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Ivan the Great tearing the khan's letter to pieces.      Source: Aleksey D. Kivshenko / Public domain

The Rise of Ivan the Great and the Birth of The Russian Empire

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During the medieval period, ruling over a nation as vast and powerful as Russia was never an easy task. The numerous rulers that came to its helm always experienced their ups and downs, and so this noble Slavic nation rose to great heights but great lows as well. History remembers them all, the good and the bad alike, and every ruler accomplished something to be remembered by. Yet some great leaders truly do stand out, and one of these is Ivan III Vasilyevich, Grand Prince of Moscow and of all Rus. And for his life and his deeds, this leader earned a mighty nickname: Ivan the Great. As a skilled ruler that freed his nation, expanded its territories, and paved the way for all his successors, Ivan the Great propelled Russia to great heights.

The Grand Ancestry of Ivan the Great

To begin the story of Ivan the Great, we need to look to his noble line and his father. Like all his ancestors, Ivan III belonged to the famed Rurikid dynasty that had ruled over Rus for several centuries up to that point. Ivan was the son of Vasily II the Blind (Василий Васильевич), a capable ruler, whose long rule was marked by one of the fiercest, if not the bloodiest civil wars in Russian history: The Muscovite Civil War.

This civil war erupted after the death of Vasily’s father, after which the former ascended to the throne at age 10. Claimants stepped up to seize the throne, and the lands of the Rus were thrust into a long and bitter conflict. At a point in this civil war, around the year 1446, Vasily II was blinded by his opponent and exiled. But even though he lost his sight, Vasily II had supporters nonetheless, and that meant that he was still in the fight. He eventually regained the throne and won the conflict, blind as he was.

Due to this crippling disability, Vasily II appointed his son as a co-ruler. And that son was Ivan III Vasilyevich (Иван III Васильевич), later to become Ivan the Great. After his father’s death in 1462, Ivan III officially ascended to the throne and became the Grand Prince of Moscow.

Portrait of Ivan the Great. (Public domain)

Portrait of Ivan the Great. (Public domain)

A Man of Ambition

From the beginning, Ivan’s rule was marked by great ambition and an “aggressive” pursuit of a greater Russia. At the time, all Rus lands were under the oppressive yoke of the notorious Tatar-Mongol Great Horde, which demanded great tributes from Rus. However, Ivan’s first steps after he became the sole ruler were focused on eliminating his opponents in Russia, with the aim of uniting the separated Russian duchies under his rule. In 1463, Ivan III managed to gain the submission of Aleksandr Fedorovich Brukhatii, the last Grand Prince of the Principality of Yaroslavl, which had existed since 1218. Then, in 1465, Ivan proceeded to ruthlessly liquidate the independence of the Principality of Vereya, and in 1474 he gained the submission of the Prince of Rostov.

One distinguishing aspect of Ivan’s success was the fact that he gave no precedence to his brothers. He tried to subdue them to his rule like any other potential rival. His brother George died in 1472, and he immediately proceeded to seize his lands and gain rule over them, contrary to the custom of splitting those lands with his remaining brothers. Ivan’s unconventional methods quickly resulted in opposition.

When he seized his dead brother’s lands, Ivan found himself facing a revolt from the joined armies of Boris of Volokolamsk and Andrew of Uglich, a situation Ivan was loath to face. As this conflict gained momentum, the khan of the Golden Horde attempted to take advantage of the instability and invade Rus lands. Understanding the threat of such an invasion, Ivan III and his brothers were soon forced to make peace under oath. But as is typical of great and ambitious rulers, Ivan III went against his promises and oaths, and in 1491 he arrested Andrew of Uglich and his sons, whereupon he imprisoned them and let them die behind bars.

This act was a clear indication of the intentions of Ivan III, and he even openly proclaimed that he sought to remove all danger to himself, his rule, and those of his dynasty. Arguably such zeal and ruthless dedication are the defining marks of all successful rulers, as history tends to teach us.

Ivan’s Next Challenge: Overcoming the Republic of Novgorod

Amidst all this, Ivan III entered into a much more important conflict, one that stretched way back, and spoke of a great rivalry in the lands of Rus. That conflict was with the Republic of Novgorod.

The Novgorodians were a notorious rival to the Muscovites, with conflicts that stretched for almost a century. These pertained mostly to the religious and political sovereignty of Moscow, and Moscow’s attempts at conquering important Novgorodian lands along the Northern Dvina River. It is worth noting that Ivan’s conflict with Novgorod was much deeper and much longer.

Ivan III had a strong pro-Muscovite party within the “city-state” of Novgorod, and this party had many adherents in the poorer class of citizens. However, Novgorod’s politics were dominated by a strong pro-Lithuanian sentiment, which contributed to the deep rift between them and Muscovy. Nevertheless, much was beginning to change in Novgorod: most noticeably when a new archbishop was elected in the city, Theophilus, a candidate of Muscovy.

Things changed even more in 1466, when the Teutonic Order was defeated by Poland, and in light of this, Novgorod entered into an agreement with the Polish king Casimir. Without hesitation, Ivan III invaded the Republic of Novgorod immediately upon hearing of this agreement. Speed was of the essence for Ivan because he wanted to avoid any involvement by Casimir and Poland. As a legitimate excuse for attacking, Ivan used apostasy: by allying themselves with Poland and Lithuania, the Novgorodians were unofficially renouncing Orthodox Christianity.

Ivan III Vasilyevich attacked in 1471, and in the summer of that same year two important battles took place between the Grand Duchy of Moscow and Novgorod. The first one was the Battle of the Shelon River (Шелонская битва), taking place on the 14 th of July 1471. The battle, which lasted for two hours, was almost an accidental meeting of the two forces. A portion of the Muscovite forces, under the command of Daniel Kholmsky, numbering only around 5,000 men, was marching along the river towards Novgorod when they encountered a much bigger Novgorod force, numbering up to 30,000 men.

Even against such odds, the Muscovites managed to achieve a decisive victory, achieved in part by the poorly organized army of Novgorod. The second decisive battle was on the Northern Dvina River, and once again the Muscovites achieved victory.

Martha the Mayoress at the Destruction of the Novgorod (Klavdiy Lebedev / Public domain)

Martha the Mayoress at the Destruction of the Novgorod (Klavdiy Lebedev / Public domain)

With these two losses, the Republic of Novgorod suffered a debilitating, major defeat, and de facto surrendered the city to Ivan III. On the 24 th of July, Ivan III executed the commander of Novgorod, Dmitry Isakevich Boretsky, who was the biggest proponent of the city’s opposition to Moscow. With this defeat, Novgorod was forced to sue for peace and abandon all alliances with Lithuania and Poland, to cede massive amounts of territory, and to pay a war indemnity of 15,000 rubles.

In the end, Novgorod was fully absorbed by Muscovy in 1478. With the subsequent ruthless persecution of all pro-Lithuanian boyar families (boyars were powerful “lords” of Medieval Russia), and the expelling of many prominent and old Novgorod families to far and distant corners of the land, Ivan secured Novgorod in full.

Throughout all of this, he was assisted by the Principality of Pskov, which considered Novgorod an old rival and enemy, and who were eager to ally themselves with Ivan III and in that way secure their political wellbeing.

How Ivan Overcame the Golden Horde, His Final Major Challenge

But it was against the Golden Horde that Ivan III would truly test his mettle and gain his glory. The lands of the Rus were under the yoke of the Golden Horde for far too long, but during the reign of Ivan, they only enjoyed a sliver of their former glory, and began to weaken significantly.

From the beginning of the fifteenth century, the vast and powerful empire of the Golden Horde began to disintegrate because of internal feuds. It finally split into three competing main khanates, these being the Crimean Khanate, the Golden Horde, and the Kazan Khanate. This disintegration was a big opportunity for Ivan III, and almost the start of an irreversible series of victories for Russia.

Quickly he welcomed several Tatar nobles to his court, gaining important allies that could help him seal further alliance within the disintegrated hordes. This proved to be a wise decision. As a result, Ivan III achieved control over the Khanate of Kazan, with the help of the Tatar Prince Kasim. The Khan of Kazan was forced to accept formal Muscovite suzerainty.

The next success for Ivan happened in 1474, when he made an alliance with the Khan of Crimea, Mengli Geray, who promised support in the event of a Polish attack. In sum, these alliances provided Ivan a secure position to face the remaining Golden Horde.

The situation escalated in 1476, when Ivan III famously refused to pay the usual tribute to Khan Ahmed of the Golden Horde. Instead, he tore the letter from the Khan to pieces, a highly provocative and defiant act. In response to this refusal, Khan Ahmed marched his armies on Muscovy in 1480. This culminated in the famous Great Stand on the Ugra River, where the two opposing armies of Moscow and the Horde engaged in a standoff on the opposite sides of the river. The standoff lasted from the 8 th of October to the 28 th of November 1480. After that, the Tatars retreated, without conflict.

In the next year, 1481, it was apparent that the Golden Horde was preparing for a new attack on Moscow, but these plans were foiled when their Grand Khan was suddenly attacked, routed, and subsequently slain by a rival khan of the Nogay Horde, Ivak. Upon the Grand Khan’s death, the Golden Horde fell to pieces suddenly and rapidly, disintegrating. With this, Ivan III achieved a great accomplishment: the removal of the Tatar Yoke, which had taxed the Russians for nearly 240 years.

Ivan the Great and the Establishment of The Third Rome

Ivan the Great also benefited greatly from his marriage to Zoe (Sophia) Palaiologina, daughter of Thomas Palaeologus, and niece to the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI. Through this marriage, and the influence of his wife, Ivan was able to introduce many Byzantine courtly customs to his own court, and to adopt the very important Imperial Double Headed Eagle for his seal and coat of arms.

Soon after his marriage to Zoe, Ivan began calling himself tsar (cognate of Caesar). He was the first Russian ruler to use this title. Furthermore, with the adoption of the Imperial Eagle, Ivan became a proponent of the famous idea that Moscow was the Third Rome, and successor to the Roman Empire. All of these were the first steps towards the creation of the Russian Empire, a foundation that was expanded by his successors.

It is worth mentioning that Ivan the Great had the second longest reign in Russian history: 43 years. It was to be eclipsed only by the reign of his own grandson, the famous Ivan the Terrible.

Reverse of Ivan III's seal in 1472, after his marriage with Sophia Palaiologina (Public domain)

Reverse of Ivan III's seal in 1472, after his marriage with Sophia Palaiologina (Public domain)

Ivan the Great’s Legacy and the rise of the Russia Empire

When we look at the reign of Ivan the Great, we can clearly see the careful and powerful steps of a calculated and shrewd ruler. With his thorough elimination of all his important rivals and his calculated alliances, Ivan III Vasilyevich managed to secure a powerful position for himself and his nation. Sealing his successes with a highly influential marriage, this great Russian ruler managed to bring Russia to new heights. And it was his deeds that paved the way for future successes, which culminated with his own grandson, the infamous Ivan the Terrible.

Top image: Ivan the Great tearing the khan's letter to pieces.      Source: Aleksey D. Kivshenko / Public domain

By Aleksa Vučković


Dvornik, F. 1962. The Slavs in European History and Civilization. Rutgers University Press.
Halperin, C. 1987. Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History. Indiana University Press.
Martin, J. 2007. Medieval Russia, 980-1584. Cambridge University Press.

Aleksa Vučković's picture


I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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