The Uses of History, 19 – Russia the Long-Suffering, 1 – Muscovy to Catherine the Great

(Image – Peter the Great Statue in Moscow, credit Wikipedia)

The first reason to note as to why some attention to Russian history at this time is wise should be obvious to anyone who pays attention to what’s going on in the world in 2023: Russia invaded its near neighbour, Ukraine, just about a year ago as I write this. This invasion is the first major near-peer-to-peer full-blown war in Europe since World War 2. It is also a test of strength and resolve matching the two emerging alliances of social-democratic nations with authoritarian neo-fascist ones. It is not yet fully an East versus West contest, but its direction is leaning heavily that way. By the “West” I mean the nations which identify with liberal democratic values which emerged from the “old” West of Europe and its most prominent assimilated former colonies, regardless of their geographical situation. Japan and South Korea are obvious exceptions to this, but are more “western” in identity now than not, and politically they are solidly aligned with the United States, the West’s superpower.

The second reason is that Russia has played a major role in world history for the last three hundred years, and we should be aware of that and what it signifies now in the light of what preceded the present.

The Russian Empire emerged as a major European state in the East with the victory of Tsar Peter I (the Great, ruled 1689-1725), over Sweden, the then dominant power in the Baltic Basin and Northern Europe, in the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Following his victory in this war, Tsar Peter changed the name of his realm from the Tsardom of Russia (often then referred to as Muscovy by Western Europeans), to the Russian Empire, a much grander sounding title, at least to Europeans. Peter intended to impress Westerners and to serve notice that, henceforward, they should take Russia seriously.

Peter personified Russia’s complex relationship with both the West and the East. He was obsessed with modernizing Russia along Western lines. He literally dragged his reluctant nation and culture kicking and screaming towards realigning its identity with the rapidly emerging Western world dominance. In order to do that, he required the ruling class and educated people to adopt western styles of dress and behaviour and to learn to speak French almost as well as the French. He modernized the army and created the first Russian fleet in history in the Baltic Sea. At the same time, he built an entirely new, western-style city at St. Petersburg, imitating Paris in particular – at terrible cost in human lives and treasure largely extorted and confiscated from the boyars (the lesser nobles and emerging middle class) and other opponents, or taken as war booty.

He did nothing to improve the lot of the 90% of Russians who lived as serfs bound to the land, subjugated to harsh feudal-type laws under the aristocracy. Their welfare (or lack thereof) he largely left to the whimsical benevolence of the local nobility and the Russian Orthodox Church for their spiritual solace. Peter encouraged Russian merchants to develop contacts in Europe and promote better production inside Russia. He encouraged the ongoing expansion of Russian hegemony across Siberia right across northern Asia. When he took power, Russian claims to sovereignty had already reached the Pacific coast north of China, and Peter’s agents added more.

The Europe vs. Asia tension has typified Russia’s story since long before Peter the Great, although some historians credit (or blame) Peter with creating it in the first place. It was perhaps inevitable in any case. The earliest states we can identify as emerging in the region of what is now Russia were already culturally conflicted. In the mid-9th Century, Viking adventurers and traders from Sweden (known as Varangians in that area) had penetrated into the area around present-day Tver, Pskov, and Novgorod and set up shop. Their entrepreneurship and adventuring took them far afield using the rivers as highways, and their superior martial skills earned them both fear and admiration from the local Slavic and Finnish inhabitants.

In 982 they helped consolidate the power of Prince Vladimir of Kiev in what is now Ukraine, and their influence reached as far as Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire. The Byzantine Emperors even created an elite “Varangian Guard” and allotted lands and rich rewards to them when they finished their service.

The Norse were nominally Christians adhering to the Pope. Vladimir considered that alignment as well, but politically it seemed more prudent to throw in his lot with the Eastern Rite at Constantinople under that Patriarch’s supervision. Thus emerged the Medieval Kingdom called Kiyvan Rus, and, from 988 forward, Russia’s future would be connected to Eastern Orthodoxy, which would exercise a profound influence on Russia’s future and culture, as it does to this day.

In the 13th Century, the Mongols arrived in eastern Europe and Western Asia. Their insatiable appetite for conquest penetrated almost to Constantinople, and swept away Kiyvan Rus’s semi-autonomous principalities between 1223-1240. However, the Principality of Novgorod survived, and a new center at Moscow began to emerge. Eventually, the Moscow Slavs successfully threw off the Mongol yoke and began to assume a leading position among the ethnic Russian states of the steppes and forests between Lithuania (which was far larger back then), the Balkans, and the Urals. Moscow’s central position, surrounded by excellent fur-bearing and agricultural territories, gave it a commercial and communications advantage over its Slavic rivals. From his base in Turkestan and the region east and south of the Caspian Sea, Tamerlane (Timur the Lame, 1370-1405) so enfeebled the Tatar (Mongol) “Golden Horde”’s power and influence to the east and south of Moscow that the Princes of Moscow were able to establish a strong link to Constantinople and reassert their independence.

By the early 16th Century, the Grand Principality of Moscow held a dominant position in the center of what would become European Russia. This coincided with the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and thus the great center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity fell under Muslim control. This in turn opened the door to the rising, ambitious rulers of “Muscovy” to lay claim to the prestige of the new and strongest independent Orthodox State still standing. The first Prince of Moscow to claim the title “Tsar/Czar” (Emperor, as in Latin “Caesar”) was Ivan IV, “the Terrible”. He was indeed terrible and at his death the government of Muscovy was in a shambles. His heir was incompetent and, when he died, a noble named Boris Godunov took power and reformed the government and much else.

Since the latter half of the 15th Century the growing ambivalence of Russia’s national identity had begun to emerge more clearly. Ivan III had been a western admirer and had recruited western advisors. Ivan IV had undone much of that progress. Godunov reinstituted much of what Ivan III had done and sought to enhance it. By his time, Muscovy included all the main Russian centers and lands and had gained great new lands even into Siberia.

Ivan III had married Sophia Paleologos, the last Byzantine Princess, and with the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the last remnant of the Roman Empire. The doctrine that Moscow had now assumed the status of “Third Rome” (Rome 1 was Rome per se, Rome 2 was Constantinople) and leader of the true, purest earthly form of Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy, began to spread at the end of the 15th Century. Over time, this concept took deep root in Russian Orthodoxy and Russian identity. Even the Russian administrative and cultural apparatus was embedded in Byzantine forms and ideas. Remnants and echoes of this have remained in the apparatus and culture of Russian government and culture ever since. Separation of Church and State and separate orders within society (the “Three Estate” doctrine in Western, Roman Catholic  Christianity) had never existed in Byzantium and would never truly exist in the emerging Russian Tsardom. Thus, by the time Peter the Great took power, even his westernizing influence and efforts to limit Patriarchal power and the Church’s cultural stranglehold could not dislodge it. Neither could Catherine the Great with her aspirations to “Enlightened Despotism” at the end of the 18th Century.

By contrast in the West, the idea of separate roles and powers for each of the Three Estates, or grand “Orders” within society, had become stronger and would continue to do so until the French Revolution’s shocking energy pushed religion and the First Estate (the Church) to the sidelines of political and, increasingly, of social and economic life. The Enlightenment and Revolution would also erode and diminish the Second Estate’s (the aristocracy) relative role and influence. Of course, such changes took time, but after two centuries the gap in political, social, and economic concepts of governance and national polity between the Western and Central Europe and Russia had grown very wide indeed.


Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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