By the end of the 15th century, Moscow had turned from the capital of the Muscovite principality to the capital of all the Russian land. Those were the times of the Grand Prince Ioann Vasilyevich. His byname was Ioann the Great. He was the first of Russian grand princes to be called "tsar" (or monarch), Ioann III.
Ioann Vasilyevich was born on January 22, 1440, in Moscow, at the height of the civil war that raged between supporters of his father, Grand Prince Vasily II of Grand Prince Ioann VasilyevichMoscow, and those of his rebellious uncles. His early life was dramatic and tumultuous.
His father was arrested and blinded by his cousin in 1446. And little Ioann was first hidden in a monastery and then smuggled to safety, only to be treacherously handed over to his father's captors later in the year. Shortly after his father's release in the same year Ioann was solemnly affianced – for purely political reasons – to the daughter of the Grand Prince of the Tver principality, whom he married in 1452. During the last years of his father's reign, he gained experience in the arts of war and government. At the age of 12 he was placed nominally in command of a military expedition, dispatched to deal with the remnants of his father's internal enemies in the far north. And at 18 he led a successful campaign against the Tartars, in the South.
Vasily II died on March 27, 1462, and was succeeded by Ioann as Grand Prince of Moscow.
Little is known of Ioann's activities during the early part of his reign. Apart from a series of sporadic and largely successful campaigns against the eastern neighbors, the Tartars of Kazan, there was evidently not much beyond the routine business of ruling to occupy him. But his private life soon changed radically. In 1467 his childhood bride died (or perhaps was poisoned), leaving him with only one son. The state of medicine in Moscow of those times was primitive. And Ioann's brothers showed demonstrable reluctance to see the royal line continued longer than was necessary. So, the likelihood of the son predeceasing his father and thus robbing him of an heir appeared only too real, and another Vasily Vasnetsov. The Moscow Kremlin in Ioann III's timewife had to be sought.
Curiously, the initiative seems to have come from outside. In 1469 Cardinal Bessarion wrote from Rome offering Ioann the hand of his ward and pupil, Zoe Palaeologus, niece of the last emperor of Byzantium. It took three years before the plump and unattractive Zoe was married to Ioann in the Kremlin. She changed her faith to Orthodoxy and her name to Sofia.
At Ioann’s accession many Great Russian lands were not yet under Muscovite control. The entire Ukraine and the upper Oka districts were part of the Polish-Lithuanian union and Ioann himself, in name at least, was a tributary of the Khan of the Golden Horde. He set himself the task of re-conquering from Poland-Lithuania the Ukrainian possessions of his forefathers. But first the independent Great Russian lands had to be annexed or subdued and subservience to the Tartars had to be repudiated.
After rendering the Kazan Horde on his eastern flank temporarily impotent by a series of campaigns, Ioann attempted to subdue Novgorod and its huge northern empire. He repeatedly invaded Novgorod, formally forced it to accept his sovereignty, stripped it of the last vestiges of political freedom. He also secularized large tracts of its church lands, annexed its colonies, and replaced many of its citizens with reliable elements from his own domains. By 1489 Novgorod could offer no more resistance to Ioann .
Of the remaining Russian lands still technically independent in 1462, Yaroslavl and Rostov were annexed by treaty. Tver offered little resistance and meekly yielded to Moscow in 1485. Ryazan and Pskov alone retained their independence at the cost of abject subservience to their virtual suzerain.
Freedom from subjection to Khan Ahmed of the Golden Horde came in 1480. To counterbalance Ahmed's friendship with Poland-Lithuania, Ioann concluded an invaluable Alliance with Khan Mengli-Girei of Crimea. After a victorious campaign by Ioann in 1480, Ahmed withdrew his forces from Ioann 's dominions, and although Ahmed's son continued to worry Moscow and Crimea until the final defeat in 1502, Ioann from 1480 no longer considered himself a vassal of the Khan and entered the field of European diplomacy as an independent sovereign.
Metropolitan Philipp is blessing Sofia PalaeologusBy tact and diplomacy he managed to maintain his friendship with Mengli Girei and to avoid serious trouble in Kazan for the rest of his reign.
In 1480 Ioann III also had to cope with the danger of rebellion by his two brothers Andrei and Boris, who had been incensed by his high-handed appropriation of their deceased elder brother's estates. They defected with their armies to western frontiers but eventually returned and acknowledged Ioann's territorial acquisitions and primacy.
In 1490, Ioann's eldest son by his first wife died of gout. He had been ineptly treated by a Jewish doctor who had been brought to Russia by Sofia's brother, and Ioann suspected foul play. He now had to solve the problem of who was to be his heir — his deceased son's son Dmitry or his eldest son by Sofia, Vasily. For seven years he vacillated. Then, in 1497, he nominated Dmitry as heir. Sofia, anxious to see her son assured on the throne, planned rebellion against her husband, but the plot was uncovered. Ioann disgraced Sofia and Vasily and had Dmitry crowned Grand Prince in 1498.
However, in 1500 Vasily rebelled again and defected to the Lithuanians. Ioann was forced to compromise. At that stage of his war with Lithuania he could not risk the total alienation of his son and wife and so, in 1502, he gave the title to Vasily and imprisoned Dmitry and his mother Yelena.
At home Ioann's policy was to centralize the administration by stripping the appanage princes of land and authority. As for the boyars, they were stripped of much of their authority and swiftly executed or imprisoned if suspected of treason. Ioann's reign saw the beginning of the ‘pomestic’ system, whereby the servants of the grand prince were granted estates on a basis of life tenure and on condition of loyal service.
Ioann's last years were the years of disappointment. The war against Lithuania had not ended as conclusively and satisfactorily as he expected — much of the Ukraine was still in the hands of a strangely buoyant enemy; his ecclesiastical plans for secularizing church lands had been thwarted at the Council of 1503, and the Khanate of Kazan, which had been so carefully neutralized during Ioann's reign, was beginning to rid itself of Moscow tutelage.
Ioann died in the autumn of 1505. Looking back at his reign, we can say that his reign was full of great achievements. He subdued most of the Great Russian lands by conquest or by the voluntary allegiance of princes. He re-won parts of the Ukraine from Poland-Lithuania and repudiated the old subservience to the Mongol-derived Tartars. He also laid the administrative foundations of a centralized Russian state. But in spite of his great achievements, he died unmourned and seemingly unloved. Singularly little is known about him as a man. He was tall and thin and had a slight stoop. It is said that women fainted in his presence, so frightened were they by his awesome gaze. His only known pleasures were those of bed and table. His contemporaries are silent about his virtues. Yet, few scholars have underestimated the role of Ioann III in the creation of the Russian state, and none dispute the significance of his diplomatic and military successes. It may be that the excessive cautiousness of his character, the lack of élan and glamour, and the very dullness of the man have prevented historians from universally recognizing the appellation of "the Great", first attributed to him by the Austrian ambassador of his son's court.
Source:The Voice of Russia