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Russia to 1700

Ivan the Terrible | Time of Troubles: 1584 to Tsar Michael in 1613 | The Status of Russian Women | Russia and the Romanovs to Peter the Great | Peter Looks West

Muscovy (Russia) and surrounding territories, 1533

Muscovy (Russia) and surrounding territories, 1533

Ivan the Terrible

From 1533 to 1584 Muscovy, otherwise known as Russia, was ruled by Ivan IV, also known as Ivan Grozny and Ivan the Terrible (or the Awesome, depending upon the translation from Russian). Ivan had inherited rule at the age of three. His mother acted as regent and was able to maintain power amid murders and the intrigues of nobles. In 1547 at the age of seventeen, Ivan was placed under the guardianship of the Orthodox Church, and in 1553 he assumed the title of tsar – which some say, and others deny, derives from the word Caesar.

The tsar ruled from Moscow, a city of wood. Even mansions were made of logs. At the center of Moscow was the fortress known as the Kremlin, covering a triangle of sixty-nine acres. It was built on a hill along the Moscow River, its walls twelve to sixteen feet thick, rising sixty-five feet above the river, with twenty towers. Living in the Kremlin were the royal family and the Patriarch (or Pope) of the Russian Orthodox Church. Next to the Kremlin, today called Red Square, was a field which turned to mud during the rains. It had a simple market place, army barracks, log office buildings, and churches, including two magnificent cathedrals of wood designed by Italians.

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible, an 18th-century painting

The tsar's association with the Orthodox Church gave made him a divinity in the eyes of many of his subjects, most of whom were illiterate. From infancy the Russians were taught to respect the tsar. One popular proverb was: "Only God and the tsar know." Russians viewed the tsar's powers as limited only by God's powers. They saw the tsar as a remote and inaccessible father and saw themselves as his obedient children.

Expansion, Economics and Political Struggle

In 1552, Tsar Ivan followed tradition and went to war to expand his territory, fulfilling what some romantics would believe was Russia's destiny. To the east of Moscow he warred against the Tatars, seizing Kazan, a capital and an Islamic center by the Volga River. To commemorate his victory at Kazan, Ivan began construction of the Church of St. Basil, near the Kremlin wall.

Ivan sent his forces southward along the Volga, winning another great battle, at Astrakhan, near where the Volga empties into the Caspian Sea. The Volga River was now open to Russian trade and settlement. The Russians expanded southward along the western shore of the Caspian to the Terek River by  the Caucasus Mountains (an area today known as Chechnya). And in 1558 Ivan began a campaign in the West and pushed a short distance from his border to Narva (about a hundred miles west of what was to become St. Petersburg) which gave Russia an outlet to the Baltic Sea. The Poles, Lithuanians and Swedes felt threatened, and Ivan began warring against them, hoping to expand across Livonia (where Latvia and Estonia are today) in order to establish for himself a better position on the Baltic Sea.

Russia was backward economically compared to Western Europe, and Ivan's war created in him a desire for technical assistance from the West. Elizabeth I of England disliked the idea of Moscow increasing its military capability, but she was willing to let her merchants sell goods to the Russians: cloth, paper, sugar, dishes, copper and a musical instrument called the organ. She sent to Moscow some of the help that Ivan had requested: craftsmen including rope makers, architects, pharmacists and a medical doctor. Elizabeth assured her fellow European monarchs that England's merchants were not selling military equipment, including cannon, to the Russians, and she denied Ivan's request for men to build and sail his ships. But Englishmen at Narva began building a few galley ships and brigantines for Ivan. Ivan paid them well. He hired Englishmen to command his ships and Englishmen as master gunners and as ordinary sailors. The  French and Dutch also began trading with Russia through the port of Narva. While Ivan was preparing to renew warfare to expand across Livonia, Englishmen were establishing a successful rope making factory, iron manufacturing, a flax spinning business and the manufacture of other products in Russia. The Russians were learning new crafts. On the shores of northern Russia the English and Dutch were harvesting logs for ship masts, and they were hunting walrus and whales for blubber oil.

Livonia atrocities

Russian atrocities in Livonia. Printed in Zeyttung. Published in Nuremberg in 1561.

In 1564, Ivan had begun a showdown with Russia's nobles who resented his power. Ivan called the nobles traitors, and he won acceptance from the Orthodox Church and others to deal with the nobles as he saw fit. He created a special force of about  6,000 men devoted to warring against internal enemies, rewarding leaders of his special force with lands of his enemies. Many noble families and their private armies, their peasants and servants, disappeared. From the ranks of Ivan's special force a new landowning class and local authority emerged. Then, in 1566, Ivan created an assembly that consisted of representatives of the clergy, nobles and merchants, Ivan hoping to broaden and maintain his support as he renewed his attempt to expand across Livonia.

While continuing to face the Poles, Lithuanians and Swedes in the west, Ivan was confronting the Islamic Tatars to his east and south. Tatar cavalry from the Crimea were making periodic raids, looking for Slavic slaves and other booty, such as cattle. The slaves were a regular source of income for the Crimean Tatars, to be sold to the Ottoman Turks. In 1571 the Tatars sacked and burned the outskirts of Moscow. The Russians drove them back. The following year the Tatars approached Moscow again, and the Russians again drove them back. By now advances in weaponry had given Russians military superiority vis-a-vis the Tatars, and with this firepower they were capable of overwhelming the Tatars. Tatar warriors were mobile and elusive, but the days of greatness for cavalry archers was over.

Against more modern forces represented by the Swedes, Ivan had less success. In 1581, during the Livonian War (1558-1583), Sweden captured the port city of Narva, not far from what today is St. Petersburg. In 1582 Ivan made peace with the Poles, Lithuanians and Swedes, ending the twenty-four-year effort that had burdened his country.

Russia was suffering economically. Ivan had wanted to control as much as he could. He considered all of Russia's lands, commerce and industry his. Any business that accumulated wealth might be added to his collection of state-owned enterprises. The middle class of Russia was not developing as was the middle class in the Netherlands.

While the people of the United Netherlands had been freeing themselves from Habsburg authority, common Russians were increasingly controlled by the authority of the tsar and the great landowners. Townspeople were bound to their towns and work so that Ivan could tax them more heavily, and peasants were obliged to stay on the agricultural estates under the authority of its owner for at least five years. But some were running away, sometimes to the south along the Don River and to the Ukraine, where a free-spirited people called Cossacks lived beyond the reach of the landowners and the tsar's officials. In vain, Ivan's government passed a new law allowing landowners to chase after and capture runaways.


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