The Formation of Russia

Learning Objective

  • Outline the key points that led to a consolidated northern region under Ivan III and Vasili III in Moscow

Key Points

  • Moscow had risen to a powerful position in the north due to its location and relative wealth and stability during the height of the Golden Horde.
  • Ivan III overtook Novgorod, along with his four brothers’ landholdings, which began a process consolidating power under the Grand Prince of Moscow.
  • Ivan III was the first prince of Rus’ to style himself as the Tsar in the grand tradition of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire.
  • Vasili III followed in his father’s footsteps and continued a regime of consolidating land and practicing domestic intolerance that suppressed any attempts to disobey the seat of Moscow.


Muscovite Sudebnik

The legal code crafted by Ivan III that further consolidated his power and outlined harsh punishments for disobedience.


Moscow’s most prominent rival in the northern region.


Members of the highest ruling class in feudal Rus’, second only to the princes.

Gathering of the Russian Lands

Ivan III was the first Muscovite prince to consolidate Moscow’s position of power and successfully incorporate the rival cities of Tver and Novgorod under the umbrella of Moscow’s rule. These shifts in power in the Northern provinces created the first semblance of a “Russian” state (though that name would not be utilized for another century). Ivan the Great was also the first Rus’ prince to style himself a Tsar, thereby setting up a strong start for his successor son, Vasili III. Between the two leaders, what would become known as the “Gathering of the Russian Lands” would occur and begin a new era of Russian history after the Mongol Empire’s Golden Horde.

Ivan III and the End of the Golden Horde

Ivan III Vasilyevich, also known as Ivan the Great, was born in Moscow in 1440 and became Grand Prince of Moscow in 1462. He ruled from this seat of power until his death in 1505. He came into power when Moscow had many economic and cultural advantages in the norther provinces. His predecessors had expanded Moscow’s holdings from a mere 600 miles to 15,000. The seat of the Russian Orthodox Church was also centered in Moscow starting in the 14th century. In addition, Moscow had long been a loyal ally to the ruling Mongol Empire and had an optimal position along major trade routes between Novgorod and the Volga River.


Ivan III. He held the title of Grand Prince of Moscow between 1462 and 1505.

However, one of Ivan the Great’s most substantial accomplishments was refusing the Tatar yoke (as the Mongol Empire’s stranglehold on Rus’ lands has been called) in 1476. Moscow refused to pay its normal Golden Horde taxes starting in that year, which spurred Khan Ahmed to wage war against the city in 1480. It took a number of months before the Khan retreated back to the steppe. During the following year, internal fractures within the Mongol Empire greatly weakened the hold of Mongol rulers on the northeastern Rus’ lands , which effectively freed Moscow from its old duties.

Moscow’s Land Grab

The other major political change that Ivan III instigated was a major consolidation of power in the northern principalities, often called the  “Gathering of the Russian Lands.” Moscow’s primary rival, Novgorod, became Ivan the Great’s first order of business. The two grand cities had been locked in dispute for over a century, but Ivan III waged a harsh war that forced Novgorod to cede its land to Moscow after many uprisings and attempted alliances between Novgorod and Lithuania. The official state document accepting Moscow’s rule was signed by Archbishop Feofil of Novgorod in 1478. Any revolts that arose out of Novgorod over the next decade were swiftly put down and any disobedient Novgorodian royal family members were removed to Moscow or other outposts to discourage further outbursts.

In addition to capturing his greatest rival city, Ivan III also collected his four brothers’ local lands over the course of his rule, further expanding and consolidating the land under the power of the Grand Prince of Moscow. Ivan III also levied his political, economic, and military might over the course of his reign to gain control of Yaroslavl, Rostov, Tver, and Vyatka, forming one of the most unified political formations in the region since Vladimir the Great. This new political formation was in contrast to centuries of local princes ruling over their regions relatively autonomously.


Palace of Facets pillar. This decadent pillar resides in the Palace of Facets built by Italian architects in stone in the mostly wooden Moscow Kremlin. This banquet hall was only one of many major architectural feats Ivan III built during his reign in Moscow.

Ivan the Great also greatly shaped the future of the Rus’ lands. These major shifts included:

  • Styling himself the “Tsar and Autocrat” in Byzantine style, essentially stepping into the new leadership position in Orthodoxy after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. These changes also occurred after he married Sophia Paleologue of Constantinople, who had brought court and religious rituals from the Byzantine Empire.
  • He stripped the boyars of their localized and state power and essentially created a sovereign state that paid homage to Moscow.
  • He oversaw the creation of a new legal code, called Muscovite Sudebnik in 1497, which further consolidated his place as the highest ruler of the northern Rus’ lands and instated harsh penalties for disobedience, sacrilege, or attempts to undermine the crown.
  • The princes of formerly powerful principalities now under Moscow’s rule were placed in the role of service nobility, rather than sovereign rulers as they once were.
  • Ivan III’s power was partly due to his alliance with Russian Orthodoxy, which created an atmosphere of anti-Catholicism and stifled the chance to build more powerful western alliances.

Vasili III

Vasili III was the son of Sophia Paleologue and Ivan the Great and the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1505 to 1533. He followed in his father’s footsteps and continued to expand Moscow’s landholdings and political clout. He annexed, Pskov, Volokolamsk, Ryazan, and Novgorod-Seversky during his reign. His most spectacular grab for power was his capture of Smolensk, the great stronghold of Lithuania. He utilized a rebellious ally in the form of the Lithuanian prince Mikhail Glinski to gain this major victory.


Vasili II. This piece was created by a contemporary artist and depicts Vasili III as a scholar and leader.

Vasili III also followed in his father’s oppressive footsteps. He utilized alliances with the Orthodox Church to put down any rebellions or feudal disputes. He limited the power of the boyars and the once-powerful Rurikid dynasties in newly conquered provinces. He also increased the gentry’s landholdings, once more consolidating power around Moscow. In general, Vasili III’s reign was marked by an oppressive atmosphere; he carried out harsh penalties for speaking out against the power structure or showing the slightest disobedience to the crown.