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Ivan III (The Great)
Portrait from the 17th-century Titulyarnik
Preceded by Vasily II
Succeeded by Vasily III
Personal details
Born (1440-01-22)22 January 1440
Moscow, Grand Duchy of Moscow
Died 27 October 1505(1505-10-27) (aged 65)
Moscow, Grand Duchy of Moscow
Spouse(s) Maria of Tver
Sophia Paleologue
Religion Eastern Orthodox

Ivan III Vasilyevich (Russian: Иван III Васильевич) (22 January 1440, Moscow – 27 October 1505, Moscow), also known as Ivan the Great,[1][2] was a Grand Prince of Moscow and "Grand Prince of all Rus" (Великий князь всея Руси). Sometimes referred to as the "gatherer of the Russian lands," he tripled the territory of his state, ended the dominance of the Golden Horde over the Rus, renovated the Moscow Kremlin, and laid the foundations of the Russian state. He was one of the longest-reigning Russian rulers in history.

Gathering of Russian lands

His first enterprise was a war with the Republic of Novgorod, which had fought a series of wars (stretching back to at least the reign of Dmitry Donskoi) for two reasons: over Moscow's religious and political sovereignty, and over Moscow's efforts to seize land in the Northern Dvina region.[3] Alarmed at Moscow's growing power, Novgorod had negotiated with Lithuania in the hope of placing itself under the protection of Casimir IV, King of Poland and Grand Prince of Lithuania, a would-be alliance regarded by Moscow as an act of apostasy from orthodoxy.[4] Ivan took the field against Novgorod in 1470, and after his generals had twice defeated the forces of the republic—at the Battle of Shelon River and on the Northern Dvina, both in the summer of 1471—the Novgorodians were forced to sue for peace, agreeing to abandon their overtures to Lithuania and ceding a considerable portion of their northern territories, and paying a war indemnity of 15,500 rouble.

Ivan visited Novgorod Central several times in the next several years, persecuting a number of pro-Lithuanian boyars and confiscating their lands. In 1477, two Novgorodian envoys, claiming to have been sent by the archbishops and the entire city, addressed Ivan in public audience as Gosudar (sovereign) instead of the usual Gospodin (sir).[5] Ivan at once seized upon this as a recognition of his sovereignty, and when the Novgorodians repudiated the envoys (indeed, one was killed at the veche and several others of the pro-Moscow faction were killed with him) and swore openly in front of the Moscow ambassadors that they would turn to Lithuania again, he marched against them. Deserted by Casimir IV and surrounded on every side by the Moscow armies, which occupied the major monasteries around the city, Novgorod ultimately recognized Ivan's direct rule over the city and its vast hinterland in a document signed and sealed by Archbishop Feofil of Novgorod (1470–1480) on 15 January 1478.[6]

Ivan's destruction of Novgorod's assembly

Ivan dispossessed Novgorod of over four-fifths of its land, keeping half for himself and giving the other half to his allies.[7] Subsequent revolts (1479–1488) were punished by the removal en masse of the richest and most ancient families of Novgorod to Moscow, Vyatka, and other central Russian cities. Archbishop Feofil, too, was removed to Moscow for plotting against the Grand Prince.[8] The rival republic of Pskov owed the continuance of its own political existence to the readiness with which it assisted Ivan against its ancient enemy. The other principalities were eventually absorbed, be it by conquest, purchase or marriage contract: The Yaroslavl in 1463, Rostov was bought in 1474, Tver in 1485, and Vyatka 1489.

Ivan III on the "Millennium of Russia" monument in Veliky Novgorod

Ivan's refusal to share his conquests with his brothers, and his subsequent interference with the internal politics of their inherited principalities, involved him in several wars with them, from which, though the princes were assisted by Lithuania, he emerged victorious. Finally, Ivan's new rule of government, formally set forth in his last will to the effect that the domains of all his kinsfolk, after their deaths, should pass directly to the reigning Grand Duke instead of reverting, as hitherto, to the princes' heirs, put an end once and for all to these semi-independent princelings.

Ivan had four brothers. The eldest, Iurii, died childless on 12 September 1472. He only had a draft of a will which said nothing about his land. Ivan seized the land, much to the surviving brothers' fury. He placated them with some land. Boris and Andrei the Elder signed treaties with Basil in February and September 1473. They agreed to protect each other's land and not have secret dealings with foreign states. They broke this clause in 1480, fleeing to Lithuania. It is unknown if Andrei the Younger signed a treaty. He died in 1481, leaving his lands to Ivan. In 1491 Andrei the Elder was arrested by Ivan for refusing to aid the Crimean Tatars against the Golden Horde. He died in prison in 1493, and Ivan seized his land. In 1494 Boris, the only brother able to pass his land to his sons, died. However, their land reverted to the Tsar upon their deaths in 1503 and 1515 respectively.[9]

There was one semi-autonomous prince in Muscovy when Ivan acceded: Prince Mikhail Andreevich of Vereia, who had been awarded an Appanage by Basil II. In 1478 he was pressured into giving Belozersk to Ivan, who got all of Mikhail's land on his death in 1486.[10]

Domestic policy

Reverse of Ivan III's seal from 1472, after his marriage with Sophia Paleologue

The character of the government of Moscow under Ivan III changed essentially, taking on a new form. This was due not merely to the natural consequence of the hegemony of Moscow over the other Russian lands, but to new imperial pretensions. After the fall of Constantinople, orthodox canonists were inclined to regard the Grand Princes of Moscow as the successors of the Byzantine emperors. Ivan himself appeared to welcome the idea, and he began to style himself tsar in foreign correspondence.

This movement coincided with a change in the family circumstances of Ivan III. After the death of his first consort, Maria of Tver (1467), and at the suggestion of Pope Paul II (1469), who hoped thereby to bind Russia to the Holy See, Ivan III wedded Sophia Paleologue (also known under her original Greek and Orthodox name of Zoe), daughter of Thomas Palaeologus, despot of Morea, who claimed the throne of Constantinople as the brother of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor. Frustrating the Pope's hopes of reuniting the two faiths, the princess endorsed Orthodoxy. Due to her family traditions, she encouraged imperial ideas in the mind of her consort. It was through her influence that the ceremonious etiquette of Constantinople (along with the imperial double-headed eagle and all that it implied) was adopted by the court of Moscow.

The Palace of Facets (1487–91) was commissioned by Ivan to Italian architects.

Ivan's son with Maria of Tver, Ivan the Young, died in 1490, leaving from his marriage with Helen of Moldavia an only child, Dmitry the Grandson. The latter was crowned as successor by his grandfather on 15 February 1491, but later Ivan reverted his decision in favor of Sophia's elder son Vasily, who was ultimately crowned co-regent with his father (14 April 1502). The decision was dictated by the crisis connected with the Sect of Skhariya the Jew, as well as by the imperial prestige of Sophia's descendants. Dmitry the Grandson was put into prison, where he died, unmarried and childless, in 1509, already under the rule of his uncle.

The Grand Duke increasingly held aloof from his boyars. The old patriarchal systems of government vanished. The boyars were no longer consulted on affairs of state. The sovereign became sacrosanct, while the boyars were reduced to dependency on the will of the sovereign. The boyars naturally resented this revolution and struggled against it.

It was in the reign of Ivan III that the new Russian Sudebnik, or law code, was compiled by the scribe Vladimir Gusev. Ivan did his utmost to make his capital a worthy successor to Constantinople, and with that object invited many foreign masters and artificers to settle in Moscow. The most noted of these was the Italian Ridolfo di Fioravante, nicknamed "Aristotle" because of his extraordinary knowledge, who built several cathedrals and palaces in the Kremlin. This extraordinary monument of the Moscow art remains a lasting symbol of the power and glory of Ivan III.

Foreign policy

Ivan III tearing the khan's letter to pieces

It was in the reign of Ivan III that Muscovy rejected the Tatar yoke. In 1476 Ivan refused to pay the customary tribute to the grand Khan Ahmed. All through the autumn the Muscovy and Tatar hosts confronted each other on opposite sides of the Ugra, till the 11th of November 1480, when Ahmed retired into the steppe. In the following year the Grand Khan, while preparing a second expedition against Moscow, was suddenly attacked, routed and slain by Ivak, the Khan of the Nogay Horde, whereupon the Golden Horde suddenly fell to pieces. In 1487 Ivan reduced the khanate of Kazan, one of the offshoots of the Horde, to the condition of a vassal-state, though in his later years it broke away from his suzerainty. With the other Muslim powers, the Khan of the Crimean Khanate and the sultans of Ottoman Empire, Ivan's relations were peaceful and even amicable. The Crimean Khan, Meñli I Giray, helped him against the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and facilitated the opening of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Istanbul, where the first Muscovian embassy appeared in 1495.

It was during Ivan’s reign that the Christian rulers in the Caucasus began to see the Russian monarchs as their natural allies against the Muslim regional powers. The first attempt at forging an alliance was made by Alexander I, king of a small Georgian kingdom of Kakheti, who dispatched two embassies, in 1483 and 1491, to Moscow. However, as the Russians were still too far from the Caucasus, neither of these missions had any effect on the course of events in the region. From Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, gun-founders, gold- and silversmiths and (Italian) master builders were requested by Ivan.[11]

In Nordic affairs, Ivan III concluded an offensive alliance with Hans of Denmark and maintained regular correspondence with Emperor Maximilian I, who called him a "brother". He built a strong citadel in Ingria named Ivangorod after himself, situated on the Russian-Estonian border, opposite the fortress of Narva held by the Livonian Confederation. In the Russo-Swedish War (1495–1497) Ivan III unsuccessfully attempted to conquer Viborg from Sweden but this attempt was checked by the Swedish garrison in Viborg Castle led by Lord Knut Posse.

The further extension of the Moscow dominion was facilitated by the death of Casimir IV in 1492, when Poland and Lithuania once again parted company. The throne of Lithuania was now occupied by Casimir's son Alexander, a weak and lethargic prince so incapable of defending his possessions against the persistent attacks of the Russians that he attempted to save them by a matrimonial compact, and wedded Helena, Ivan's daughter. But the clear determination of Ivan to appropriate as much of Lithuania as possible, finally compelled Alexander to take up arms against his father-in-law in 1499. The Lithuanians were routed at Vedrosha (14 July 1500), and in 1503 Alexander was glad to purchase peace by ceding to Ivan Chernigov, Starodub, Novgorod-Seversky and sixteen other towns.

  • Much information on Ivan III and his court is contained in Sigismund von Herberstein's Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (1549).


  • 1462 – Becomes Great Prince after his father's death
  • 1463 – Annexes Yaroslavl
  • 1465 – Sends an expedition to the Arctic
  • 1471 – Invades Novgorod, which becomes a puppet state
  • 1472 – Eldest brother, Yuri, died childless; Ivan seizes his land
  • 1474 – Buys Rostov
  • 1476 – Refuses to pay tribute to Khan Ahmed of the Golden Horde
  • 1478 – Annexes the Republic of Novgorod
  • 1480 – Golden Horde advances to the Ugra River but retreats (the last attempt to force Muscovy to pay tribute)
  • 1481 – Younger brother Andrei dies, leaving Ivan his land
  • 1483 – 1st Georgian emissary
  • 1484 – 1st purge of Novgorod
  • 1485 – Annexes Tver. The official date of revival of statehood; an acceptation of new title – 'Grand Prince of All Russia'
  • 1486 – The only autonomous Muscovite prince, Mikhail Andreevich of Vereia dies; Ivan seizes his land.
  • 1487Kazan Khanate becomes a Muscovite puppet state
2nd purge of Novgorod
  • 1489 – Annexes Republic of Vyatka
3rd purge of Novgorod: 1,000 expelled.
  • 1491 – Ivan's elder brother Andrei imprisoned for not helping the Crimean Khanate against the Golden Horde
2nd Georgian emissary
  • 1492 – War with Lithuania started August
  • 1493 – Andrei the Elder dies in prison; Ivan seizes his land
  • 1494 – Last brother, Boris, dies and leaves his land to his sons, Ivan and Fedor
February – Lithuanian war ends
Muscovy annexes Vyazma and a sizable region in the upper reaches of the Oka River
  • 1499 – Lithuania invaded. 4,000 troops cross the Pechora River, take 1,000 prisoners, pelts and found Pustozyorsk.
  • 1503 – Ivan takes the land of his nephew Ivan on the latter's death
Chernigov, Starodub, Novgorod-Seversky, and sixteen other towns ceded by Lithuania to Muscovy, ending the war
  • 1505 – Ivan dies, leaving Muscovy to his son Vasili


See also

  • Rulers of Russia family tree


  1. Славянская энциклопедия. Киевская Русь — Московия: в 2 т. / Автор-составитель В. В. Богуславский. — М.: ОЛМА-ПРЕСС, 2001. — 5000 экз. — ISBN 5-224-02249-5
  2. Русский биографический словарь — Изд. под наблюдением председателя Императорского Русского Исторического Общества А. А. Половцова. — Санкт-Петербург: тип. Гл. упр. уделов, 1897 [2]. — Т. 8.
  3. Michael C. Paul, "Secular Power and the Archbishops of Novgorod up to the Muscovite Conquest," Kritika 8, No. 2 (2007):131–170.
  4. Paul, "Secular Power," 261.
  5. Paul, "Secular Power," 264.
  6. Paul, "Secular Power," 268.
  7. Richard Pipes, Russia under the old regime, page 93
  8. Paul, "Secular Power," 267.
  9. Donald Ostowski, The Cambridge History of Russia vol. I pages 222–3
  10. Donald Ostowski, The Cambridge History of Russia vol. I page 224

Further reading

  • J. L. I. Fennell, Ivan the Great of Moscow (1961)
  • Sergei M. Soloviev, and John J. Windhausen, eds. History of Russia. Vol. 8: Russian Society in the Age of Ivan III (1979)

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Vasili II
Grand Prince of Moscow
Succeeded by
Vasili III
Russian royalty
Preceded by
Dmitry Shemyaka
Heir to the Russian Throne
Succeeded by
Ivan Ivanovich

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