Episode #11 The incomplete and utter history of Moscow. Part 2 Becoming great (duchy)

Episode #11 The incomplete and utter history of Moscow. Part 2 Becoming great (duchy)

August 6, 2018 0 By Gigi Green

First, yay!!!! This is my episode number 11!!! Which means I’ve already created 10 episodes and wow, this is… real! I think I officially have a podcast now. And here it is 😉

Warnings and disclaimers

Second, bloody hell, history episodes are hard for me. (Ooops, please, imagine that this warning came before that: This episode may contain explicit language. And a lot of my feelings and opinions).

What was I saying? Right! The history episodes are hard!!! Because there’s so much context and so many people doing so much stuff simultaneously! And even though I’ve learned all this shit in school and at the university, it’s still occasionally confusing, especially the names because there’s a ton of people with the same names. Which is just… if it’s confusing for me, a native Russian speaker, how on Earth can I make it less confusing for non-Russian speaking folks… Gawd…

Also reading the official Russian history makes you realize just how many people’s perspectives are erased from it. How much it is male perspective only, even when you’re dealing with the 18th century where there were female rulers. And even with women in it this history is just one class of people, often one nation and their point of view only.

And you basically never see a different one in the course material that every Russian person is supposed to have studied at school. You’d have to dig deeper for it. And it’s… annoying. And makes me feel angry and powerless because how can I change that shit?

And then there are dates… Aaaah, my brain refuses to store them properly unless there’s something quirky about them like the year of the Great French revolution which is 1789.

Dear god, why did I think it was a good idea? Oh, right. Because my friend Molly likes history podcasts. And I wanted to make something that would make her feel good. Well. That’s a very good reason and makes all the struggle worth it. Ok, I can deal with it now. On with an episode #11 The incomplete and utter history of Moscow. Part 2.

And I imagine this will go down significantly better if you listen to the episode #8 which is Part 1 first, because there I give a crush course on early Russian history. From the Slavs and their tribes to the Mongol invasion. And that should help you understand how Moscow became what it is and generally what I am even talking about in this episode.

Disclaimer: You might have guessed already that I’m not a historian. So this history is obviously by no means full. And I do present stuff either as I had been taught at school and then uni or occasionally as I see fit. I did check my facts though.

Before it was called Moscow

As I’ve mentioned in the episode #8 people lived in and around what is modern Moscow since the Neolithic and in some places Mesolithic periods. So since 8 000 years before the year 0 AD. Which is kinda hard to comprehend for me. But it doesn’t really matter because those people probably didn’t call the place Moscow anyway.

But as the years went by, that region got busier and busier. The Slavs (I’ve talked about them in the episode 8) came to that region not later than the 9th century AD.

Why did they come? Well, that spot is really nice. It’s in the center of the European part of Russia (although in those times there was no Russia, of course. Still it’s pretty close to the center of the East European plane). But more importantly it’s sort of between the river Oka in the south and the river Volga in the north-east. Both rivers do not run through even the modern city of Moscow but they are relatively close.

And if you were living near the Volga in those days, you were lucky. Because the Oka and the Volga formed a significant part of the Volga trade route. It connected Northern Europe (where the Vikings lived. If you wanna know how the Vikings are important in Russian history, you again will have to check out the episode #8), so it connected Northern Europe and North western Russia with the Caspian sea.

The Caspian sea is actually an enormous lake because it’s fresh water. But that’s not relevant to this story. What is relevant is that it’s where the Volga flows. And using it, tradespeople could access all kinds of fascinating countries. Some records say that using the Volga trade route people have reached as far as Bagdad. Which is very far from Northern Europe, trust me.

But they weren’t just living close to the route, they were living on it because the city of Moscow and whatever came before it has always stood on the river Moskva.

I’ve mentioned in the episode #7 that in Russian Moscow is actually called Москва/Moskva. The settlement was named after the river that it stands on.

The name of the game

And what does the name of the river mean? No one really knows. There are some versions. It could be a word from the language of some Uralic people who lived there too. And the word might have changed under the influence of the East Slavic language. But it also might have come from something completely different. Historians are really not sure

But this kinda suggests that it wasn’t just the Slavs who lived in those parts even in those days. Or at least that they had contact with all sorts of people. Not just the Vikings, but with Uralic or Finno-Ugric tribes that had lived in those parts and also with Volga-Bulgarians, who lived downstream on the Volga river.

Sorry, but I really can’t talk more about all those tribes because they are not that relevant to the official story and… I will never finish if I go on like this!

Game of thrones, Kievan Rus edition

So, around 11th century AD there already was some kind of fortified settlement on the Moskva river. Which means it was a proper town by the standards of the time. But it wasn’t too important. In fact, it was downright insignificant.

In those days the lands belonged to the country called Kievan Rus (again, talked about it in the episode #8).
But it was slowly disintegrating because there were too many male relatives in the ruling Ruricovich dynasty. And they all wanted to have the main throne in Kiev.

Which just wasn’t physically possible but those dudes would not let that deter them. The succession of the title Grand duke of Kievan Rus went not from father to son but from the eldest male relative to the next eldest male relative.

Obviously some of the dudes, or should I say dukes (the regular ones, not the Grand ones) tried to… um… speed up the process using methods that you would never describe as nice.

But plotting requires time, so while guys waited to become the eldest they could or rather had to rule the provinces. And they sort of moved from a lesser and poorer province to a larger and a more profitable one in the order of succession. So it was like a career ladder for dukes.

And there were quite a few provinces. One of the most important ones was in the north-east of the country. It was called Vladimir-Suzdal principality, that’s two important cities in it. And future Moscow was a part of that.

Officially founded

Around the time it first popped up in historical record the Grand Duke in Kiev was Vladimir the Second Monomach. And he appointed his son Юрий/Yuri to govern that province.

Unfortunately I can’t tell you his serial number among Vladimir’s sons because historians don’t know what year he was born in. However I can tell you his nickname – Долгорукий/Dolgorukiy. Long-armed. Which doesn’t necessarily refer to his physical appearance. But rather to his skill at manipulating the affairs in Kiev while being on the other end of the country.

And I hope to god it wasn’t because he grabbed them by the pussy before it became mainstream.

It’s obviously difficult to say whether he was a royal dick or not, because it all happened so long ago and there’s very little info to understand his motivations for doing various things.

True story(?)

So I guess, don’t be so quick to judge him based on the story about the founding of Moscow. Here’s how it went:

The villages that now are part of Moscow belonged to a nobleman named Степан Кучко/Stepan Kuchko. Yuri Dolgorukiy was visiting those parts and for some reason he ordered to execute that nobleman. No one really knows what had happened. There are legends about this nobleman being rude to the duke, trying to poison him, or of Dolgorukiy sleeping with his wife or girlfriend.

There are also more practical versions like Yuri wanted the land and the nobleman refused to give it or refused to assist the duke in some other matter. No one knows for sure. But in some very early chronicles Moscow was called Kuchkov because it used to be in the lands of that nobleman.

But in 1147 duke Yuri Dolgorukiy called that settlement Moscov! (not quite Moscow but close) when he arranged to meet another duke there. And that year is traditionally considered a year that Moscow was founded.

Which is weird since there already was a settlement and the new fortress was built couple of years later, possibly by Yuri’s son. But whatever. The fortress was built on the hill where two rivers meet – the Moskva and the Неглинная/Neglinnaya. And that’s the same hill where Moscow Kremlin stands till this day. So I think now we can officially consider Moscow founded.

And… crickets

Nothing important happened for quite some time. The town was growing but it still was just a part of Vladimir-Suzdal principality and got shuffled between the dude-dukes along with it.
It was just, you know, your normal life in Medieval feudal country.

The dukes were fighting for power and killing each other from time to time. If you were a noble woman you were probably married off to strengthen political unions. And if you were not… ahem… of noble birth, you life was hard and probably not especially pleasant. Like everywhere, I guess.

Until the Mongols

Until in 1238 when Batu-khan of the Mongol Horde burned it down. The Mongols started from the southern borders of the Kievan Rus and ransacked and burned everything and killed off everybody they saw, as the chronicles say. They did that to Moscow on their way to Vladimir, the center of the principality.

I talked about Batu-Khan and the Mongols in general in the episode #8. Just to recap – those were Mongols from Mongolia, not some local namesakes. And that’s where Chinghis Khan came from and conquered epic amount of land with his archers on horses.
He died before the Invasion of Rus but his descendants didn’t let his legacy die. They continued to conquer and in the 13th century they made it to Moscow. Though, again I have to stress it – it was really insignificant back then, just another place to destroy.

They hadn’t stopped in those lands, but went on conquering and pillaging all the lands of Rus, and then moved on to neighboring countries.

Ironically after all the violence they were okay not ruling everything themselves. They allowed Russian князья/kniaziya (that’s dukes in Russian) to rule whatever they wanted as long as they paid them money for ярлык/yarlik – basically the licence. And annual tribute, of course.

I guess, the main thing they wanted out of the conquered lands was profit. So, as long as they had their payments they were fine with whatever. Well, and they also had a habit of making slave raids from time to time.

Power-ful moves

The Grand duke in Kiev when shit went down was Yaroslav. He went to meet Mongol leaders and got himself a licence which allowed him to rule Vladimir-Suzdal Principality and Kiev. But he preferred not to return to Kiev and had his guy rule for him while he held the title.
Which basically transferred the throne from Kiev onto the territories of modern Russia. Way closer to Moscow. So this is the first part of the answer to the question why and how did Moscow come on top after all this crap.

Although some of this stuff is still considered a part of Ukranian history. (Because we are talking about Kievan Rus but Kiev is now the capital of Ukraine). And history of Belarus because they are close and were also the part of Kievan Rus. But these are our last common pages of history for some time. Because one of the results of the Mongol yoke is the divide of Kievan Rus into three distinct countries: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Ok, Mongols burned Moscow down, but it soon was rebuilt. It was also quite nicely surrounded by forests, so it wasn’t all that easy to reach for Mongols, whenever they felt like ransacking and pillaging something in the region.
Because of that it was considered relatively safe, by occupied territory standards, and people from all over the place started slowly to relocate there. That process took decades but it also is a part of the reason why Moscow became the capital.

But the main reason was some nice political skills and vision of its dukes.

Clever duke #1

Yaroslav died in 1246 (and there’s a story worth a historical mystery novel in that one, but it’s not relevant to Moscow history, so I’ll save it for some other time). His Vladimir-suzdal principality was divided among his sons and relatives. And there are really too many of them to count and none of them are especially important for Moscow history. Until the guy named Даниил/Daniel in 1263.

To tell you the truth, he wasn’t much of a guy in 1263, he was just two years old, when he inherited that piece of land. His uncle was kinda looking after him and his interests from the neighbouring principality of Тверь/Tver. But in 1271 at the ripe old age of 10 he started to rule the place himself and did it for 32 years till he died.

Don’t know anything about his personality apart from the fact that he was shrewd. He bought lands, fought for lands and hustled his ass off to make Moscow principality larger and more influential. He acquired so much land in fact that he and his descendants controlled the whole length of Moscow river.

And while he fought with neighbours and even with the Mongols a bit, his home principality enjoyed a 30 year stretch of peace. He also built some monasteries including a couple of the oldest ones in Moscow (which is not just pious but also smart because a monastery with stone walls can easily be used as a fortress).

See what I mean?

In the end of his life he became a monk, like his father. That was a bit of a tradition among Russian dukes in those times. Later Russian Orthodox church even canonised him (again, like his dad). So he is a bit of a local saint.
He is also considered the first duke of Moscow and that makes him the forefather of all the Moscow Grand dukes and later tsars of Russia.

Not bad for a boy who went into duking business at 10, huh?

Clever dukes #2 and #3

His son wasn’t bad at the duking business either. He plotted and schemed to become not just a duke of Moscow but the Grand Duke of Vladimir-Suzdal (so, of the whole larger principality). To do that he had to buy the licence from Mongols. The dukes from the neighbouring Tver principality used to have it, but he outsmarted them.

He didn’t get much time to enjoy his success because he was killed by rivals from Tver very soon. But the Grand duke licence now belonged to Moscow dukes.

His younger brother called Иван Калита/Ivan Kalita was even more talented when it came to ruling principalities in turbulent Medieval times.

In 1325 he made the head of the Orthodox church in those lands move from Vladimir to Moscow. Which immediately made Moscow a spiritual center and all kinds of prestigious. Also that was a clear sign that the center of political power in the north-east of Kievan Rus shifted from the city of Vladimir to Moscow. (That’s also a part of the answer to the question how did Moscow become what it did)

He not only managed to hold on to the Grand Duke title, he became the official Mongol tribute gathering person. Like he went around or made other people come to him to bring him money and stuff and he in turn transferred them to the Mongol Khan.

And he didn’t get that by being nice. He plotted and schemed, and openly fought with other dukes, suppressed any uprisings, wasn’t above telling lies and cosying up to the Mongol khan to keep the Mongols from pillaging his lands. Like they did others.

That guy would make a great Game of thrones character. But his methods insured 40 years of piece and a lot of money for the duchy of Moscow. He also built a lot of churches and another wooden iteration of the Moscow Kremlin. But none of them survived.

And btw, the dukes of Moscow kept the huge territory that they owned as one principality because they started practicing primogeniture – all the land was inherited by the eldest son, not divided between the sons as it was before. Moscow dukes weren’t very consistent about it, but… eventually they got there.

Not very good for the younger sons, but great if you want to make Moscow a capital.

It’s also the very thing that made life a genteel version of hell for the Bennet sisters in Pride and prejudice. But in those day no one asked daughters opinions much, in fact that Ivan Kalita used his daughters as pawns in his political games. And most likely he didn’t even feel bad about it.

Clever Duke Dmitriy Donskoy

Ivan the First Kalita died in 1340 or 1341. He was succeeded first by one son, than by another. They were both ok. But his grandson, Dmitry Donskoy is one of the most famous and important grand dukes in Russian history. Because he was the first one to openly challenge Mongol authority in the country that was swiftly becoming Russia.

Though his rule didn’t start all that well. Because in the 1353 the plague or the Black death came to Moscow. That’s when his uncle the Grand duke and cousins who should have inherited after him mostly died.

His father Ivan number 2 became the grand duke but he also died of some kind of plague in 1359. So Dmitriy became a duke at the age of 9. Of course, some people were helping him, and others were trying to take the power away from him. Especially guys from Tver.

Tver guys found themselves some powerful allies.

Other players

There was another country in the region that wouldn’t have minded becoming the most important and taking over the lands of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. It was the grand duchy of Lithuania. For some reason we don’t pay it much attention is school history course. We’re usually too busy with the Mongols.
I’m wondering whether to continue that tradition. Hm.

Oh, fine! Fair is fair. Lithuania inherited the western and southern parts of Kievan Rus. So several modern eastern European countries ended up with pieces of it. Namely, Lithuania itself, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, parts of Russia, Latvia and Poland.

The Medieval state of Luthuania was very lucky, because the Mongol invasion stopped at the modern borders of Belarus. And Lithuania was strong enough to fight the Horde off in later periods. So they weren’t ransacked and pillaged for a couple hundred years like their eastern neighbors.

So the duchy of Lithuania grew, incorporated more lands, regularly tried to control some of the eastern and northern lands, that are now the part of Russia.

So their relationship with Moscow dukes was tense, they often had conflicts and there was a lot of powerplay going on.

When Tver duke wanted someone to go against Moscow with him, the Grand duchy of Lithuania was a logical candidate.

A lot of plotting, political machinations and occasionally open warfare ensued. But Dmitriy won.

Because he was smart and occasionally… not precisely lucky, more like able to turn his problems into opportunities. For example, one of the reasons that Tver and Lithuania were not successful in conquering Moscow was because in 1365 there was a terrible fire in Moscow.

A bit about the The Kremlin

It wasn’t the first fire either, so Dmitriy talked to his advisors and decided to built a kremlin – the fortress out of stone. That’s when Moscow started to be known in Russia as белокаменная/belokamennaya – white-stoned.
I don’t know if you know this but the modern Kremlin is red :). So as you can guess Dmitriy’s version was not the final one.

Just a very old chapel. Notice that the roof is a helmet!

The kremlin was built in just two years and it became the best fortified stronghold in the north-east of Russia.
He also continued to build monasteries in and around Moscow. And as have already mentioned, a monastery is easily transformed into a fortress when the need arises.

I remember being in Sergiev posad, I’ll talk about it at some later point. There’s one of the most famous monasteries in the Orthodox Christian world there. And supposedly one of the holiest. But when you are walking towards it from the train station and you see it standing on the hill with walls 6-7 metres tall… you quickly realise that guys who built it meant business. Though it was founded around that time, but the stone walls were built later.

So Lithuanians eventually made peace with Dmitriy. And the duke from Tver was alone against Moscow and a bunch of other dukes who supported it. So eventually he had to begrudgingly submit.

Tver continued to give Moscow the attitude well into the next 15th century, but since you know that Moscow is now the capital, you realise that in the end, Tver lost.

Golden horde and an epic battle (which I barely touch upon…)

All was not well in the Golden horde either. They had a ton of people fighting for power as well, and even a bit of a civil war, or so I’ve heard. The Mongol empire grew weaker.

And Dmitriy, smart cookie that he was, or maybe a cookie confident in its own powers, used that to challenge the Mongol authority again and again. I won’t bore you with the details.

Because coming up now we have one of the most famous battles in Russian history. Even with all the second world war battles.

It’s called Куликовская битва/Kulikovskaya bitva – the battle on the Kulikovo field. It happened in 1380 not far from the river Don. That’s why Dmitriy got the nickname Donskoy after that battle.

United forces of Russian dukes (probably minus Tver but plus Lithuania) met Mamai and his part of the Horde. That guy was not a khan but a very powerful military commander who de facto ruled the Golden horde in those days.

Erm… how do I even describe battles? And more importantly, is it relevant to this story? You know, I don’t think it is. I mean the battle was kinda epic and the losses on both sides were great. But the most important thing for Moscow was that Dmitriy and his allies won.

It wasn’t a real victory over the Mongols yet. Because fairly soon another khan Tokhtamish, the rival of the guy who lost, got to Moscow, cheated his way into it and indulged in some ransacking and pillaging.

Beginning of the end

But as we learn in history class at school, it was the beginning of the end of the Tatar Yoke. And Moscow almost officially became the centre that united Russian lands. Which is another part of the Moscow power puzzle.

Dmitriy Donskoy didn’t see in ‘cause he died in 1389, and the Youke officially ended 90 years later.
Still Dmitriy was canonised by the Russian Orthodox church but in 1988. I think they just had a period when they canonized people like crazy.

And that’s all for now, because honestly, I’m getting tired of all this fighting and backstabbing and political games. Why couldn’t those people just find themselves a place, settle in it and live happily ever after? History’s not a freaking movie, there’s no need for plot lines and dramatic tension. Why are they always there, then, I wonder?

Anyway, time for the segment:

How do you say it in Russian?

I’ll go with something short and useful.
Thank you is Спасибо/spasibo
You’re welsome is пожалуйста/pozhalusta
Not at all is Не за что/Ne za shto.

Till next week.
Gigi, from Russia with love and history!


A tot of wikipedia again, because I read Russian sources and… I don’t think links to them will work for non-Russian speakers. Am I wrong?…

History of Moscow
Kievan Rus
Grand Duchy of Moscow
Uralic languages
Volga Bulgaria
Vladimir II Monomakh
Volga trade route
Yuri Dolgorukiy
Vladimir Suzdal principality
Mongol invasion of Rus
Rulers of Russia family tree (enjoy)))
Yaroslav II of Vladimir – the one with a murder mystery
Daniel of Moscow – the little prince 🙂
Ivan I of Moscow – the Game of thrones guy
Dmitry Donskoy – the one with an epic battle

Battle of Kulikovo
Grand Duchy of Lithuania