A History of Russia By Anne Davison

We get most of our information about the peoples who first populated the region of today’s Russia from the Russian Primary Chronicle, also known as the Chronicle of Nestor, the Kiev Chronicle or The Tale of Bygone Years. Nestor, a monk from Kiev, is said to have compiled the chronicle in the year 1113, taking sources from Byzantine chronicles, Slav literature, official documents and popular oral sagas. While the original document has been lost, there are extant copies, the earliest being dated 1377. It is now generally thought that the Chronicle was not the work of one author, but more likely to have been the joint effort of several chroniclers.
A History of Russia
A History of Russia By Anne Davison

The Russian Primary Chronicle covers the period from 850 to 1110 and tells the history of the Kievan Rus’. It includes the arrival of the Vikings, or Varangians from Scandinavia, their integration with the Eastern Slavs, the Christianisation of the Rus’ under Vladimir the Great in 988 and the Rus’ invasions of Constantinople.

Nestor also relates in his Chronicle how the apostle St Andrew preached in the area of the Black Sea and founded the See of Constantinople. According to the Chronicle, the Saint then travelled up the Dnieper River as far as Kiev where he planted a cross on the site of the current St Andrew’s Church of Kiev. St Andrew is now patron saint of both Russia and Ukraine.

The Slavs

The history of Russia began in the 9th Century in the Baltic region, an area incorporating today’s Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, populated then by Finnic and Slavic tribes. Today the Slavs are the largest Indo-European ethno-linguistic group in Europe. Speaking a variety of Slavic languages, they are the native population of most of Central and Eastern Europe, North Asia and Central Asia.

The Slavs are usually categorised into West Slavs (Czechs, Poles and Slovaks), East Slavs (Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians) and South Slavs (people of the Balkans including Slovenes and Bulgarians). There is also a theory that the English word ‘slave’ is derived from the word Slav in reference to the Slavs from the Balkans who were taken as slaves by Muslims, particularly during the Ottoman period. In relation to Russian history and the subject of this book, the East Slavs are of most interest to us.

There is very little written information about the Slavs before the 11th Century. However, it is generally thought that the various Slavic tribes probably migrated westwards, from Central Asia into Eastern Europe, in the wake of the great migrations of the Huns, Avars, Alans and Magyars, which occurred between the 6th and 10th Centuries. They then settled in forests and on the banks of the Rivers Danube and Dnieper as well as around the Black Sea.

The first mention of the Slavs appeared in Byzantine chronicles during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I who reigned from 527 to 565. At that time, the historian and legal adviser named Procopius of Caesarea, mentions the Sclaveni and Antae tribes who were thought to be Slavs. Procopius was adviser to the renowned Byzantine General Belisarius and he accompanied the General on most of his campaigns. In his writings Procopius refers to Slavic tribes invading Constantinople. Further Slavic invasions of Constantinople are mentioned in Byzantine chronicles during the reign of Emperor Michael III who reigned between 842 and 867.

The Slav tribes lived in autonomous groups, each having a democratically elected leader. They survived by hunting, fishing and bee-keeping and as agriculturists they practiced a policy of slash and burn. Consequently, because the soil deteriorated, they were forced to move every few years.

Nestor’s Chronicle describes the Slavs as having wooden bathhouses that they warmed to an extreme heat. They ‘then undress, and after anointing themselves with an acid liquid, they take young branches and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive’.

The Eastern Slavs, forerunners of today’s Russians, Ukrainians and Belorusians were pagans. Their primary god was Perun, who was god of thunder and lightning. He was also associated with fire, mountains, wind and the oak, which in Slavic mythology was a sacred tree symbolising the world. Another popular symbol of the god was the ‘axe of Perun’. The Primary Chronicle records how, in 907, the Slavic ruler Prince Oleg sealed a peace treaty with the Byzantines by swearing an oath in the name of Perun and his weapons.

The Slavic tribes were not warlike people and consequently found themselves forced to pay tribute to other, more powerful and aggressive tribes such as the Khazars and Pechenegs. In order to survive they were also forced to pay tribute to roving bands of Scandinavians, or Vikings.

The Vikings

The Vikings, who were from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, were sea faring people who have been known by various names. To the people of the British Isles they were known as the ‘Danes’, to the Francs they were referred to as ‘Normans’, meaning ‘north men’. The people of Ireland called them ‘Galls’, meaning ‘strangers’ and to the people of Eastern Europe they were known as Rus’, thought to mean ‘rowers’ in recognition of their expertise as seafarers.

It is generally thought that the Rus’ who migrated to Eastern Europe originated from the coastal region of Sweden. One group of Rus’ adventurers travelled as far as Constantinople where they formed an elite bodyguard to the Byzantine Emperor, known as the Varangian Guard.

For climatic reasons, as well as the problem of overpopulation, the young and more adventurous Vikings were frequently migrated. While the Danes and Normans conquered territory in Northern Europe, the Rus’ moved into Eastern Europe primarily as traders. They travelled as far as Constantinople trading in furs, amber and slaves in exchange for silks and manufactured goods. By making use of the great lakes and rivers of northeast Europe they were able to travel the whole journey almost entirely by water. If they had to travel short distances on land between rivers or lakes, or around rapids, they carried their longboats across land, a practice called portage.

Rurik: 862-879

In around the year 862, the Slavic and Finnic tribes rebelled against the Rus’ and drove them back across the Baltic Sea. However, when in-fighting broke out, they decided to ask the Rus’ to return. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, the Slav tribes appealed to the Rus’ with the words “Our land is vast and abundant, but there is no order in it. Come and reign as princes and have authority over us!” Whether or not this is a true account is debatable, but the story has become part of Russian folk law.

The chronicles record that a Rus’ chieftain named Rurik accepted the invitation. Together with two of his brothers and their extended families, Rurik settled in the region of Novgorod and reigned over the tribes. He governed the city of Novgorod while his brothers Sineus and Truvor ruled Belorussia and Izborsk respectively.

When Rurik’s brothers died he acquired their lands and became Grand Prince. This marked the foundation of the Rurik Dynasty that was to last until 1612 with the death of Vasili IV of Russia. The Rurik Dynasty, which spanned some 700 years, was then succeeded by the House of Romanov, which ruled until 1917 with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.

According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, before Rurik died in 879, he nominated his male relative Oleg as his successor. Rurik also placed his young son Igor under the guardianship of Oleg until the boy came of age. Other sources, for example the Novgorod First Chronicle, written around 1110, as well as letters written at the time by members of the Khazar dynasty, give different accounts. They make no mention of the relationship between Rurik, Oleg and Igor and they record a different dating. Despite these differing sources and also disagreements among historians, that offered by the Russian Primary Chronicle, is the generally accepted account.

Oleg: 879-912

Oleg came to power at a time when the economy of the Novgorod region was weak. He therefore needed to gain access to the lucrative trade route from Scandinavia to Constantinople, known as ‘from the Varangians to the Greeks’

Oleg gathered warriors from the surrounding Finnic and Slavic tribes and seized the towns of Smolensk and Lyubech. Having garrisoned both with his men, he then moved down the Dnieper River until he reached Kiev in around 882. At that time Askold and Dir, who were thought to be Rus’ leaders previously under the command of Rurik, ruled the city. Oleg challenged their legitimacy and presented the young Igor as rightful heir to Rurik.

After murdering Askold and Dir, Oleg then decided that Kiev, being strategically well placed on the trade route, should be the new capital of the Rus’. He called the city ‘the mother of Rus’ towns’ and proclaimed himself Grand Prince of Kiev. While the year 862 marks the beginning of the Rus’ Dynasty under Rurik, the year 882 marks the foundation of Kievan Rus’ by Oleg.

By 907, Oleg had consolidated his power and strengthened his military forces sufficiently to attempt an invasion of Constantinople. His armies laid siege to the city until the Byzantine Emperor agreed to a peace treaty, the terms of which included a regular tribute payable by the Byzantines to the Kievan Rus’ in exchange for military help.

Igor: 912-945

Igor succeeded Oleg as Grand Prince of Kiev and was crowned in 914. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle he ruled until 945, but some historians have challenged this date largely because we have very little information about the thirty years of his rule. What is apparent, however, is that he had a reputation for greed and was never as an effective ruler as his predecessor.

Although there are Muslim accounts of a Rus’ presence in the region of the Caspian Sea during Igor’s reign, both as traders and as raiders, there is no evidence that Igor was among them.

It is recorded, however, that Igor laid siege to Constantinople in 913. Byzantine sources also refer to a war with the Rus’ that was led by Igor in 941. On that occasion, the Byzantines claim to have repelled the invaders with ‘Greek fire’, which was an incendiary weapon made of a napalm substance that could burn on water and therefore easily destroy ships.

During this same period, we are told that relations between the Byzantines and the Khazars were poor. The Khazar Correspondence, a series of letters exchanged between the Caliph of Cordoba and Joseph Khagan of the Khazars, tells how the Byzantine Emperor Romanus I Lecapenus had been persecuting the Jewish population of Khazaria. It has been suggested that the Khazars consequently sought the help of the Kievan Rus’. Igor and his allies responded to the request and invaded Byzantine territory when the Emperor’s forces were fighting off the Muslims in the South and East of his Empire.

Igor’s gruesome death in 945 is described by the Byzantine chronicler Leo the Deacon. According to Leo, he died at the hands of Drevlians, a warlike tribe of Eastern Slavs. Leo tells how he was captured while collecting tribute, “They had bent down two birch trees to the prince's feet and tied them to his legs; then they let the trees straighten again, thus tearing the prince's body apart”.

Igor’s wife Olga meted out her revenge on the Drevlians and then assumed the Regency of the Kievan Rus’ until her young son Sviatoslav came of age. Olga was to leave a far greater legacy in Russian history than that of her husband Igor.

Olga: regent 945-960

In an attempt to appease Olga for the murder of her husband, the Drevlians sent messengers with gifts and an offer of marriage to their Prince. But she was determined to hold on to power until her son was able to rule in his own right and she was also determined to avenge her husband’s death. Her immediate response was to have the Drevlian messengers buried alive. On another occasion, she had messengers burned alive in a bathhouse.

It is also recorded that Olga demanded three sparrows and three pigeons from every house in the Drevlian capital city. She then had a flax tow tied to the tails of the birds. The tow was then lit and the birds released to fly back to their homes. In the chaos that ensued the inhabitants were burned alive in their homes. The survivors were taken as slaves.

Nestor then tells how some ten years later Olga went through a complete transformation. In 955 she travelled to Constantinople with the sole purpose of learning about the Christian Faith. She was baptised by the Greek Patriarch and took the Christian name Yelena, or Helena. The Byzantine Emperor acted as her godfather.

Helena was tireless in her efforts to spread Christianity among the Rus’ but the full conversion of the people had to wait until the reign of her grandson Grand Prince Vladimir. To her great disappointment, her son Sviatoslav remained a pagan, claiming that his men would mock him if he adopted the religion of the Greeks.

Olga has come down in history as the first Apostle of the Russian people. The Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church all venerate her as a Saint. Her Feast Day is celebrated on the 11th July, which is the anniversary of her death in 969, at the age of 79 years.

Sviatoslav - ruled 945-972

Sviatoslav was the first Prince of the Rus’ with a Slav, rather than a Norse, or Viking name, which is an indication that the two peoples were gradually integrating.

We get a glimpse of the man Sviatoslav from both the Russian Primary Chronicle and also the Byzantine historian Leo the Deacon. The Primary Chronicle tells how Sviatoslav had little time for administration and much preferred to be on campaign with his men, known as druzhina, roughly meaning ‘Company’. He had no need of wagons, kettles or tents, preferring to sleep on a horse blanket using his saddle as a pillow. He and his men ate roasted horsemeat, game and beef.

Leo describes him as of average height but sturdy. He had blue eyes and a bushy moustache. He shaved his blond hair with the exception of a side-lock that was a sign of nobility. He was usually dressed in white and wore a single large earring that was decorated with a large gem and two pearls. This description was probably typical of most of the Rus’ Princes of the time.

Sviatoslav’s first campaign was in the East against the Khazar Empire. He persuaded the vassal tribes of the Khazars to change sides and join his army. He destroyed Khazar cities, including their capital Atil. With the destruction of the Khazars, Sviatoslav now had access to the lucrative north-south trade route across the Black Sea. At around the same time he succeeded in subjugating the warlike Pechenegs.

In around 967, the Byzantines were being threatened by the rise of the Bulgarian Empire on its borders. Consequently, Emperor Nikephoros offered the Rus’ a large amount of gold in return for military help. With an army of around 60,000 men, including Pecheneg mercenaries, Sviatoslav succeeded in defeating the Bulgar ruler Boris.

To the consternation of Nikephoros, Sviatoslav showed no sign of returning to Kiev and started to settle in parts of Bulgaria. He moved the capital of the Rus’ from Kiev to Pereyaslavets, a town on the mouth of the River Danube in present day Rumania. He announced that his new capital would be the centre of his lands, where "all the riches would flow: gold, silks, wine, and various fruits from Greece, silver and horses from Hungary and Bohemia, and from Rus’ furs, wax, honey, and slaves".

Not surprisingly, this displeased the Byzantines. They attacked Kiev and persuaded the Pechenegs to assassinate Sviatoslav. Since the Pechenegs had previously suffered at the hands of the Grand Prince of the Rus’, they gladly accepted the challenge. Sviatoslav was ambushed, killed and his skull made into a chalice by the Pecheneg khan.

Vladimir the Great - ruled 980-1015

Before Sviatoslav died in 972, he divided his kingdom between his three sons. His eldest son Yaropolk was made Prince of Kiev, which was the most important city. The second son, Oleg, became Prince of the Drevlians. Vladimir, who was the third son and the child of his father’s mistress, was given Novgorod.

As so often happens in these situations, conflict broke out between the sons. Yaropolk murdered his younger brother and seized his territory. He then invaded Novgorod forcing Vladimir to flee to Scandinavia. With help from the ruler of Norway Vladimir managed to assemble a Varangian army of mercenaries and retake Novgorod. He then arranged the murder of Yarolpolk, retrieved the city of Kiev and forcibly married Yarolpolk’s Greek widow.

By 980, Vladimir had united the principalities of the Kievan Rus’ under his sole rule. He suppressed all rebellions, led campaigns against the Pechenegs and Volga Bulgars and built fortifications along the borders of a realm that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Throughout this time, Vladimir remained a staunch pagan. He had numerous wives and concubines, built temples and statues to the pagan gods and it is said that he took part in rituals involving human sacrifice. But he is best known for the conversion of the people of Kievan Rus’ to Christianity and it is for this act that he earned the title ‘Vladimir the Great’.

There are different versions as to how this conversion came about. Several Christian and Muslim accounts claim that the Byzantine Emperor Basil II appealed to Vladimir for military help to put down a revolt. Vladimir agreed on condition that he was offered the Emperor’s sister, Anna, in marriage. Basil agreed to the marriage but on condition that Vladimir and all the Rus’ people first convert to Christianity. When the wedding arrangements were settled, Vladimir sent 6,000 troops to help put down the rebellion and he then arranged the baptism of the people of Kiev, Novgorod as well as the Pecheneg princes.

A more popular and colourful account of the conversion of the Rus’ is given in the Russian Primary Chronicle. Here Nestor tells how, in the year 978, Vladimir sent his envoys to study the religion of other nations. The envoys reported that the Muslim Bulgarians ‘had no gladness in them’ and that their religion would not suit the Rus’ because alcohol and pork was forbidden, to which Vladimir responded ‘Drinking is the joy of all Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure’.

Apparently, the religion of the Jews was rejected because they had no homeland. Vladimir commented that they must have lost Jerusalem because God had abandoned them.

This left the religion of the Christians. But which form of Christianity: that of the Latin West, or Byzantine East? His emissaries reported that in the Latin German Church there was no beauty. But when his envoys arrived at Constantinople and witnessed the Divine Liturgy at the Hagia Sophia they exclaimed: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth.” Their reports of the magnificence of the Church, its heavenly music and the beauty of the icons convinced Vladimir that the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine rite would suit his people best. Furthermore, it was the tradition into which his Grandmother, Olga, had been baptised.

Vladimir was baptised in December 987 and took the Christian name Basil. His family and boyars (nobility) were then baptised. He ordered that all the wooden statues of the pagan gods be destroyed and the senior God, Perun, was flogged and thrown into the river. On the 1st August 988, he ordered the mass baptism in the river Dnieper of all the people of the Rus’.

From this moment missionaries and priests began arriving from Constantinople to train priests and educate the people in the Faith. Churches and schools were also built and the general level of education and culture rose significantly.

Vladimir’s own baptism seems to have been sincere. According to the Chronicles, he released his many wives and concubines and remained faithful to Anna. He introduced the equivalent of a welfare state and reformed the penal system. From this point on Russia’s relations with Constantinople and Eastern Orthodoxy were strengthened.


It is difficult to know the truth surrounding the early period of Russian history. Most of the written information we have comes from chronicles, which are usually commissioned and always written from one particular perspective. We do, however, have archeological evidence that Scandinavian people were present in Eastern Europe as traders from around the 6th Century.

The story that the Rus’ were invited by the Finnic and Slavic tribes to come and rule over them may be questionable. It is evident, however that the leader of the Rus’, was a chieftain named Rurik. It would also appear that in a fairly short period of time, the Rus’ and the Slavs became integrated and the Varangian rulers adopted Slav names.

Exactly how the Rus’ came to be converted to Christianity is also open to debate. The Russian Primary Chronicle, Byzantine, Muslim and Jewish accounts all vary. It is most likely that Vladimir believed that it would be politically expedient to unite his people under the power of one deity rather than a ‘family of gods’. This had worked for the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century. Furthermore, the Rus’ benefitted culturally and educationally by adopting Byzantine Orthodoxy.

Despite the speculation, it would appear that Vladimir’s conversion was sincere. Certainly, his decision to adopt Eastern Orthodoxy, thereby tying the Kievan Rus’ to Constantinople, was to have a profound effect on the future of the Russian people.

The importance of Vladimir in the history of Russia cannot be overestimated. However, the person Vladimir and the location of the conversion of the Rus’ have become highly contested in recent times. Kiev is now the capital of an independent Ukraine and the Ukrainian people claim Volodymyr (Vladimir) as their own Saint. Russians also claim Vladimir as their own Saint, which is not surprising since the two countries share the same history. Indeed, it is this shared history that underlies much of the current tension between the two countries.

Ever since Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in February 2014, tensions between the two countries have increased. In November 2016, President Putin added to this tension by unveiling a 16m statue of Vladimir the Great in front of the Kremlin in Moscow. Ukraine viewed this act as unnecessarily provocative.



Wars and Invasions

Wars of Succession

Before Vladimir died in 1015, he divided his kingdom among his many sons. This marked the beginning of a system of inheritance known as Appanage, whereby the eldest of the royal princes, whether he be a brother, cousin, or uncle, became Grand Prince, rather than the eldest son. The Grand Prince traditionally ruled the city of Kiev, the ‘Mother of Cities’, while Novgorod, the first city to be settled by the Rus’, was second in seniority and awarded to the next prince in line.

Appanage was originally practiced by the Slavs and was then adopted by the Varangian Rus’, which is another example of how the Varangians became integrated into Slav tradition and culture. Unfortunately, the system usually led to conflict and wars of succession.

This was the case when Vladimir died in 1015. As the eldest son, Sviatopolk inherited the title of Grand Prince. But to ensure that there was no challenge to his position, he arranged the murder of his two of younger brothers, Boris and Gleb, who were later to become the first saints to be canonised as martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Having rid himself of any threat from his brothers, Sviatopolk then seized the city of Kiev with the help of his Polish wife’s relatives. His rule was to be short-lived however. He was unpopular among the citizens, not only because of the brutal murder of his brothers, but also because of doubts over his paternity and therefore the legitimacy of his rule. He was ostensibly the son of the Greek nun who had been raped by his father. However, it was always possible that the child she bore was the son of her husband Yarapolk and not Vladimir. If this were the case, then Sviatopolk was not the son of Vladimir and would have no claim to the throne.

Yaroslav, a younger brother who was ruling Novgorod, decided to challenge Sviatopolk’s right to rule as Grand Prince. He raised an army that included citizens of Novgorod and Varangian mercenaries and after several years of warfare he defeated Sviatopolk and took the city of Kiev. Yaroslav then rewarded the people of Novgorod by granting them special citizens’ rights and privileges. This was a first step towards the later creation of an independent Novgorod Republic. After his defeat, Sviatopolk is thought to have fled to Poland to seek refuge with his in-laws. In 1019, Yaroslav became Grand Prince of Kiev and Novgorod.

Yaroslav the Wise: 1019-1054

During Yaroslav’s long reign he increased his territories and forged alliances with foreign powers by arranging dynastic marriages for his ten children. One of his sons married the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor and a daughter was married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Other children married into the royal families of France, Norway, Hungary and England.

Yaroslav constructed fortifications along the northeast boundary of his territory as protection against the constant threat of the Pechenegs and other Turkic tribes. He founded the city of Yaroslavi. He commissioned the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev and the first Kievan monasteries of Saint George and Saint Irene. He built a school for the children of priests and declared 26th November as ‘Yuri’s Day’, or Saint George’s Day.

During his reign, the social divisions of society became more firmly established. The Drujina, an elite band of armed bodyguards or small personal army, had the highest status. Its members included soldiers, barons and boyars (aristocracy). Then, in descending order of importance, came the citizens, traders, the peasants and finally slaves.

But Yaroslav was also remembered for some more negative aspects, an example being when he imprisoned his youngest brother for life. Some chroniclers also suggest that it was he who arranged the murder of Boris and Gleb and not Sviatopolk who has been traditionally accused of the murder. Whatever the truth may be, Yaroslav, also known as the Lawgiver, has gone down in history as one of the greatest rulers of the Rus’.

Yaroslav’s reign marked a watershed in the history of Kievan Rus. He broke with tradition in that he appointed a Slav monk, Hilarion, as Metropolitan of Kiev. Hilarion was a great scholar and author of Sermon on Law and Grace, which predated the Primary Chronicle and is thought to be one of the earliest pieces of literature of Kievan Rus’. Until Hilarion, all appointments had been made by Constantinople and only Greeks became bishops of the Rus. By appointing Hilarian, Yaroslav’s intention was to make Kievan Rus’ less dependent upon Byzantinium.

Probably Yarolsav’s greatest achievement was the introduction of a new legal code known as the Russkaya Pravda. This, together with the many works of translation from Greek into Russian that he commissioned, earned him the title ‘The Wise’.

The Russkaya Pravda reflected Slav and Varangian culture rather than Byzantine, which was another move on Yaroslav’s part to distance the Rus’ from Byzantium. For example, the barbaric punishments meted out by the Byzantines were originally alien to the Slav and were introduced to the Rus’ largely through the influence of the Orthodox Church. Yaroslav’s legislation was an attempt to redress the situation, very often by replacing corporal punishment with a system of fines. For example:

a) If someone be beaten so that he bears bruises and is bloody, then he need seek no eyewitness [to confirm his complaint]; if he bears no sign [of the fight], then [let] an eyewitness come forward; if the [complainant] is unable [to produce a witness], then that is the end of the matter; if [the victim] is unable to avenge himself, then he is to take for the offense three grivnas, and also payment for the physician.

b) And for [killing] the prince’s horse, if it is branded [the offender is to] pay three grivnas, and for a peasant’s [horse he pays] two grivnas, for a mare 60 rezanas, for an ox one grivna, for a three-year-old [cow] 15 kunas, for a two-year-old [cow] one-half grivna, for a calf five rezanas, for a lamb one nogata, [and] for a ram one nogota.

At that time, the cost of a horse would have been two grivnas and the cost of a serf, half a grivna. Fines payable for the death of, or bodily harm to, in the case of a woman was half that of a man. Trials by hot iron and water are also mentioned but this reflects the Norse, or Varangian tradition rather than Slav or Byzantine.

Yaroslav died in 1054, the year of the great schism between the Catholic Western Church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church of Constantinople. His death marked the end of the ‘Golden Age’ of Kievan Rus’. Because he continued the tradition of Appanage, whereby his lands were divided up into numerous principalities among his male relatives, wars of succession were inevitable. Over the next hundred years instability and chaos prevailed leaving the Rus’ weak and vulnerable to invasion.

Andrew Bogoliubski and the Fall of Kiev

By the middle of the 12th Century a powerful leader emerged in the Northern region. Prince Andrew Bogoluibski was Prince of Vladimir, Rostov and Suzdal and his great ambition was to unite all the Rus’ by gaining the submission of Kiev and Novgorod. In 1167, he led a large army against Kiev. He virtually destroyed the city and seized the most precious religious artifacts including the Byzantine ‘Mother of God’ icon.

Andrew then made his younger brother, Gleb, Prince of the city but when Gleb died two years later the city was again fought over by different Rus’ princes until it was finally conquered and destroyed by the Mongols in 1240.

Following his destruction of Kiev in 1167, Andrew moved the capital city of the Rus’ to Vladimir, with himself as Grand Prince. He enlarged and fortified the city and commissioned the building of the Assumption Cathedral.

Novgorod Republic

Once established as Grand Prince at his new capital in Vladimir, Andrew’s next ambition was to subdue Novgorod. But the opportunity escaped him. His authoritarian attitude made him unpopular with his boyars. He was assassinated in June 1174, before he could attempt an assault on the city.

Being located in the far northeast corner of Kievan Rus’, Novgorod was geographically distanced from Constantinople and therefore Byzantine influence. Instead, it looked westwards across the Baltic Sea towards Scandinavia. The city, known as ‘Lord Novgorod the Great’ had always been fiercely independent and especially so from 1019, when Yaroslav the Wise had granted the citizens special rights and privileges.

Although in theory the Prince of Novgorod was appointed by the Grand Prince of Kiev, in practice, the Veche, or City Assembly, had the last word. According to the Novgorod Chronicle, the Veche frequently ‘let go’, or ‘fetched away’ an unwanted Prince, which was another way of saying ‘we don’t want you’. In such circumstances, the Prince would be wise to leave quickly.

In 1136, the Novgorodians rejected their Prince, Vsevolod Mstislavich, who had been nominated by the Grand Prince of Kiev. This act of independence marked the beginning of the Novgorod Republic, which was to last until 1478 when it became incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Moscow.

The Germans

From early times Novgorad had been an important trading post for goods travelling to and from Constantinople. By the middle of the 12th Century the city had become part of the Hanseatic League, which was a network of commercial cities containing warehouses and often fortifications to protect their mercantile. Normally the gates surrounding the Hanseatic area of the city were closed at night to protect both the merchants and their goods. Novgorod, along with London, was one of the main non-German cities of the League, whereas the majority were German cities located along the Baltic Coast and the Rivers Rhine and Danube.

Because of Novgorod’s connection with the Hanseatic League, the city became home to many German merchants who lived in the commercial quarter of the city. Initially relations between the Novgorodians and the Germans were good, but things started to change towards the end of the 12th Century, that were directly related to the Crusades.

In 1188, Pope Gregory VIII proclaimed a third Crusade. The aim was to retake the holy city of Jerusalem after it had been recaptured in 1187 by Salah ad-Din Yusuf, known in the West as Saladin. This Crusade is also known as ‘The Kings’ Crusade’ because it was led by the rulers of three major European powers; King Philip II of France, King Richard I of England, also known as ‘The Lionheart’ and Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor.

Frederick Barbarossa, who was elderly at the time, never did reach the Holy Land. There is some debate as to how he actually died, but the general consensus is that he accidentally drowned in a shallow river in southern Anatolia. One theory is that whilst seeking relief in the water from the extreme heat, his heavy armour weighed him down causing him to drown.

The majority of the German troops returned home, while the remaining French and English troops continued towards Jerusalem. They failed to retake the holy city but they did succeed in capturing the coastal cities of Jaffa and Acre.

The crusaders remained in Acre for approximately another hundred years and it was during this time that the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, better known as the Teutonic Order, or Teutonic Knights, was formed. In common with the Knights Hospitaller, or Knights of St John of Jerusalem, the Teutonic Knights were founded in order to protect Christian pilgrims and establish hospitals.

In 1211, the Teutonic Knights moved to Transylvania to help defend the Hungarians against the Turkic Kipchaks and in 1230 they began a series of campaigns against the pagans of the Baltic States. The Teutonic Knights were not the first military monks crusading in the region however. Albert, Prince Bishop of Riga, began the conversion of pagan Livonians when he founded the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1202. The Order was sanctioned by Pope Innocent III and supported by the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1204, while Western Crusaders were sacking Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, 1,500 knights of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword sailed in 23 vessels along the Baltic Coast on a mission intended to convert the pagan Balts.

In 1236 the Livonian Order merged with the Teutonic Knights. They acquired vast tracts of land, built fortresses and engaged in international trade. For over two hundred years, between 1200 and 1450, the State of the Teutonic Order ruled modern day Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and parts of Poland and Russia.

The city ‘Lord Novgorod the Great’, the proud city of Kievan Rus’, religious and cultural centre of Orthodox Christianity, was inevitably affected by the proximity of aggressive crusading knights on a mission to convert all Slavs, whether pagan or Orthodox, to Catholic Christianity. This dramatically changed the relationship between the German merchants living in Novgorod and the people of Novgorod.

Alexander Nevsky

This was the situation when Alexander, second son of Prince Yaroslav II, became Grand Prince of Vladimir in 1252. He ranks alongside Rurik and Yaroslav the Wise as one of the greatest rulers of Kievan Rus’. But he is best known in Russian history for his defense of the Rus’ against the Swedes and particularly the Germans, for which he was canonised in 1547.

According to the Second Pskovian Chronicle,

‘He was taller than others and his voice reached the people as a trumpet, and his face was like the face of Joseph, whom the Egyptian Pharaoh placed as next to the king after him of Egypt. His power was a part of the power of Samson and God gave him the wisdom of Solomon ...this Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated.’

Alexander’s first military challenge came when he was just 20 years. For centuries, the Swedes and the Rus’ had competed for the region of Finland and particularly the Gulf of Finland. On the 15th July 1240, Swedish forces, together with their Prince and bishops, landed at the confluence of the rivers Izhora and Neva. Their aim was to seize Novgorod and Ladoga.

According to the Chronicle of Novgorod, ‘Alexander with the men of Novgorod and of Ladoga did not delay at all; he went against them and defeated them...And there was great slaughter of Svei (Swedes). And Knayaz (Prince) Alexander with the men of Novgorod and of Ladoga all came back in health to their own country.’

Some doubt has been placed on the historical accuracy of this account because it is only mentioned in the Russian chronicles and not in any contemporary non-Russian source. Whatever the truth may be, from that time the Prince was known as Alexander Nevsky in reference to the River Neva.

Two years later, Alexander once more came to the aid of the Novgorodians. On the 5th April 1242, the Livonian Branch of the Teutonic Knights invaded the region of Lake Peipus that formed the border between the Republic of Novgorod and the Teutonic States. All accounts agree that a battle took place on the frozen ice of the lake and that the Novgorodians defeated the German knights. Historians differ however over the detail. For example, some suggest that the story of the ice cracking due to the weight of the armed knights and horses, first appeared in 1938 in Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky. Non-Russian sources claim that the Russian chroniclers inflated the figures for the number of German troops while stressing their own, much smaller, numbers. However, this is not a serious accusation since most historical documents are written from one perspective and should be read with a certain amount of skepticism.

The legacy of Alexander Nevsky in Russian history is immense. He was canonised as St Alexander Nevsky in 1547 with his principal feast day being 23rd November. In the 18th Century, Tsar Peter the Great ordered that his remains be removed from Vladimir and reinterred at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, or monastery, in St. Petersburg.

In 1725, Empress Catherine I introduced the ‘Imperial Order of St Alexander Nevsky’ and in 1942 the Soviet authorities introduced an’ Order of Alexander Nevsky’. Apart from the 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Prokofiev, who wrote the soundtrack for the film, reworked part of the score into a well-known concert piece.

Alexander has justifiably been acclaimed as an ideal prince-soldier and defender of Russia for his campaigns in the West against the Swedes and Germans. His later actions in relation to invaders from the East, the Mongols, have not received universal acclaim.


The long reign of Yaroslav the wise, between 1019 and 1054, represented the Golden Age of Kievan Rus’. It was a time of cultural flowering, the building of many churches and monasteries and the foundation of schools. It was also a time when the Rus’, or at least the leaders, started to become aware of their Russian sense of identity. Yaroslav’s appointment of a Slav bishop, rather than accept a Greek bishop imposed by Constantinople, and his legal code, the Russkaya Pravda, were both overt attempts to distance the Rus’ from Byzantium.

Following the destruction of Kiev in 1167 by Andrew Bogoliubski, the northern cities of Rostov, Suzdal and especially Vladimir assumed greater significance. This was especially the case when the Grand Prince chose to make a particular city his capital. However, while Kiev may have lost its political importance, it continued to be the centre of Christian Orthodoxy for the Kievan Rus’.

Events in the Near East and Holy Land that led to the Crusades were to have repercussions right across Europe as far as the Baltic coast. The zeal of the Northern Crusaders often led to a religious fanaticism that was directed not just against the pagan Slav, but also the Orthodox Christian. When the Teutonic Knights threatened the fiercely independent citizens of Novgorod, they were repelled under the leadership of Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky.

Alexander Nevsky has come to symbolise the victory of Russia over the Swedes and particularly the Germans. Down the centuries Russian soldiers have received military honours in his name. Films have been made and music composed with the aim of instilling pride in the Russian people and loyalty to the nation of Russia.

Lake Peipus, the site of the German defeat, became the border between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Three hundred years later, both the Swedes and Germans would challenge the authority of the Papacy and the institute of the Catholic Church at the time of the 16th Century Reformation.



The Mongol Yoke

While Alexander Nevsky was fighting off the Swedes and German Teutonic Knights in the Northwest, another invasion was happening in the East. According to the Chronicle of Novgorod, ‘unknown nations arrived. No one knew their origin or whence they came, or what religion they practiced. This is known only to God, and perhaps to wise men learned in books’.

The Mongols who invaded Kievan Rus’ were known as the Golden Horde, or the Ulus of Jochi. There have been various theories put forward regarding the name ‘Golden Horde’, the most popular being that ‘Golden’ referred to the gold coloured tent of Batu Khan or perhaps the wealth that the Mongols accumulated. ‘Horde’ may have been related to the Mongol word for ‘camp’, or ‘centre’.

The Golden Horde appeared in 1223 and for most the next two hundred years the Rus’ people lived under Mongol vassalage. The Horde’s success in conquering and subduing the Rus’ principalities is largely due to the on-going infighting among the Rus’ Princes. This created a political vacuum leaving them open to assault from an outside enemy. Since the Mongol invasion marks the end of Kievan Rus’ polity, the nation and the people will now be referred to as Russia and the Russians respectively.

Russians themselves refer to the period from 1223 to 1480 as the Mongol Yoke, suggesting that the people suffered a terrible burden. Alternative views are that there was never a Mongol ‘yoke’ or that the benefits introduced by the Mongols outweighed the negative aspects.

The Mongols

The founder of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan, was born around 1162 in the Kentii Mountains of Mongolia. By 1206 he had succeeded in uniting under his leadership the many nomadic Mongol tribes and consequently earned the title ‘Great Khan’, better known in the West as Genghis Khan. Genghis was a brilliant, though brutal, military leader as well as being an astute strategist. Under threat of punishment, he demanded absolute loyalty from both his own people and also his vassal states. By the end of the 13th Century the Empire that he founded stretched from the Black Sea to China, bringing him a source of great wealth and power.

Before Genghis Khan died in 1227, he divided his territories between his four senior sons. There was some doubt about the paternity of his eldest son, Jochi. A rival tribe had held Genghis Khan’s young wife captive for a short while and it was always possible that the child she gave birth to was fathered by that tribal leader and not by Genghis. The situation was similar to that of Sviatopolk, who may, or may not, have been the son of Vladimir, a situation that resulted in conflict with his brother Yaroslav. (See Chapter Two)

Genghis, however, wisely decided not to pass on the title of Great Khan to Jochi. Instead he appointed his third son Ogedei, who was also the most able, as Great Khan. Then he divided the entire Empire between his four senior sons. Jochi was given the Western part of the Empire that included the region of the Caucasus and parts of today’s Russia. Chagatai received Central Asia and Northern Iran. Ogedei received Eastern Asia and China while the youngest son, Tolui, was given the Mongol homeland, roughly equating to present day Mongolia. In relation to Russian history, which is the topic of this book, we are interested in Jochi’s inheritance.

Jochi’s troops, under the leadership of Generals Jeb and Subutai the Valiant, first engaged with the Russians in May 1223 at the Battle of Kalka River, which is in the Southeastern region of today’s Ukraine. The Russian army consisted of a coalition of principalities led by Mstislav III, Grand Prince of Kiev, as well as the Turkic Cumans. The Cumans, Kipchaks and Penechegs were all Turkic tribes who had migrated from the East over previous centuries and settled in the Northern region of the Black Sea. At various times, they had been at war both with the Rus’ and the Byzantines. However, when faced with a common enemy, in this case the Mongols, the Cumans decided to ally with the Russian princes. Furthermore, it was the Cumans who first warned the Russians of the danger of the advancing Mongols.

Although the Mongols defeated the Russians in the first battle of 1223, they decided to retreat, probably because the Great Khan needed reinforcements in his ongoing war with the Chinese Jin. It would be another thirteen years before the Mongols returned, this time under the leadership of Batu Khan, the son of Jochi and grandson of Genghis Khan.

Invasions of Batu Khan

Having finally defeated the Jin in 1234, the Great Khan Ogedei now turned his attention to the West. He ordered his nephew Batu to commence the conquest of Europe. In 1235, accompanied by his cousins Mongke and Guyuk, Batu led an army of mounted archers across the Volga River. Estimates of troop numbers vary widely from 30,000 to 200,000 and over the next twelve months the Mongols defeated the Volga Bulgarians, the Kipchak Cumans and the Alans, an ancient Iranian nomadic people, who had earlier settled in the region.

In 1237, Batu sent an envoy to Yuri II, Grand Prince of Vladimir, offering him a choice between submission or war. Yuri had the envoy murdered and refused to submit. He also refused to go to the help of Ryazan, which was under siege from the Mongols at the time. Consequently, Batu sacked Ryazan and then went on to destroy Kolomna and Moscow, which at that time was a fairly insignificant town. He next advanced on the capital city of Vladimir and burned it to the ground. The Grand Prince managed to escape to Yaroslavi, but his wife and all his family died in a fire that raged through the cathedral where they were hiding.

In 1238, Batu divided his armies into smaller contingents in order to take the smaller cities. Crimea and Mordovia fell with many of the Cumans and Greeks of Crimea escaping to the Crimean Mountains. In time, the refugees integrated with the Mongols and became known as the Crimean Tatars.

Rostov, Yaroslavi and Tver fell in the same year. In the winter of 1239, Batu sacked Chernigov and Peryaslavi and in the winter of 1240, Kiev, the great city of Vladimir the Great and Kievan Rus’, was completely destroyed. Only Novgorod and Pskov survived unscathed.

Batu then began making plans to conquer Austria, Italy and Germany. While no Western powers came to the help of the Russians when they were under attack from the Mongols, as soon as the territory of the Holy Roman Empire was in danger, Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX decided to call a crusade to defeat the pagan invaders. However, there was very little response from the monarchs of Western Europe who were all caught up at the time in their own affairs.

Everything changed, however, with the death of the Great Khan, Ogedei, in December 1241. Under Mongol, or Yasa Law, all Khans of the dynasty were expected to return to Mongolia on the death of the Great Khan. At a special Kurultai, or grand council, held in the capital city of Karakorum, they would then elect their new leader.

It took five years to find a successor to Ogedei. The long interval was partly because Batu refused to return home and sent a deputy instead. But the delay was also caused by the vast distances involved. For example, it could take up to three years at that time to travel from Russia to Mongolia. During the interregnum, Toregene, Ogedei’s wife became regent as the Great Khatun. She ruled until 1246, when Batu’s cousin Guyuk Khan, who had accompanied Batu on his conquests, was elected Great Khan.

As was customary, Toregen invited rulers of other great Empires, including the Sultans of the Seljuk and Abbasid Empires, to the coronation ceremony. Yaroslav, Grand Prince of Vladimir and Suzdal, was also invited to the ceremony but he died under suspicious circumstances, thought to be from poisoning at the hands of Toregen.

The death of Ogedei and consequent recall of Batu to Mongolia disrupted any further conquests of Russian territory and saved Western Europe from the Mongol Yoke. It did not, however, lead to the departure of the Mongols. Instead, there began a period of consolidation under their rule.

The Yoke

The Mongol conquest caused untold devastation to Russian cities, property and land, resulting in economic decline. It is estimated that around half a million Russians lost their lives between 1223 and 1246. Once the initial conquest was over, Batu introduced new forms of administration, some of which had originated in China.

The Mongol ‘yoke’ primarily consisted of homage, tribute in the form of taxation and a troop levy. Once a city was conquered, either by force or through submission, the Prince was expected to pay personal homage to his overlord. Initially this meant a long and arduous journey to Mongolia. It was a journey that could take many years and some Princes were known to have died on the way.

Having arrived at the Mongolian capital, the Grand Prince had to prostrate at the feet of the Great Khan. This would have been a humiliating experience for the Princes of the proud house of Rurik. The prince would then be awarded a yarlyk, which was a legal document granting him authority to rule his domain. Later, when the Golden Horde established its capital at Sarai, which borders the Caspian Sea in the region of modern Astrakan in Russia, the journey was far less demanding. As vassals of the Golden Horde, all successive Princes could only rule after paying personal homage to the Khan and receiving the required yarlyk and in many cases the Khan appointed his own Prince, overriding the wishes of the people.


In order to collect tribute in the form of taxation, the Mongols needed to know the size of the population. In 1257 they conducted a census, using a Chinese system whereby the population was divided into multiples of ten. This was several centuries before similar exercises were to be conducted in Europe.

Governors were then appointed with the responsibility of administering the area and collecting taxes. If a city had resisted the Mongols it was put under the jurisdiction of a military governor. But when a city surrendered it was placed under the authority of a civilian governor. In time, Russians were appointed as governors.

With the appointment of governors, the Mongols abolished the traditional veche, or council. This was a significant change and marked the dismantling of the traditional Slav democratic form of self-government and a move towards more autocratic rule that was to culminate in the autocracy of imperial Russia.

Novgorod, Pskov and several other cities in the Northwestern region, managed to keep their veche. This is partly because the Mongols were less interested in these far-flung regions. Furthermore, Novgorod was at the time ruled by Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky (see previous Chapter) and rather than have his city razed to the ground, he chose to submit to Batu, an act that drew fierce criticism from many of his people. However, by submitting to the Mongols, Alexander was able to keep his veche and be accountable to a civilian, rather than a military governor. Furthermore, Alexander frequently acted as an intermediary between the Russians and the Khan, particularly in cases where the Khan was on the point of taking punitive action against a principality.

According to Dustin Hosseini, in his article The Effects of the Mongol Empire on Russia, published by the School of Russian and Asian Studies, the spirit of the veche, as a public forum for debate, is witnessing resurgence in Russia today.

Troop and other Levies

The census statistics were also used to set the amount of troop levy demanded by the overlords. According to the number of inhabitants, all towns and villages were expected to provide a certain number of troops to fight alongside the Mongols in their campaigns.

Apart from troops, the Russian population also had to provide yams, or staging posts. The posts were spread across Mongol Russia, each separated by a distance of a day’s horse ride. The yams offered fresh horses, food and bedding to troops and Mongol agents, all of which had to be provided by the local people. While the posts enabled travel across vast distances, they did not incorporate a postal service.

The Russian Orthodox Church

When Batu and the Golden Horde invaded Russia in the 13th Century, the Mongols were still following the religion of Genghis Khan, which was a mixture of Tengrism, or ancestor worship and shamanism. They were known to be tolerant of other religions, including Christianity. Despite this, at the beginning of the invasion, churches were looted and priests killed alongside the rest of the population.

However, Batu soon recognised the influence that the Church had over the people and decided to harness this influence, or power, for his own ends. In other words, his aim was to seek the collaboration of the Church to help him rule the people. He therefore needed to win the support of the Church hierarchy.

He first of all exempted the Church from the census programme. This naturally resulted in an exemption of all taxation and troop levy obligations. And in order to ensure that this was adhered to, he passed a decree declaring that: ‘We don’t require the church to pay any tribute, nor any tax per plough, nor any duty, nor provide horses, nor recruits, nor food supplies...’ (Alexander Yanov in his article The Russian Orthodox Church and the Curse of the Mongol Yoke, published by the Institute of Modern Russia).

But the act that was to have the most profound consequences was the award of a special yarlyk. According to Alexander Yanov, the Mongol khan issued a decree permitting the Church to seize over a third of all agricultural land in the country. Another edict stated: ‘Let it [the Church] have the power to investigate the truth and to administer justice and to rule over its own people in all matters concerning robberies, theft, and all other cases, let it be decided by the Metropolitan himself, alone, or whomever he directs to do so’.

The church benefitted hugely under the Mongol ‘yoke’. In return for favours received, the Metropolitan ordered that prayers should be said for the Mongol Tsar, the legitimate ruler, who should be respected and obeyed in all things.

Apart from growing in wealth and power, compared to the rest of the Russian population, the Church experienced a flourishing in missionary work, church building and religious art.

It was during this period that the icon painter, Theophanes the Greek, moved from Constantinople, first to Novgorod and then to Moscow. The artist was commissioned to decorate churches and cathedrals with some of the greatest pieces of religious art. Theophanes was mentor and teacher to Andrei Rublev, who later painted icons and frescoes for the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Moscow Kremlin. By 1322, Moscow had replaced first Kiev and then Vladimir as the Metropolitan (Church) capital.

There was also a growth at this time in the foundation of monasteries. With the collapse of Kievan Rus’ and consequent political vacuum, large numbers flocked to the protection offered by the Church. In response monasteries were founded on agricultural land previously seized from the people. While a minority of Russians would have followed the religious life, the majority worked the land as unpaid labour.


The Mongol invasion of the Rus’ was part of Genghis Khan’s massive conquest of vast swathes of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Under the Great Khan’s grandson, Batu, who led the Golden Horde, Kievan Rus’ was conquered and came under Mongol vassalage for some two hundred years. This could not have happened in the way that it did without the anarchy that prevailed at the time among the Rus’ principalities. In other words, a power gap had been created due to the infighting among the Princes. It was a gap into which the Mongols stepped.

Initially the conquest was less about acquiring land and more about the acquisition of wealth, primarily through taxation. This required an efficient form of administration and in order to achieve this Batu introduced a number of Chinese methods of recording. At the same time, he abolished the majority of the veche, or city councils, replacing them with military or civilian Governors. Finally, he succeeded in winning over the loyalty of the Church, which became a useful Mongol agent.

The overall effect of the Khan’s strategy was to undermine the traditional democratic system of the Rus’ while moving towards a more centralised form of government. It was a trend that was to continue into modern times.

There has been much debate over the nature of the ‘yoke’, if indeed, it ever existed. As so often happens, historians label a particular period long after the event. In this case, the first mention of a ‘yoke’ appeared in a late 17th Century Church school textbook when it described Ivan III’s liberation of Muscovy Russia from the Horde ‘yoke’ in 1502.

It is unquestionable that the Mongol invasion caused destruction and human suffering, together with huge economic problems, on a vast scale. At the same time the Church, under the protection of the Mongols, witnessed a growth in wealth and power. It acquired agricultural land and built new Churches and monasteries, which were decorated by the greatest artists of the time.

During two hundred years of Mongol rule there was inevitably a degree of integration between Slav, Varangian and Mongol. Mongol words began to seep into the Russian language, the Russian elite started to wear Mongol dress and of course inter-racial marriage became commonplace. Indeed, it is possible to detect Mongol features in a large number of today’s Russian population.

Whether or not the Mongol ‘yoke’ was a good, or bad, thing for Russia will long be debated. Some view the period to be the golden age of the Church. Others suggest that the ‘yoke’ was the cause of Russia’s backwardness and orientalism that resulted in Russia falling behind the rest of Western Europe.

What is clear, however, is that the Mongol ‘yoke’ was a watershed in Russian history. It marked the end of Kievan Rus’ and a move towards autocracy. It also enabled the rise of Muscovy, which will be the topic of the following Chapter.



Grand Duchy of Muscovy

The Grand Duchy of Muscovy, also known as Moscow, lasted from 1283 to 1503. In 1237, when conquered by the Mongols, the Duchy was an insignificant town within the Grand Principality of Vladimir Suzdal. By 1503, under the reign of Ivan III, known as the Great, Muscovy had tripled in size to incorporate all the previous territory of Kievan Rus’.

Daniel I, First Duke of Moscovy

In 1283, Daniel, the fourth and youngest son of Alexander Nevsky, inherited the minor principality. Located in an isolated region amongst thick forests, it was of little interest to the Mongols after their earlier sack of the city. It did, however, have the benefit of easy access to a number of important rivers that enabled trade with the Baltic and Constantinople.

Within ten years of Daniel’s accession, he had absorbed Ryazan into his principality and he also succeeded in defeating an alliance of Pereslavi-Zalessky and the Mongols. Although not a large battle in terms of numbers, it was significant as being the earliest successful challenge to Mongol rule and it also brought Pereslavi into Daniel’s domain. His conflict with Pereslavi was his only war during his thirty years’ rule, which is recorded as being a period of relative peace.

During his reign, Daniel built the first monastery in Moscow, now known as the Danilov Monastery. He is said to have been a man of humility and he became a monk towards the end of his life. In 1652, Daniel was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Yuri, Grand Duke of Moscovy 1303-1325

Yuri, Daniel’s eldest son, who was also known as Georgiy, succeeded his father as Grand Duke in 1303. While Daniel had been a popular Grand Duke, who had introduced a period of relative peace and stability, this was not the case with Yuri.

Although Daniel had resisted going to war during his reign, this did not mean that he had no enemies, particularly when Moscow began to eclipse some of the other principalities. Yuri’s first challenge came from Mikhail, who was a younger brother of Alexander Nevsky. As Prince of Tver and Grand Prince of Vladimir, Mikhail claimed Yuri’s territories of Pereslavi and Moscow. Being the legitimate Grand Prince of Vladimir, Mikhail appealed to Great Khan Tokhta for support. In response, the Khan reaffirmed Mikhail as supreme ruler of the Russian princes, which by definition put Yuri in a subordinate position.

Yuri therefore looked elsewhere for support and he chose the Church, which was a rising power at the time. (See previous Chapter) It was known that Metropolitan Peter, head of the Church, had a poor relationship with Mikhail of Tver ever since 1308, when the latter openly opposed Peter’s candidature for the Episcopacy, even though it had been proposed by Constantinople. Taking advantage of the situation, Yuri gained the support of Metropolitan Peter in order to form an alliance with Novgorod against Mikhail of Tver.

When the Great Khan Tokhta died in 1313, both Yuri and Mikhail travelled to Sarai for the installation of his successor, Uzbeg Khan. Both Grand Princes spent some two to three years in the Mongol capital and during this time Yuri managed to win the favour of Uzbeg and married his sister Konchaka. Uzbeg then deposed Mikhail in favour of Yuri as Grand Prince of Vladimir and Yuri marched on Tver in order to claim his position as legitimate ruler. However, he was attacked by Mikhail’s troops and his wife and brother were taken prisoner.

Konchaka died while being held hostage in Tver and Yuri reported to the Khan that Mikhail had poisoned his sister. Consequently, Mikhail was summoned to Sarai where he was put on trial, found guilty and promptly executed.

Yuri was not a popular ruler. The Khan had appointed him as tax-gatherer responsible for all the Russian people and consequently he acquired great wealth. He was also suspected of withholding tribute that was due to the Khan. When Mikhail’s son and successor Dmitri, told Uzbeg Khan of his suspicions, both Yuri and Dmitri were summoned to Sarai. But before any investigation could take place, Dmitri arranged the murder of Yuri. Dmitri was executed by the Horde some months later.

Ivan I, Grand Duke of Moscovy 1325-1340

Following Yuri’s death in 1325, he was succeeded by his younger brother Ivan I as Grand Duke of Moscovy. Three years later, Uzbeg Khan awarded him the senior principality of Vladimir along with the right to collect taxes from all the other Russian principalities. Following in the footsteps of his brother, Ivan also became very wealthy and earned the nickname Kalita, meaning ‘money-bag’.

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