Before Russia Had Czars

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A Brief History

On October 8, 1480, Ivan III, Grand Prince of Moscow, stood up to the Tatars led by Akhmat Khan of the Great Horde, the successor to the “Golden Horde,” in an epic stand known as the “Great Stand on the Ugra River,” one of the high points of Russian military history.  This great battle occurred before Russia was a unified country or group of countries led by a single monarch which came to be known as the Czar or Tsar, a Russian adaptation of the Roman title “Caesar.”  (Note: The Germans also appropriated the title of Caesar by naming their King the “Kaiser.”)  At the time of Ivan III’s victory (Ivan became known as Ivan the Great), the different regions of Russia and related lands each had their own individual leader, Grand Duke, Grand Prince or whatever title suited the particular area.  The tremendous military victory made Ivan III the preeminent of these monarchs and directly led to the unification of “all the Russias” under the reign of a single monarch that came to be called the Czar.

Digging Deeper

Upon the death of Ivan III in 1505, his son, Vasily Ivanovich, known as Vasily III, assumed the throne as Grand Prince of Moscow, and it was his son, Ivan Vasilyevich, known as Ivan IV, that succeeded him in 1533.  Only 3 years old upon the death of his father and assumption of the throne, Ivan quickly took to his role as leader of the Russians, declaring himself “Emperor of all Russia,” or more simply “Czar” at the age of 17 in 1547, the first of the Russian monarchs to bear that title.  (Note: Many historians prefer the spelling, Tsar, but this author likes Czar better, so there you are!)

The reign of Ivan IV saw the transformation of Russia from a medieval hodge-podge of principalities into an empire of vast proportions and encompassing many regions and nationalities, all dominated by Moscow.  Ivan was called Ivan the Terrible for apparently some good reasons (as described in our article, “Why Was Ivan Terrible?”).  His fits of temper, paranoia, and general mental instability offset his native intelligence and energy to make quite a combination as Emperor.  He is believed to have killed his own son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich, an action that nearly derailed the line of Czars in the Russian Empire.

The Czars ruled Russia (more or less) until the last Czar, Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917), was ousted by the Communist revolution in 1917, later to be executed along with his entire family, ending the time of the Czars.  Or did it?  The Communist rulers of the USSR were dictators and ruled as would a monarch, at least Lenin and Stalin, who died in 1952 after ruling since 1922.  Of course, the Soviet leaders were not able to pass along their “throne” in a hereditary manner as would a real monarch, and once the USSR broke up, Russia became a country and not an empire.  Since the beginning of the 21st Century, Vladimir Putin has been the de facto dictator of Russia, ruling with an iron fist.  Whether or not he can name his own heir is yet to be determined.

Many men and women have led Russia, some good and some not so good.  Throwing sobriquets attached to their name such as “The Terrible” or “The Great” may be some indication as to which they were.

Question for students (and subscribers): Which Czar or leader of Russia do you believe was the greatest?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Duffy, James. Czars: Russia’s rulers for over one thousand years.  Barnes & Noble Books, 2002.

Halperin, Charles. Ivan the Terrible: Free to Reward and Free to Punish. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019.

Stent, Angela. Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest. Twelve, 2019.

The featured image in this article, Ivan III tearing the khan’s letter to pieces, an apocryphal 19th-century painting by Aleksey Kivshenko, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.