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.
The Lithuanians, still mostly pagan, gradually took over the language and manners of their Russian vassals. But in 1386 the grand duke married the heiress to the Polish throne and became king of Poland. As a result, the Polish Roman Catholic Church and the Polish nobility came to the fore in Lithuania.
Had it not been for the antagonism between Orthodox Russians and Catholic Poles and for the conflicting interests of the nobles of different religions and languages, the original Lithuanian-Russian combination might have proved to be the center around which Russia could reunite. Yet even before the connection with Poland, this region had become so feudal that its potential ability to unify Russia is doubtful.
Even under the grand duke of Lithuania, most of the lands nominally affiliated with his duchy were ruled without interference by local nobles who were bound to him only by an oath of fealty and by their obligations to render military service. An assembly of nobles also limited the political authority of the grand duke. As in the West, the economic basis of society in western Russia was manorial, and restrictions were placed on the freedoms of the peasant farmer quite early.
In the north the town commonwealth of Novgorod came to rule over the vast, empty, infertile regions that were explored by armed merchants and pioneers in search of furs and other products. The town council, or veche, became very strong. Internally, Novgorod had a rigid class system. The representatives of the richer merchants came to control the veche, and a few powerful families concentrated the city’s wealth in their hands and vied for political power.
The gap between rich and poor grew wide. A man who could not pay his debts would be made a slave, and slaves frequently revolted and became brigands. Because the surrounding countryside had little good soil, the city depended upon the region to the southeast, around Moscow, for its grain. In 1478 the ruler of Moscow conquered Novgorod and deported the upper classes to central Russia.