Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

Ivan, the First of the Czars

The victory of the Don did not free Russia from the Tartar yoke. Two years afterwards the principality of Moscow was overrun and ravaged by a lieutenant of the mighty Tamerlane, the all conquering successor of Genghis Khan. Several times Moscow was taken and burned. Full seventy years later, at the court of the Golden Horde, two Russian princes might have been seen disputing before the great khan the possession of the grand principality and tremblingly awaiting his decision. Nevertheless, the battle of the Don had sounded the knell of the Tartar power. Anarchy continued to prevail in the Golden Horde. The power of the grand princes of Moscow steadily grew. The khans themselves played into the hands of their foes. Russia was slowly but surely casting off her fetters, and deliverance was at hand.

Ivan III., great-grandson of Dmitri Donskoi, ascended the throne in 1462, nearly two centuries and a half after the Tartar invasion. During all that period Russia had been the vassal of the khans. Only now was its freedom to come. It was by craft, more than by war, that Ivan won. In the field he was a dastard, but in subtlety and perfidy he surpassed all other men of his time, and his insidious but persistent policy ended by making him the autocrat of all the Russian.

He found powerful enemies outside his dominions, the Tartars, the Lithuanians, and the Poles. He succeeded in defeating them all. He had powerful rivals within the domain of Russia. These also he overcame. Ho made Moscow all-powerful, imitated the tyranny of the Tartars, and founded the autocratic rule of the czars which has ever since prevailed.

The story of the fall of the Golden Horde maybe briefly told. It was the work of the Russian army, but not of the Russian prince. In 1469, after collecting a large army, Ivan halted and began negotiating. But the army was not to be restrained. Disregarding the orders of their general, they chose another leader, and assailed and captured Kasan, the chief Tartar city. As for the army of the Golden Horde, it was twice defeated by the Russian force. In 1480 a third invasion of the Tartars took place, which resulted in the annihilation of their force.

The tale, as handed down to us, is a curious one. The army, full of martial ardor, had advanced as far as the Oka to meet the Tartars; but on the approach of the enemy Ivan, stricken with terror, deserted his troops and took refuge in far-off Moscow. He even recalled his son, but the brave boy refused to obey, Baying that "he would rather die at his post than follow the example of his father."

The murmurs of the people, the supplication of the priests, the indignation of the boyars, forced him to return to the army, but he returned only to cover it with shame and himself with disgrace. For when the chill of the coming winter suddenly froze the river between the two forces, offering the foe a firm pathway to battle, Ivan, in consternation, ordered a retreat, which his haste converted into a disorderly flight. Yet the army was two hundred thousand strong and had not struck a blow.

Fortune and his allies saved the dastard monarch. For at this perilous interval the khan of the Crimea, an ally of Russia, attacked the capital of the Golden Horde and forced a hasty recall of its army; and during its disorderly homeward march a host of Cossacks fell upon it with such fury that it was totally destroyed. Russia, threatened with a new subjection to the Tartars by the cowardice of its monarch, was finally freed from these dreaded foes through the aid of her allies.

But the fruits of this harvest, sown by others, were reaped by the czar. His people, who had been disgusted with his cowardice, now gave him credit for the deepest craft and wisdom. All this had been prepared by him, they said. His flight was a ruse, his pusillanimity was prudence; he had made the Tartars their own destroyers, without risking the fate of Russia in a battle; and what had just been contemned as dastard baseness was now praised as undiluted wisdom.

Ivan would never have gained the title of Great from his deeds in war. He won it, and with some justice, from his deeds in peace. He was great in diplomacy, great in duplicity, great in that persistent pursuit of a single object through which men rise to power and fame. This object, in his case, was autocracy. It was his purpose to crush out the last shreds of freedom from Russia, establish an empire on the pernicious pattern of a Tartar khanate, which had so long been held up as an example before Russian eyes, and make the Prince of Moscow as absolute as the Emperor of China. He succeeded. During his reign freedom fled from Russia. It has never since returned.

The story of how this great aim was accomplished is too long to be told here, and the most important part of it must be left for our next tale. It will suffice, at this point, to say that by astute policy and good fortune Ivan added to his dominions nineteen thousand square miles of territory and four millions of subjects, made himself supreme autocrat and his voice the sole arbiter of fate, reduced the boyars and subordinate princes to dependence on his throne, established a new and improved system of administration in all the details of government, and by his marriage with Sophia, the last princess of the Greek imperial family,—driven by the Turks from Constantinople to Rome,—gained for his standard the two-headed eagle, the symbol of autocracy, and for himself the supreme title of czar.