Russian Civil War (1425-1453)

The Muscovite boyars pledge their support to the dethroned Vasily II.

Muscovy succession dispute that led to a protracted power struggle. Throughout the Kievan and early Muscovite periods, the princes of Russia followed the custom of lateral succession. The throne passed from brother to brother, and when that generation died out, it passed to the eldest son of the eldest brother who had held the throne before. Sons whose father had died before holding the throne were excluded (izgoi) from the line of succession. This changed in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, when the grand princes of Moscow, after consolidating their power, at- tempted to adopt a policy of linear succession to keep power in Moscow, rather than allowing princes outside Moscow to gain the grand princely throne.

Dmitry Donskoi (r. 1359-1389) stipulated in his last testament that his second son, Yury, was to succeed Vasily I should Vasily die without male issue, but Vasily’s son, Vasily II, was born in 1415. In 1425, Vasily II succeeded his father. A regency council was set up consisting of Vasily’s mother, the Metropolitan Foty of the Orthodox Church, and Boyar I. D. Vsevolozhsky. Vasily’s maternal grandfather, Grand Prince Vytautas (Witold) of Lithuania, served as Vasily’s guardian.

Faced with this situation, Vasily’s uncle, Yury Dmitrevich, argued that in his testament, Dmitry had stated that Yury was to succeed Vasily I (ignoring the fact that this provision was to have no effect if Vasily had a son). Further, by the custom of lateral succession, he, Yury, was the rightful heir to the grand princely throne and refused to recognize Vasily II as grand prince. He was joined in this dispute by his sons, Vasily Kosoi and Dmitry Shemiaka.

The dynastic war of succession that ensued lasted for much of Vasily II’s reign. Yury refused to come to Moscow and swear allegiance to Vasily, but an outbreak of the plague, as well as Vytautas’s protection of Vasily, led to a truce. The deaths of Vytautas in 1430 and Foty in 1431 allowed Yury to renew his claim to the throne. Both Vasily and Yury appealed to the Tartar khan of the Golden Horde for resolution of the dispute, and the khan ruled in favor of Vasily. Yury, granted the principalities of Dmitrov by the khan, would not accept the decision and marched against Vasily, defeating the grand prince’s forces on the Klyazma River in April 1433. Yury marched into Moscow and made peace with Vasily but was unable stay in power and soon ceded the grand princely throne and his own principality of Dmitrov to Vasily. At this point, Vasily launched a campaign against his cousins, who had not been party to the agreement between Vasily II and Yury. The grand prince’s army was again defeated (September 1433). Soon afterward, Yury again attacked Vasily and defeated him yet again, in March 1434. Vasily fled, and Yury again occupied Moscow, where he died on 5 June 1434.

Contrary to the custom of lateral succession and the decision of the khan, Yury’s son, Vasily Kosoi, assumed the throne of the grand prince. (By the rules of lateral succession, Vasily II, as eldest member of his generation, was the rightful heir.) Despite his succession, Kosoi lost even the support of his brothers and was defeated, captured, and blinded by Vasily II in 1436. (Kosoi means “squint-eyed” in Russian, referring to this blinding.) Removed from the political scene, Kosoi died in 1447 or 1448. Following Vasily II’s return to power, tensions continued over the next decade between Dmitry Shemiaka and Vasily II. Also at this time, Vasily’s son Ivan (the future Ivan III) was born in 1440. Disputes over the distribution of inheritance, Shemiaka’s contribution to Vasily’s military ventures, and tribute to the Golden Horde never resulted in open warfare. An unrelated incident was the catalyst for renewed conflict. Khan Ulu-Muhammed, migrating with his horde from Crimea, clashed with Muscovite troops near Murom and remained in the area to pillage. Leading a small force, Vasily unexpectedly came upon Ulu-Muhammed outside Suzdal, on 7 July 1445 and was wounded and captured.

Dmitry Shemiaka, the next senior member of this generation, assumed the grand princely throne, but Vasily negotiated with the khan and was released in November 1445, on the condition that he pay a large ransom and a higher tribute than before. Rather than yield, Dmitry used the incident to renew the dynastic struggle. He seized Vasily’s mother and wife while Vasily was on pilgrimage to the Trinity Monastery north of Moscow and sent a force to arrest Vasily. Vasily was accused of showing favoritism to the Tartars as well as blinding Dmitry’s brother, Vasily Kosoi. In retaliation, Vasily II was likewise blinded. Shemiaka then released Vasily in September 1466, on the condition that Vasily renounce his claim to the throne and swear allegiance to Shemiaka. Vasily immediately made a pilgrimage to the St. Cyril-Beloozero Monastery, where the abbot absolved him of this oath. He then began gathering his supporters against Shemiaka. In the face of growing opposition, Shemiaka abandoned Moscow. Vasily returned in triumph in 1447 and continued the war, finally defeating Shemiaka. Fleeing to Novgorod, Shemiaka was poisoned there in 1453.

Moscow and Novgorod

During and immediately after the war Vasily II was also able to assert dominance over princes and lands beyond the territories attached to Vladimir and Moscow. In 1449, he concluded a treaty with the prince of Suzdal’, in which the latter agreed not to seek or receive patents for their office from the Tatar khan. His position became dependent upon the prince of Moscow, not the khan. When the prince of Riazan’ died in 1456, Vasily II brought his son into his own household and sent his governors to administer that principality. By that time Vasily had also entered into new agreements with the prince of Tver’, who while not acknowledging Vasily’s seniority, nevertheless pledged his co-operation in all ventures against the Tatars as well as their Western neighbours; Boris also recognised Vasily as the rightful grand prince and as prince of Novgorod.

Vasily also asserted his authority over Novgorod. In 1431, Novgorod had concluded a treaty with the prince of Lithuania, Svidrigailo, and accepted his nephew as its prince. But even though Svidrigailo was the brother-in-law of Iurii of Galich, Novgorod had been neutral during Iurii’s conflict with Vasily II. When Vasily II was engaged against Vasily Kosoi (the Cross-Eyed), he negotiated with Novgorod to enlist its support; he indicated a willingness to settle outstanding disputes over Novgorod’s eastern frontier. But after he had defeated Kosoi, he reneged on his agreement. He sent his officers to collect tribute and in 1440-1, after the Lithuanian prince had left the city, he launched a military campaign against Novgorod and forced it to make an additional payment and promise to continue to pay taxes and fees regularly. During the 1440s, however, Novgorod was at war with both of its major Western trading partners, the Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Order. The Hansa blockaded Novgorod and closed its own commercial operations in the city for six years. Novgorod lost commercial revenue. It suffered from high prices and also from a famine. In the midst of these crises Novgorod accepted another prince from Lithuania (1444). When Vasily II and Dmitrii Shemiaka took their conflict to the north and disrupted Novgorod’s northern trade routes, Novgorod gave support and sanctuary to Shemiaka.

In 1456, as Vasily II was asserting his authority over other Russian principalities, he also launched a major military campaign against Novgorod and once again defeated it. Novgorod was obliged to accept the Treaty of Iazhelbitsii. According to its terms, it had to cut off its connections with Shemiaka’s family as well as with any other enemies of the grand prince. It was to pay taxes and the Tatar tribute to the grand prince; it was to accept the grand prince’s judicial officials in the city; and it was to conclude agreements with foreign powers only with the approval of the grand prince. It was obliged, furthermore, to cede key sectors of its northern territorial possessions to the grand prince.

The dynastic war ended in victory for Vasily II. It resolved in his favour the issues of succession and of the prerogatives of the grand prince. The outcome of the war left Vasily II with undisputed control over the grand principality and its possessions as well as the territories attached to the principality of Moscow. His relatives, who had shared the familial domain when he took office, had all died or gone into exile or been subordinated. Only one cousin, Mikhail of Vereia, retained an apanage principality. The remainder of the apanage principalities, which had been the territories of Vasily’s Iurevich cousins, of Ivan Andreevich of Mozhaisk, and of Vasily Iaroslavich of Serpukhov, along with their economic resources and revenues had reverted to the grand prince.

Vasily’s post-war policies towards his relatives and neighbouring princes also provided the grand prince with more secure military power. Although he still relied on them to supply military forces, they had become subordinate to him or had committed themselves by treaty to support him. Vasily, furthermore, established his Tatar ally, Kasim, on the Oka River. The Tatars of the khanate of Kasimov became available to participate in the military ventures of the Muscovite grand princes. Vasily II thus ensured that the grand prince would not be as militarily vulnerable as he had been when the wars began. His policies gave him access to larger forces than potential competitors within north-eastern Russia without being dependent on support from independent princes and the khans of the Great Horde and emerging khanates of Kazan’ and Crimea.  

Vasily II emerged from the war as the strongest prince in north-eastern Russia. Shortly after he recovered Moscow, Vasily asserted his sovereignty by using the title `sovereign of all Rus” on newly minted coins. In late 1447 or early 1448, he also named his young son, Ivan, his co-ruler; coins then appeared with the inscription `sovereigns of all Rus”. While thereby making it more difficult for co-lateral relatives to challenge his son’s succession, Vasily II also confirmed a vertical pattern of succession for the princes of Moscow. When Ivan III assumed his father’s throne in 1462, no other prince within the house of Moscow had the resources or the status to mount a military challenge for the throne, as Iurii Dmitr’evich and his sons had done. The Tatar khans also lost their decisive influence over succession. Vasily II had appealed to Khan Ulu-Muhammed for a patent to hold the throne of Vladimir. But it was his own military victory over his uncle and cousins that confirmed the replacement of the traditional lateral pattern of succession with a vertical one. Vasily II was able to leave the grand principality as well as his Muscovite possessions to his son without acquiring prior approval of a Tatar khan. Ivan III, followed by his son and grandson, would expand those core territories to build the state of Muscovy.

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