Ivan III of Russia
Ivan III, Grand Prince or Grand Duke of Moscow, married Zoe (sometimes called Sophia) Palaeologos, niece of the Byzantine emperor, in 1469. Zoe’s cultural and family background was to have a major influence on the style of the Russian court; with her arrival, it gained a great deal of ceremony and pomp. Ivan and Zoe made the Byzantine double-headed eagle the official emblem of the Russian state. By adopting this symbol, Ivan declared himself the last defender of the Orthodox faith, in the wake of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks and the failure to unite Orthodox and Roman Catholicism at the Council of Trent .
The real beginning of the history of Russia as a nation-state dates to 1480, when Ivan withheld the annual monetary tribute to the Tatars. This led to a confrontation of the Mongol and Russian forces on opposite sides of the Oka River. A stalemate resulted, as neither side seemed willing to begin the attack. In the end, the Tatars withdrew, ending the long period of Mongol authority in Russia.
With the Tatars gone, Ivan could assert his own authority as the supreme ruler of Russia, starting the tradition of autocracy that would continue until the Revolution of 1917. In 1493, for instance, Ivan forced the kingdom of Lithuania to grant him the title “Lord of All Rus.” He also began using the title czar, a Russian form of Caesar . This had originally been a family name with no secondary meaning, but because the Caesar family ruled Rome for so long, it eventually became synonymous with emperor . Symbolically, the use of the imperial title reinforced Ivan’s claim that he was descended from the Caesars and that after the fall of Constantinople, the New Rome, Moscow was “the Third Rome,” the center of the world. Officially, however, he remained Grand Prince of Moscow.
Partly due to Zoe’s cosmopolitan influence, Russia experienced a certain degree of cultural exchange with the West during Ivan’s reign. Ivan established diplomatic relations with Western nations, and an exchange of embassies took place. Russians were curious about Westerners but also contemptuous of them because they were not Orthodox Christians. Europeans no doubt felt similar emotions toward the Russians, whose society seemed to them both more exotic and more primitive than their own. Ivan hired several Italian architects and artists, notably Petrus Antonius Solarius, to rebuild the Kremlin—the heart of Moscow—with four strikingly beautiful cathedrals and the czar’s mansion ranged around a large open plaza, all surrounded by strong, fortified walls.
Under Ivan, Russia expanded into an empire more than three times the size of the original Grand Principality of Muscovy. Ivan III took control of Novgorod and its territories, which included vast tracts of land to the northeast and northwest of Muscovy. Vasili III, who became emperor on Ivan III’s death in 1505, added the Baltic province of Pskov and the province of Riazan on the Oka River. Access to these bodies of water was important for trade, since it was much easier to transport quantities of goods by water than over land.
Ruling a larger empire brought with it both advantages and disadvantages. A substantial rise in population meant a larger army and greater revenue from tributes and taxes, but a larger population was more difficult to control and monitor. A larger bureaucracy became necessary in order to take care of the routine of governing at the local level. Because most of the empire was geographically far from Moscow, a great deal of everyday authority remained in the hands of local officials, which of course invited corruption on a large scale since there was no oversight. Ancient Rome had also faced the challenge of ruling a large and far-flung empire; this attempt was successful because the Roman bureaucracy was highly efficient, with clear lines of authority and a chain of command. Such was not the case in Russia. The harsh climate made travel slow and difficult, the postal service was unreliable, and local officials were generally free to carry out their responsibilities (or not) as they saw fit, without any fear of inspection or reprimand by superiors.
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