Many of the disorders that characterized Russian history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries began in the long reign of Ivan IV, the Terrible. Pathologically unbalanced, Ivan succeeded to the throne as a small child. In 1547 he threw off the tutelage of the nobles, and embarked upon a period of sound government and institutional reform.
The Late Middle Ages in Eastern Europe
Between the accessions of Ivan III in 1462 and Peter the Great in 1689, the autocracy overcame the opposition of the old nobility. The estates of the old nobility, which had always been hereditary, became service estates. By the end of the period the two types of nobles and the two types of estates had by a gradual process become almost identical: the hereditary nobles often owed service; the military service nobles often had hereditary land.
Moscow lay near the great watershed from which the Russian rivers flow north into the Baltic or south into the Black Sea. It was richer than the north, could provide enough food for its people, and had flourishing forest industries. Thus, when the Tatar grip relaxed and trade could begin again, Moscow was advantageously located. Moreover, Moscow was blessed with a line of remarkably able princes.
By the early thirteenth century Genghis Khan had consolidated under his command the Mongolian nomads of central Asia—Huns, Avars, and Polovtsky—who had repeatedly erupted into Europe.
The collapse of Kievan Russia about the year 1200 led to the formation of a series of virtually independent petty principalities. These states were too weak and disunited to resist the constant pressure from Poland and Lithuania. By the early fourteenth century, the grand duke of Lithuania, with his capital at Vilna, ruled nominally over most of western Russia.
Scholars refer to “the Russian question” as a means in invoking several historical concerns. What forces were at work to generate a Russian expansionism and consolidation of outlying territories? For how long would an enlarged or enlarging Russia remain stable? Would individual nationalities and languages reassert themselves despite Russian conquest?