This series has six easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Ivan’s First Act.
It is hard today to think of Russia as a minor power, much less as an oppressed tributary of another power but as our story begins that is the state of things in the territory around the city of Moscow. The story of how Russia went from there to the Russia of The Cold War is one of the most consequential of history. Here is Ivan, one of those rulers whose name got into the history books with the added “The Great”, whose story begins here.
This selection is from History of Russia by Robert Bell published in 1838. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Robert Bell was a prominent Irish writer.
Time: 1462 – 1505
At the birth of Ivan III (1440) Russia was all but stifled between the great Lithuanian empire of the Poles and the vast possessions of the Mongols. In vain had a succession of Muscovite princes endeavored to give unity to the little Russian state. Between the grand princes of Moscow and those of Lithuania stood Novgorod and Pskof, the two chief Russian republics, hesitating to declare their allegiance.
By the creation of new appanages the Russian princes continually destroyed the very unity for which they labored. Moreover, at a time when the great nations of the West were organizing, Muscovy or Russia had no settled relations with their civilization. The opening of the Renaissance, the progress of discovery, the invention of printing — by these the best spirits in Russia were stirred to fresh aspirations for national organization and participation in the great European movement.
According to the tradition, her deliverer had been foretold and was expected. His triumphs were predicted at his birth. The man through whom, or at least in whose name, Russia was to be restored to herself, to be freed from the Mongol yoke, and brought into living connection with Western Europe, was Ivan, son and heir of Vasili the Blind, Grand Prince of Moscow.
This child became Ivan III, surnamed the “Great,” because during his reign, 1462-1505, the expectations of his country were largely realized. He was the first who could call himself “Ruler of all the Russias,” and he is regarded as the original founder of the Russian empire. Already, at his accession, the Muscovite principalities were beginning to draw together, and circumstances were favorable to the prosecution of the task upon which he was called to enter — the completing of their union and the securing of their national independence.
Ivan was a man of great cunning and prudence, and was remarkable for indomitable perseverance, which carried him triumphantly to the conclusions of his designs in a spirit of utter indifference to the ruin or bad faith that tracked his progress. Such a man alone, who was prepared to sacrifice the scruples of honor and the demands of justice, was fit to meet the difficulties by which the grand princedom of Moscow was surrounded. He saw them all clearly, resolved upon the course he should take; and throughout a long reign, in which the paramount ambition of rendering Russia independent and the throne supreme was the leading feature of his policy, he pursued his plans with undeviating consistency.
But that policy was not to be accomplished by open and responsible acts. The whole character of Ivan was tinged with the duplicity of the churchmen who held a high place in his councils. His proceedings were neither direct nor at first apparently conducive to the interests of the empire, but the great cause was secretly advancing against all impediments. While he forbore to risk his advantages, he left an opportunity for disunion among his enemies, by which he was certain to gain in the end. He never committed himself to a position of the security of which he was not sure; and he carried this spirit of caution to such an extremity that many of the early years of his reign present a succession of timid and vacillating movements, that more nearly resemble the subterfuges of a coward than the crafty artifices of a despot.
The objects, of which he never lost sight, were to free himself from enemies abroad and to convert the princedom at home into an autocracy. So extensive a design could not have been effected by mere force of arms, for he had so many domestic and foreign foes to meet at once, and so many points of attack and defence to cover, that it was impossible to conduct so grand a project by military means alone. That which he could not effect, therefore, by the sword, he endeavored to perform by diplomatic intrigue; and thus, between the occasional victories of his armies and the still more powerful influence of his subtle policy, he reduced his foes and raised himself to an eminence to which none of his most ambitious predecessors had aspired. The powers against whom he had to wage this double war of arms and diplomacy were the Tartars and Lithuanians, beyond the frontier; and the independent republics of Novgorod, Vyatka, and Pskof, and the princes of the yet unsettled appanages within. The means he had at his command were fully sufficient to have enabled him to subdue those princes of the blood who exhibited faint signs of discontent in their appanages, and who could have been easily reached through the widely diffused agency of the boyars; but the obstinate republics of the North were more difficult of access. They stood boldly upon their independence, and every attempt to reduce them was followed by as fierce a resistance, and by such a lavish outlay of the wealth which their commercial advantages had enabled them to amass that the task was one of extraordinary difficulty. Kazan, the first and greatest of the Tartar cities, too, claimed a sovereignty over the republics, which Ivan was afraid to contest, lest that which was but a vague and empty claim might end in confirmed authority. It was better to permit the insolent republicans to maintain their entire freedom than to hazard, by indiscretion, their transference to the hands of those Tartars who were loosened from the parent stock.
His first act, therefore, was to acknowledge, directly or indirectly, according to the nature of their different tenures, the rights of all his foes within and without. He appeared to admit the justice of things as he found them; betrayed his foreign enemies into a confidential reliance upon his acquiescence in their exactions; and even yielded, without a murmur, to an abuse of those pretensions to which he affected to submit, but which he was secretly resolved to annihilate. This plausible conformity procured him time to prepare and mature his designs; and so insidiously did he pursue his purpose that he extended that time by a servility which nearly forfeited the attachment of the people.
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