Traveler’s Accounts of Medieval Russia

During the reign of Ivan III the Great and continuing through the Romanov Restoration, increased commerce with Western Europe brought many Western travelers through Medieval Russia.  When these Western Europeans returned to their native countries, they wrote rich accounts of their travels through the Eastern European State.  By examining these travel accounts, scholars can trace the formulation of absolute autocracy during the reigns of Ivan III and Vasily III, its culmination in the reign of Ivan IV, and it’s crumbling during the Time of Troubles.    While the travel accounts seem to indicate that the Russian form of government was continually an absolute monarchy, a careful reading of the texts shows that the power of the Tsar actually ebbed and flowed between the reigns of Ivan III (1462-1505) and Tsar Alexei (Alexis I) (1645-1676) .


Ivan III “The Great” of Russia from the Public Domain

Venetian ambassador Ambrosio Contarini traveled through Russia on his return from Persia in 1476.  He recorded his observations about Ivan III the Great and his court.  The quoted text is found in Medieval Russia: A Source Book, 850-1700 by Basil Dmytryshan.

Contarini stayed in Moscow for a period of four months, September 25, 1476 to January 21, 1477.  Contarini was not a prisoner but he was not free to return to Venice until he paid the Russians and Tatars, who had brought him from Persia.  On September 27, he spoke with Ivan III about being allowed to return to Italy.  Ivan III barely let him finish speaking, when he began complaining about an Italian statesman.  He told Contarini that he would make a decision on when he could return to Venice later.  Ivan III made the decision several months after he returned to Moscow from checking on his other domains.  He traveled to these domains between September 28 and late December 1476.  When he returned to Moscow, he paid Contarini’s debts using money from the treasury and entreated Contarini to express Ivan’s desire to maintain friendly relations with his “Illustrious Seignory”.  (Dmytryshyn, pp. 237-243)

Contarini‘s account relates the story of Novgorod prior to Ivan III’s conquest.  “A great many, also, go to a town called Novogardia [Novgorod], on the confines of Francia and Upper Germany, and eight days’ journey west of Moscow.  The town, although it has a republican government, is subject to the Duke, to whom it pays a yearly tribute.  The prince, from what I have heard, possesses a large territory, and might raise a large army, but the men are worthless.” (Dmytryshyn, pp. 240-241)  Contarini’s comments were not gathered firsthand, as he did not leave Moscow during his stay.  Contarini’s account also recounts the reasons why Ivan allowed him to leave.

As Janet Martin points out in Medieval Russia, 980-1584, Ivan III had a new security threat to face on his southwest border.  In addition to the Tatars, who still occasionally raided his southern borders, the Ottoman Turks had invaded Eastern Europe in the Fifteenth-Century. (pp. 314-315)  Faced with a northeastern war for Novgorod, Ivan would be exercising good diplomatic skills by securing the Italian states as allies against the Ottoman Turks, whom the Pope considered infidels.  Ivan paid Contarini’s debts and released him in an attempt to win the goodwill of the Italian statesmen.  Contarini’s account shows Ivan’s did exercise autocratic power in Moscow but it also showed that his power was not yet absolute in the outlying and newly conquered territories.  Baron Sigismund Von Herberstein’s Sixteenth- Century account of his time in Russia would chronicle the continuation of state building during the reign of his son Vasily III (1505-1533).

Following Ivan III’s death in 1505, Vasily III ascended the throne and reigned until 1533.  Baron Herberstein, an ambassador for the Holy Roman Empire, would visit Moscow in 1517 and later in 1526.  While Herberstein visited Moscow during the reign of Vasily III, the early part of his travel account discusses the reign of Ivan III, whom he must have heard about from Ivan’s contemporaries.

Herberstein stated that Ivan III was a powerful ruler but he still feared the Mongols.  “But although this Grand Prince was so powerful a prince, he was nevertheless compelled to acknowledge the sway of the Tatars, for when the Tatar ambassadors were approaching, he would go forth from the city to meet them, and make them be seated while he stood to receive their address, a circumstance which so annoyed his Greek wife, that she would daily tell him she had married a Slave of the Tatars, …”  (Dmytryshyn, pp. 262-263)  Although Herberstein’s account was second hand and written after Ivan III’s death, Contarini’s firsthand account does make mention of Ivan’s relations with a group of Tatars.  Contarini states that Ivan visited his domains once a year.  “He especially looks after a Tatar, in his pay, who commands, it is said, five-hundred horsemen, to guard the frontiers of his territory from the incursions of the Tatars.”  (Dmytryshyn, p. 238)  Both accounts seem to lend credence to the fact that Ivan III was reluctant to get dragged into a direct confrontation with the Tatars.

Herberstein portrayal of Vasily III illustrates the Grand Duke’s assumption of supreme power in the lands of Muscovy. “In the sway which he holds over his people, he surpasses all the monarchs of the whole world, and has carried out his father’s plan of ejecting all princes and others from the garrisons and fortified places…From each of these governments, however, certain annual tributes are paid to the prince…Whatever articles of value ambassadors who have been sent to foreign princes bring back with them, the prince places in his own treasury…He uses his authority as much over ecclesiastics as laymen, and holds unlimited control over the lives and property of all his subjects: not one of his counselors has sufficient authority to dare to oppose him, or even differ from him on any subject…”(Dmytryshan, pp. 263-264)  Herberstein’s portrayal of Vasily does not speak of his worry of Tatars are other subjects.  Vasily completed the building up of the dynasty that his father began and assumed complete control of the land.  Robert O. Crummey points out in The Formation of Muscovy 1304-1613 that “an observer from Central Europe was astounded, above all, by the Grand Prince’s power over the nobility.”  Crummey also points out that “…Ivan and Vasilii also resembled the ‘new monarchs’ of Western Europe in that they increased their power over their subjects slowly, in small, incremental steps.” (101) As Ivan and Vasily continued to consolidate their hold over places such as Novgorod, they had to come up with systems for administering the new lands and co-opting or destroying the native nobility.  This concern about a sense of nationality in captured areas would plague the Russian empire throughout its history.

To solidify their position over their new subjects, Ivan and Vasily relied on symbols from the past to strengthen their hold over the new territories.  Ivan III stressed his lineage to the Rurikid line of Kievan Rus descendants.  Vasily III received the assistance of the church, which postulated the theory of the Third Rome.  In early Christianity, Rome and Constantinople had both fallen to foreign non-Christian invaders.  The Russian monastic clergy theorized that the cities were taken because their Christianity was corrupt.  Moscow and the Tsar were now the guardians for Christianity.  As Paul Robert Magosci states in A History of Ukraine that “by the beginning of the sixteenth-century, Muscovy had all the ideological symbols necessary for implementing its claims to be the political successor to Kievan Rus…and therefore the rightful ruler of all the East Slavs who inhabited the Rus’ patrimony-Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians.” (p. 208)


Ivan IV “The Terrible” from the Public Domain

The Pope sent Antonio Possevino (1533-1611), a Jesuit scholar and diplomat, to Moscow in 1581-82 at the request of Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584).  Possevino was expected to help negotiate peace in the Livonian War.  Possevino traveled throughout Eastern Europe and the Germanic States, so he was well acquainted with different forms of government.  His account of Moscow also stresses the Tsar’s power.  “The Prince alone controls everything.  Cities, towns, villages, houses, fields, estates, forests, lakes, rivers, rank, and position: everything in this huge country bears witness to the enormous power and resources he possesses.” (Dmytryshyn, p. 329)

Possevino visited Moscow late in Ivan IV’s reign and shortly before his death, so he might not have been familiar with Ivan IV’s early childhood, where he was named Tsar at three years of age.  Ivan IV did not rule until he reached seventeen years of age, so several boyar families prospered during his regency.  Ivan wanted to weaken the boyar grip on his government, so he resorted to a desperate but calculated act.  He abdicated his throne.  The Russian government could not function without the Tsar however and the commoner would not accept someone, who was not a descendent of Rurik.  The boyars begged Ivan IV to return to Moscow.  After this gamble, Ivan IV would never be seriously challenged by anyone.

Ivan IV began his reign as an accomplished ruler.  It is believed that “The Terrible” was originally “The Awesome”.  However, he seems to have become mentally unstable after the death of his first wife, Anastasia Romanov.  He believed that she may have been poisoned by the boyars and would never completely trust them again.  He suffered rage attacks after the death of his wife.

During one such attack, he clubbed his son and heir, Ivan, over the head with a staff and accidentally killed him.  This scene has been captured in a famous painting by Ilya Repin.  Ivan IV lost what little mental stability he had left after this accidental murder.  The death of Ivan also would lead to the Time of Troubles because the only capable heir was killed.

Over the remaining years of his reign, Ivan IV would utilize a select number of boyars and servicemen, who formed the Oprichina.  The Oprichina savaged many areas with no clear objective other than to punish boyars Ivan found disloyal.  The period is a frightening parallel to the mid-1930s Communist party purges by Josef Stalin.

Dr. Giles Fletcher, an English Ambassador of Queen Elizabeth I, visited Moscow in 1588 during the reign of Ivan IV’s second son, Feodor I (1557-1598).  Dr. Fletcher left a vivid account of Moscow and its politics before the Time of Troubles.  “The manner of their government is much after the Turkish fashion…The state and form of their governments is plain tyrannical, as applying all to the behoof of the prince, and that after a most open and barbarous manner…Concerning the principal points and matters of state…they do so wholly and absolutely pertain to the emperor…as that he may be said to be both the sovereign commanders, and the executioner of all these…as touching the public offices and magistrates of the realm…none is hereditary…but the bestowing is done immediately by the emperor himself…To show his sovereignty over the lives of his subjects, the late emperor Ivan Vasilevich, in his walks or progresses, if he had misliked the face of person of any man whom he met by the way…would command his head to be struck off.” (Dmytryshn, pp. 309-310)  In speaking of Feodor personally, Fletcher points out Feodor’s religious fervor, which led to him leaving all state decisions to his wife’s brother, Boris Godunov (1551-1605).  When Feodor died childless, it was Boris Godunov, who boyars initially turned to take the mantle of Tsar as Boris I.  Godunov was Tsar from 1598 to 1605.

Godunov initially was well received by Church, commoner and boyar.  However, famine spread throughout the land and Godunov’s legitimacy as Tsar came into question.  After his death, two false sons of Ivan IV and two more boyars would replace Boris.

Jacques Margeret, a French soldier of fortune, served under Tsar Boris Godunov and Tsar Vasily Shuskii, who reigned from 1606 to 1610.  He published his observations of tsarist power in Muscovy during the Time of Troubles in Estat de l’Empire de Russi et Gran de Duche de Muscovie (The Russian Empire and the Grand Duchy of Muscovy).  “Strictly speaking, however, there is no law or council save the will of the emperor, be it good or bad.  He has the power to put all to fire and sword, be they innocent or guilty.  I consider him to be one of the most absolute princes in existence, for everyone in the land, whether noble or commoner, even the brothers of the emperor, call themselves kholopy gosudaria, which means ‘slave of the emperor’.” (Dmytryshyn, pp. 382-383)

In 1613, seventeen-year old Michael Romanov (Mikhail I) was elected Tsar by a major gathering of nobles.  He would rule Russia until 1645.  Michael would begin the Romanov dynasty, which ended with Nicholas II in 1917.  Michael had to deal with political realities that the Sixteenth-Century Tsars did not have to deal with because he was elected to the position.  Vasily Kliuchevsky points out in his treatise, The Rise of the Romanovs, that “Tacitly, power was exercised, by agreement with the upper administrative classes, through the Boyar Duma.  As far as the nation was concerned, however, all official documents referred to an Autocratic power; but this was used in a titular, rather than judicial sense.” (100) Despite traveler accounts to the contrary, Mikhail I did not exercise absolute authority over his subjects.

Adam Olearius, a German scholar, visited Moscow in 1634, 1636, 1639 and 1643.  Olearius wrote the following about the power of the tsar.  “No master has power over his slaves than the Great Duke has over his subjects, what condition or quality so ever they be of…No people in the world have a greater veneration for their prince than the Muscovites, who from their infancy are taught to speak of the Tsar as of God Himself…He is not subject to the laws; he only makes them and all the Muscovites obey him with so great submission, that they are so far from opposing his will that they say: the justice and word of their prince is sacred and inviolable.”  (Dmytryshyn, p. 413)


Michael I – Michael Romanov from the Public Domain

Despite the consistent accounts of the Tsar’s absolute autocratic rule, the people did prove more willing to challenge his authority after the Time of Troubles.  An anonymous Dutch traveler recorded a riot in Moscow, which occurred in 1648.  A mob confronted a young Tsar Alexei as he exited a church service and demanded that he hand over one of his ministers, Leontii Stepanovich Pleschev, who they felt was treating them cruelly and unfairly.  “But the mob was still not satisfied with this and demanded that Pleshchev be handed over to them.  To this his Tsarist Majesty replied that he needed some time to study the whole matter, and should he find Pleshchev guilty he promised to punish him accordingly.  But the mob did not agree with this and continued to stress that if His Tsarist Majesty did not satisfy them they would gain it by force…and tomorrow he would turn Pleshchev over to them.  This His Tsarist Majesty did only to save Pleschev’s life…Next day, Saturday, the insane commoners appeared again before the Kremlin, this time in greater numbers than before…Then His Tsarist Majesty, in order to divert a danger that was before his eyes, delivered Pleshchev (who was accompanied by several streltsy, a priest and his executioner), yielding to the demand of the mob unwillingly and against his wishes.  The mob immediately took him away from the streltsy, declaring that they themselves would judge him, and at once they killed him like a dog, with oak clubs in front of the Kremlin…” (Dmytryshyn, pp. 435-437)

The Western European travel accounts seem to indicate that from the time of Ivan the Great to Alexei, Russia operated under an absolute autocracy.  Careful reading of these accounts and secondary sources show that the actual power of the autocracy ebbed and flowed.  Power was exhibited more forcefully under rulers such as Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible, while being weaker during the Time of Troubles or with rulers such as Feodor.  The subtle differences seem to have been lost on the West European visitors.  German and Italy did not exist as single countries but as provinces with a decentralized government.  England had already created a legislature and would experience both the Puritan and Glorious Revolutions, which both overthrew the current King of England.  Only France experimented with absolute monarchy but the monarchy still had to deal with the nobility at the time of Possevino’s visit.  These facts coupled with the visitors viewing Russia from the prism of Catholic or Protestant Christianity caused the travelers difficulty in discerning the ebb and flow of autocratic power.  Western education was practically non-existent in Medieval Russia.

With such cultural, religious and political differences, it would be easy for even educated observers of Muscovy to miss subtle changes in the power of the Tsar.  Despite these misunderstandings, the travelers left such rich accounts that these changes can be gleaned from careful reading.  The absolute power of the Tsar developed over time, ebbed and flowed depending on the ruler, circumstances and cooperation of the church.   Absolute autocracy remained the goal of every Tsar, however, up to the last reign of the Tsars, Nicholas II in 1917.

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Work Cited

Crummey, Robert O.  The Formation of Muscovy 1304-1613.  Longman Group UK

Limited: Essex, 1987.

Dmytryshyn, Basil.  Medieval Russia: A Source Book, 850-1700.  The Academic

International Press: Gulf Breeze, FL, 2000.

Kliuchevsky, Vasily.  The Rise of the Romanovs.  Macmillan-St. Martin’s Press: London,

1970.  First published in 1908.

Magosci, Paul Robert.  A History of Ukraine.  University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1996.

Martin, Janet.  Medieval Russia 980-1584.  Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1995.

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