Grand Prince and Khan Part II

The Tatars had jolted Russians out of their old mould, and by denying them access to the steppe they forced their energies into other directions. What happened as a result is not a question specifically addressed in the chronicles of the time. Yet an enterprising historian at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, A. A. Gorskii, devised an ingenious method for tracing changes in the relative importance of Russia’s cities which throws light on the problem. He counted the number of times each one is mentioned in the chronicles of each region of Russia over a lengthy period. He found that some place names cease to be referred to, others are mentioned with increasing frequency, and that new place names appear. If frequency of reference reflects importance, then these records indicate the rise and decline of cities and regions over time. In the chronicles of north-eastern Russia, for example, the city of Pereiaslav-Zalesskii is the most mentioned in the first half of the thirteenth century, but in the second half Moscow eclipses it, as does its parent city, Vladimir. Gorskii also found that Kiev is mentioned 44 times in the period 1200 to 1250 in the chronicles of the north-east, and that Halych is the second most frequently mentioned southern city. However, by 1300 Novgorod leads, and it holds its lead into the 1300s. A count of fortified settlements in the century after 1250 has shown that the principality of Chernigov had most, followed by Smolensk in the west, and then Kiev. However, the walls of Volyn and of Suzdal enclosed the largest areas, suggesting a greater concentration of population. Some of the detail may be confusing, but the general trend is clear: whereas the most populous and important cities had been in the south, they were now in the north. The political configuration confirms this finding. The four strongest principalities in the early thirteenth century had been Chernigov, Halych-Volynia, Smolensk and Vladimir-Suzdal. By the early 1300s the first three had ceased to exist, but a new state was being formed on the territory of the fourth.

The rising star was the Principality of Vladimir-Moscow. Yet by no means all parts of the first Russia were to cohere around it. One result of the Tatar impact was to send several old Russian centres in the south and west into a different orbit. They were to become part of the rising power of Lithuania. In time the influence of western neighbours on their language and culture caused them to diverge from the remaining Russians. Ultimately their peoples were to become those we know today as Ukrainians and Belorussians. However, despite these substantial losses of territory and population, and the attrition of Tatar rule, Russians were to make a good recovery demographically and go on to settle an area quite out of proportion to their numbers. How this came about is a question that fascinated one of Russia’s most interesting, and neglected, historians, Matvei Liubavskii, and it is related to the problem of why first Vladimir and then Moscow became the political centre of Russia.

Liubavskii noticed that the migration was confined to the forest zone. The colonizers avoided the Tatars’ stomping ground, the steppe. He also noticed that settlements were unevenly distributed, scattered, bounded by marshes and impenetrable tracts of forests, Russia’s natural frontiers. The great spread and dispersed character of Russian settlement helps to explain the lack of political cohesion in the old Russia and the failure to create an integrated state. Thanks to the Tatars and the northward movement of population, a new concentration of population allowed a more integrated state to be constructed. However, this did not explain why the principalities of the north-east should have become the fastest-growing sector in all Russia, or why Moscow, a neophyte among Russian cities, in a region that was relatively poor in natural resources and with little transit trade, should become the country’s capital, rather than Novgorod, Russia’s oldest city.

Liubavskii explained this in terms of Novgorod’s lack of an agricultural hinterland. This made it difficult for the city to secure food supplies for a large army, and this precluded its attaining pre-eminence in Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, had come to command a strategic central sector of Russia’s great network of rivers and portages, and developed an adequate agriculture and food supply. It was part of the Grand Principality of Vladimir, ‘a complex of … valuable territories, which were the source of great military and financial resources’. This strength derived in large measure from population growth, and from the extension of colonization, organized by the princes, boyars (their elite retainers) and clergy. But it also owed something to the aggression of its princes, who had to fight for a share of the commercial resources which more prosperous cities like Tver, Novgorod and Pskov already enjoyed, and to a new form of monastic development, which, as we shall see, was a reaction to the invasion.

The political coherence of Russia depended on the princes, especially on the grand prince of Vladimir-Moscow. By the fourteenth century the Tatars had relaxed their grip sufficiently to allow the princes to pursue policies that were rather less subservient. The first hint of change came when Ivan I was the leading Russian prince.

Historians customarily picture Ivan as cruel, sly and hypocritical, even though the chronicles yield virtually nothing about his character or personality except that his nickname (coined by an unappreciative brother) was Kalita — ‘Money-Bag’. This suggests that he was a good money manager, ungenerous, perhaps, and greedy. Inferences from actions, difficult though these sometimes are to reconstruct, suggest that he was also a canny strategist and a tough negotiator. His chief concern was unheroic: to maintain and, if possible, enlarge his heritage. He seized his opportunities, but only when it seemed safe to do so. Otherwise he prudently observed convention, kept the Church on his side, and never offended the Khan. The complexity and dangers of his predicament hardly allowed him to play the hero. Ivan is remembered as a significant historical figure in Russian history because he stumbled on opportunities. He happened to live at a juncture when he could exploit the Tatar khan’s dependence on his services and establish Moscow as the pre-eminent centre for the Russians.

A grandson of Alexander Nevskii, Ivan was born around 1288 and came to prominence in his forties, when he was enthroned as grand prince of Vladimir as well as prince of Moscow. Vladimir, to the east of Moscow, had been founded in 1108 on the river Kliazma, a tributary to the Volga. He reigned for only nine years. Yet one of his more significant achievements belonged to the period before he became grand prince. In 1325 he persuaded the Metropolitan of Kiev, Petr, to move permanently to Moscow. As an extra inducement he built the Cathedral of the Dormition, one of the four famous cathedral churches enclosed along with the palace within the walls of Moscow’s castle, the Kremlin. The expense was justified as well as affordable, for the new church added religious lustre to the place, and by extension to the Grand Prince. To have the head of the Russian Church based in his own city rather than Kiev was a great coup. It gave Moscow spiritual preeminence in Russia, and lent its prince particular prestige and clout.

Though their titles suggested authority, every Russian ruler of the time was a Tatar underling and had to accept regular humiliation. On the death of his predecessor a prince had to apply to the Khan at Sarai for permission to rule his inheritance. If his appointment was approved by the grant of a yarlyk, the Khan’s men would take the prince to his capital, enthrone him, and monitor his activities thereafter. Ivan took good care to please the Khan. When, therefore, Prince Dmitrii of Tver murdered his brother, Grand Duke Iurii, in a revenge killing in 1326, Ivan no doubt expected to be made grand prince. He was to be disappointed.

The Khan eventually executed Dmitrii for the murder, but then made Dmitrii’s brother, Aleksandr, grand prince. Aleksandr was evidently in the Khan’s good graces too. 10 Ivan had no alternative but to acquiesce, and wait. Then, in 1327, an anti-Tatar uprising erupted in Tver. Many Tatars were lynched, and Ivan rushed off to Sarai with the news. Uzbek Khan responded by entrusting him with a Tatar army 50,000 strong, telling him to punish Tver. He also authorized him to rule the western districts of the grand principality. But he did not appoint him grand prince. Instead he chose Aleksandr of Suzdal, who ruled the eastern districts, including Vladimir. Aleksandr is said to have carried off the cathedral bell from Vladimir and reinstalled it in the cathedral of his own city, Suzdal, but, according to one (presumably pro-Muscovite) chronicler, it refused to ring there. This was a way of suggesting that Aleksandr’s appointment lacked divine sanction. However, after Aleksandr’s death, in 1331, Ivan was finally confirmed as grand prince of Vladimir ‘and All Russia’.

The Khan’s reluctance to appoint him earlier had not been based on favouritism or whim. Nor was his preference for the princes of Tver and Suzdal. The decision reflected a sober appreciation of the fact that the Principality of Moscow had come to command more resources than any other principality. It had become altogether too mighty. That was why the policy-makers at Sarai had promoted Tver, Moscow’s rival. But then Tver had rebelled. So another counter-weight to Moscow had to be found. This explains the division of Tver’s territories between Ivan and Aleksandr. By 1331, however, the Khan’s priorities had changed. A grand prince of Vladimir ‘and all Russia’ was needed now to guard the Khan’s western territories, which were threatened not only by Sweden, but also by the fast-rising Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Its ruler, Olgerd, had been expanding vigorously towards the south and west, vying with Moscow for control of Novgorod, and threatening Smolensk and Pskov. Suddenly Sarai saw a strong Moscow as an asset rather than a danger.

Ivan recognized his chance and seized it. Some years previously his brother the grand prince lurii had taken responsibility for the collection of tribute for the Tatars from all north-eastern Russia. Now the indispensable Ivan turned the Khan’s rising dependence on him to good account by having the baskaks removed and charging all the princes with collection under his supervision. In practice this made the Grand Prince governor of all the princes. Nevertheless, Ivan was far from confident that his patrimony would remain intact or that his descendants would inherit it. This much is evident from his several wills.

In one of them, made within a year of his death and witnessed by three priests, he declares himself to be ‘the sinful, poor slave of God’ and bequeaths his patrimony, Moscow, to his three sons. He proceeds to specify every property precisely, and in stating which towns and villages each son should have, he mentions that he has already given the eldest, Semen, ‘four golden chains, three golden belts … a golden plate set with a pearl and precious stones … my red fur coat with pearls and my gold cap’. Yet he is by no means certain that his wishes will be honoured, that the Tatars will not intervene. ‘If for my sins the Tatars should covet any of these … [properties] then you, my sons and my princess, should divide … [those that remain] among yourselves.’ Nor, anxious though he is that memory of him and of his ancestors should not be extinguished, is he confident that his work, his patrimony, will be perpetuated. Yet his tomb and those of his descendants in the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Archangel still witness to the fact that it was.

The reign of Ivan ‘Money-Bag’ marks a watershed not only for Tatar rule in Russia, which was never again to be as firm and assured as it had been in the first quarter of the century, but for Moscow as the centre of Russian political life. By the end of the century the Grand Principality had come to be regarded as the patrimony of the princes of Moscow. This was the foundation on which the new Russia was to rise.

The metropolitans had played a vital role in developing Moscow’s political role, and none more so than Metropolitan Petr. The future saint’s hagiog-rapher assures us that Petr ‘foresaw the future glory of Moscow’ even ‘while it was yet poor’. Yet when Ivan pressed him to move there he seems to have implicitly insisted on a condition: ‘If thou wilt build a temple here worthy of the Mother of God,’ he told Ivan, ‘then thou shalt be more glorious than all the other princes, and thy posterity shall become great.’ The Cathedral of the Dormition was started, Petr duly arrived, and the continuing close co-operation between the grand princes and metropolitans of Moscow did much to ensure the fulfilment of Petr’s prophecy.

Circumstances encouraged metropolitan and grand prince to cooperate. Olgerd of Lithuania was fast absorbing western and southern Russia into his domains, and was pressing for a separate Lithuanian Church hierarchy, headed by its own metropolitan. The Lithuanian advance posed many churchmen with a choice of allegiance. Those who distrusted the Lithuanians, who had so recently been pagans and who were open to Catholic influences from the German and Polish Churches, opted for Russia. So did the Patriarch of Constantinople, who was becoming dependent on Muscovite subsidies. These factors and the steadfastness of Petr’s successors as metropolitan of Moscow – particularly Aleksei who was subsequently canonized – were to help Moscow beat off several challenges to its ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and to steady society when it was ravaged by the Black Death.

Aleksei’s family had served the father of Ivan I, so he had connections at the Grand Prince’s court and was familiar with affairs of state. Even so, his responsibilities as metropolitan were daunting. He had to start by going to Constantinople to negotiate with the Patriarch to secure his see; he had to guard it against inroads by the Lithuanians; and then he had to make his mark with the Khan (he earned a reputation as a healer in the process). Finally installed in Moscow, with an ecclesiastical jurisdiction more extensive than the Grand Prince’s political jurisdiction, he had to rescue the incapable Ivan II – the weakest of ‘Money-Bag’s’ sons, but the only one to survive the plague — from the consequences of his ineptitude. Things might very easily have descended into civil war. It was thanks largely to the adroit Aleksei that they did not. He made peace between fractious princely families; calmed anti-Muscovite Tver; advised on policy towards the Tatars; and acted as mentor to Ivan’s son and successor, Dmitrii, and as regent during the boy’s minority. In short, Metropolitan Aleksei held the Russian centre together and guided it through a period of crisis. He also prepared the way for a dramatic change in relations between the Russians and the Tatars, for in 1378 young Dmitrii – now of age – led a Russian army to victory over the Tatars on the river Vozha; two years later he trounced them again at the famous battle of Kulikovo.

These victories did not end Russia’s subjection, but they showed that the Tatars could be defeated, and hence that the subjection need not last. They also showed that Russian princes could sink their differences in a common front against the enemy, for warriors had come from all over northern Russia like eagles’ to Dmitrii’s aid. By the time of his death, in 1389, Dmitrii had also doubled the territory of the Grand Principality. The new circumstances also made it more probable that his descendants would succeed him. Yet a venerable monk named Sergius, who attended his funeral, was to do as much as Dmitrii to enlarge the Russian land.


On September 8, 1380, Rus forces led by Grand Prince Dmitry Ivanovich fought and defeated a mixed (including Tatar, Alan, Circassian, Genoese, and Rus) army led by the Emir Mamai on Kulikovo Pole (Snipe’s Field) at the Nepryadva River, a tributary of the Don. As a result of the victory, Dmitry received the sobriquet “Donskoy.” Estimates of numbers who fought in the battle vary widely. According to Rus chronicles, between 150,000 and 400,000 fought on Dmitry’s side. One late chronicle places the number fighting on Mamai’s side at 900,030. Historians have tended to downgrade these numbers, with estimates ranging from 30,000 to 240,000 for Dmitry and 200,000 to 300,000 for Mamai.

The circumstances of the battle involved politics within the Qipchaq Khanate. Mamai attempted to oust Khan Tokhtamish, who had established himself in Sarai in 1378. In order to raise revenue, Mamai intended to require tribute payments from the Rus princes. Dmitry organized the Rus princes to resist Mamai and, in effect, to support Tokhtamish. As part of his strategy, Mamai had attempted to coordinate his forces with those of Jagailo, the grand duke of Lithuania, but the battle occurred before the Lithuanian forces arrived. After fighting most of the day, Mamai’s forces left the field, presumably because he was defeated, although some historians think he intended to conserve his army to confront Tokhtamish. Dmitry’s forces remained at the scene of the battle for several days, and on the way back to Rus were set upon by the Lithuania forces under Jagailo, which, too late to join up with Mamai’s army, nonetheless managed to wreak havoc on the Rus troops.

Although the numbers involved in the battle were immense, and although the battle led to the weakening of Mamai’s army and its eventual defeat by Tokhtamish, the battle did not change the vassal status of the Rus princes toward the Qipchaq khan. A cycle of literary works, including Zadonshchinai (Battle beyond the Don) and Skazanie o Mamaevom poboishche (Tale of the Rout of Mamai), devoted to ever-more elaborate embroidering of the bravery of the Rus forces, has created a legendary aura about the battle.


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