Ivan III, the First Czar II

The Kremlin, the “citadel of Moscow,” as it appeared to an ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire in 1517, with the stone structures conspicuous among the wooden houses.

The expansion of Muscovy under Ivan III.

The conquest of Novgorod shocked Ivan’s most powerful neighbors—Casimir in the west and Khan Ahmed of the Golden Horde in the south. Had they joined in attack, they could have matched Ivan’s power, but Casimir—distracted as ever by rival concerns, and sanguine, as ever, in evaluating the Muscovite threat—relied on Ahmed as a surrogate. When the khan invaded Russia in 1480, Ivan, as we have seen, was free to concentrate his forces and repudiate the Golden Horde’s historic claims to tribute.

Rather as Sonni Ali did in Timbuktu, Ivan dispersed Novgorod’s elite. The first purge came in 1484, when a large force of mailed Muscovites tramped into the city and rounded up suspected foes. In 1487, when Ivan launched the first of a series of border raids against Lithuania, he secured Novgorod by expelling thousands of inhabitants—members of the families of leading citizens—on the alleged grounds that they were plotting against the authorities. Another one thousand expulsions followed in 1489. The expulsees’ property went to some two thousand loyal colonists whom Ivan introduced. Meanwhile, the historic principalities that fringed Muscovy’s ancient patrimony to the West—all of which were already under Ivan’s control—were formally annexed.

Muscovy’s sudden and vertiginous rise took all Europe by surprise. The Saxon traveler and diplomatist Nikolaus Poppel, who arrived in Moscow in 1486, thought Ivan must be Casimir’s vassal. He was astonished to find that the Russian ruler had more power, more wealth, and possibly, by that date, more territory than the master of Poland and Lithuania. Fascinated, he contemplated the vast, open, exploitable lands that stretched to the Arctic, full of sable and copper and gold. But Ivan would not let him, or his successor as imperial ambassador in 1492, go there. In the Latin West, Russia assumed the mysterious renown of a fantasy land, an icy Eldorado full of strange wealth, with monster-haunted frontiers reaching toward the unknown. In the circumstances, Casimir might be forgiven for underestimating his eastern neighbor and neglecting the threat from Russia. He was always juggling conflicting responsibilities on other fronts, squeezing Prussia into submission, insinuating his brothers or sons into power in Hungary and Moldova, dueling with the Habsburgs for control of Bohemia.

Ivan could therefore go on provoking Casimir with impunity. As soon as Novgorod fell to the Muscovites, Ivan forbade Lithuanian enclaves within Novgorod’s territory from paying the taxes they owed to Casimir. In the 1480s, complaints lodged by Casimir’s envoys accumulated in Moscow: “thieves” from Muscovy were raiding across the border, burning and pillaging villages, sewing terror. Ivan professed ignorance and claimed innocence, but clearly the raids had his backing. They were part of a systematic strategy for destabilizing the border. Toward the end of the decade they escalated outrageously. In 1487, one of Ivan’s brothers occupied a slice of borderland on the Lithuanian side, and Ivan appointed a governor in districts traditionally part of Lithuania. A raid in 1488 carried off seven thousand of Casimir’s subjects. Many border towns reported repeated raids between 1485 and 1489.

Border warfare was effective. Casimir’s subjects, when he was unable to protect them, transferred their allegiance to the aggressor as the price of peace. Orthodox Russian lords, who had long lived under Lithuanian rule without resentment, began to defect to Muscovy, declaring their lands to be under Ivan’s “jurisdiction and protection.” When Casimir died, Ivan suspended negotiations and adopted the title “Sovereign of all Russia”—an explicit avowal of his intention of stripping Lithuania of all its Russian and Orthodox subjects. He launched full-scale invasions on two fronts, gobbling up the valley of the upper Oka River and advancing through the uplands of the Vyazma region, as far as the headwaters of the Dnieper. Almost everywhere his forces went, local rulers who submitted were reinvested with their rights as subjects of Muscovy. In two decades, Lithuania lost control of seventy administrative districts, twenty-two forts, nineteen towns, and thirteen villages.

The frontier that emerged was both linguistic and religious. Russian identity was measurable in Russian speech. But religious orthodoxy was the identifier Ivan preferred. Doctrinally, Russia was close to Rome. The difference that meant a lot to theologians concerned the emanation of the Holy Spirit: “from the Father and the Son,” said the Western creed; “from the Father,” said Orthodox Russians. This was too arcane a dispute to mean much to most laymen, but the culture and liturgy of the two churches were mutually offensive. Westerners found married, compulsorily bearded clergy alarming and the Slavonic language indecorous in church. Russians felt the same way about clean-shaven celibates spouting Latin. It is tempting to dismiss as mere posturing Ivan’s self-proclaimed role as a crusader for Orthodoxy. But it really seems to have meant a lot to people at the time and to have influenced many defectors from Lithuanian allegiance. Though Ivan had occasional disputes with the Turks, Russian propagandists almost never denounced the Ottomans as “infidels.” They generally reserved that insult for Catholics, and for Orthodox who were in communion with Rome.

To understand the power of anti-Catholic language in Ivan’s rhetorical armory, awareness of the sense of threat that loomed over the Orthodox world is essential. Even when 1492 came and went without provoking the apocalypse, fear that the end of the world could not be far off persisted. Even after two generations, the events of 1453, when the Turks wrenched Constantinople from Christendom and extinguished an empire sanctified by Christian tradition, still disturbed and challenged Orthodox thinkers. Orthodoxy seemed beleaguered. Theologically informed minds in Russia naturally thought of the trials of faith in ancient Israel and regarded stubborn, uncompromising adherence to every peculiarity of their faith as the only way to restore divine favor.

Catholic gains, meanwhile, exacerbated the centuries-old enmity between the churches. Catholic diplomacy and evangelization had seduced many Orthodox communities on the fringes of the Latin world back into communion with Rome. Theological debate, meanwhile, gradually resolved most of the credal issues between the two churches. The main outstanding disagreement was—on the face of it—too arcane to matter to any but the subtlest and most disputatious minds: toward the end of the eighth century, the Western churches added a phrase to the creed, proclaiming that the Holy Spirit “proceeded” not from the Father alone, as the Easterners continued to say, but also from God the Son. Each church regarded the other’s formula as an offense against the unity of God. Westerners said the Eastern formula degraded the Son. Easterners said the Westerners were relegating the Holy Spirit to a sort of second-rank Godship.

In the 1430s, on Byzantine initiative, the leaders of the churches of Rome and Constantinople agreed to leave the controversy unresolved and to patch up their differences in order to collaborate against the Turks. Russian sees, including that of Moscow, had representatives among the seven-thousand-strong Eastern contingent at the Council of Florence in 1439, where the deal was clinched and the reunion of Christendom proclaimed. But outstanding issues remained. When the archbishop of Moscow returned to his see, the local clergy and citizens were outraged at what they denounced as betrayal. They flung the newcomer into prison and elected a successor who would stand up for the independent traditions of Orthodoxy. Most other churches in the Greek tradition also reneged on the deal, but in Byzantium, the emperors adhered to it. The monarchs who, more than all others, bore the responsibility of defending Orthodoxy seemed to have sold out to heresy.

What happened in the Byzantine empire mattered in Moscow, because even when the Russians emerged from the Mongols’ thrall, they remained under the spell of Constantinople. Toward the end of the tenth century, the founder of the first documented Russian state applied to Constantinople for his religion and his wife. In politics and aesthetics Russians’ models remained Byzantine for the rest of the Middle Ages. It is not surprising that the Russians, who owed so much to Byzantine culture, revered the Byzantine emperors. The Turks, who owed Byzantium nothing, and reviled Christianity, revered them, too. By the time Ivan III ruled in Muscovy, the Turks had Byzantium surrounded. The empire was reduced to a rump. The city was at the sultan’s mercy. But the victors held back, unwilling to break the traditions of the people who still called themselves Romans. Of course, there were solid reasons for keeping Byzantium independent. The Turks could control the city’s elites with threats and promises. The emperor and patriarch could guarantee the loyalty of the Ottomans’ Christian subjects. But whenever the Turks contemplated the extinction of the empire, there was something numinous about Byzantium that stayed their hands.

When they finally lost patience, the blow came quickly and inevitably. The accession as sultan of Mehmet II in 1451 at the age of nineteen marked the end of counsels of prudence. He resented foreign control of a stronghold that dominated the Dardanelles—a strait vital for the communications of his empire. He fancied himself in the Roman emperors’ place. Every contrivance of the siege engineer’s craft prepared the fall of the city. Huge forts, known respectively as the castles of Europe and Asia, rose on either shore to command access to the Bosporus. The heaviest artillery ever founded arrived to batter the walls. Ships came overland in kit form to outflank the defenders’ boom. The Byzantine church made submission to Rome in order to secure Latin help, which came reluctantly and too late. In the end, sheer weight of numbers proved decisive. The attackers climbed the breaches over the bodies of dead comrades. The corpse of the last Constantine was identified only by the eagle devices on his foot armor.

Formerly, there had been other contenders for the role of the third Rome, but they had all dropped out of the running. In the middle of the thirteenth century, the recently Christianized Serbian kingdom already housed, in monasteries founded by kings at Sopocani and Mileseva, some of the most purely classical paintings—modeled, that is, on those of ancient Greece and Rome—of the Middle Ages. About a century later, the Serbian monarch Stefan Dusan dreamed of beating the Turks to the conquest of Constantinople, and described himself with pride—if a little exaggeration—as “lord of almost the whole of the Roman Empire.” His younger contemporary the Bulgarian czar John Alexander claimed lordship over “all the Bulgarians and Greeks” and had himself painted in boots of imperial scarlet—a fashion exclusive to emperors—with a halo of gold. A translator at his court, working on a version of a Byzantine chronicle, substituted for “Constantinople” the name of John Alexander’s capital at Trnovo, and called it “the new Constantinople.” Serb and Bulgarian bids for empire, however, proved too ambitious. Both states fell to the Turks.

Even at Byzantium’s last gasp, in 1452, when the Russian church reluctantly transgressed its tradition of deference to the see of Constantinople—defying the Byzantine rapprochement with the Latin communion by electing a patriarch of its own—Vasily II felt obliged to apologize to the emperor: “We beseech your sacred majesty not to blame us for not writing to your Sovereignty beforehand. We did this from dire necessity, not from pride or arrogance.” When the imperial city fell, Russia felt bereft. What did God mean by allowing it to happen? How did he want the Orthodox faithful to respond? One obvious answer began to gain acceptance in Muscovy: responsibility for safeguarding Orthodoxy must move from Constantinople to Moscow.

Ivan staked a claim to a Byzantine inheritance when he married a Byzantine princess. Surprisingly, perhaps, the idea was the pope’s. In 1469, when the marriage was first mooted, Ivan was a twenty-nine year-old widower. Zoe—or Sophia, as Russians called her—was a twenty-four year-old spinster, plump but pretty, who was, as her tutor reminded her, “a pauper,” but who embodied the prestige of the Byzantine imperial dynasty and legacy. She was the niece of the last Byzantine emperor. She lived in Rome, as the ward and guest of the pope, a fugitive from the Turkish conquest. Pope Paul II offered Ivan Sophia’s hand. This shows that Rome was relatively well informed about Russia. The pope knew that Ivan would find a Byzantine pedigree hard to resist. He hoped that Sophia would make Ivan an ally in a new crusade against the Ottomans and would provide the Russians with a shining example of conversion from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. But for Sophia the long journey to Russia was a spiritual homecoming that reunited her with the church of her ancestors. As she traveled across country, through Pskov and Novgorod to Moscow, she worshipped with reverence wherever she went. She did not jib at rebaptism in the Orthodox rite, before her marriage in 1472, or at the orders Ivan gave her entourage forbidding them to display their crucifixes in public.

In the 1470s—hesitantly and unsystematically at first—Ivan began to call himself “Czar” of all Russia, in allusion to the title of “Caesar” that Roman emperors had affected. Previously, the monarch of Constantinople and the khan of the Golden Horde were the only rulers Muscovites had flattered with so resounding a title. In the next decade Ivan’s escalating pretensions became obvious during his sporadic negotiations with the Holy Roman Empire. When Frederick III offered to elevate Ivan from the rank of Grand Prince and invest him as a king, Ivan replied disdainfully.

By God’s grace we have been sovereigns in our own land since the beginning, since our earliest ancestors. Our appointment comes from God, as did that of our ancestors, and we beg God to grant to us and our children to abide forever in the same state, namely as sovereigns in our own land; and as before we did not seek to be appointed by anyone, so now do we not desire it.

When Nikolaus Poppel offered to arrange for Ivan’s daughter to marry Frederick’s nephew, the margrave of Baden, Ivan’s response was equally peremptory. “It is not fitting,” read the instructions he gave to his own ambassador. The lineage of the rulers of Muscovy was more ancient than that of the Habsburgs. “How could such a great sovereign hand over his daughter to that margrave?” When, in answer to the prophets who foresaw the imminent end of the world, Patriarch Zosima of Moscow recalculated the calendar in 1493, he took the opportunity to reinvent “the pious and Christian-loving Ivan” as “the new Czar Constantine,” in allusion to the first Christian emperor, who founded Constantinople. Moscow, he continued, was “the new city of Constantinople, that is to say, The New Rome.” Soon after, a false genealogy circulated in Muscovy, tracing the dynasty back to a mythical brother of Augustus, first emperor of Rome. In a work addressed to either Ivan III or his son, a pious monk, Filofei by name, in the frontier-state of Pskov proclaimed Moscow “the Third Rome” after Rome itself and Constantinople. The first had fallen through heresy. The Turks

used their scimitars and axes to cleave the doors of the second Rome,…and here now in the new, third Rome, your mighty empire, is the Holy Synodal Apostolic Church, which to the ends of the universe in the Orthodox Christian faith shines more brightly than the sun in the sky. Pious czar, let your state know that all Orthodox empires of the Christian faith have now merged into one, your empire. You are the only czar in all the Christian universe.

Filofei called Orthodoxy “synodal” to distinguish it from Catholicism, which exalted the pope above other bishops.

In endorsing the notion of the third Rome, Ivan appropriated what seems originally to have been a propaganda line spun in Novgorod to exalt that city’s bishop as a rival to Moscow’s. In 1484, the clergy of Novgorod elected a bishop whom Ivan rejected, and claimed that Novgorod had received a white cowl from Rome at the behest of Constantine, the first Roman emperor, as a sign that “in the third Rome, which will be Russia, the Grace of the Holy Spirit will be revealed.”  Toward the end of his reign Ivan adopted a new seal: a double-headed eagle, which, whether he copied it from the Byzantines or from the Holy Roman Empire, was an unmistakably imperial motif.

He rebuilt Moscow to clothe it in grandeur befitting its new imperial status and, perhaps, to array it for the apocalypse expected in 1492. The new palace chapel of the archbishop of Moscow was dedicated to Our Lady’s Robe—a holy relic that had protected Constantinople many times before the failure of 1453. There could be no clearer symbol that Moscow had taken over Constantinople’s former sanctity. Other buildings contributed to the general embellishment of what was still a modest-looking city, built mainly of wood. The Kremlin acquired formidable brick walls. Agostino Fioravanti—one of Ivan’s imported Italian engineers—made the Cathedral of the Assumption rise over the city in gleaming stone in celebration of the conquest of Novgorod. In the 1480s the Cathedral of the Assumption followed to provide a space for the czar to worship in, while the archbishop’s palace acquired a sumptuous new chapel. Other Italian technicians built a new audience chamber for Ivan, the Palace of Facets.

By taking his wife from Rome and architects from Italy, Ivan tugged the Renaissance eastward. He set a trend that reached Hungary in 1476, when King Mathias Corvinus married an Italian princess, abandoned the gothic plans for his new palace, and remodeled it on Italian lines in imitation of one of the most famous architectural texts of antiquity: the younger Pliny’s description of his country villa. One of the Italian humanists the king employed was explicit about the building’s inspiration. “When you read,” he told Mathias, “that the Romans created gigantic works that proved their magnificence, you do not permit, invincible prince, that their buildings should surpass yours,…but you revive once again the architecture of the ancients.”  The king also compiled a much envied classical library. Over the next couple of generations, Renaissance taste would dominate the courts of Poland and Lithuania. Revulsion from Catholicism made Russia a tough environment for Latin culture of any sort, but Ivan showed at least that the cultural frontier was permeable.

Ivan turned Russia into the uncontainable, imperial state that has played a major role in global politics ever since. In his reign, the extent of territory nominally subject to Moscow grew from fifteen thousand to six hundred thousand square kilometers. He annexed Novgorod and wrenched at the frontiers of Kazan and Lithuania. His priorities lay in the West. He defined Russia’s championship of Orthodoxy. He drew a new frontier with Catholic Europe, but, while excluding Catholicism, he opened Russia to cultural influences from the West. He discarded the Mongol yoke and reversed the direction of imperialism in Eurasia. From his time on, the pastoralists of the central Asian steppes would usually be victims of Russian imperialism rather than empire makers at Russian expense. In all these respects the influence of his achievements has endured and helped shape the world in which we live, in which Russia seems to teeter on the edge of the West, never utterly alien but maddeningly inassimilable. But the most striking effect of his reign on the subsequent history of the world has usually gone unremarked: the opening of Russia’s way east, toward what contemporaries called “The Land of Darkness”—Arctic Russia and Siberia, which, of all the colonial territories European imperialists conquered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is the only land where empire endures today.

Here, to the northeast, Ivan’s armies ventured into little-known territory, along a route explored by missionaries in the previous century, following the river Vym toward the Pechora. The object of this thrust into the Land of Darkness was the effort to control the supply of boreal furs—squirrel and sable—for which there was enormous demand in China, central Asia, and Europe. Sable was black gold, and fur was to the Russian empire what silver was to Spain’s and spices to Portugal’s. In 1465, 1472, and 1483, Ivan sent expeditions beyond the reach of Novgorod’s empire, to Perm and the Ob, with the aim of imposing tribute in furs on the tribespeople who lived there. The biggest invasion was that of 1499, when the city of Pustozersk was founded at the mouth of the Pechora. Four thousand men crossed the Pechora on sleds in winter and made for the Ob, returning with a thousand prisoners and many pelts. Ivan’s ambassador in Milan claimed that his master received a thousand ducats’ worth of fur in annual tribute. The region remained occluded by myth. When Sigmund von Herberstein served as the Holy Roman Emperor’s envoy to Moscow in 1517, he picked up some of the stories of monstrously distended giants, men without tongues, “living dead,” fish with men’s faces, and “the Golden Old Woman of the Ob.” Nonetheless, by comparison with the previous state of knowledge, Russian acquaintance with the boreal north and with Siberia was transformed by the new contacts.

Something of the feel of this new adventure is detectable in the testament Ivan left at his death. The laws of succession of Muscovy were vague. That is why Ivan’s father had fought long wars against his cousins. Ivan imprisoned two of his own brothers. In an attempt to preempt rebellions, every ruler of Muscovy left a testament, bequeathing his lands and revenues to his heirs. Ivan’s conquests made his testament especially long, brimming with the names of exotic communities and distant frontiers. After pages devoted to the many communities gained from Lithuania, and among lists of the appurtenances and possessions of the independent Russian principalities Muscovy had absorbed, with the territories Ivan confiscated from his brothers, the document turns to the eastern borderlands and the strange, vast empire acquired with the conquest of Novgorod. The Mordvins appear—pagan forest dwellers, speakers of a Finnic tongue, who occupied the slopes of the Urals and the strategic frontier along the northern border of Kazan. The lands of their neighbors the Udmurts are listed, which Ivan seized in 1489. The “Vyatka land” is mentioned—but not its once indomitable people. These herdsmen of the northern plains had tried to remain independent by shifting allegiance between the Russians and the Mongols. When Ivan lost patience with them, he invaded with overwhelming force, put their leaders to death, carried off thousands of Vyatkans into captivity, and resettled their territory with reliable Russians. Novgorod’s territories are painstakingly enumerated, with eighteen places dignified as cities, and the five provinces into which the territory was divided, stretching north to the White Sea and, beyond Novgorod’s colonial lands, the valley of the northern Dvina, and the savage tributaries known as the Forest Lop and the Wild Lop. Pskov is bestowed, even though it remained a sovereign city-state, allied with Ivan but outside his empire.

And from the pages of Ivan’s testament, the sources and rewards of his success gleam. After bestowing sealed coffers of treasure to various heirs, and the residue of his treasury to his successor, Ivan listed the small change of empire:

rubies, and sapphire, and other precious stones, and pearls, and any articles of dress decorated with precious stones, and belts, and golden chains, and golden vessels, and silver ones, and stone ones, and gold, and silver, and sables, and silk goods, and divers other belongings, whatever there is, as well as whatever is in the treasury of my bedchamber—icons and golden crosses, and gold, and silver, and other belongings—and whatever is in the custody of my major-domo…and my palace secretaries—silver vessels and money, and other belongings and similar hordes in the care of other officials and in provincial palaces, “my treasure and my treasures, wherever they shall be.”

The year 1492 was the decisive one for the reign, not only because the world failed to end but also because a new world began for Russia when Casimir IV died. His sons divided his inheritance. The only power capable of challenging Muscovy in the vast imperial arena between Europe and Asia dissolved. The frontier between Orthodoxy and Catholicism wavered a great deal in future centuries, but it never strayed far from the lines laid down in the treaties Ivan and his son made with Casimir’s heir. Muscovy became Russia—recognizably the state that occupies the region today. Russia was able to turn east toward the Land of Darkness and begin to convert the great forests and tundra into an empire that has remained Russia’s ever since.


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