Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Progress of Russia

In all the new activity and expansion which was taking place in Europe at this time three powers took no part. These were Russia, Italy, and Germany. Italy and Germany, by reason of their wars and discord, Russia because it had not yet risen above the horizon.

After the foundation of Russia by the Northmen (see Chapter XIII) it had, in the thirteenth century, been conquered by the fierce Tartar hordes who swept into Europe from Asia. For more than two hundred years these Tartars held Russia in subjection, and the proud princes, who traced their descent from Rurick the Northman freebooter, were forced to pay tribute to their Asiatic conquerors. But at length the Tartar rule began to weaken, a spirit of resistance awoke among the Russians, and after a fierce and long struggle they threw off the yoke of Asia.

The princes of Moscow were the first to break the domination of the Tartars. Moscow, in consequence, became the capital, and the whole of Russia took the name of Muskovy. Then, having broken the power of the Tartars, the princes of Moscow set themselves to unite Russia under one sceptre. This was done by Ivan III the Great, his son Basil III, and his grandson Ivan IV the Terrible, their three reigns stretching over a period of a hundred and twenty-two years (1462-1584).

So much of this work of union was done by Ivan the Great that he received the name of Binder of the Russian Lands. But in order to bind the land together he crushed out lesser rulers with an utterly ruthless hand, and indeed deserved the name of Terrible almost as much as his grandson.

Basil III followed in his father's footsteps, although he was neither so brilliant nor so ruthless. He consolidated his dominions, and added to them. All he did he did as an autocrat, throwing into prison, and cutting off the heads of any who dared to question his will or authority. And when he died, leaving a child of three to succeed him, the land was once more given over to anarchy and confusion.

Ivan IV, the Terrible

While the great nobles fought for power the future terrible czar wandered about neglected and forsaken. He was clothed like a beggar, and often knew what it was to be hungry as well as cold and lonely. But utterly neglected though he was he learned to read, and his favourite books were the Bible and books of history. In all the books he read the Jewish kings, the rulers of Babylon and Egypt, the emperors of Rome and. Greece, were called czars, and little Ivan determined that he also should be called czar. So he read, and thought, and bided his time. Then when he was seventeen he ordered preparation for his coronation to be made, and insisted on being crowned not as Grand Duke but as Czar of all the Russias.

It was already a large territory over which this first of all the czars now began to rule. But it had one great defect. It was almost entirely an inland country. Save for the Arctic Ocean, it had no seaboard at all. All the shores of the Baltic were in the hands of Swedes, Poles, and of the Brothers of the Sword, a German military order founded to convert the heathen of the Baltic, but which, at the same time, carried on constant wars of aggression against Russia, and played a great part in the expansion of Germany eastwards. In the south, Russia was shut out from the Black Sea and the Caspian by the Mongols. Here we see the reason why Russia took no part in the great seafaring adventures which were stirring western Europe. Hemmed in from the sea on every side by jealous neighbours, and at the same time struggling towards unity, the nation had no energy for exploration. Russia was shut out from the family of Europe. It was indeed hardly in any sense a European country at all.

Struggles for a Seaboard

But Ivan IV desired to enter into the family of Europe. In that way alone he saw he could make his country great, and he determined to "open a window into Europe." To do that he knew he must have a seaboard. So he fought the Mongols on his southern borders and conquered Astrakan. Thus, by way of the Volga and the Caspian, he opened up a trade route to Persia and the East. But for a Baltic port he fought in vain, The Brothers of the Sword, indeed, were, dispersed, but Poland and Sweden remained masters of the Baltic shores. Not until a hundred and fifty years later, under a greater czar than Ivan, was Russia to obtain the coveted seaboard on the Baltic.

But although, through Teutonic jealousy, the Baltic was closed to their traders, the Russians had a seaboard to the north. The entrance to it lay indeed within the Arctic Circle, and for many months of the year it was closed by ice. But English sailors were busy seeking new passages to the East "by the high way of the seas," and while in search for a north-east passage to China they found Russia.

Very soon, by way of this icy northern route a brisk trade grew up between England and Russia. Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and French merchants followed them, but the English, who had been first in the field, kept the bulk of the trade.

Thus, in spite of the jealousy of Germans, Poles, and Swedes, "a window was opened into Europe." Had it not been for this jealousy Russia would have developed much faster than it did. But all these nations feared lest Russia should become powerful, and did their best to shut her out from the commerce, the learning, the industries, and the weapons of warfare of western Europe. It is even said that the king of Sweden threatened with death the English sailors and adventurers who tried to trade with Russia. So in her struggle towards civilization Russia was hindered and thwarted, and remained for long years to come what the Tartar domination had made it, an Asiatic Empire.

Yet, in spite of every hindrance Ivan the Terrible left his Empire stronger and more advanced than he had found it. He was a strange mixture of savagery and greatness. As a statesman he was far ahead of his times, and he understood the needs of his kingdom better than any man. But he was cruel and vicious, and had an ungovernable temper. An Englishman who lived in those days has described him as "a goodlie man of person . . . full of readie wisdom, cruell, bloudye, merciles." For the first fourteen years of his reign Ivan showed his "readie wisdom" well and wisely. It was towards the end of his life that he proved himself "bloudye" and "merciles" and earned his surname of the Terrible. Then he crushed the great nobles with a pitiless hand, massacring them and their families, and laying waste the land with brutal fury.

After the death of Ivan the Terrible Russia again fell on troublous times. His dynasty soon died out, and in 1613, after a great uprising of the people, Michael Romanoff who, through a female side of his family, traced his descent from Rurick, was chosen czar. He had no great talent or ability, but he was the first of the house which was to rule over Russia until the abdication of his descendant Nicholas in 1918.