Muscovite Conquest of Novgorod

Moscow absorbed Novgorod, paving the way for the unification of all the Russian principalities under the autocratic rule of the princes of Moscow.

Summary of Event

Because of its control of a trading empire that extended from the middle of the Volga River to the Ural Mountains, Novgorod was the richest Russian state. By the fifteenth century, it was a republic dominated by a boyar upper class, whose wealth was derived from the fur trade, banking, and managing large estates. During the trying mid-thirteenth century, Novgorod was able to maintain its independence in spite of a major invasion by the Teutonic Knights (which it repelled by force) and the Mongol conquest of most of Russia (which it survived by paying tribute). Two centuries later, Novgorod faced the dual threat of an expanding Lithuanian state and a prince of Moscow ambitious to build a new Russian empire based on Muscovite dominance. Lithuania
Novgorod, annexation by Moscow
Moscow;conquest of Novgorod
Vasily II
Ivan the Great
Vasily III
Sophia Palaeologus
Vasily II
Ivan the Great
Palaeologus, Sophia
Vasily III

To symbolize the annexation of Novgorod by Moscow in 1478, the great veche bell, representative of Novgorod’s traditional liberties, was removed during Ivan the Great’s conquest and taken to Moscow.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Constantinople (the “Second Rome”) had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Constantinople, fall of (1453) In its wake, Muscovite leaders viewed their principality as the heir apparent of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the center of the “Third Rome.” It had been Novgorod’s own “hero prince,” Saint Alexander Nevsky (r. 1236-1252), who, in 1263, had willed his youngest son, Daniel Aleksandrovich (r. 1276-1303), the then-remote forest principality of Moscow. Although Muscovy consisted only of 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers) in 1263, it was located at a strategic river and trade route crossroad. Designated as tax collectors for the Mongols, Daniel’s successors increased in wealth and power. By the 1400’, Muscovy’s territory had grown more than thirty times, encompassing a state of more than 15,000 square miles (38,850 square kilometers).

Unlike Novgorod, which maintained representative institutions shared between boyar committees and the veche (council of freemen), Muscovy was governed under autocratic rule. While Novgorod gained prosperity through widespread trade and commerce, Moscow gained its wealth by keeping a portion of the taxes it collected for the Mongols. In relation to political and social systems, Novgorod and Moscow were worlds apart.

By the fifteenth century, the highly diversified Novgorod social system became split between clearly defined upper and lower classes. An increasingly wealthy merchant boyar class tightened its grip on Novgorod’s economic activity, politics, and even judicial decisions. Although divided into competing power factions, the boyars were united in their fear of growing Muscovite power. Most boyars looked to Lithuania (which was in the process of uniting with Poland) as a solid ally against further encroachments by Moscow. In contrast, Novgorod’s lower classes believed that Moscow could be used to diminish their domination under the boyars. The lower classes were not prone to support sacrifices in money or in life aimed at blocking Muscovite hegemony.

Two events in the mid-fifteenth century brought a Moscow-Novgorod conflict to a head. In 1445, the Mongol Golden Horde Golden Horde separated into four separate khanates. Although the Golden Horde did not completely collapse until 1502, this division was a sign that its power was slipping. It called into question the Hordes’s ability to control Rus through Moscow. Moreover, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. The Second Rome was no more, and Muscovy was preparing to be its successor as the Third Rome Third Rome doctrine .

Several months before the fall of Constantinople, Prince Vasily II (the Blind) of Moscow ceased tax payments to the Mongols. Lithuania also positioned itself to take advantage of the lifting of the “Mongol Yoke” by forming closer relations with the Russian appanages. Wanting nothing more than to keep its large trading empire intact in a rapidly changing political landscape, Novgorod geared its foreign policy toward fomenting conflict between Moscow and Lithuania and between Moscow and Tver’, Moscow’s powerful neighboring principality.

In 1456, fearful of closer Novgorod-Lithuanian ties, Vasily II used military force to impose on Novgorod the Treaty of Iazhelbitsy Iazhelbitsy, Treaty of (1456) . This treaty gave Moscow effective control over Novgorod’s foreign policy. Violating the spirit, if not the letter of the treaty, Novgorod selected two Lithuanians in succession to serve as their princes. An enraged Vasily II planned for an attack on Novgorod. However, his sudden death in 1462 cut short invasion plans.

Vasily’s oldest son, Ivan the Great, was well trained to succeed his father and remained steadfast in his determination to bring the other Russian principalities under Muscovite dominance. In 1470, Novgorod recognized the king of Poland as its leader, promising him the same amount of tribute that had formerly been paid to the Golden Horde. Ivan needed no greater excuse to attack. Launching his forces against a piecemeal Novgorod army, he won a decisive battle on the banks of the Shelon River Shelon River, Battle of (1471) in 1471. Novgorod’s access to the Volga River, its main artery for food supplies and trade, was effectively severed. Polish aid never materialized. To make peace, Novgorod was forced to cede part of its lands to Moscow, pay a large indemnity, and take an oath of loyalty to Ivan. A handful of leading boyars were executed for their complicity in the crisis, while others were imprisoned or exiled.

In the aftermath of his victory, Ivan married Sophia Palaeologus (1472), the niece of the last emperor of Byzantium. The marriage elevated his stature and would prove useful in the future casting of Moscow as the Third Rome. In 1475, he visited Novgorod in the role of supreme judge. Several pro-Lithuanian boyars were convicted of attempted treason for their pro-Lithuanian sympathies and sentenced to imprisonment in Moscow. The message to the other boyars was unmistakably clear.

Though defeated and humiliated, Novgorod was still permitted to maintain much of its autonomy. Public opinion after 1475 was sharply divided between accommodation with Moscow and conflict. In spite of dire warnings by the metropolitan (religious leader) of Novgorod, new boyar leaders were able to steer Novgorod into an alliance with Lithuania. Infuriated by what he viewed as treason, Ivan again gathered a large army. In 1478, he besieged Novgorod. Deserted by Lithuania and unable to muster sufficient forces for its defense, Novgorod surrendered without a fight. This surrender marked the end of Novgorod’s independence.

Following his bloodless victory, Ivan incorporated Novgorod into the Muscovy state. Scores of pro-Lithuanian boyars were executed, and their family estates were confiscated and turned over to Muscovites. To symbolize the annexation of Novgorod by Moscow, on January 15, 1478, the great veche bell, representative of Novgorod’s traditional liberties, was removed and taken to Moscow. What remained was the wealth of Novgorod as the center of Russian trade and craftsmanship. However, this wealth would be heavily taxed to provide Ivan with the financial support he needed to annex the rest of Russia. Even Novgorod peasants were organized into taxing communes, to make annual payments to Moscow more efficient.


After the annexation of Novgorod in 1478, not much remained of the independent political traditions stemming from medieval Kievan Rus. Ivan the Great and his successors continued on the path of “gathering” the rest of the Russian principalities, under the pretext of establishing a Third Rome. By 1480, Ivan had succeeded in pressuring all four of his younger brothers to relinquish to him the territories they had inherited from Vasily II. Ivan used as a pretext the instructions in the will that the younger brothers should follow his dictates as they would those of their father. In 1485, Ivan invaded and annexed neighboring Tver’ Tver’, annexation by Moscow[Tver, annexation by Moscow] without a major battle. In 1489, Vyatka Vyatka, annexation by Moscow was similarly annexed to Muscovy.

Ivan the Great died in 1505, leaving his son Vasily III to complete the work of incorporating appanage Russia into the new Muscovy state. Pskov, which shared with Novgorod a strong representative governmental tradition, was annexed in 1510. Smolensk fell under Vasily’s rule in 1514 and Ryazan’ in 1521. While Western Europe headed forward toward transformation in its early modern period, the Russian state forged by Muscovy shifted into reverse gear, backing toward feudalism. What continued to the twentieth century, as the princes of Moscow became czars, was continued expansion within an autocratic tradition. The final death knell of old Novgorod came in 1570, when Vasily’s successor, Ivan the Terrible, wreaked utter devastation and destroyed the remnants of the Novgorod boyar class.

Further Reading

  • Almedingen, E. M. The Land of Muscovy: The History of Early Russia. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1972. Basic and concise treatment of the expansion of Muscovite power.
  • Birnbaum, H. Lord Novgorod the Great: Essays in the History and Culture of a Medieval City State. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publications, 1981. A variety of scholarly essays on Novgorod’s political development, economy, and culture.
  • Crummey, Robert O. The Formation of Moscovy, 1304-1613. London: Longman, 1987. A detailed study of Muscovite expansion and its consequences for Novgorod and other Russian principalities.
  • Grey, Ian. Ivan III and the Unification of Russia. New York: Macmillan, 1964. A somewhat jumpy but standard biographical study of the policies of the Machiavellian prince of Moscow who annexed Novgorod.
  • Martin, Janet L. Medieval Russia, 980-1584. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A concise and clear explanation of Russian developments during the medieval period.
  • Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Updated and still the standard starting point for themes and major events in Russia’s development.

1480-1502: Destruction of the Golden Horde

After 1480: Ivan the Great Organizes the “Third Rome”

1499-c. 1600: Russo-Polish Wars

Jan. 16, 1547: Coronation of Ivan the Terrible

Summer, 1556: Ivan the Terrible Annexes Astrakhan

1581-1597: Cossacks Seize Sibir

1584-1613: Russia’s Time of Troubles