A Brief History of Medieval Russia

[From William Richard Morfill, History of Russia, in Willaim Richard Morfill and Charles Edmound Frye, Russia and Poland (New York P. F. Collier & Son, 1913), pp. 3-15].

A casual glance at the map of Europe and Asia will reveal quite clearly certain of the physical conditions under which Russia has developed. Compared with England, France, or Spain in point of size, what a vast extent of territory is embraced by a single state: running east and west, from the Baltic to the Sea of Kamchatka; and north and south, from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea, the Caspian, and, as it may some day appear, the waters of the Indian Ocean. A heritage truly imperial, and offering a greater expanse of continuous land than any other empire. Examined more closely, other features in contrast to the states of western Europe begin to appear. The mountains of Continental Europe lie for the most part in the western and southern quarters. But easterly from the Carpathians, the Continent broadens out into a huge monotonous plain, watered by rivers of considerable length. And were the Ural Mountains correctly appreciatedÑtheir blackness on the ordinary map making them seem much more formidable than they really are, being for the most part only hillsÑit would appear that this vast plain extends almost uninterruptedly from shore to shore of the several bodies of water mentioned above. Scarcely within this enormous expanse of level country is there to be found any one feature which offers itself as a natural frontier or boundary line. The essential unity of the whole, physically, seems to have contributed in no small measure to the political unity which is now fast being achieved.

Glancing at the map from north to south, it will be seen that Russia embraces more degrees of latitude than any other European state, stretching with one arm into the very regions of the Arctic; with the other, into the deserts of central Asia; and changing, by degrees, from the frozen bogs and marshes of the north, through the wooded district of the center, to the steppes of the south. Yet, despite its great size, this territory, in the early history of Christendom, was practically isolated from the rest of Europe. For, when we consider the general commerce and travel of Europe, more particularly in the Middle Ages, it will be seen to what a degree Russia lay outside the established sphere of trade and commercial exchange. Indeed, by the fifteenth century western Europe had grown almost oblivious of the existence of a Slavic state on the Volga; so much so in fact, that in the era of exploration at the close of the fifteenth century, Muscovy underwent a " discovery," and travelers published descriptions of the country with a minuteness appropriate only to a region hitherto unknown.

Turning again to the map for the internal features of the country, it will be seen that, aside from the absence of hills and a " natural " frontier, aside from the vast extent of plain, the most striking thing is a system of rivers, which, with their tributaries, form a complicated network, and allow an easy and almost continuous means of passage throughout the entire country.

It is in connection with one of these waterways that the national history opens. In their original extent, as distinct from the Germans and the Celts, the Slavs occupied portions of the valleys drained by the Elbe, the Oder, the Vistula with some smaller rivers farther east flowing into the Baltic, and the Dnieper flowing into the Black Sea. In the expansion of Germany eastward, after the era of Charlemagne, the Slavs of the Elbe and the Oder fell under German sway and became more or less Germanized. Those of the Vistula, approximately, kept their political independence, and under the name of Poland, formed an integral part of western Christendom. For the Slavs still farther east, along the waterway formed by the Dnieper with the Dwina or the Niemen, a different fate was in store. The waterway was almost continuous from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and afforded passage for traders and Norse adventurers from the different parts of Scandinavia to Constantinople and the Eastern Empire. The Slavs settled in this region were grouped into tribes, and the existence of such trading posts as Novgorod bespoke other pursuits aside from primitive agriculture. It may be assumed that before the ninth century the Norsemen had evinced a design not only to plunder, but also to subjugate the Slavic tribes nearest the Baltic. But if tradition may be relied upon, these early raids svere invariably repulsed. The Slavs refused to pay tribute to the Norse chiefs, and maintained their independence.

Toward the middle of the ninth century the resistance began to weaken, owing perhaps to internal dissension. At last in the year 862, a Norse chief, with his followers, was " invited " to assume the duties of government. His name was Rurik, of the tribe of Russ, and he took up his station in the city of Novgorod. He is the legendary founder of the long line of princes, the Rurikovitches, who governed Russia until the accession of the Romanovs in the seventeenth century.

This early Slavic community over which the Norsemen, or Varangians, came to rule, embraced on the south the upper valley of the Dnieper and its tributaries, with the important cities of Kiev, Chernigov, and Smolensk On the north, it touched Lake Ladoga, and counted among its cities the ancient republic of Novgorod at the head of Lake Ilmen. On the east, it touched the headwaters of the Volga, a fact of political importance, for it was along the Volga valley, by a process of gradual colonization, that the Great Russian, as distinguished from the Little Russian, branch was to develop. To the west, it touched the headwaters of the Dwina, on which stood the city of Polotsk, and the Niemen, both of which rivers in their main streams drained Lithuanian territory. In extent, the whole region was considerably larger than modern Germany, a comparison worth bearing in mind as showing, in view of the later expansion of Russia, the really very large territory with Which the empire started. The absence of any natural frontier inevitably placed the early Slavs in immediate contact with their neighbors. In regard to the latter, it is essential to note the many variations of ethnical type, for in the process of expansion these have been to some degree assimilated, though not without a reciprocal influence upon the Slavic type itself. To the north and east lay a thinly scattered population of Finns; to the south and east, tribes of Turkish origin; to the west, the Lithuanians and also those Slavs whose political adhesion lay with Poland. Had all of these neighbors been a match for the early Russians, the latter might possibly have found themselves confined, early in their history, within limits prescribed by a conventionally settled political frontier. In the case of the Turkish tribes to the south and east, frontier questions did indeed lie between contestants of more or less equal strength, for the ferocity and relentlessness of these warlike nomads, such as the Khazars and the Petcheneks, became proverbial. But between Russian and Finn was a marked inequality of which the Russians took a natural advantage. Under such circumstances the frontier line could not be stationary. It moved constantly at the expense of the Finns, and thus inclined the energies of the early state toward expansion rather than toward cohesion and consolidation.

Political conditions within this gradually expanding community can be classed under no single principle. A primitive form of democracy, in which the precedence of authority was generally conceded to age, may be accepted as a Slavic tradition. This appears not only in the small agricultural communities; but also in such city governments as Novgorod, wherein prevailed a sensitive jealousy of popular rights, guarded by the vetche or republican assembly. The acceptance of a regime of princes signalized by the legendary calling of Rurik, did not mean an acquiescence in irresponsible government. The vetches served as checks to the princes, the undefined relations between the two leading to frequent conflicts. The position of the princes was still further discounted by a pernicious principle of succession, primogeniture not yet being recognized. There developed a system which, to borrow an ecclesiastical phrase, considered the country as divided into so many dioceses, the " see " of Kiev being reserved for the grand prince. In case of the death of a grand prince, the dignity fell, not to the eldest son, but to the " eldest " of the family, to an uncle or a brother as the case might be. It added to the confusion of this system that the death of a grand prince necessarily altered the position of the surviving members of the family, by changing the number of degrees in which each stood from the eldest. As the same principle of succession applied to each of the separate divisions, the result was a more or less continuous shifting from one division or seat to another. A time came when there were four or five times as many princes as principalities to be filled, a condition which was not without its influence probably in prompting the more adventurous and aggressive of the unprovided princes to found new principalities of their own by acquiring land at the expense of the Finns.

The work of the princes was conspicuous chiefly on its military side. A band of armed warriors, called a drujina, grouped itself around each prince to follow the fortunes of war. Personal loyalty seems to have played little part in this relation. Each warrior felt himself free to change from one master to another according to circumstances. This principle, coupled with the tradition of political decentralization, may partly explain the chaos of internal strife presented by the annals of the period. Lack of union and subordination, unless counteracted by the personal influence of some great prince, led to weakness even in the face of the enemy. But the military undertakings of the period are full of interest. In the ninth and tenth centuries a series of expeditions carried the Russians to the very walls of Constantinople itself. The eastern emperors were glad to disarm the hostility of these invaders by grants of trading privileges, by bribes of money, and by employment as mercenaries against the Bulgarians. More urgent, however, was the situation nearer home. Particularly with the Turkish plainsmen, the Polovtsi and Khazars, to the southeast, relations were invariably hostile, and marked by continual border warfare. Raid was met by counterraid, nor were the advantages always with the Russians. But to the northeast conditions seem to have been more favorable, for the Russians began slowly to make their way down the Volga valley.

The armed expeditions to ConstantinopleÑan ominous precedent for later history perhapsÑwere incidental to more subtle relations between the Byzantines and the Russians. Constantinople became the fountain head of the religion, art, and literature which brought Russia within the pale of civilization. It is worth noting, in this connection, that in point of time, the adoption of Christianity by the new state came comparatively late, for whereas the spiritual foundations of western Christendom had long been fixed, it was not till the very close of the tenth century that the Grand Prince Vladimir at Kiev demolished the images of the heathen gods and ordered the population of the city into the stream of the Dnieper to receive baptism at the hands of the Byzantine missionaries. Novgorod and other cities following suit, in a short time the Greek faith was professed by the whole nation. Further, the adoption of the Byzantine communion insured an almost total separation from the spiritual and intellectual life of western Christendom, a separation for which the geographical situation of early Russia was primarily responsible. Following in the footsteps of her Byzantine teachers Russia grew farther and farther apart from the West, remaining a stranger to all the virility of the movement which expressed itself in the manifold phases of chivalry, Gothic art, and municipal independence. The nation fell under the more or less sterile influence of Byzantine tradition: an unfortunate equipment, indeed, with which to face the blight of later political subserviency to the Tatars.

In the confused political system, noted above, the city of Kiev on the Dnieper retained its prestige as the seat of the grand prince for about four centuries. Its fortunes were at their height during the eleventh century under Yaroslav the Great (10I61054), but began to decline after Vladimir Monomachus (11131125). In the meantime, on the upper Volga, there developed from the gradual extension of the frontier through military colonization, a population of frontiersmen who knew not the traditions of Kiev and Novgorod. Frontier life was much to the advantage of the princes. The advance of the Russians up the Volga went on at the expense of the Finns, and this necessitated an armed occupation of each new strip of land acquired. The initiative lay with the princes who, with their drujinas, or armed bands, wrested the land from the original inhabitants, and protected the settlers, to whom they granted the privilege of occupation. Thus the conditions under which these new principalities were created tended to exalt the position of the prince and fostered the assumption of an autocratic power which has flourished with varying degrees of vigor ever since. But frontier life along the Volga did more than further autocracy; by the mixture of Russian and Finn it promoted the development of a new ethnical type. The assimilation of the Finns brought to the Russian settlers certain mental characteristics such as steadfastness, and fatalism, perhaps, which slowly differentiated them from the original type on the Dnieper. The Volga became the cradle of a new type of Slav, known historically as the Great Russian, in distinction from the Little Russian of Kiev. New Russia, the country of the upper Volga, thus stood in contrast to the old Russia of Kiev and Novgorod.

Eventually the two were brought into conflict. The time came vhen the succession to the dignity of grand prince fell to the Prince of Suzdal. Rather than take up his residence in Kiev, the new grand prince preferred to remain in his own principality on the Volga. This defiance of all tradition was nowhere more resented than in Kiev itself. It required an army from the north to bring the " Mother City " to terms. Henceforth the title of grand prince, no longer associated with Kiev, begins to lose its old meaning. It is even assumed by two or three princes at a time, indicating a still greater degree of political chaos, which the stern conditions of life on the Volga did little either to soften or to simplify.

To what extent the pushing forward of the frontier and the creation of new principalities might have gone on in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries will always be a matter of conjecture. With the thirteenth century there begins a fateful period. Geographicallya Russia happened to lie directly in the line of advance of other states whose expansion in these two centuries brought to the immediate frontier enemies with which a group of principalities loosely held together, could scarcely cope on equal terms.

Sweden, to begin with, was already feeling her way along the eastern coast of the Baltic. The advance of the Swedes brought them into the territory claimed by the city republic of Novgorod. For a time the Novgorodians held the Swedes in check. Under their prince, Alexander, they defeated the enemy on the banks of the Neva. The victory won for Alexander the title of Nevski, and the Alexander Nevski monastery in St. Petersburg, where the bones of the hero are reputed to be, perpetuates his name.

Contemporaneously, almost, with the advance of the Swedes to the south, there began a movement on the part of the Germans to colonize the rest of the east Baltic coast. The acquisition of this district by the Germans partook of the nature of a crusade shared alike by warrior bishops and the military order of the Livonian Knights. Riga, at the mouth of the Dwina, was founded in I200. The old Russian settlement of Yuriev, not far from Pskov, became the German bishopric of Dorpat. The princes of Pskov and Novgorod had to suffer this encroachment without opposition. The original inhabitants became the serfs and slaves of their German conquerors, and fortress and military garrisons made the foreign occupation secure. The Russians were thus cut off from the Baltic.

A third encroachment, in itself sufficiently grave, was the Tatar invasion of the thirteenth century. As a result of this, nearly all of southern Russia, including the lower half of the Volga valley, became part of a large Tatar state. Territorially, the Russians were cut off from an approach to the Black Sea and from access to the lower Volga. They were thus confined roughly to the principalities of the upper Volga with its tributaries and to the large regions in the north claimed by the city republic of Novgorod. The Russian princes became tributary to the Tatar khan. It is very easy to exaggerate the influence and effects of the Tatar yoke which for two centuries the Russians had to endure. In many respects the subjection appeared to be only nominal. There was practically no mixing of blood, no disturbance, or persecution of religion, no confiscation of lands or estates. For the Russians the situation was made sufficiently degrading by the presence of Tatar taxgatherers, sent to assess and collect the tribute. The princes were forced to acknowledge the suzerainty of the Tatar khans, who kept in their hands the disposal of the title of grand prince, the settlement of cases of disputed succession, and the granting of commissions, for all of which there was exacted the customary oriental servility. Otherwise the princes were left very much to themselves, being free to indulge in the personal and family quarrels which mark the internal history of the principalities and their relations with one another.

The last encroachment came from the rise and expansion of the state of Lithuania. The details of this belong more properly to Polish history. To Russia the results were of momentous consequence. The upper valley of the Dnieper, including Kiev, the center of old Russia, passed into the hands of Lithuania, and the Russian population, belonging to the Greek Church, passed under the y oke of Catholic Lithuanian masters. Lithuania and Poland formed a dynastic union in 1386, which was turned into an administrative union in 1549. In consequence, all of western Russia which had fallen under Lithuania underwent the curse of Polonization. A sernifeudal system of Polish landlordism degraded the Russian peasants. Their unfortunate lot was made even harder by the proselytizing of the Jesuits and the merciless exactions of Jewish overseers. Upon the Jews, especially, the malignant hatred of the subject agricultural population seems to have exercised itself.

With the cutting off of western Russia the isolation of the principalities on the Volga was complete. Swedes, Germans, Lithuanians, and Tatars, had closed in on all sides except the north, and formed a barrier to all advance. Shut in from the rest of Europe, Russia had nothing but her Byzantine traditions and her orthodox faith upon which to lean, and the sterile, formalistic character of these is sufficient apology for the intellectual stagnation of the period.

This succession of disasters may be attributed in part to the actual military superiority of the Tatars and others over the Russians. A more probable cause, however, is to be found in the imperfect organization which the Russians themselves had. A system of principalities or duchies, loosely held together, and exercising their jealousies even in the face of the common enemy, could make only a feeble effort at national resistance. It might be supposed that a common danger would have welded the separate principalities into some form of a centralized state. Such seems not to have been the case. Mutual jealousy kept the separate divisions apart. The ultimate development of a national state was owing to the fact that one line of princes, more shrewd, unscrupulous, and farseeing than the rest, succeeded in the course of two centuries in acquiring a supremacy over their rivals, which supremacy they forcibly converted into a territorial sovereignty over all the lands that had not fallen into the hands of the enemy. Thus the autocrat of a small principality became in the progress of two centuries the autocrat of all the Russias. It would involve too much detail to describe the humble origin of the village which was destined to become the political and national center of this new state. Moscow makes its first appearance in the chronicles for the year 1147. For over a hundred years it was a mere settlement in the principality of Suzdal. Toward the end of the thirteenth century it fell to one of the younger sons of Alexander Nevski, the hero of the battle on the Neva against the Swedes. The name of this prince was Daniel. Before his death in 1303 Daniel had increased his appanage by several towns wrested from other princes. His successors carried on a long and bloody struggle with the other princes for political ascendency. In the course of this struggle the court of Moscow gained in importance with the political prestige of its rulers. The general character of these men, forbidding enough in itself, reflects after all but the brutal violence of a time of anarchy. By shrewdly cringing to the Tatars, on the one hand, and by calculating remorselessly every advantage to be had from their rivals, on the other, they were able to turn the course of events to their own account. Yet in the end there was something not unpatriotic in their selfseeking. They championed the national resistance to the Mongols, they furthered the interests of the orthodox church, and they executed vengeance on the princes whose doubtful allegiance or treachery, whether by alliance with Lithuania or the Mongols, jeopardized national independence.

With the accession of Ivan the Great there comes at last a prince whose work, conceived on a larger scale than that of his predecessors, shows the new state gradually emerging from the dark ages of internal strife and of degrading subserviency to the Tatars.

Ivan III., or the Great, enjoyed a long reign of fortythree years, from 1462 to 1505. Into his general policy he introduced little that was new; his work was the completion of the task to which the long line of the princes of Moscow had been devoted. Yet, contrasted with his predecessors his aggressiveness appears the more striking. Against the princes in the Volga valley who still retained their autonomy, he watched for every advantage; as occasion served he carried out the annexation of Tver, Rostov, and Yaroslav, and incorporated them into the government of Moscowv With the exception of the few remaining states annexed by his successor he thus held the whole of the upper valley of the Volga. The somewhat equivocal allegiance of Novgorod was settled by the forcible submission of the republic in 1478: the timely action of the grand prince not only brought a vast acquisition of territory to Moscow, it prevented the city from falling into the hands of Lithuania or Poland. On the newly acquired lands Ivan settled thousands of new proprietors, adding thus to the military service at the disposal of the state as well as the support of a new landed interest. To the east, his soldiers threaded the passes of the Urals and opened the way into another continent. Political unity on a national basis was now more or less of an accomplished fact.

The signal event of Ivan's reign is one toward which the course of things had long been tending, namely, the overthrow of Mongol power. In point of action the affair was quite inglorious. When, in 1480, the khan sent his messengers to Moscow for the customary tribute, Ivan treated the demand with every species of insult, and took the field with a large army. The force sent by the khan faced the Russians across the River Oka. Neither army ventured to cross the river to give battle. The Russians appear to have been eager to bring on an engagement, but the timid caution of Ivan made him hold back. After fifteen days of impatient waiting, the situation was relieved by a sudden drop in the temperature by which the Oka became sufficiently frozen for passage. Alarmed lest the enemy should cross, Ivan began to withdraw his forces. This movement seems to have been misinterpreted by the enemy, who, fearing that the Russians would cross and attack them, likewise began a retreat. Each army seeing the other in motion, the retreat was hastened until it became a panic on both sides. The results of this strange episode were all in favor of the Russians, for no further tribute was paid to the Tatar khans.

In a different direction, and with scarcely any more effort, Ivan met with success. He watched an opportunity for attacking Lithuania, now under the Grand Duke Alexander, and in 1494 by the terms of the treaty which ended the struggle, added to his territory the lands of western Russia as far west as the Desna, a tributary of the Dnieper. This reunion of lands formerly Russian flattered the pride of the Muscovites; it had the further merit of redeeming their brethren of the orthodox faith from the Polish Catholics. Alexander found occasion to break the truce of 1494. He had secured an ally in the Livonian Order, the latter doubtless feeling that the consolidation and expansion of the Muscovite state would sooner or later menace their possession of the Baltic coast line. The order defeated the Russians in ISor, but were themselves defeated the following year. In 1503 Alexander concluded peace, abandoning to Ivan the lands as far west as the River Soja, another tributary of the Dnieper. With the Lithuanian campaigns Russia enters aggressively into the politics of northeastern Europe, and from now on the pushing forward of the western frontier becomes a distinct element in the Muscovite policy.

It would be impossible, in so short a sketch as this, to convey any idea of Russian life in the fifteenth century, or to discuss the national type which the conditions of the century were tending to develop. All that can be said is, that a strong Byzantine influence prevailed. Of this, the channel was the orthodox church, whose conservatism and rigidity of form were not without influence in things secular. A strong wave of Byzantinism marks the latter half of the century. The fall of Constantinople in 1453, with the accompanying dispersion of scholars, sent many of the latter to Moscow. More important still, the supplanting of the Byzantine emperors by a line of Mohammedan sultans, in Constantinople, seemed to leave Moscow the political center of the Greek Church. The grand prince was not slow to assume the role of successor to the orthodox Ccesar, a theory of grave political consequence, indeed, when it is extended to embrace a protectorship over Greek Christians in other states. If anything were wanting to complete the grounds for this new position, it was fulfilled when the grand prince married Sophia, a princess of the last imperial house of Palceologus. The presence of a Byzantine princess at the court of Moscow tended further to give the court a Byzantine flavor.

Yet another influence was at work, which was destined, in its results, completely to revolutionize Russian society. This influence came from the West. The Russian army, much as it had gained from a centralized administration, could only by virtue of superior numbers cope with the bettertrained and betterarmed troops of Lithuania and the Baltic provinces. Of the arts and learned professions practiced in the West, the Russians knew but little. Hence the eagerness of Ivan and his immediate successors to induce skilled workmen, builders, founders, engineers, soldiers, and mechanics to come from the West and settle in Moscow. Of these, the earliest were Italians, followed later by Germans, Dutch, and English, and there grew up in Moscow a considerable settlement of foreigners. In the seventeenth century these were confined to a separate quarter or suburb. It was in this suburb that Peter the Great spent the idle hours of his childhood, acquiring habits and ideas quite at variance with Muscovite tradition.