The roots of Russia: from the early East Slavs to the Grand Duchy of Moscow (III)

Part I

Part II

From Vladimir-Suzdal to the Grand Duchy of Moscow

The principality progressively grew into a Grand Duchy which was divided into several smaller principalities. After the Mongol invasion, it became a self-governed state ruled by its own nobility. The principality was bounded by the Volga, Northern Dvina and Oka Rivers.

In 1238, the Mongols set fire to the city of Vladimir, along with other cities in northern Russia.

They conquered gradually most of the Russian principalities, with the notable exception of Novgorod.

The princes of eastern and southern Russia had to pay tribute to the Mongols of the Golden Horde, commonly called Tatars.

(It seems that author is missing here an extremely important decision made by St. Prince of Novgorod Alexander Nevsky. While making peaceful deals with Batu Khan and close friendship with Sartaq Khan, he adamantly fought Swedish army and Catholic Teutonic Order in the consecutive great 1240 Neva Battle and 1242 Battle on the Ice. – OR)

As a result, old cultural centers such as Kiev and Vladimir never recovered from the devastation of the attack, while Moscow (an insignificant trade city back then), Novgorod (still prospering thanks to the Hanseatic League) and Tver began to compete in order to take control of the Mongol-dominated land.

A major cause of the rise of Moscow was that in 1327 the prince of Tver joined a rebellion against the Mongols while Prince Ivan I Kalita of Moscow allied with the Mongols to crush Tver and to devastate its lands.

By doing so he got rid of his rival, allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to move its headquarters to Moscow, and was granted the title of Grand Prince by the Mongols.

As a result, the Muscovite princes became the main intermediaries between the Mongol chiefs and the Rus’ principalities. To reward them of their docility, the Mongols didn’t raid Moscow-controlled lands, which attracted nobles who sought to settle in these relatively secure lands.

Pavel Ryzhenko painting "Sartaq" (2010) exposing personal relations between Mongol khans and Russian princes.
SARTAQ (Pavel Ryzhenko, 2010) exposing personal relations between Mongol khans and Russian princes. Source: http://павел-рыженко.рф/

The influence of the Mongols on the Russian nobility was so deep that a survey of Russian noble families of the 17th century established that over 15% of the Russian noble families had Tatar or Oriental origins. Therefore, historians generally consider that without the Mongol destruction of Kievan Rus’, Moscow, and subsequently the Russian Empire, would not have risen. Meanwhile, the isolation from the West may have caused Russia’s later non-involvement in the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, both critical in the emergence of capitalism. (Very doubtful interpretation as later the Russian Orthodox Church was steadfastly resisting the importunate attempts by Vatican to lure Russia into Roman Catholicism. Contemporary crisis of both Vatican, Protestantism and capitalism has proven that the tough stance of the Russian hierarchs in historical retrospective was absolutely justified. – OR)

The judicial system has also been heavily influenced by the Mongol presence, as capital punishment and the use of torture became widespread, while during Kievan Rus’ it had “only” been applied to slaves.

However, penal law in Western Europe at the same time was even harsher than Mongol law.

On the other hand, the Russian fiscal system, transportation, military tactics and census were developed under the Mongol domination.

In a nutshell, Moscow’s leadership expanded through war, purchase and marriage.

Indeed, the first ruler of the principality of Moscow, St. Great Prince Daniil Alexandrovich, son of St. Prince Alexander Nevsky of Vladimir-Suzdal, expanded his principality by seizing Kolomna, while his son Yury Daniilovich would take over Mozhaisk, ally with Uzbeg Khan of the Golden Horde, marry the Khan’s sister and gain the title of Duke of Vladimir-Suzdal as a result. It was this special position within occupied Rus’ which enabled the Muscovite nobility to interfere into the affairs of the powerful Republic of Novgorod.

Then, Yuriy’s successor, Ivan I managed to keep the title of Grand Duke by cooperating closely with the Mongols, more precisely by collecting taxes from other Rus’ principalities on their behalf.

Pavel Ryzhenko's painting "Kulikovo camp" (2005). Source: http://павел-рыженко.рф/
KULIKOVO CAMP (Pavel Ryzhenko, 2005).  Source: http://павел-рыженко.рф/

Ivan’s successors continued to gather the lands of Rus’ to increase the population and wealth under their rule. After this, Dmitri of Moscow managed to unite the principalities of Rus’ in his struggle against the Horde and became a national hero, although his attempt didn’t work in the short term. (Here it is important to take note of the third important event of the Russian history – Battle of Kulikovo in 1380 -OR).

Vasily I continued the policies of his father and desisted from paying tribute to the Khan. Married to the only daughter of Vytautas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Vasily attempted to avoid open conflicts with him, even when the former annexed Smolensk. His long reign was marked by the expansion to the east and to the north.

Another reason explaining the expansion of the Grand Duchy of Moscow was its favorable dynastic situation, when each sovereign was succeeded by his son, contrary to rival principalities, which experienced many strifes within their own dynasties.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, expansion of the Grand Duchy of Moscow went along with internal consolidation. Indeed, the state was successful in seizing and annexing Novgorod in 1478 and the Grand Duchy of Tver (allied with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) in 1485, thereby getting rid of direct political competitors.

Indeed, Ivan III, during his 43 year reign over the Grand Duchy of Moscow, further strengthened the state (after defeating the declining Golden Horde in 1480) partly by seizing the lands of his brothers, campaigned against his remaining rival power, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and, by 1503, he had tripled the territory of his principality. He adopted the title of Tsar and claimed the title of “Ruler of all Rus'”, while his marriage to the niece of the last Byzantine emperor asserted Moscow as the “Third Rome“, the successor state of the Roman Empire.

He competed with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for control over some of the former principalities of Kievan Rus’ in the upper Dnieper and Donets river basins. It was also under Ivan III that the new Russian Sudebnik, or law code, was compiled by the scribe Vladimir Gusev.

The reign of the Tsars started officially with Ivan IV the Awesome, but in practice it started with Ivan III, who completed the centralization of the state, traditionally known as the gathering of the Russian lands.

Tsar's silence (Pavel Ryzhenko, 2005). Source: http://павел-рыженко.рф/
TSAR’S SILENCE (Pavel Ryzhenko, 2005) proposing another angle on the controversial personality of the Russian tsar Ivan IV the Stern often named “Terrible”. Source: http://павел-рыженко.рф/

The Moscow princes combined customs and ceremonies inherited from Kievan Rus’ with those imported from the Byzantine Empire and the Golden Horde. During the times of dynastic troubles, like during part of the reign of Ivan IV, boyards (i.e the most senior aristocrats) constituted an internal force which was a permanent threat to the throne. During such conflicts, Muscovite monarchs felt the necessity to counterbalance the power of the boyards by creating a new kind of nobility, based on personal devotion to the Tsar, rather than by heredity.

To conclude, the Grand Duchy of Moscow drew people and wealth to the northeastern part of Kievan Rus’; established trade links to the Baltic Sea, Siberia and the Caspian Sea. It created a highly centralized political system, whose traditions would exert a powerful influence on the future development of the Russian society.


This part had the ambitious aim to sum up more than ten centuries of history. At the end of it, I hope readers can remind of a handful of key ideas:

  • From the dawn of humanity, the Russian civilization has been a multicultural one;
  • Extended political and commercial ties with Central Asian and Middle-Eastern states existed as soon as the 9th This is an interesting fact to be aware of if one is to understand today’s geopolitical relations between Russia and its Arab partners;
  • The history of Kievan Rus’ and the Republic of Novgorod offers striking evidences against the Western belief that the Russian people has always been more violent and less educated that their Western counterparts, as the exact opposite is true regarding this period of time (not to mention the consequences of the destruction of Constantinople by the Crusaders …);
  • Novgorod and other merchant cities prospered without joining the initial capitalist movement, meaning trade is possible and suitable if it does not imply the impoverishment of weaker commercial partners and workers;
  • The Grand Duchy of Moscow was an authoritarian political system which paved the way to its successors in that regard. Nevertheless, the context should not be forgotten: the Mongol domination has been critical in the emergence of such a hard line regime. Wars of independence are rarely followed by progressive governments …

Next chapters of this series will deal with Tsarism and the Russian empire, in order to explain how Russia eventually became a major power.

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