Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

Ivan III, the Great

Ivan the Great


Vassili's eldest son Ivan was born in 1440. It is said that upon the occasion of his birth, an old monk at Novgorod had a vision which he reported to the Archbishop. "Truly," he said, "it is to-day that the grand duke triumphs; God has given him an heir; I behold this child making himself illustrious by glorious deeds. He will subdue princes and nations. But woe to Novgorod! Novgorod will fall at his feet, and never rise again."

Vassili, wishing to avoid the disputes incident upon the succession, during his lifetime admitted Ivan as co-regent. Upon his father's death, in 1462, Ivan was twenty-two years old. He succeeded without the usual disturbances, and the first six years of his reign were uneventful. In 1468, he gained forcible possession of his brother George's estate, and allowed him to die in prison. When he heard of his death,—he wept. Another brother, Andrew, was in his way, and was flung into prison, whereupon Ivan called the Metropolitan and bishops to his palace, wept some more, and confessed that he had been too severe;—but he forgot to restore Andrew's property. When his third brother, Boris, died, Ivan seized the estate and kept it; but he wept some more.

This soft-hearted but tenacious gentleman found fault with his neighbor, Michael of Tver, for entering into an alliance with Lithuania. To settle the difficulty, he invaded the dukedom, and annexed it to Moscow. Then, having his hands free, he thought of Novgorod. The Germans of the Hanseatic League had formed a colony in the old republic, which had grown very wealthy. Ivan looked upon that wealth as his; if it was not, it ought to be. Acting upon this satisfactory conclusion, he remembered that the people of Novgorod had omitted to do him homage when he succeeded his father. They had even failed to appreciate the gentle letter of remonstrance in which he reminded them of their oversight. Good-natured as he knew himself to be, he could not afford to encourage such a rebellious spirit; but, being a careful man, he concluded that it would be more humane as well as cheaper to try the gentle means of bribery. His gold, distributed where it would do most good, procured him a large party. The opposition was led by a woman named Marfa, the wealthy widow of a possadnik. She urged that the republic should ask the help of Casimir IV, King of Poland, but Ivan's friends in the vetché replied that, if Poland should win, the Roman Catholic Church would enter, whereas Russia was at least loyal to the Greek Church.

Marfa's influence prevailed; the republic submitted to Poland, on condition that its charter should be respected. Gentle Ivan despatched some Envoys to warn the people of the error of their ways, and when that did no good, he hired Tartar cavalry, overran the territory of the republic, and directed his troops to cut off the noses and lips of the prisoners. It is probable that he wept, although history omits mentioning the fact. Novgorod was unprepared; a mob was collected and styled an army, and in the battle of the Chelona, 3,000 trained troops put to flight 30,000 citizen soldiers. Novgorod was lost. Ivan kindly permitted the name "republic'' to continue, but his authority was admitted. He also received a share of the wealth as an indemnity. (1470.)

Two years later he married the niece and supposed heiress of the last Byzantine emperor. Her father, Thomas Palaeologus, had fled to Rome where he died leaving one daughter Sophia. Pope Paul II wished to find her a husband, and Cardinal Bessarion of the Greek Church advised him to offer her hand to Ivan. The offer was accepted; Sophia received a dower from the Pope who still hoped to unite the two churches, and the bride was received with great honor in Ivan's territory. The grand duke probably had his eye on Constantinople, but deferred his claim to some favorable opportunity. With Sophia came many Greek nobles, artists, and learned men. Ivan, as may be judged from his gentle nature, was a patron of art, and had no prejudice against foreigners. Several Italians came to Moscow where their services were appreciated.

Ivan left Novgorod in peace during five years, when he thought it time to familiarize the citizens with the fact that their republic was a thing of the past. He needed a pretext; by a judicious use of money, his agents raised a mob against the boyards, who, being assaulted, invoked the strong arm of the law, in the person of Ivan. The grand duke came to Novgorod in 1475, to hold court. He at once ordered the arrest of the possadnik, Marfa's son, and a number of boyards who believed in a republic, had them put in chains and carried to Moscow. This was in violation of the charter, but Ivan had an elastic conscience. Next he tempted a scribe to mention him as Sovereign  instead of "lord," in an official document; and when, in a last effort to save the republic, Marfa's partisans killed a number of Ivan's friends, it was evidently his duty to restore order.

Upon his return to Moscow, he announced that Novgorod was the enemy of the Greek Church, and the ally of the Pope and of Lithuania. This so alarmed the Metropolitan and the priests that they begged Ivan to make war upon the wicked city. Many dukes and boyards, moved by loyalty for the church, and perhaps scenting spoils, flocked to his camp. Marfa's partisans in vain tried to arouse the citizens by the cry, "Let us die for liberty and St. Sophia!" It fell on deaf ears; every one for himself, was the general thought. Novgorod surrendered. Ivan guaranteed,—for just so long as it should suit him,—the people's lives and property, their ancient code of laws, and exemption from Muscovite service; but the vetché and office of possadnik were abolished, and with them died the republic. (1478.)

Having settled with Novgorod to his satisfaction, Ivan bethought himself of establishing peace in his own household. Russian writers state that his wife, Sophia, annoyed him by often repeating the interesting inquiry, "How long am I to be the slave of the Tartars?" The Khan of the Golden Horde had been dissolved since Tamerlane's raid; several states had been formed from it, of which the principal were Kazan, Saraï or Astrakhan, and the Crimea. Kazan was ruled by a czar; its people were the descendants of Mongols and Bulgars who had made great progress in commerce. The Khan of Saraï and his men clung to the life of nomads; but the subjects of the Khan of the Crimea, were Mongols, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Italians; and all three had this in common that they were constantly indulging in quarrels and strife at home.

Ivan knew all this, because sometimes a chief would come to Moscow for an asylum, and others took service in his army. He no longer sent tribute, although occasionally, when he was occupied elsewhere, he did send a small present. In 1478 Khan Akhmet sent ambassadors to Moscow to remind him that the tribute was in arrears. Ivan, who had apparently a wonderful command over his features, pretended to lose his temper, jumped on the picture of the khan, and ordered all the envoys except one to be put to death. The survivor was told to go home, and tell his master of his reception.

Ivan had reasonable cause for thinking that Akhmet would be displeased, and collected an army of 10,000 men on the Oka, where he took up a strong position. He had been right in his conjecture, for Akhmet gathered an army and in due time arrived on the opposite bank of the river. Ivan had time to reflect. He did not much fancy risking a decisive battle, and returned to Moscow to consult his mother, the boyards, and the priests. All urged him to fight, and finally he came back to the camp, convinced that scheming and plotting were more in his line. All this time the two armies lay within earshot, exchanging complimentary remarks, with no casualties. The khan offered to pardon Ivan on condition that he should come and hold his stirrup; or, if he were too tired, if he should send some high officer to do it in his name. Ivan shook his head. Meanwhile the priests at Moscow were growing impatient, and the Archbishop Vassian sent him a warm letter. It happened that Akhmet was quite as prudent as Ivan; but when the winter came and the Oka, instead of a barrier, became an easy crossing, Ivan ordered the retreat. Just then the two armies, led by such brave commanders, were seized with a panic, and away they fled in opposite directions. (1480.) The honors were with Ivan, because he did not have so far to run as Akhmet, who did not stop until he reached Saraï. It is not stated why Ivan received no surname from this great battle.

The following year, 1481, Ivan had sufficiently recovered to show the courage he possessed. There was a disturbance in Novgorod, where the people did not appreciate the nobility of his character. He ordered some of the boyards to be tortured and put to death, and eight thousand citizens were forcibly packed off to Souzdal.

In fear of his doughty enemy Akhmet. Ivan made friends with the Khan of the Crimea, calculating that if the former should attack him again, he would have to look out for his rear. Akhmet, however, seemed to have had enough of it, and Ivan, who was on bad terms with Lithuania and Poland, suggested to his friend that a raid into those territories might pay. The Khan of the Crimea took the hint; he penetrated as far as Kief which he captured and pillaged. (1482.) The famous monastery of the Catacombs was almost destroyed; but Ivan had the satisfaction of knowing that his two enemies had other things to think of, instead of annoying him.

In 1487 war broke out with Kazan. A Russian army marched against it, but Ivan did not take command. As a result, the city was taken and the khan, who had assumed the title of czar, was brought a prisoner to Moscow. Fearing that he would unite the other Tartars against him if he annexed the territory at once, he appointed a nephew of his friend, the Khan of the Crimea, but placed Russian soldiers in the fortress, while he added the title of Prince of Bulgaria to his own. Other Tartar princes sent envoys to protest against the arrest. Ivan did not receive them in person, and refused to release the prisoner, but he ordered the envoys to be treated with great honor and gave them so many presents, that they returned in great good humor.

In 1492, the King of Poland died, leaving that kingdom to his eldest son Albert, and Lithuania to his second son Alexander. Ivan was justly indignant that he had not been remembered in the will. He sent envoys to Bajazet II, Sultan of Turkey, to the Kings of Hungary and Moldavia, and to his old friend the Khan of the Crimea, to secure their assistance or at least their kind neutrality. Of the services of the Khan of the Crimea he felt assured.

He began by discovering a Polish plot against his life at Moscow, and appealed to the religious prejudices of the Lithuanian nobles belonging to the Greek Church, omitting to mention his little arrangement with the infidel sultan. Mien Alexander sent envoys to negotiate terms of peace, Ivan's deputies said to them: "Lithuania has profited by the misfortunes of Russia to take our territory, but to-day things are changed." They were right. When peace was concluded in 1494, Ivan's frontier in the west was extended.

The marriage of Alexander to Ivan's daughter seemed to end the hostility between the two countries, but nothing was further from the schemes of the wily grand duke. He stipulated that she should have a Greek chapel in the palace, and warned her never to appear in a Catholic church, and always to wear the Russian national dress. Soon after the wedding Ivan complained that his daughter was forced to wear Polish costumes, and that the Greek Church was being persecuted. These were to him ample cause for war, the more so since he had good reason to count upon his friends, the priests and boyards of the Greek Church. When the war broke out, cities where the majority of the people belonged to that church, opened their gates to his army, and Alexander was badly defeated in the battle of Vedrocha. This war added another slice to Ivan's territory.

Alexander in his distress made an alliance with the Livonian Order and with the Great Horde at Saraï; but Ivan's old friend, the Khan of the Crimea, made a raid in Gallicia and Volhynia, and the Lithuanians were defeated at Mstislaf; but they compelled the Russians to raise the siege of Smolensk. Meanwhile Ivan had serious trouble. In 1495, he ordered the merchants of several Hanseatic towns to be arrested at Novgorod, and incidentally had goods to the value of $200,000,—an immense sum in those days,—carried to Moscow. This caused the foreign merchants to leave for safer places; but the Livonian Order invaded his territory, and in the battle of Siritza, they crushed a Russian army of 50,000 men, but the following year, 1502, they were defeated at Pskof.

Toward the end of his life he was in doubt about his successor, because his eldest son was dead. At first he thought of making his grandson Dmitri, his heir; but he changed his mind, sent his daughter-in-law and grandson to prison and proclaimed his second son Vassili his heir. He died in 1505, after a reign of forty-three years. It was under his direction that a new code of laws, the Oulogenia, was prepared.