Moscovite Rus: 1147–1462
At the beginning of the Christian era, the Slavic people were divided into three large cultural groups in three distinct portions of eastern Europe. The West Slavs lived in what is now central and southern Poland; the Middle Slavs lived between the east slopes of the Carpathian Mountains and the Dnieper River; and the East Slavs lived in the Don River valley. The physical and cultural environments offered many opportunities for human survival, and population increased rapidly.
By A.D. 500, Slavs had followed the rivers and moved to the north, east, and west. At this time, there were Slavic settlements throughout what was once called European imperial Russia. Sedentary, scattered tribes of Finns also inhabited much of the area into which the Slavs migrated. Successive waves of nomadic tribes that moved from the east across the steppes into the area north of the Black Sea affected the lives of the Slav settlers only slightly. The nomads fought for pasture, control of trade routes, and the power to extract tribute from the peaceful Slavic farmers. There was some intermarriage. Slavs who lived in the “black earth” areas tilled the land. Those who lived in the mixed and deciduous forests hunted, gathered honey and mushrooms, and planted small fields in cleared forest areas. Those who lived in the southern margins of the steppe were herdsmen. The Slavs lived primarily along rivers and traveled principally by canoe; the nomads ruled the steppe.
The Slavs recognized the importance of rivers for transportation and commerce. They founded trade centers on all the major rivers. Rivers linked the Slavs to the Baltic region, central Asian commercial centers, and the Eastern Roman Empire, known also as the Byzantine Empire (in present-day Turkey). To protect important trade routes from steppe nomads, the Slavs employed bands of Scandinavian warriors to defend the Slavic trade centers. The Varangians, as they all were called, brought all Slavic cities under one rule and established a new state, Kievan Rus. Its capital, Kiev, was located on the Dnieper River. Kievan Rus became a center of wealth and prestige because of trade. It traded with the Baltic nations through Varangian contacts, with the Chinese and Arabs through nomadic groups, and with the Finnish tribes through political control. Kievan Rus emerged as a rich commercial empire.
Knowledge of Kiev's wealth spread throughout Europe and Asia. In the early 1200s, a highly mobile army of Mongols invaded Kievan Rus. After sacking a number of border cities, the Mongols withdrew. In the spring of 1240, they returned; 150,000 Mongolian horsemen conquered and pillaged Kiev. In 1147,Yuri Dolgoruky, meaning “Yuri with the long arm,” founded the city of Moscow on a hill overlooking the Moskva River. He built a wall around the hill on the river's bank. This kreml, or fort (the original “Kremlin”), became an important defensive position. Those princes who succeeded Dolgoruky gained control over the entire Moskva River, from its headwaters to its mouth. The third prince of Moscow, Ivan Kalita (or as he was called, “money bags”), increased his possessions. He bought some land and acquired more through numerous marriages. He had his children marry nobles who owned land. By peaceful methods, Ivan Kalita and his sons made Moscow more important in the eyes of the Slavs and Mongols.
Under the shrewd leadership of its princes, Moscow became a rich city. When the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church moved to Moscow, the city became the focal point of eastern Slavic culture. The Mongols controlled the land, but the princes of Moscow collected the taxes for them. By the latter half of the thirteenth century, the Golden Horde (Mongol invaders) was beginning to weaken. The princes of Moscow were quick to grasp the significance of this fact. Prince Dmitry (1359–1389) led an army against the Mongols and fought a battle near the headwaters of the Don River. The Mongols were routed. Dmitry proved that, although the Mongols still controlled the land of the Slavs, they were no longer invincible. In 1462, Moscow gained absolute control over the strategic river transport network of north and central Russia.