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Russian Expansion in Europe

The development of the Russian state can be traced from Vladimir-Suzdal' through Muscovy to the Russian Empire. Muscovy gained full sovereignty as Mongol power waned, and Mongol overlordship was officially terminated in 1480. The grand princes of Muscovy began gathering Russian lands to increase the population and wealth under their rule. The most successful "gatherer" was Ivan III (1462-1505), who in 1478 conquered Novgorod and in 1485 Tver'. Through inheritance, Ivan obtained part of Ryazan', and the princes of Rostov and Yaroslavl' voluntarily subordinated themselves to him. Pskov, which remained independent, was conquered in 1510 by Ivan's son, Vasilii III (1505-33). By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Muscovy had united virtually all ethnically Russian lands.

Ivan III was the first Muscovite ruler to use the titles of tsar and "Ruler of all Rus'," laying claim not only to Russian areas but also to parts of the Ukrainian and Belorussian lands of Kievan Rus'. Lithuania, then a powerful state, included other parts of Belorussia and central Ukraine. Ivan III competed with Lithuania for control over some of the semi-independent former principalities of Kievan Rus' in the upper Dnepr and Donets river basins. Through defections of some princes, border skirmishes, and an inconclusive war with Lithuania, Ivan III was able to push westward, and Muscovy tripled in size under his rule.

Muscovy continued its territorial growth. In the southwest, it acquired eastern Ukraine, which had been under Polish rule. The Ukrainian Cossacks, warriors organized into military formations, lived in the frontier areas bordering Poland, the Tatar lands, and Muscovy. Although they had served the Polish king as mercenary troops, the Ukrainian Cossacks remained fiercely independent and staged a number of uprisings against the Poles. In 1648 the Ukrainian Cossacks revolted and were joined by most of Ukrainian society, which had suffered political, social, religious, and ethnic oppression under Polish rule.

After the Ukrainians threw off Polish rule, they needed military help to sustain their gains. In 1654 the leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks, Bohdan Khmel'nyts'kyi, offered to place Ukraine under the protection of the Muscovite tsar rather than the Polish king. After some hesitation, the tsar accepted Khmel'nyts'kyi's offer, which led to a protracted war between Muscovy and Poland. The war was concluded by the Treaty of Andrusovo in 1667. Ukraine was split along the Dnepr River. The western bank was retained by Poland, and the eastern bank remained self-governing under the suzerainty of the tsar.

Muscovy's southwestern expansion, particularly its incorporation of eastern Ukraine, had unintended consequences. Most Ukrainians were Orthodox, but, having had to compete with the Polish Counter-Reformation, they combined Western intellectual currents with their religion. Through Kiev, Muscovy obtained links to Polish and central European influences and to the wider Orthodox world. Historically, Ukrainians had been under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople. Although the Ukrainian link stimulated creativity, it also undermined traditional Russian religious practices and culture.

The Russian Orthodox Church discovered that because of its isolation from Constantinople, variations had crept into its liturgical books and practices. The Russian Orthodox patriarch, Nikon, was determined to correct the texts according to the Greek originals. Nikon, however, encountered fierce opposition because many Russians viewed the corrections as inspired by foreigners or the devil. The Orthodox Church forced the reforms, which resulted in a schism in 1667. Those who did not accept the reforms, the Old Believers, were pronounced heretics and were persecuted by the church and the state. The chief opposition figure, Avvakum, was burned at the stake. The split subsequently became permanent, and many merchants and prosperous peasants joined the Old Believers.

The impact of Ukraine and the West was also felt at the tsar's court. Kiev, through its famed scholarly academy, founded by Metropolitan Mohila in 1631, was a major transmitter of new ideas and introduced the Muscovite elite to a central European variant of the Western world. Among the results of this infusion of ideas were baroque architecture, literature, and icon painting. Other more direct channels to the West opened as international trade increased and more foreigners came to Muscovy. The tsar's court was interested in the West's more advanced technology, particularly if its applications were military in nature. By the end of the seventeenth century, Ukrainian, Polish, and West European penetration had undermined the Muscovite cultural synthesis--at least among the elite--and had prepared the way for an even more radical transformation.

Although Peter the Great was unsuccessful in forging an anti-Ottoman coalition in Europe, he found interest in waging war against Sweden. The Great Northern War, which in essence was settled at Poltava, dragged on until 1721, when Sweden agreed to the Treaty of Nystad. Muscovy retained what it had conquered: Livonia, Estonia, and Ingria on the Baltic Sea. Through his victories, Peter had acquired a direct link to western Europe. In celebration, Peter assumed the title of emperor as well as tsar, and Muscovy became the Russian Empire in 1721. Muscovy's expansion into Europe and transformation into the Russian Empire had been accomplished by restructuring the military, streamlining the government, and mobilizing Russia's financial and human resources.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 19:23:21 ZULU