Ivan the Great, Grand Prince of Muscovy

Ivan III tearing the khan’s letter to pieces, an apocryphal 19th-century painting by Aleksey Kivshenko / Wikimedia Commons

He came into power at a time when Russian princes were still competing among themselves and struggling against the Tatars.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


The next strong ruler of Muscovy after Ivan I was Ivan III, who became known as Ivan the Great. Ivan became Grand Prince of Muscovy in 1462 and ruled until 1502. He came into power at a time when Russian princes were still competing among themselves and struggling against the Tatars.

No prince wanted power more dearly than Ivan III. He dedicated his entire life to making Muscovy the strongest state in Russia and to ridding his country of Tatar rule. No wonder he became known as Ivan the Great.

Ivan grew up in a period of almost continuous warfare. Often, this warfare took place among members of the same family. When Ivan was only a boy, some of his relatives rebelled against his father. They kidnapped his father and blinded him. Then they held him prisoner and tried to govern Muscovy themselves.

With the help of some friends, young Ivan escaped capture,but not for long. One of the men who helped him escape later told the rebels where the young prince was hiding. The rebels found Ivan and carried him off. Ivan became a prisoner, like his father.

The struggle for control of Muscovy continued. Soon the supporters of Ivan and his father triumphed over the rebels. Ivan and his father were released, and they took power again.

At a young age, Ivan married the daughter of the then “Grand Prince.”It was an arranged marriage, made for political reasons, not for love.Before he was twenty-two, Ivan led an army against his father’s enemies and finally defeated them. He also fought against the Tatars.By the time his father died, Ivan had accomplished much. He was ready to take on the duties of Grand Prince of Muscovy. Ivan’s father died in 1462, when Ivan was twenty-two years old. After that, Ivan ruled alone until 1502.

Winning Back Russia

As Ivan III gained power in Muscovy, there was conflict among the Tatar leaders in Russia. In 1480, a group of Russian princes led by Ivan III and his son forced the Tatars to retreat. Russia was at last free from foreign rule. Ivan took power into his own hands. Under his reign, and that of his son, the territories of Muscovy tripled in size. The Muscovy territories began to form a larger and more unified nation.

Ivan III copied the Tatar and Byzantine traditions of ruling with absolute power, a power no one could challenge.

As Ivan gained lands, he clamped down more tightly on all those he ruled. It became his mission to limit the power of the boyars, or landowning nobles. Ivan issued new, stricter laws. He punished anyone suspected of plotting against him with prison or death.

“Like God, the Highest”

Ivan III copied the Tatar and Byzantine traditions of ruling with absolute power—a power no one could challenge. Like the Byzantine emperors of the past, Ivan used the double-headed eagle as his symbol. In addition to his title of grand prince, he called himself czar or tsar, from the Russian word for “Caesar.”

Ivan III used a double-headed eagle as his symbol.

When Ivan became Grand Prince of Muscovy, great intellectual, artistic, and scientific progress was taking place in Western Europe. Historians call this period of history “the Renaissance.” These great changes began in Italy and soon spread throughout Western Europe. But Russia was isolated, and the Renaissance had only a small impact on the country. Russia was mostly out of touch with the progress in the arts and sciences taking place in Western Europe.

There was one high-ranking person in Moscow who had first-hand knowledge of the changes taking place in Western Europe. That person was Ivan’s second wife, Sophia. She had been raised in Italy and given a Renaissance education. But Sophia did not seem to have much influence on Ivan. She did not change him very much.

“The czar,” Ivan was fond of saying, “is in nature like all men, but in authority, he is like God, the highest.”

van dressed as if he were, indeed, a god. He often appeared in robes woven from gold threads and lined with expensive fur. What a contrast this was to the tattered clothing and leaky boots of Russian workers and serfs.

The serfs were the millions of poor people in Russia who suffered under the harsh rule of the Russian princes and boyars. Most serfs were poor farmers. They farmed the land,did the hard work, and lived in miserable conditions.

When one landowner sold his farm to another, the serfs went with the sale. Some landowners also sold serfs individually, just like slaves. Serfs were not allowed to move from place to place without the consent of the landowner. Over the years, life for the serfs did not improve. In some ways the system of serfdom meant that things got worse for many people working on the land.

Building His Reputation

Ivan III made up imaginary ancestors who just happened to be Roman emperors. He created legends about himself that showed him as glorious and strong.

To complete his image of greatness, Ivan started huge new building projects in the city of Moscow. Most large Russian cities had kremlins. The kremlins were built as walled fortresses to protect Russian cities.The rulers of a city usually lived inside the kremlins.

While many Russian cities had kremlins, the Moscow Kremlin became the most important one. It was where the czar lived.

The czar lived in the Moscow Kremlin, which had been badly damaged by fire and needed repair. Ivan the Great changed that.He set about building many fine and grand structures inside the walls of the Moscow Kremlin. He built several very elaborate cathedrals, government buildings, and palaces. The newly rebuilt Moscow Kremlin stood as a grand symbol of Ivan’s growing might and power.

From Czars and Shoguns: Early Russia and Feudal Japan, originally published by the Core Knowledge Foundation under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.



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