Tatars and Russia
Russian Society and Government
The Tatars, from the Asian lands we now refer to as Mongolia, invaded and conquered most of Russia under Genghis Khan in the 1200s. Under Tatar rule, the Russian princes had to pay annual tributes to the khan, but were more or less left to the details of governing on their own. Once the Tatars were over- thrown and Moscow became the center of Russia, the Russian emperor was an absolute monarch—far more of an autocrat than any Western European ruler at this period of history. The emperor had advisers, usually drawn from the boyars (hereditary nobles) and the upper clergy, but these men had no power or privileges other than what the emperor chose to grant them. Nor did the Russian government have any form of popular representation. The emperor truly was the state.
The Russian climate and the geography were major obstacles to the formation of a prosperous mercantile middle class such as existed in Italy and other European nations in the early modern period. The countryside was bleak and barren and the weather was often bitterly cold; these factors combined to make travel difficult. Travel meant trade, and without frequent travel, trade did not become an important part of the local economy. Nor did Russia enter into trade or cultural exchange with the rest of Europe until somewhat later in its history.
With travel so difficult, and with the population as widely scattered as it was, a typical Russian estate provided for all its own needs. This contrasted with the economic system in Western Europe, where people either bartered or sold their surplus crops or livestock to obtain necessities and luxuries they could not produce themselves.
The End of Tatar Rule
Prince Dmitri, known to history as Dmitri of the Don, led the Russian army against the Tatars in the Battle of Kulikovo (1380). The Russian victory was a major blow against Mongol authority in Russia. The khan retained much of his power, but he agreed to recognize Moscow as the central Russian authority and to allow the princes of Moscow to appoint their own successors.
During the mid-1400s, the Khanate lost strength as the Russians gained it; by about 1430, the Great Khanate had broken into four smaller ones. On the Russian side, there was infighting among rival claimants to the throne of Moscow. By 1450 Vasili II emerged as the victor, declaring that only his own direct heirs would rule after him. This was a major step in the process toward unified central rule of Russia.
Vasili II and his successors carried out a policy of expanding the army by offering land to anyone willing to serve the state in the military. These land grants were made for life, and most of them could be passed on to the land- owner’s heirs. With such a powerful incentive, many men joined the ranks of the army; they included hereditary princes, boyars, and wealthy non-noble families. (In Russia, the title “prince” does not necessarily refer to the ruler of a province or a member of the royal family; it is a title of the higher nobility similar to the English titles “duke” and “earl.”) Peasants and other commoners were required to serve their community in proportion to the local population.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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