Early Russia in 1,500 Words

The establishment of Rus was a complicated affair, whose exact origins are still not entirely clear. According to the “Primary Chronicle” a Varangian, or Scandinavian Viking, name Rurik established Novgorod at the behest of the indigenous Slavs who could not rule themselves. Rurik’s successor, Oleg, took control of portions of the Dnieper River and eventually moved the capitol to Kiev in 882 CE. Oleg unified numerous Slavic tribes, and is considered to be the first ruler of Kievan Rus.

Though the first ruling family has names consistent with Scandinavian traditions, there is little evidence that they had much influence upon the culture of the people whom they ruled. The wife of Oleg’s son Igor, Olga, came to power after their respective deaths. And, though she adopted Christianity, the people did not. At this point the Slavs still paid homage to their rod and rozhanitsa, which are their male and female ancestors. And, they also worshiped gods such as Perun, who was the god of thunder. A factor influencing this could have been their lack of a written language. It wasn’t until two Byzantine missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, created the Cyrillic alphabet that they had a written language of their own.

Even after Olga’s son Sviatoslav defeated the Muslim Volga Bulgers and the Jewish Khazars, the Slavic people remained largely pagan. After Sviatoslav’s death, his youngest son Vladimir wrestled control of Rus from his brother Yorapolk. Vladimir kept paganism for many years prior to converting to Christianity. He had as many as seven hundred wives and erected statues of pagan gods prior to attempting to establish Perun as the singular god. Rus was surrounded by advanced religions, and Christianity was spreading to areas such as Hungary, Norway and the Baltic. Around 988 Vladimir sent emissaries out to nearby nations in search of an official religion. Vladimir turned down Islam for prohibiting the consumption of alcohol, and Judaism for being a landless people. He also rejected Roman Catholicism for its dull foreign ceremonies. Vladimir settled on the Eastern Church from Byzantium largely because of their beautiful cathedrals, though proximity to Constantinople and availability of Cyrillic writings may have also been factors. This choice may have ultimately contributed to their isolation from Europe, but it earned Vladimir the title of “baptizer of the Russians.”

During this period, the rise of Rus, the highest levels of society didn’t have a tremendous amount of influence upon the lower levels, and the class structure was complex. Below the Rurik family there was an aristocracy called the muzhi. There was also a class of military elite known as the boyars. Below them were the urban middle class liudi, who would employ skilled workers called “younger men”. The lowest class of free men, and the majority of the population, was the smerdy. At the lowest level of society were the enslaved cheliad, and the indentured zakups. Most of the people lived in small towns which employed local government through town hall meetings known as veche. The goal of the veche was to achieve a consensus; sometimes they would have to resort to fighting or intimidation to establish an accord. Because many of the government decisions that effected people were made locally, there was likely a disconnect between the smerdy and the upper ruling class. In fact, the veche could remove the prince of their town and replace him if they felt he wasn’t doing a very good job. So, even though a boyar or prince had a higher station in life, it didn’t mean much if he didn’t have a town that wanted him.

This decentralized legal system, combined with divisions due to linguistic and ethnic reasons, along with the appanage system and foreign invasions, contributed to Rus’ decline. However, the greatest of these causes was most likely appanage. Since a father would split his land among his sons, with each successive generation the size of land held by individuals decreased. These various types of division made it easier for the Mongols – or Tatars as they are know in Russia – to conquer Rus.

The Mongols first beat Rus at the battle of the Kalka River in 1223, but they were turned back by the Volga Bulgars. The Mongols returned in 1240 to defeat Russia and impose their will, a time period which has come to be known as the “Mongol Yoke.” The Mongols were ruthless, highly unified, and possessed superior war strategies. They easily defeated the divided Rus areas, enslaving men from conquered areas and placing them on the front lines of the successive attacks. The boyar’s failure to unify their resources due to misplaced thoughts of self preservation directly contributed to the Mongol’s success in defeating Rus.

During the “Mongol Yoke,” Russian progress was retarded and cultural development stagnated. The Mongols massacred a huge percentage of the population and many others fled the region. Any skilled workers who remained were largely repurposed for military duties. This effectively purged Russia of skilled artisans. And, besides for military abilities, the Mongol society was not very advanced itself. They lacked a written language, religion, and governmental skills. The Mongols contributed very little to Russian culture, certainly less than the destroyed.

The Mongol’s power started to decline when Khan Uzbeq empowered Ivan Kalita, or Ivan I, to manage the area around Moscow. Ivan I used his commissions to buy land and expand his principality around Moscow. Also during Ivan’s reign, Moscow became the religious center of Russia. It started when the head of the Russian Church, Metropolitan Peter, died in 1326 while visiting Moscow. Ivan Kalita persuaded the Metropolitan’s successor, Theognost, to settle in Moscow. This marked the beginning of Moscow’s rise to prominence.

When the Grand Prince Dmitri took control of Moscow, the Mongols were working on a plan to join with the Lithuanians and fight Moscow so that they could reassert control. But, Dmitri defeated the Mongols at the Don River before they got a change to join up with the Lithuanians, earning the name Dmitri Donskoi. After his death, Dmitri’s son Vasilii I continued to gather land around Moscow. And, his son, Vasilii II, subsequently forms the first standing Russian Army.

During the “Mongol Yoke,” the votchina system started to develop in Rus. This system was similar to feudalism, except that the people who worked the land were not attached to it and could move freely. But, after the “Mongol Yoke” is gone, Ivan III enacted the Sudebnik of 1497 and effectively causes the enserfment of the smerdy by restricting them to moving only on St. George’s Day. The Sudebnik was later changed so that the smerdy could not leave their land at all, right around the time that the feudal system is ending in Europe. This was also a time when the Orthodox Church started to gather lands due to their privileges under the Mongols.

Ivan III enacted the Sudebnik of 1497 to provide pomesties for the dvorian, a group of professional government workers. Pomesties were the estates that the gentry class accepted as payment for their service to the government. This was one of the steps that Ivan took to take control out of the boyar’s hands and consolidate it for himself. Along with this he also established the Mestnichestvo, a system of ranking members of the boyar duma.

Also during the rule of Ivan III, the church came under fire for possessing so much wealth. By 1500, the church was the largest single landholder. The Strigolniki argued that the church should renounce its wealth as a way to purify its message. And, Ivan was sympathetic to this cause since it could have allowed him to seize church lands for the dvorian. But, ultimately, he decided that it would be better to let the church keeps it power. One reason for this was that the boyars supported the Strigolniki, and he certainly would not want to support anything that they supported. Another reason was that the church was supporting him and giving him extra legitimacy, especially with the ideas of the Third Rome.

After Ivan III, his son Vasilii III further expands Muscovy’s control by taking Ryazan. When Vasilii II dies, his son Ivan IV is too young to assume the throne, so the boyars effectively take control. Once he is old enough to take control he feels that he has been abused by the boyars, and that the boyars have robbed his family of wealth and endangered Russia. So, he sets out to take even more control away from the boyars. He establishes the chosen council to rule Russia and eventually the Zemskii Sobor, which calls for representatives from throughout Russia. The Sudebnik of 1550 furthers these goals, but more importantly technology starts to favor strong central rulers. Gunpowder is becoming available, and Ivan the Terrible uses the central governments wealth to create units of musketeers and artillery. This reduces the boyars’ power since they are only equipped with cavalry. This is the point when Moscow is at the center of a strong centralized Russian state.

Originally written October 10th, 2009
Published: 2009-12-02