Ivan III tearing the khan’s letter to pieces, an apocryphal 19th-century painting by Aleksey Kivshenko.
The messengers turned back. They were on their way from
Moscow, the capital or courtly center of Muscovy—an upstart state that had
become, in twenty years of aggressive dynamism, the fastest-expanding empire in
Christendom. Their destination was the court of Casimir IV, king of Poland and
sovereign—“Grand Prince” or “Grand Duke” in the jargon of the time—of
Lithuania. Casimir was, by common assent, the greatest ruler in Christendom.
His territory stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Its eastern
frontier lay deep inside Russia, along the breakwater between the Dnieper and
Volga valleys. Westward, it unfolded as far as Saxony and the satellite
kingdoms of Bohemia, and Hungary, which Casimir more or less controlled. On the
map, it was the biggest and most formidable-looking domain in the Latin world
since the fall of the Roman Empire.
The envoys from Moscow, however, were undaunted. They were
carrying breathtakingly defiant demands for the surrender of most of Casimir’s
Russian dominions, which Muscovites had been infiltrating for years, into the
hands of their own prince. They turned back, not because the power of Poland
and Lithuania deterred them, nor because the summer roads were hot, boggy, and
mosquito-ridden, but because the world had changed.
By rights, the world should have been close to ending. According
to Russian reckoning, 1492 marked the close of the seventh millennium of
creation, and prophets and visionaries were getting enthusiastic or
apprehensive, according to taste. Calendars stopped in 1492. There were
skeptics, but they were officially disavowed, even persecuted. In 1490, the
patriarch of Moscow conducted an inquisition against heretics, torturing his
victims until they confessed to injudicious denunciations of the doctrine of
the Trinity and the sanctity of the Sabbath. Among the proscribed thoughts of
which the victims were accused was doubt about whether the world was really
about to end.
The news that made the Muscovite messengers backtrack
reached them in the second week of June. Casimir IV had collapsed and died
while hunting in Trakal, not far from Vilnius, where they had been hoping to
meet for negotiations. For Russia, the prospects defied the prophecies.
Casimir’s death improved Muscovy’s outlook. The messengers rode hard for
Moscow. It was time for new instructions and even more outrageous ambitions.
Between the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkan uplands in
the south and the Baltic Sea in the north, eastern Europe’s geography is
hostile to political continuity. Cut and crossed by invaders’ corridors, it is
an environment in which—with its flat, open expanses, good communications, and
dispersed populations—states can form with ease, survive in struggle, and
thrive only with difficulty. There are forty thousand square miles of marshland
in the middle of the region, covering much of what is now Belarus, around the
upper Dnieper. Around this vast bog, the steppeland curls to the south and the
bleak, ridgeless North European plain—choked with dense, dark forests—stretches
uninterruptedly westward from deep inside Siberia. The lay of the land favors
vast and fragile empires, vulnerable to external attack and internal rebellion.
Armies can shuttle back and forth easily. Rebels can hide in the forests and
swamps. Volatile hegemonies have come and gone in the region with bewildering
rapidity. In the fifth century the Huns extended their sway from the
steppelands to the east around the marshes and into the northern plain. In the
ninth century a state the Byzantines called Great Moravia reached briefly from
the marshes to the Elbe. In the late tenth and eleventh centuries a native Slav
state occupied most of the Volga Valley. The most spectacular empire makers to
unify the region arrived sweating from the depths of Asia in the thirteenth
century, driving their vast herds of horses and sheep. The Mongols burst into
Western history—like a scourge, as some chroniclers said, or, said others, like
The earliest records of Mongol peoples occur in Chinese
annals of the seventh century. At that time, the Mongols emerged onto the
steppes of the central Asian land now called Mongolia, from the forests to the
north, where they lived as hunters and small-scale pig breeders. Chinese
writers used versions of the name “Mongols” for many different communities,
with various religions and competing leaderships, but their defining
characteristic was that they spoke languages of common origins that were
different from those of the neighboring Turks. On the steppes they adopted a
pastoral way of life. They became horse-borne nomads, skilled in sheep
breeding, dairying, and war.
The sedentary peoples who fringed the steppelands hated and
feared them. They hated them because nomadism and herding seemed savage.
Mongols drank milk—which the lactose-intolerant sedentarists found disgusting.
They drank blood—which seemed more disgusting still, though for nomads in need
of instant nourishment it was an entirely practical taste. The sedentarists’
fear was better founded: Nomads needed farmers’ crops to supplement their diet.
Nomad leaders needed city dwellers’ wealth to fill their treasure hoards and
pay their followers. In the early twelfth century, the bands or alliances they
formed got bigger, and their raids against neighboring, settled folk became
more menacing. In part, this was the effect of the growing preponderance of
some Mongol groups over others. In part, it was the result of slow economic
Contact with richer neighbors gave Mongol chiefs
opportunities for enrichment as mercenaries or raiders. Economic inequalities
greater than the Mongols had ever known arose in a society in which blood
relationships and seniority in age had formerly settled everyone’s position.
Prowess in war enabled particular leaders to build up followers in parallel
with—and sometimes in defiance of—the old social order. They called this
process “crane catching,” like caging valuable birds. The most successful
leaders enticed or forced rival groups into submission. The process spread to
involve peoples who were not strictly Mongols, though the same name continued
to be used—we use it still—for a confederation of many peoples, including many
who spoke Turkic languages, as the war bands enlarged.
The violence endemic in the steppes turned outward, with
increasing confidence, increasing ambition, to challenge neighboring
civilizations. Historians have been tempted to speculate about the reasons for
the Mongols’ expansion. One explanation is environmental. Temperatures in the
steppe seem to have fallen during the relevant period. People farther west on
the Russian plains complained that a cold spell in the early thirteenth century
caused crops to fail. So declining pastures might have driven the Mongols to
expand from the steppes. Population in the region seems to have been relatively
high, and the pastoral way of life demands large amounts of grazing land to
feed relatively small numbers of people. It is not a particularly energy-efficient
way to provide food because it relies on animals eating plants and people
eating animals, whereas farming produces humanly edible crops and cuts out
animals as a wasteful intermediate stage of production. So perhaps the Mongol
outthrust was a consequence of having more mouths to feed.
Yet the Mongols were doing what steppelanders had always
sought to do: dominate and exploit surrounding sedentary peoples. The
difference was that they did it with greater ambition and greater efficiency
than any of their predecessors. In the late twelfth or early thirteenth century
a new ideology animated Mongol conquests, linked to the cult of the sky, which
was probably a traditional part of Mongol ideology but which leaders encouraged
in pursuit of programs of political unification of the Mongol world. Earth
should imitate the universal reach of the sky. Mongol leaders’ proclamations
and letters to foreign rulers are explicit and unambiguous in their claims: the
Mongols’ destiny was to unify the world by conquest.
Wherever the Mongol armies went, their reputation preceded
them. Armenian sources warned Westerners of the approach of “precursors of the
Antichrist…of hideous aspect and without pity in their bowels,…who rush with
joy to carnage as if to a wedding feast or orgy.” Rumors piled up in Germany,
France, Burgundy, Hungary, and even in Spain and England, where Mongols had
never been heard of before. The invaders looked like monkeys, it was said,
barked like dogs, ate raw flesh, drank their horses’ urine, knew no laws, and
showed no mercy. Matthew Paris, the thirteenth-century English monk who, in his
day, probably knew as much about the rest of the world as any of his
countrymen, summed up the Mongols’ image: “They are inhuman and beastly, rather
monsters than men, thirsting for and drinking blood, tearing and devouring the
flesh of dogs and men…. And so they come, with the swiftness of lightning to
the confines of Christendom, ravaging and slaughtering, striking everyone with
terror and with incomparable horror.”
When the Mongols struck Russia in 1223, the blow was
entirely unexpected: “No man knew from whence they came or whither they
departed.” Annalists treated them as if they were a natural phenomenon, like a
briefly destructive bout of freak weather or a flood or a visitation of
pestilence. Some Russian rulers even rejoiced at the greater destruction the
Mongols visited on hated neighbors. But the first Mongol invasion was no more
than a reconnaissance. When the nomads returned in earnest in 1237, their campaign
lasted for three years. They devastated and depopulated much of the land of
southern and northeastern Russia and ransomed or looted the towns.
The Mongols’ vocation for world rule, however, was
theoretical. They demanded submission and tribute from their victims, but they
were not necessarily interested in exercising direct rule everywhere. They had
no wish to adapt to an unfamiliar ecosystem, no interest in occupying lands
beyond the steppe, and no need to replace existing elites in Russia. They left
the Christian Russian principalities and city-states to run their own affairs.
But Russian rulers received charters from the khan’s court at Saray on the
lower Volga, where they had to make regular appearances, loaded with tribute
and subject to ritual humiliations, kissing the khan’s stirrup, serving at his
table. The population had to pay taxes directly to Mongol-appointed tax
gatherers—though as time went on, the Mongols assigned the tax gathering to
native Russian princes and civic authorities. They passed their gleanings on to
the state, centered at Saray, where the Mongols came to be known as the Golden
Horde, perhaps after the treasure they accumulated.
The Russians tolerated this situation, partly because the
Mongols intimidated them by selective acts of terror. When the invaders took
the great city of Kiev in 1240, it was said, they left only two hundred houses
standing and strewed the fields “with countless heads and bones of the dead.” Partly,
however, the Russians were responding to a milder Mongol policy. In most of
Russia, the invaders came to exploit rather than to destroy. According to one
chronicler, the Mongols spared Russia’s peasants to ensure that farming would
continue. Ryazan, a Russian principality on the Volga, south of Moscow, seems
to have borne the brunt of the Mongol invasion. Yet there, if the local
chronicle can be believed,
the pious Grand Prince
Ingvary Ingvarevitch sat on his father’s throne and renewed the land and built
churches and monasteries and consoled newcomers and gathered together the
people. And there was joy among the Christians whom God had saved from the
godless and impious khan.
Many cities escaped lightly by capitulating at once.
Novgorod, that famously commercial city, which the Mongols might have coveted,
they bypassed altogether.
Moreover, the Russian princes were even more fearful of
enemies to the west, where the Swedes, Poles, and Lithuanians had constructed
strong, unitary monarchies capable of sweeping the princes away if they ever
succeed in expanding into Russian territory. Equally menacing were groups of
mainly German adventurers, organized into crusading “orders” of warriors, such
as the Teutonic Knights and the Brothers of the Sword, who took monastic-style
vows but dedicated themselves to waging holy war against pagans and heretics.
In practice, these orders were self-enriching companies of professional
fighters, who built up territorial domains along the Baltic coast by conquest.
In campaigns between 1242 and 1245, Russian coalitions fought off invaders on
the western front, but they could not sustain war on two fronts. The experience
made them submissive to the Mongols.
Muscovy hardly seemed destined to dominate the region. The
principality owed its existence to the Golden Horde. Muscovite princes proved
that they could manipulate Mongol hegemony to their own advantage, but they
remained the Mongols’ creatures. Indeed, it was hard to imagine Muscovy unless
backed by Mongol power. In the mid–thirteenth century, Alexander Nevsky, prince
of Novgorod, showed the way to make use of the Mongols. He created the basis of
his own myth as a Russian national hero by submitting to the Golden Horde and
turning west to confront Swedish and German aggressors. His dynasty levered
Muscovy to prominence by stages. His son Daniel (1276–1303), who became ruler
of Moscow, proclaimed the city’s independence from other Russian principalities
and ceased payment of tribute, except to the Mongols. Daniel’s grandson became
known as Ivan the Moneybag (1329–53) from the wealth he accumulated as a farmer
of Mongol taxes. He called himself “Grand Prince” and raised the see of Moscow
from a bishopric to an archbishopric.
Muscovy still depended on the Mongols. The principality’s
first challenge to Mongol supremacy, in 1378–82, proved premature. The
Muscovites tried to exploit divisions within the Golden Horde in order to avoid
handing over taxes. They even beat off a punitive expedition. But once the
Mongols had reestablished their unity, Muscovy had to resume payment, yield
hostages, and stamp coins with the name of the khan and the prayer “Long may he
live.” In 1399 the Mongols fought off a Lithuanian challenge to their control
of Russia. Over the next few years they asserted their hegemony in a series of
raids on Russian cities, including Moscow, extorting promises of tribute in
perpetuity. Thereafter, the Muscovites remained meekly deferential, more or
less continuously, while they built up their own strength.
They could, however, dream of preeminence, under the
Mongols, over other Christian states in Russia. Muscovy’s great advantage was
its central location, astride the upper Volga, controlling the course of the
river as far as the confluence of the Vetluga and the Sura. The Volga was a
sea-wide river, navigable almost all along its great, slow length. Picture
Europe as a rough triangle, with its apex at the Pillars of Hercules. The
corridor that links the Atlantic, the North Sea, and the Baltic forms one side;
the linked waters of the Mediterranean and Black Sea form another. The Volga
serves almost as a third sea, overlooking the steppes and forests of the
Eurasian borderlands, linking the Caspian Road and the Silk Roads to the
fur-rich Arctic forests and the fringes of the Baltic world. The Volga’s trade
and tolls helped fill Ivan’s money bags and elevate Muscovy over its neighbors.
Rulership was ferociously contested, because the rewards
made the risks seem worthwhile. In consequence, political instability racked
the state and checked its ascent. For nearly forty years, from the mid-1420s,
rival members of the dynasty fought each other. Vasily II, who became ruling
prince at the age of ten in 1425, repeatedly renounced and recovered the
throne, enduring spells of exile and imprisonment. He blinded his rival and
cousin and suffered blinding in his turn when his enemies captured him: as a
way of disqualifying a pretender or keeping a deposed monarch down, blinding
was a traditional, supposedly civilized alternative to murder. When Vasily died
in 1462, his son, Ivan III, inherited a realm that
war had rid of internal rivals. Civil wars seem destructive and debilitating.
But they often precede spells of violent expansion. They militarize societies,
train men in warfare, nurture arms industries, and, by disrupting economies,
force peoples into predation.
Thanks to the long civil wars, Ivan had the most efficient
and ruthless war machine of any Russian state. The wars had ruined aristocrats
already impoverished by the system of inheritance, which divided the patrimony
of every family with every passing generation. The nobles were forced to serve
the prince or collaborate with him. Wars of expansion represented the best
means of building up resources and accumulating lands, revenues, and tribute
for the prince to distribute. For successful warriors, promotions and honors
beckoned, including an enduring innovation: gold medals for valor. Nobles moved
to Moscow as offices of profit at court came to outshine provincial
opportunities of exploiting peasants and managing estates. Adventurers and mercenaries—including
many Mongols—joined them. By the end of Ivan’s reign, an aristocracy of service
over a thousand strong surrounded him.
A permanent force of royal guards formed a professional
kernel around which provincial levies grouped. Peasants were armed to guard the
frontiers. Ivan III set up a munitions factory in Moscow and hired Italian
engineers to improve what one might call the military infrastructure of the
realm—forts, which slowed adversaries, and bridges, which sped mobilization. He
abjured the traditional ruler’s role of leading his armies on campaign. To run
a vast and growing empire, ready to fight on more than one front, he stayed at
the nerve center of command and created a system of rapid posts to keep in
touch with events in the field. None of his other innovations seemed as
important, to him, as improved internal communications. At his death, he left
few commands to his heirs about the care of the empire, except for instructions
about the division of the patrimony and the allocation of tribute; but the
maintenance of the post system was uppermost in his mind: “My son Vasily shall
maintain, in his Grand Princedom, post stations and post carts with horses on
the roads at those places where there were post stations and post carts with horses
on the roads under me.” His brothers were to do the same in the lands they
Backed by his new bureaucracy and new army, Ivan could take
the step so many of his predecessors had longed for. He could abjure Mongol
suzerainty. In the event, it was easy, not only because of the strength Ivan
amassed but also because internecine hatreds shattered the Mongols’ unity. In
1430, a group of recalcitrants split off and founded a state of their own in
the Crimea, to the west of the Golden Horde’s heartland. Other factions usurped
territory to the east and south in Kazan and Astrakhan. Russian principalities
began to see the possibilities of independence. Formerly, once the shock of
invasion and conquest was over, their chroniclers had accepted the Mongols,
with various degrees of resignation, as a scourge from God or as useful and
legitimate arbitrators, or even as benevolent exemplars of virtuous paganism
whom Christians should imitate. Now, from the mid–fifteenth century, they
recast them as villains, incarnations of evil, and destroyers of Christianity.
Interpolators rewrote old chronicles in an attempt to turn Alexander Nevsky,
who had been a quisling and collaborator on the Mongols’ behalf, into a heroic
adversary of the khans.
Ivan allied with the secessionist Mongol states against the
Golden Horde. He then stopped paying tribute. The khan demanded compliance.
Ivan refused. The horde invaded, but withdrew when menaced with battle—a fatal
display of weakness. Neighboring states scented blood and tore at the horde’s
territory like sharks at bloodied prey. The ruler of the breakaway Mongol state
in the Crimea dispersed the horde’s remaining forces and burned Saray in 1502.
Russia, the chroniclers declared, had been delivered from the Mongol yoke, as
God had freed Israel from Egypt. The remaining Mongol bands in Crimea and
Astrakhan became Ivan’s pensioners, for whom he assigned one thousand gold
rubles at his death.
The Mongols’ decline liberated Ivan to make conquests for
Muscovy on other fronts. From his father, Vasily II, he inherited the ambition,
proclaimed in the inscriptions on Vasily’s coins, to be “sovereign of all
Russia.” His conquests reflect, fairly consistently, a special appetite to rule
people of Russian tongue and Orthodox faith. His campaigns against Mongol
states were defensive or punitive, and his forays into the pagan north, beyond
the colonial empire of Novgorod, were raids. But the chief enemy he seems
always to have had in his sights was Casimir IV, who ruled more Russians than
any other foreigner. How far Ivan followed a systematic grand strategy of
Russian unification is, however, a matter of doubt. No document declares such a
policy. At most, it can be inferred from his actions. He may equally well have
been responding pragmatically to the opportunities that cropped up. But
medieval rulers rarely planned for the short term—especially not when they
thought the world was about to end. Typically, they worked to re-create a
golden past or embody a mythic ideal.
To understand what was in Ivan’s mind, one has to think back
to what the world was like before Machiavelli. The modern calculus of profit
and loss probably meant nothing to Ivan. He never thought about realpolitik.
His concerns were with tradition and posterity, history and fame, apocalypse
and eternity. If he targeted Muscovy’s western frontier for special attention,
it was probably because he had the image and reputation of Alexander Nevsky
before his eyes, refracted in the work of chroniclers who turned back to rewrite
their accounts of the past, to burnish Alexander’s image, after a spell of
neglect, and reidealized him as “the Russian prince” and the perfect ruler.
Ivan did not initiate this rebranding, but he paid for chroniclers to continue
it in his own reign.
Therefore, when Ivan began turning his wealth into
conquests, he first tackled the task of reunifying the patrimony of Alexander
Nevsky. Ivan devoted the early years of the reign to suborning or forcing Tver
and Ryazan, the neighboring principalities to Muscovy’s west, into
subordination or submission, and incorporating the lands of all the surviving
heirs of Alexander Nevsky into the Muscovite state. But thoughts of Novgorod,
where Alexander’s career had begun, were never far from his mind. Novgorod was
an even bigger prize. The city lay to the north, contending against a hostile
climate, staring from huge walls over the grain lands on which the citizens
relied for sustenance. Famine besieged them more often than human enemies did.
Yet control of the trade routes to the river Volga made Novgorod cash rich. It
never had more than a few thousand inhabitants, yet its monuments record its
progress: its kremlin, or citadel, and five-domed cathedral in the 1040s; in
the early twelfth century, a series of buildings that the ruler paid for; and,
in 1207, the merchants’ church of St. Paraskeva in the marketplace.
From 1136, communal government prevailed in Novgorod. The
revolt of that year marks the creation of a city-state on an ancient model—a
republican commune like those of Italy. The prince was deposed for reasons the
rebels’ surviving proclamations specify: “Why did he not care for the common
people? Why did he want to wage war? Why did he not fight bravely? And why did
he prefer games and entertainments rather than state affairs? Why did he have
so many gyrfalcons and dogs?” Thereafter, the citizens’ principle was: “If the
prince is no good, throw him into the mud!”
To the west, Novgorod bordered the small territorial domain
of Russia’s only other city-republic, Pskov. There were others again in Germany
and on the Baltic coast, but Novgorod was unique in eastern Europe in being a
city-republic with an extensive empire of its own. Even in the West, only Genoa
and Venice resembled it in this respect. Novgorod ruled or took tribute from
subject or victim peoples in the boreal forests and tundra that fringed the
White Sea and stretched toward the Arctic. Novgorodians had even begun to build
a modest maritime empire, colonizing islands in the White Sea. The evidence is
painted onto the surface of an icon, now in an art gallery in Moscow but once
treasured in a monastery on an island in the White Sea. It shows monks adoring
the virgin on an island adorned with a golden monastery with tapering domes, a
golden sanctuary, and turrets like lighted candles. The glamour of the scene
must be the product of pious imaginations, for the island in reality is bare
and impoverished and surrounded, for much of the year, with ice.
Pictures of episodes from the monastery’s foundation legend
of the 1430s, about a century before the icon was made, frame the painter’s
vision of the Virgin receiving adoration. The first monks row to the island.
Young, radiant figures expel the indigenous fisherfolk with angelic whips. When
the abbot, Savaatii, hears of it he gives thanks to God. Merchants visit. When
they drop the sacred host that the holy monk Zosima gives them, flames leap to
protect it. When the monks rescue shipwreck victims, who are dying in a cave on
a nearby island, Zosima and Savaatii appear miraculously, teetering on
icebergs, to drive back the pack ice. Zosima experiences a vision of a
“floating church,” which the building of an island monastery fulfils. In
defiance of the barren environment, angels supply the community with bread, oil,
Whereas Zosima’s predecessors as abbots left because they
could not endure harsh conditions, Zosima calmly drove out the devils who
tempted him. All the ingredients of a typical story of European imperialism are
here: the more than worldly inspiration; the heroic voyage into a perilous
environment; the ruthless treatment of the natives; the struggle to adapt and
found a viable economy; the quick input of commercial interests; the
achievement of viability by perseverance.
Outreach in the White Sea could not grasp much or get far.
Novgorod was, however, the metropolis of a precocious colonial enterprise by
land among the herders and hunters of the Arctic region, along and across the
rivers that flow into the White Sea, as far east as the Pechora. Russian
travelers’ tales reflected typical colonial values. They classed the native
Finns and Samoyeds of the region with the beast men, the similitudines hominis,
of medieval legend. The “wild men” of the north spent summers in the sea lest
their skin split. They died every winter, when water came out of their noses
and froze them to the ground. They ate each other and cooked their children to
serve to guests. They had mouths on top of their heads and ate by placing food
under their hats; they had dogs’ heads or heads that grew beneath their
shoulders; they lived underground and drank human blood. They were exploitable
for reindeer products and fruits of the hunt—whale blubber, walrus ivory, the
pelts of the arctic squirrel and fox—that arrived in Novgorod as tribute from
the region and were vital to the economy.
Ivan coveted this wealth, and even sent an expedition to the
Arctic in 1465 in an attempt to grab a share of the fur trade. But in the 1470s
an opportunity arose to seize Novgorod itself. A dispute over the election of a
new bishop rent the city. Partisans on both sides looked for protectors or
arbitrators in neighboring realms. Should Novgorod submit to Ivan’s
overlordship by sending the bishop-elect to Moscow for consecration? Or should
the city try to perpetuate its independence by sending to Kiev, which was
safely distant, in the realm of Casimir of Lithuania? For the city’s incumbent
elite, Casimir was the less risky bet. He could be invoked in Novgorod’s
defense, as a deterrent against a Muscovite attack. But he was so busy on other
fronts that he was most unlikely ever to interfere with Novgorod’s autonomy.
The city fathers voted to make Casimir their “sovereign and master” and send
their bishop to Kiev.
Ivan called their bluff and prepared to attack. He justified
war by sanctifying it. The people of Novgorod were, he claimed, guilty of
punishable impiety—abandoning Orthodoxy and bowing to Rome. The accusation was
false. While encouraging Catholicism, Casimir tolerated other creeds among his
subjects, and a bishop consecrated in Kiev would not necessarily be compromised
in his Orthodoxy. Ivan, however, claimed to see Novgorod’s bid for independence
as a kind of apostasy, whoring after false gods—like the Jews, he said,
breaking their divine covenant to adore a golden calf. By conquering them he
would save them.
Ivan’s propaganda also besmirched Novgorod with
denunciations, on more secular grounds, as a nest of habitual recalcitrants.
“The habit” of the citizens, a chronicler in Ivan’s pay complained, was to
disagree with a great
prince and dispute with him. They will not pay respect to him, but instead they
are taciturn, obstinate, and stubborn, and do not adhere to the principles of
law and order…. Who among the princes would not become angry with them…? For
even the great Alexander [Nevsky] did not tolerate such behavior.
Ivan’s enemies in the Novgorod elite appealed to Casimir IV
to rescue them. But they sought to put intolerable restrictions on him,
demanding of the Catholic prince that he build no Roman churches, appoint only
Orthodox governors, and allow bishops of Novgorod in future to seek
consecration outside his realms. They even demanded that he settle territorial
disputes between Novgorod and Lithuania in favor of “the free men of Novgorod.”
Casimir remained aloof. There seemed no point in spilling blood and spending
treasure for such obstreperous allies. Novgorod’s citizen army of “carpenters,
coopers and others, who from birth had never mounted a horse,” was on its own. When
Ivan invaded, he crushed resistance within a few weeks. Simultaneously, with an
army of mercenaries and tributaries, he occupied the remote provinces of
Novgorod’s colonial frontier.
The terms of the peace were full of face-saving formulas,
but the upshot was clear. “You are free to do as you please,” said Ivan,
“provided you do as I please.” After a few years, he did away with all pretence
of respect for Novgorod’s autonomy. He moved in another army, abolished
residual privileges, and annexed the territory to Muscovy. The great bell that
had summoned the “free men” to assemble ended up in Moscow in the belfry of the
Kremlin. Ivan had, as he wrote to his mother, “subjected Novgorod the Great,
which is part of my inheritance, to my entire will and I am sovereign there
just as in Moscow.”