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11th - 15th century
     Vladimir's descendants
     The decline of Kiev
     Independent Novgorod
     Vladimir as capital
     The Golden Horde
     Princes of Moscow
     Ivan III
     The Third Rome

16th - 17th century
18th century
19th century
To be completed

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Vladimir's descendants: 1019-1169

The 35-year reign of Vladimir's son Yaroslav establishes Russia, with its capital at Kiev, as a kingdom in the mainstream of medieval Europe. It also secures the throne for a dynasty which survives in direct descent for six centuries (till the time of Boris Godunov), even though those centuries see much diminution of Russian territory and a shift of power from Kiev to Moscow.

Yaroslav turns Kiev into a glorious Christian city in the Byzantine tradition, founding monasteries, adding a spectacular Golden Gate to the town's fortress, and building a cathedral dedicated, like Justinian's great example in Constantinople, to holy wisdom - Santa Sophia.


He also follows Justinian in commissioning a codification of Russia's laws. The legal code known as Russkaya Pravda (Russian Truth) is founded in his reign.

On the international stage Yaroslav plays the medieval game of matrimonial diplomacy as assiduously as any of his contemporaries. He marries his three daughters to kings of Norway, France and Hungary. He also has four sons, guaranteeing on past evidence a frenzy of bloodshed after his death. To avoid this Yaroslav devises a code of inheritance. Surprisingly, for two generations at least, it works.


Under Yaroslav's system of inheritance all Russia is to be jointly held by the ruling family. His eldest son is to rule in Kiev, while others are assigned to territories elsewhere. When a prince of Kiev dies, there is to be general post. The next senior brother will move to Kiev, with equivalent adjustments throughout the realm. The principle that brothers take precedence over sons is an essential element of the scheme, for it gives the younger brothers a chance to inherit without risking all in warfare.

As a measure of the success of Yaroslav's plan, he is peacefully succeeded by three of his sons in succession over a span of nearly forty years (1054-1093).


After the second generation, with the family structure becoming more diffuse, one line of descent prevails over all the others. It is that of Yaroslav's third son, married to a Greek princess from the imperial family in Constantinople.

A little more than a century after Yaroslav's death, cousins in this line of descent are fighting each other for the succession. Kiev, from 1169, is no longer the capital city. There are several reasons: new dangers in the south, threatening Kiev; the independence of Novgorod, granted to the city by Yaroslav himself; and a shift of power towards the north, around Moscow.


The decline of Kiev: 12th - 14th century

Part of Kiev's initial trading advantage has been its access to the wide steppes of eastern Europe and central Asia. But the steppes are also a source of danger. A Russian chronicle of 1054 provides the first mention of the arrival on the steppes of a fiercely marauding group of nomads, the Kipchak Turks (known to the Russians as the Polovtsy).

The Kipchaks frequently disrupt Kiev's trade, and it is a weakened city which is conquered in 1169 by a rival member of the royal family based in Vladimir. A greater disaster follows in the form of the Mongols, who destroy the city in 1240. And during the following century holy Kiev, the birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity, is annexed by pagan Lithuania.


Independent Novgorod: 1019-1478

The special advantages of Novgorod as a trading centre (linking the Baltic with the fur-rich forests of northern Russia and the developed civilizations of eastern Europe) caused it to be the first important settlement of the Rus. These same advantages continue to bring the town prosperity. Like other great mercantile centres of Europe in the Middle Ages, it acquires the status of a commune.

The grand prince Yaroslav, helped to the throne of Kiev in 1019 with the active support of Novgorod, grants the city in that year a charter of self-government.


Novgorod is ruled from 1019 by an assembly of citizens known as the veche. The city still has a prince, whose main function is military. But the prince of Novgorod is selected from the royal family (and on occasion dismissed) by a vote of the veche.

In the 13th century, when Kiev has lost its authority, Novgorod asserts a greater degree of independence. From 1270 the veche elect a city magistrate in place of the prince. Executive responsibility lies with the magistrate, but the ultimate authority resides in an abstract civic concept - Gospodin Veliki Novgorod (Lord Novgorod the Great). The city itself is the ruler.


Novgorod is more than a successful market place. It behaves as a sovereign state, marching to war against its neighbours and negotiating treaties.

The neigbours of importance are Sweden to the northwest (soundly defeated by Alexander Nevsky on behalf of Novgorod in 1240), Lithuania and Poland to the southwest, and the grand principality of Vladimir, which develops into that of Moscow, to the southeast. From the late 14th century Novgorod is contended for by Poland and Moscow, until the contest is decisively won in 1478 by Moscow.



During the 12th century various princes of the royal dynasty move far northeast from Kiev into the Russian forest, forsaking the easy but insecure terrain of the steppes. In 1157 one of them, Andrew Bogolyubski, makes his capital at Vladimir.

He builds a cathedral and several churches in the town and actively colonizes the region, importing craftsmen and peasants. By 1169 he is strong enough to send an army against Kiev. When the old capital city falls to him, he transfers this dignity to Vladimir and assumes the title of grand prince.


In 1238 Vladimir is sacked by the Mongols - a fate shared in the same year by Moscow, a town lying about 120 miles to the west. These are years of alarming pressure from all sides. While the Mongols rampage through the country, Sweden and the Teutonic knights both take the opportunity to converge on Novgorod. They are dramatically seen off by Alexander Nevsky in 1240 (on the ice of the Neva) and in 1242.

Alexander, who becomes grand prince of Vladimir in 1252, is as skilful a diplomat as he is a soldier. He saves his inheritance in the same way as his descendants will increase it - by accepting a position of subservience to the Mongols.


The Golden Horde: 1237-1395

Zolotaya Orda, or the Golden Horde, is the name given by Russians to the invading Mongols who sweep through the country from 1237 and who subsequently dominate the region, for nearly two centuries, from their encampments on the lower reaches of the Volga. The phrase is traditionally said to derive from a golden tent used by the horde's leader, Batu Khan. The Mongols, in this Russian context, are also often described by yet another name - the Tatars.

Most of the Russian cities of any note are ravaged by the Mongols in the two years between their sacking of Vladmimir and Moscow (1238) and of Kiev (1240). In 1241 the horde returns to the grasslands around the Volga.


From this region the leaders of the Golden Horde control the petty princes of much of Russia - largely by the simple device of treating them as glorified tax collectors. The princes are given free rein in their own territories as long as they deliver sufficient tribute.

Batu makes his capital from 1243 at a place on the Volga named after him - Sarai Batu, the 'encampment' of Batu. His brother Berke, succeeding to the leadership in 1255, adopts Islam as the religion of the horde. His capital, Sarai Berke (to the east of modern Volgograd), becomes a thriving city of mosques and public baths, in the central Asian tradition, with some 600,000 inhabitants. It lasts until 1395, when it is destroyed by Timur.


Princes of Moscow: c.1280-1462

The Russian prince who collaborates most fully with the Mongol invaders is Alexander Nevsky. The Mongols appoint him prince of Kiev in 1246 and grand prince of Vladimir in 1252. He energetically assists them in their purpose of carrying out a census of the Russian people. He visits the Golden Horde and keeps close diplomatic links with its leader, Berke Khan.

As a result Alexander is able to limit Mongol interference in his own domains. It is a practical policy continued by his descendants.


The main task which the Mongols require of their Russian vassals is the collection of large amounts of tax. In this degrading procedure Alexander's descendants play the leading role, with the right to extract money - often by force - from lesser Russian principalities.

By this means the family builds up an unprecedented position of strength within Russia. Their base is now not Vladmir but Moscow, which Alexander's son Daniel makes his headquarters from about 1280.


The pre-eminent position of Moscow is given extra validity in 1326 when the metropolitan (or patriarch) of the Russian Orthodox church transfers his permanent residence from Vladimir. Two years later Alexander's grandson Ivan I is granted by the Mongol khan the title of grand prince of Vladimir, which therefore also becomes transferred to Moscow.

During the next half century the grand princes of Moscow steadily increase their territory, until they at last feel in a position to challenge the Mongols.


In 1380 the grand prince Dimitri Donskoi gathers a vast army from all the Russian principalities. Dimitri wins a crushing victory over a Mongol army on the Kulikovo plain near the source of the river Don - hence his honorary name Donskoi. This does little to end the Mongol domination of Russia (indeed a Mongol army sacks Moscow only two years later), but it establishes Moscow incontrovertibly as the leading power among the Russian principalities.

The grand princes are now sometimes describing themselves as 'of Moscow and all Russia'. That becomes more than an empty boast during the reign of Ivan III, who succeeds to the throne of Moscow in 1462.


Ivan III: 1462-1505

Ivan III, coming to the throne at the age of twenty-two, is determined to bring all Russian lands under Moscow's control and to liberate Russia from the Mongol yoke. His greatest prize will be the rich and independent territory to the northwest, the commercial empire of Novgorod. In an invasion in 1471 he appropriates several of Novgorod's colonies.

Finally, in 1478, he brings to an abrupt end the merchant city's long-standing independence. The veche, or city council, has refused to acknowledge his sovereignty. The veche bell, symbol of their freedom, is removed from its tower. The direct authority of Moscow is imposed upon the city.


With this matter resolved, Ivan takes an important next step. In 1480, for the first time in more than 200 years, the grand prince of Russia refuses to pay the annual tribute of tax to the Golden Horde. The Mongol khan marches against Moscow but withdraws without a fight. This important symbolic moment enables Ivan III to present himself internationally as the free sovereign of an independent state.

Russia's image of herself has also been provided recently with another glittering opportunity, which Ivan and his descendants make much of.


The Third Rome: 15th century

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 severs the ancient link, dating back to Constantine, between a Christian emperor and the Greek Orthodox church. The church survives now only in a state of subjection to the infidel.

But the Russian Orthodox church - headed by the metropolitan and the grand prince in Moscow - is in fine fettle. It can be seen as a renewal of the Byzantine Christian empire, just as that in its time was a development of the pagan empire of Rome.


Thus there develops the concept of the third Rome. The first fell to barbarians and to the Roman Catholic heresy. The second, Constantinople, is in the hands of Turks. The third, Moscow, becomes the centre of the Christian world.

The theory is made even more persusasive by Ivan III's marriage in 1472 to the only female relative (a niece) of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI. A Russian monk writes in 1512 to Ivan's son, Vasili III, expressing Profound satisfaction at this situation. In the next reign, that of Vasili's son Ivan the Terrible, the Russians begin calling their monarch tsar - or Caesar.


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