An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Monarchs of Russia 1/4: Ivan the Great (Terrible)

Posted on January 24, 2014


Russia, as a nation, has a very long history. Sure, it doesn’t really stretch back all the way to the Slav invasion of eastern lands, but from when they started making noise in the ninth century to the current day, they’ve made more noise than most. Despite this long history of creativity, violence, mad monks and mental ideas, there are four leaders from the centuries of Tsardom that stand out above all else. They are all attributed with nicknames, as was the norm back in t’day. Three of these nicknames are ‘The Great’, and but one is ‘The Terrible’. Whilst these seem like fairly cut and dry nicknames, truth is often way more confusing than the truth we wish to experience. In chronological order, read on my chum.

Chronology is my friend, so we’ll start with the first. By the first, I mean the third of course. Ivan III was born in Moscow in 1440, son of Vassily the Dark. He was so-named because he was blind, and folk at that time weren’t too creative. When he was six years old his Papa declared him co-ruler, a state of affairs that lasted until Papa’s death in 1462. At that point, Ivan took over complete power. His first six years were pretty uneventful by historical Russian standards, but when things began to happen THEY FUCKING HAPPENED.

The first thing he did was squabble massively with his brothers. 1468 came around, and Ivan gained forcible possession of his brother’s estate. George, the aforementioned brother, was left to die in prison. As the myth goes, he heard of his brother’s death and wept. Despite what the Pokemon movie may have taught us, tears do not bring anything back to life. He obviously didn’t learn his lesson either, as all of his other brothers were either arrested or executed. Sure, he wept with each one, but boohoo, I’ve killed my brother. No sympathy. Ivan the Great was actually kinda Terrible.

1470 saw his first real act of leadership outside of murdering siblings. In this year he launched a war against the princedom of Novgorod, the other main power in what we now know as Russia. It took him a while, but by 1478 this whole region was his. Prior to this, he tried a few methods. First of all, he sent a letter to the Novgorod leadership. This letter was pretty much ignored, which sort of pissed ol’ Ivan off. Undeterred, he attempted bribery. Bribery always works right? Well, not in 1470 Novgorod it didn’t. So, in this rare instance of everything failing, Ivan sent in the Tartar cavalry, and the Tartar cavalry were total bastards. They totally overran the place. They took prisoners, as you do, but they also cut off the noses and lips of these prisoners. Whether or not Ivan wept at this, history hasn’t made clear, but as he is attributed with the nickname ‘The Great’, I think it’s safe to go ahead and assume he did. Emotional chap.

Of course, the people of Novgorod were fucked at this point, and eight years later what was a proud historical princedom became just another little piece of Ivan’s world. He had pretty big ambitions, natural for a ruler at any point in history, so within a few years he laid claim on more than just the Russian world. In 1472 he married the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Sophia. At this point, Ivan had his sights set on the entire Eastern Orthodox empire, and why not? If Rome was the first Rome, Constantinople the second, could Moscow not conceivably be the third? By the 1480s it certainly can be argued to have been the centre of the Orthodox world. In came the Greek nobles, the artists, the learned men, in an attempt to sort out the edges of the notoriously spiky medieval Russian world. By this point, he had managed to triple the size of the Russian state, taking not only Novgorod but from Lapland to the Urals as well. This is one of the reasons why he is nicknamed ‘The Great’, as he is considered the chap who brought together all of the historical Russian lands. He probably wept at this as well.

There is nothing wrong with crying. I wish I did it more often.

The greatest achievement of Ivan III when it comes to the history of Russia though is without doubt what would come to pass in 1478. For the previous, oh I don’t know, ages, Russian land had been in something of a paralyzed state thanks to what is historically known as the Mongol yoke. Genghis Khan, the most Handsomely Brutal human being in history (Gregory Peck being the most Brutally Handsome of course), had conquered the Russian land a few centuries before. Ever since then, Russian princes and leaders had been forced to pay tribute to the Khan, both financially and in human life. Well, as 1480 trudged around, Ivan III made the decision to refuse this tribute. No more would the people of Moscow be subjugated to the whims of the Mongol empire.

Of course, the Mongol empire was fucked at this point. Decaying, shy of enthusiasm and completely battle fatigued, most of the foot soldiers just wanted a rest. Ivan was totally aware of this, and his decision was fairly easy to make. So, when Khan Akhmet sent his ambassadors to Moscow to pick up Ivan’s debt, Ivan replied with brute force. He threw a tantrum, jumped up and down on the portrait of the Khan, and had all but one of the envoys executed. The sole survivor was sent back to the Khan to explain what the shit was going on. Things were about to get hairy.

Except they didn’t really get hairy. The Khan was miffed, and he sent an army to face Ivan at the Ugra river. When they got there however, they just sort of stood there and stared at each other for a bit. It was a total washout. The equivalent of a multi-month build up for a game out football only for it to end 0-0 with zero shots on goal. Bloody waste of time. Despite this fairly uneventful end, the Mongol Yoke was done, and the Russian people were free. Ish.

With this success, Ivan III made more and more advances towards the taking over of the Byzantine realm. In 1497 he took the double-headed eagle as the official emblem of his united Russian lands, a symbol that is steeped in Byzantine history. In the very same year he completed what became known as the Sudebnik. The Sudebnik was the first time in the history of Moscow that all of the laws of the princedom had been written down in a single place.

It was this sort of act that has led to Ivan III being known in history as ‘The Great’. He succeeded in centralizing a previously scattered Russian power. He was the first in a long line of rulers to use the title ‘Ruler of all Russia’. He tripled Russian territory, and ended the dominance of the Mongol Golden Horde. Ivan III pretty much laid the foundations of what became the Russian state. He was also one of the longest reigning Russian rulers in history, lasting a remarkable 43 and a half years. He also began the world of Muscovite Russia, moving away from the traditional power-base of Novgorod.