower classes, knew how to read. Religious icons and oral traditions substituted for the written word. Even modest peasant huts (izby) reserved a corner for holy icons, which were believed to protect the family from harm. However, peasants also preserved some old Slavic pagan beliefs and customs, including offerings to the house sprite (domovoi). They also retained certain marriage and funeral practices dating from pre-Christian times. Popular entertainment included Russian folk songs and folk tales, and the epic poems (byliny) that recounted the exploits of heroes both ancient and contemporary.





The Mongol invasion crushed the robust urban commercial life that had characterized Kievan society. Many towns simply ceased to exist, others lost much of their population, and Russians abandoned trade for a more insular, self-sufficient agricultural life. Landowning became the major basis of prosperity. Since the landlord's wealth depended on peasant labor, the freedom of this class, some 70-80 percent of the population, to change their place of residence was gradually curtailed. By the end of the fifteenth century peasants were tied to the estate except for a two week period around St. George's Day, November 26, when they could pack up and leave their masters. Ivan the Terrible further curtailed the peasants' freedom of movement. The institution of serfdom, tying peasants to the land permanently, evolved gradually through the medieval period and was fully legalized by the law code (Ulozhenie) of 1649 enacted under Tsar Alexis ( 1645- 1676).

The social classes of medieval Russia were not much different from those of Kievan Rus. At the top remained the boyars, the handful of nobles who served as advisors to the grand prince. Just below the boyars were the junior boyars (or boyars' children--boyarskie deti) and the gentry. The higher clergy--the metropolitan, archbishops, and influential priests and monks--were also part of the upper classes. Next came merchants, followed by skilled urban artisans such as carpenters, boottnakers, masons, and silversmiths.



Russian aristocratic woman


Most Westerners know about Russia's Cossacks, who first appeared during this period, but few have an accurate understanding of these colorful people. Cossacks were free peasants who emerged in various frontier regions of Russia and Ukraine, particularly Zaporozhe, Riazan, and the Don region, during the mid-fifteenth century. At first resistant to Moscow's authority, they gradually came to be loyal subjects of the tsar. Their lifestyle, based on a steppe existence, was quite different from that of the forest-dwelling Russians or Ukrainians. Cossacks lived by fishing, trapping, and plundering. Largely Slavic, they also accepted Germans, Swedes, Tatars, Greeks, and other adventurous types, as long as they were tough fighters and nominally Christian. Although renowned for their horsemanship, the Cossacks were also great sailors and fearsome pirates who periodically threatened trade on the Volga River and the Black Sea.

Cossacks played a pivotal role in medieval Russia, as explorers and rebels. It was a Cossack, Ermak Timofeevich, who under contract to the wealthy Stroganov family ventured across the Ural Mountains and attacked Khan Kuchum at his capital of Sibir. By defeating the Siberian Tatars and their allies, various Siberian tribes, Ermak opened the huge Siberian territory to Russian eastward expansion. Although Ermak was eventually killed by the Tatars, other Cossacks followed the massive Siberian rivers, reaching the Pacific Ocean by the middle of the seventeenth century, in their search for sable furs and walrus tusks. These intrepid explorers apparently crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska sometime before the eighteenth century.

Peasants, as noted above, constituted the great majority of the population in medieval Russia. As a whole, the peasants were illiterate, superstitious, and poor. They were forced to work on the landlords' estates and were required to give their master a large proportion of their produce or, in certain cases, payments in cash. By the time of Ivan IV taxes on the peasantry, levied to pay for frequent military campaigns, had become increasingly burdensome, leading many to desert the estates and seek more favorable conditions in the south or east.

At the lowest rung of the social ladder were slaves, about 10 percent of the population. However, Russian slavery, which continued into the eighteenth century, was quite different from that in the United States. First, there was no ethnic or racial difference between slave and master. Second, slaves did not work in agriculture, but were employed primarily as household servants. Third, slavery was, as Richard Hellie has suggested, a form of social welfare for medieval Russia. Those free individuals who could not pay their debts or otherwise support themselves might become slaves. The slave owners then assumed legal obligations to clothe and feed their slaves and treat them humanely, and were prohibited from freeing them during famines to avoid their obligations. Finally, the male slaves who served as stewards for a rich household acquired considerable authority and responsibility. These "elite" slaves ranked above their ordinary counterparts in Muscovite society's hierarchy.

It is interesting to note that while medieval Muscovy was far from a tolerant society, the lines of division were based on class, gender, and religion, not race or ethnicity. For example, the grand princes would often recruit defeated Mongol princes for their court following a battle, provided they converted to Orthodox Christianity. Ivan the Terrible took a Circassian princess as his second wife, although she had to be baptized into the Orthodox faith prior to the wedding. Church law, however, strictly prohibited marrying across class lines; a free man who married a slave woman would himself lose his freedom.

Medieval Russian society, with its rigid hierarchy enforced by religious strictures, relegated women to subordinate positions politically, economically, and socially. The Russian Orthodox Church, like other Christian denominations, viewed women as inherently sinful and a temptation to men, based on biblical teachings. Accordingly, "good" women were quiet, submissive, and humble. Just as men were supposed to be obedient to the tsar, women had to obey their husbands in all matters. The Domostroi, a set of rules for keeping a well-ordered upper-class household published about 1556, instructs wives to consult their husbands on every matter and to fulfill all their commands diligently. If they dis obeyed, the wise husband would beat them judiciously. However, the Domostroi also elaborates on the many responsibilities of running a large household that rested with upper-class women, including supervising the servants and raising the children.

To protect their status within the patriarchal order, upper-class women in medieval Russia were secluded in specific living quarters and prohibited from socializing with men. They were also granted generous protections against any slights to their honor. Women from the artisan, slave, or peasant classes had far fewer restrictions on their social interactions. The economic demands on lower-class families forced women to work alongside men in a variety of occupations. Women were useful because they served important functions--they worked, produced and raised children, and managed the household--not because they were considered important in their own right. Nonetheless, even women of lower social status were protected against rape, abuse, or insult by Russian law of the time.




When Ivan the Terrible died in 1584 he left Muscovy with a mixed legacy. Russia was far larger and more powerful than at any time in the past; the Mongol yoke had been broken, the state centralized, and all restraints on the tsar's authority abolished. With the Turkish occupation of Constantinople, Moscow proclaimed itself the center of Orthodox Christianity, the Third Rome. Western influences in the form of traders and delegations from Germany, France, and Britain, though not always welcome, raised the level of technology in Russia, particularly in the military sphere.

However, the protracted Livonian War, excessive taxation, natural disasters, and Ivan's cruel exploitation of his own people strained Russia to the breaking point. The upper classes had suffered the loss of their estates, exile, or worse during the oprichnina; peasants had fled the central provinces to avoid heavy taxes and further restrictions on their freedom. After Ivan the Terrible died Russia was once again consumed by dynastic struggles. The late tsar had killed his more able son and heir Ivan Ivanovich in a fit of rage in 1581; hence it was the weak and incompetent Feodor who ascended the throne in 1584. Within three years, however, Boris Godunov, an astute and capable boyar, emerged as the real power behind the throne. A younger son of Ivan IV, Dmitrii, died in 1591 under mysterious circumstances; unsubstantiated rumors suggested that Boris Godunov was responsible. Feodor died in 1598 without an heir, and the Riurikid dynasty finally came to an end.


time of troubles



In the chaos that followed, a zemskii sobor (assembly of the land) chose Boris Godunov to succeed Feodor as tsar of Russia. Using a combination of public works programs and state repression, Boris unsuccessfully sought to stem Church and boyar opposition, peasant flight from the estates, and Cossack rebellion. In the last years of Boris' reign a pretender to the throne, a "false Dmitrii" claiming to be Ivan IV's son, organized an opposition force of Poles, Ukrainians, and Cossacks. When Boris Godunov died in 1605 the rebels took Moscow and installed the pretender as Dmitrii I.


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False Dmitrii and king Sigismund III Vasa by Nikolai Nevrev (1874)


(Click here for more details)

Dmitrii's Polish connections, particularly his marriage to the Catholic Marina Mniszech and the presence of hundreds of Poles in Moscow, enraged Russians, and Dmitrii I was murdered within a year. Prince Vasilii Shuiskii was installed as Vasilii IV ( 1606- 1610), but he could not put an end to the civil strife and foreign intervention that plagued Moscow. Ivan Bolotnikov, a Don Cossack, led a bloody uprising against the upper classes. Once this revolt had been crushed a second False Dmitrii arose to challenge Vasilii IV, and for two years Russia endured another civil war. After years of turmoil, a large zemskii sobor convened in Moscow in 1613 to choose a new tsar. The assembly selected Mikhail Romanov, a mere youth of sixteen but a member of one of Moscow's most distinguished families, as their sovereign. With the selection of Tsar Mikhail, Russia's Time of Troubles drew to a close. The Romanov dynasty would rule Russia for the next three centuries, until its overthrow in the Revolution of 1917.


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Mikhail Romanov (left) and zemskii sobor of 1613 (right)





CHARLES E. ZIEGLER is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisville. He is the author of Foreign Policy and East Asia ( 1993), Environmental Policy in the USSR ( 1987), and dozens of scholarly articles and book chapters.