Ivan III the Great

Ivan III the Great

Ivan III, grand duke of Moscow (or, Muscovy), was the first monarch to begin the creation of a recognizable Russian state, earning him the title “Ivan the Great.” Born in 1440, he ascended the throne in 1462 and ruled continuously until his death in 1505, giving Muscovy a stable period for its political evolution.

Some of Ivan’s greatest triumphs took place within Russian territory. Domestically, his greatest achievement was the incorporation of the city of Nizhny Novgorod, also called Lord Novgorod the Great, into the Grand Duchy of Muscovy.

In 1471, Novgorod had made an alliance with Lithuania and Poland, which had been united since the marriage of Queen Jadwiga of Poland to the grand duke Ladislaus Jagiello of Lithuania in 1386. He became king of Poland as Ladislaus II.

Fearing encirclement, Ivan III launched his first attack on Novgorod in 1471, before the Polish king Casimir V could come to the city’s aid. Cowed by the appearance of the Muscovite army, the citizens of Novgorod submitted. However, the boyars (the noble class) were divided between Polish and Muscovite factions, and the division spread throughout the city.

Novgorod held off making final submission to Ivan III until he declared war on Novgorod a second time in November 1478. This time, faced with destruction at his hands, the city capitulated completely to Grand Duke Ivan. The richest city in Russia, made so by its trading, now belonged to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy.

In 1480, Ivan demonstrated a streak of daring that no previous Russian ruler had exhibited. Since the invasions of 1240–41, the Mongols (or Tartars, as the Poles and Russians called them) had been a constant threat to the Russians. During their onslaught of 1240–41, which carried them as far as Poland and Hungary, they burned Kiev to the ground.

Ivan III tearing the khan's letter to pieces
Ivan III tearing the khan's letter to pieces

Although the age of great Mongol supremacy had passed, the Khanate of the Golden Horde remained one of the most powerful states in Central Asia and eastern Europe. At that time, the khan of the Golden Horde was Ahmed.

Then in 1480, Ivan III refused to pay the annual tribute to Ahmed Khan. Ivan’s determination, in the face of years of fear of the Tartar rampage, marked the real independence of the Russian state from Tartar rule. Ivan made an alliance with the rival Crimean Khanate to make war on Poland, to prevent the Poles from attacking from the west as he confronted the Golden Horde.

Ahmed mustered an army to battle Ivan in September 1480, but just as he was about to fight, he received word that a Muscovite and Crimean Tartar army was headed toward his capital at Sarai. Rather than face Ivan, he withdrew. Such seeming cowardice could not be tolerated in the Golden Horde, and Ahmed was soon assassinated. His place as khan was taken by Shaykh Ahmed in 1481.

The defiance of the Golden Horde led to a renaissance in the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. Ivan felt secure enough to exchange ambassadors with such world powers as the Vatican, Turkey, and the Holy Roman Empire.

Earlier (in 1472) the Vatican under Pope Sixtus IV had given to Ivan as a bride Zoe (Sophia), the daughter of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine Palaeologus, who had died defending his capital of Constantinople from the attack of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in May 1454.

It was fitting that when Ivan III died in 1505, he was buried in the Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin in Moscow, which he had made the first city of Russia, earning the title of Ivan the Great.