Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

Russia Becomes an Autocracy

Vassili, Ivan's son, showed a great resemblance to his father. He did not evince any greater love for his near relatives, as one of his first acts was to put his nephew Dmitri in prison, where he died. One of his brothers who did not like his manners, tried to escape, but was brought back and severely punished.

The republic of Pskof, and the dukedoms of Riazan and Novgorod-Seversky were still enjoying some degree of liberty, which Vassili did not approve. At Pskof, the grand duke was represented by a namiestnik, or ducal delegate; the people, citizens and peasants, nobles and lower classes, quarreled constantly among themselves, but united to quarrel with the delegate. Vassili determined to put an end to this. He came to Novgorod to hold court, and summoned the magistrates of Pskof to appear before him, and when they arrived he ordered their arrest. A merchant of Pskof heard of it and, hurrying home, told the people. Immediately the bell was rung to convoke the vetché, and the masses called for war with Moscow. More prudent counsels prevailed when messengers arrived from the prisoners, imploring their friends not to try a useless resistance and to avoid the shedding of blood. A leading citizen was sent to Vassili to offer him submission; he was dismissed with the answer that one of the diaks  or secretaries would cone to Pskof to let the people know the terms. When that officer arrived, he was admitted in the vetché, where he informed his hearers that Vassili imposed two conditions, namely, that Pskof and the towns subject to it must receive his delegates, and that the vetché must be abolished and the great bell, used to convoke it, must be taken down. Twenty-four hours were asked to deliberate. Before the time expired, the vetché met for the last time, when the first magistrate addressed the delegate. "It is written in our chronicles," he said, "that our ancestors took oaths to the grand duke. The people of Pskof swore never to rebel against our lord who is at Moscow, nor to ally themselves with Lithuania, with Poland, nor with the Germans, otherwise the wrath of God would be upon them, bringing with it famine, fires, floods, and the invasion of the infidels. If the grand duke, on his part, did not observe his vow, he dared the same consequences. Now our town and our bell are in the power of God and the duke. As for us, we have kept our oath." The great bell was taken to Novgorod, and Vassili visited "his patrimony." Three hundred wealthy families were transported to other cities and replaced by as many families from Moscow. When he departed from Pskof, he left a garrison of 5,000 guards and 500 artillerymen. That was the end of the last republic in Russia. (1510.)

In 1521, it was the turn of Riazan whose duke was accused of having entered into an alliance with the Khan of the Crimea. He was summoned to Moscow, where he was arrested, but he managed to escape. His dukedom, however, was annexed to Moscow. Two years later, in 1523, the Duke of Novgorod-Seversky was put in prison for underhand dealing with Poland, and that dukedom was added to Vassili's territories. This rounded up Vassili's possessions in Central Russia.

The grand duke continued his father's policy toward Lithuania. When Alexander died, he tried to become Grand Duke of Wilna, but the King of Poland was too quick for him. War broke out, but neither gained any important advantage, and in 1509 a perpetual peace  was concluded wherein Vassili renounced all claims upon Kief and Smolensk. The "perpetual peace" lasted three years. Vassili then went to the other extreme, by declaring that "as long as his horse was in marching condition and his sword cut sharp, there should be neither peace nor truce with Lithuania." In 1514, the Russian army besieged and took Smolensk, but in the same year they were badly defeated in the battle of Orcha.

The two grand dukes tried to involve as many allies as they could. The Khan of the Crimea, the useful friend of Vassili's father, had become the son's enemy; Vassili offset him by an alliance with the Khan of Astrakhan. When Sigismund tried to secure the help of Sweden, Vassili sought that of Denmark; and when his enemy set the Dnieper Cossacks at him, the grand duke induced the Teutonic Order to invade Poland. After Sigismund was defeated at Smolensk, the Emperor of Germany and the Pope offered to mediate; the latter advised Vassili to let Lithuania alone, and to turn his attention toward Constantinople. Negotiations commenced in 1520, but it was six years later before a truce was concluded. On this occasion Vassili made a speech in which he praised Emperor Charles V, and Pope Clement VII, but Lithuania lost Smolensk. It was during this war that the partition of Poland was first mentioned.

Vassili did not neglect the east, even while engaged in the west. Kazan had expelled the nephew of the Khan of the Crimea whom Ivan III had appointed, and elected a Khan hostile to Russia. Two expeditions were sent against the city but nothing was effected. When this khan died. Vassili succeeded in installing a friendly prince, but he was overthrown and a relative of the Khan of the Crimea took his place. He prepared a great invasion of Russia in 1521, and did gain a decided victory on the Oka, after which he ravaged the territory of the grand duke. Vassili was compelled to humble himself before the khan, in order to save Moscow; he made him presents and in the treaty signed by him, called himself the khan's tributary. When the khan withdrew, he was attacked in Riazan and the treaty was taken away from him. The invasion was, however, a calamity for the grand dukedom, which was devastated by fire, and a host of women and children were carried off, to be sold as slaves at Astrakhan and Kaffa.

The following year Vassili collected a large army on the Oka and challenged the Khan of the Crimea to come and give battle. The offer was declined with the remark that he knew the way into Russia, and that he was not in the habit of consulting his enemies as to when and where the was to fight.

Hoping to profit by the quarrels among the Tartars, Vassili sent an expedition to Kazan in 1523, and again in 1524, but both were unsuccessful. Kazan owed its wealth to a fair, which attracted a host of merchants. Vassili thought that he would destroy his enemy's prosperity by establishing a rival fair. Accordingly one was opened at Makarief, and this time the grand duke's expectations were realized. This was the origin of the world-famous fair at Nishni Novgorod, whither it was transferred afterwards.

Vassili made a long stride forward in the direction of autocracy. He consulted neither boyard nor priest. He deposed the Metropolitan and banished him to a monastery. Prince Kholmski, who was married to one of Vassili's sisters, was thrown into prison for failing to show abject respect. When one of the boyards complained that "The grand duke decided all the questions, shut up with two others in the bedchamber," the noble was promptly arrested, condemned to death, and executed. He interrupted the objection of a high noble with, "Be silent, lout!" His court displayed great splendor, but it was semi-Asiatic. The throne was guarded by young nobles called ryndis, dressed in long caftans of white satin, high caps of white fur, and carrying silver hatchets.

Like his father, he tried to attract artists and learned men, and exchanged embassies with most of the European Courts. He extended the frontiers of his empire, but ruthlessly suppressed free thought. It has been claimed that the Slav is fit only for an absolute government. The history of Russia contradicts the statement. The idea of autocracy was Asiatic and was imported with the Tartar yoke.