The Human Story – Rise of the Bear: Early Russia

Russia is the largest country on earth, spanning an incredible 17 million square kilometres. It not only takes the title of largest and most populous country in Europe but extends over the Ural mountain range and into Asia.

How did the story of this massive country with its complex and rich history begin?

The Kievan Rus and the Foundations of Russia

The principle history of eastern Europe began with people that the Greek writers called the “Slavs” and the first Russian state was founded when Oleg of Novgorod seized power of the Viking state in the Dnieper River basin in 882. In doing this, he united the northern and southern lands of the Eastern Slavs under one authority and lay the foundation of the powerful state of the Kievan Rus.

We know that trade was hugely important to the Kievan Rus and almost of their wars ended with trade concessions and trade treaties. In fact, their law codes were unusually devoted to the subject of commerce. The Rus traded raw materials like wax, fur and slaves. They also relied heavily upon agriculture and a person’s relationship to the land determined both their social status and tax burden. If someone ever fell into tax debt, which a lot of peasants did, then that person would become bonded to the land that they farmed for the rest of their life, essentially becoming a slave to the master of the land.


There was no higher master in the Kievan Rus than the Grand Prince who ruled the state and became the model for future Russian kings and emperors. The early Grand Princes made a fateful decision and decided to convert to Byzantine Christianity, following the example of their Bulgarian neighbours. The Patriarch of the Church, being prudent, decided to send a bishop from Constantinople north to guide the Rus in their flirtation with Christianity. However, it was not until the year 988 that the definitive Christianisation of the Kievan Rus occurred when Vladimir the Great was baptised and proceeded to baptise his family and the people of Kiev. The legend goes that he elected to convert the Rus to Byzantine Christianity over Islam because of Islam’s prohibition of alcohol.

Mongol Russia and Vassalage

In 1240 the Mongols, or the Tatars as the Russians called them, conquered the Kievan Rus, beginning a new chapter of Russian history known as Appanage Russia (an appendage was a princedom). This period is best remembered for the many Russian princes vying for control over territory, which is not usually a recipe for solid political stability or economic growth.

So, just how important were the Tatars to Russia? Well, they did set up the delightfully named Khanate of the Golden Horde in Russia, but this did not leave any lasting imprint on the institutions of the region, which had already been set up by the Kievan Rus. However, the establishment of the Golden Horde did bring about a massive population shift, away from the south, where the city of Kiev was located, and toward the north-east. This was, in part, to escape from the marauding Tatars and their initial massacring. However, once the dust had settled the Tatars proved to be comparatively light rulers who were content to live in their yurts and collect tributes from the ever-bickering Russian princes. All that these feuding princes had to do in exchange for their relative freedom was recognise the Mongol Khans as their overlords and allow the Tatars to select the Grand Prince from amongst them.

For the next century or so, little seems to have happened in Russia. In fact, given the tribute that was demanded by the Tatars, there was not much money available for building, military campaigns or anything else. With the Mongols off to the southwest, the northeastern cities began to gain more influence, first Tver and then, around the turn of the 14th century, Moscow. As a sign of the city’s importance, the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church moved to Moscow, transforming it into the spiritual capital of Russia.

On top of this holy pivot towards Moscow the Mongols would often elect Muscovite princes to the position of Grand Prince. One of the privileges of the Grand Prince was to collect tribute on behalf of the Khan from the other princes. This proved to be an easy income source as the Grand Prince could easily skim a little off the top before forwarding it to their Tatar overlords. This little trick of redistribution was exactly how the Muscovite princes enriched themselves and the Grand Duchy of Moscow. By the latter part of the century, Moscow felt strong enough to challenge the Tatars directly, and in 1380 a Muscovite prince named Dmitri Donskoy attacked the Mongols and inflicted the first major defeat on them in Russia. His decisive victory at the Battle of Kulikovo Field proved that the Golden Horde were not invincible and immediately made Donskoy a popular hero (even though the Mongols maintained their rule over the city and captured and burned it two years later). Proving that an imperial force has vulnerabilities rarely has good outcomes for that force and Donskoy’s victory helped to strengthen the idea of a unified Russia. However, it was not until a full century had passed, in 1480, that Moscow was strong enough to throw off the weakened Tatar yoke for good. Moscow’s ruler at the time was Grand Duke Ivan III, better known as Ivan the Great.

A Tale of Two Ivans

Ivan the Great massively expanded Moscow’s power, first by subjugating most of Moscow’s city rivals and then by asserting Russia’s independence from the Tatars. By the time that he stopped paying tribute to the Mongols in 1476 and famously tore up the charter binding Moscow to them he was effectively in control of the entire country. Then he went further; he purchased, negotiated for or downright conquered further appanages, thus expanding Muscovite power even further and tripled the size of its territory, laying the foundations of what later became the Russian state.


Ivan later declared himself sovereign over all Russians and married the niece, Zoe Palaeogina, of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, giving his claim more legitimacy. He also took the title of Czar, which means Caesar. Ivan then invited top architects from southeastern Europe to turn Moscow into an imperial capital, reconstructing the Moscow Kremlin, the Dormition Cathedral, and the Annunciation Cathedral. With his Eastern Roman wife, Eastern Romanised imperial capital and new title, Ivan formulated the idea that Moscow was the Third Rome. The idea of a Third Rome is the concept of a hypothetical successor of the Roman Empire via either the Byzantine Empire or through the Holy Roman Empire. Many cities and states have claimed to be the Third Rome, including late Medieval Russia. Ivan and his Grand Duchy of Moscow argued that there could be traced three interrelated fields of ideas:

• A linked religion through the unity of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
• The social politics that derived from the feeling of unity in East Slavic territories being historically tied through the Church and Slavic culture.
• A state doctrine which suggested that the Moscow Prince should act as the supreme sovereign of Christian Orthodox nations and become a defender of the Church.

Basically, Ivan the Great created the first centralised Russian state and fabricated a tale of its being the heir to the Roman Empire in an effort to legitimise his efforts. And for these efforts he probably does deserve the title “The Great”.

While Ivan III consolidated Muscovite power, the undeniable brutal streak that has run through Russian governance comes not from the Mongols but from Ivan III’s grandson, Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible.


Ivan the Terrible succeeded his father Vasili III as Grand Duke of Moscow in 1533 at the tender age of three. His mother served as regent until she too died when Ivan was just eight. For the next eight years, the young Grand Duke endured a series of regents chosen from amongst the boyars (the nobility). Finally, at the age of sixteen, in 1547 he adopted the title of Czar and his ascension to the throne represented the end of princely power and the beginning of autocracy that Russia has since became famed for.

In the beginning of the young Czar’s reign, however, Ivan proved to be an innovative leader and worked with a group of advisors collectively known as the Chosen Council. He also called the first meeting of the Zemsky Sobor, the first Russian parliament of the Feudal Estates (which proved to be like the Estates General that would become important to France two hundred years later). Ivan also introduced local self-governance to rural regions, mainly in the northeast of Russia which was heavily populated by the state peasantry. In addition to this he also revised the law codes and founded a permanent standing army, emphasising the new technology of the time: musketry. Basically, the early part of Ivan the Terrible’s reign was one of peaceful reforms and modernisation. Not all that terrible, really.

In 1552 he conquered and sacked Kazan, and in 1556 Astrakhan, destroying any lingering power that the Golden Horde possessed in the area. Ivan’s Tatar campaigns opened vast new areas for Russian expansion, and it was during Ivan IV’s reign that the conquest and colonisation of Siberia began. In 1580, Russia began its campaign to conquer the Khanates of Siber, marking the first time that Russia had expanded its borders east of the Ural Mountains and into Asia.

After all these modernising reforms, securing Russia’s borders and then expanding frontiers, why is it that Ivan IV is remembered as being so “Terrible”? Well, as he grew older his temper worsened and he set out to break the power of the boyars, carrying out a particularly brutal campaign, confiscating their land and executing or exiling those who displeased him. The boyars were the last connection to the earlier days of princely rule and with them out of the way Ivan the Terrible had Russia fully under the fist. To aid him in his ruthless rule, Ivan established the Oprichniki which were sort of like a personal bodyguard who dressed in black and rode black horses with severed dog’s heads attached to their saddles: an homage to their task of sniffing out treason and enemies of the Czar. The group was known to terrorize civilian populations and in one particularly brutal attack upon the city of Novgorod in 1570 it is estimated that the Oprichniki killed around 1,500 boyars with thousands more slain.

Ivan’s campaigns of terror were effectively the first of Russia’s purges that have been a hallmark of Russia’s history and existence ever since. During the latter half of Ivan’s reign, whole towns were destroyed and the whole period was, in effect, a civil war without any resistance: a civil massacre, if you will.

Ivan the Terrible’s temper grew so monstrous that he even killed his son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich, by striking him with his sceptre in a fit of rage. The Czar is reported to have thrown himself upon his son’s body in an attempt to stop the bleeding, whilst repeatedly crying, “May I be dammed! I’ve killed my son! I’ve killed my son!”

In the end, Ivan IV established the absolute control of the Czar over all of the Russian people, but he also set the precedent of accomplishing this through terror, suspension of law and the Oprichniki (a forerunner of Russia’s secret police). This absolute control of the population through terror would echo through the ages of Russian history until today. Hence, the stereotypes of Russian brutality and barbarism, but here is the truth; western Europe knew a lot about brutality too. However, for centuries, Russia was viewed by western Europe as being both European and simultaneously not European; an “Other” that was both doubly feared because it was not fully “Other”.

When we think of all these historical stereotypes about Russia, it is worth remembering that what one person sees as barbaric about others is often what the others see as barbaric about the viewee.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease
  21. Indian Ocean Trade
  22. The Venetians & The Ottomans: A Convenient Relationship

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