Russo-Polish Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Having achieved unification under the grand princes of Moscow by the end of the 1400’, the Russian state began expanding westward, bringing it into a long series of wars with Poland and Polish-dominated lands.

Summary of Event

During the 1400’, Russia began to grow in size and power. Under Ivan the Great, the most powerful of many Russian rulers, the diverse Russian regional states were unified into a single nation-state with imperial aspirations. Ivan faced his greatest challenge in the Polish-Lithuanian territories to the west. During the 1300’, the Lithuanians had moved southward and taken control of culturally Russian territories, so that Lithuania Lithuania stretched all the way from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the South. In 1386, Prince Jagiełło (also spelled Jogaila) of Lithuania married Jadwiga, the queen of Poland Poland . Since the Polish royal house had no surviving male heirs, Jagiełło became king of both countries and took the Polish name Władisław II. Russo-Polish Wars (1499-c. 1600)[RussoPolish Wars (1499-c. 1600)] Ivan the Great Vasily III Ivan the Terrible Fyodor I Sigismund II Augustus Báthory, Stephen Gregory XIII Ivan the Great Vasily III Ivan the Terrible;first czar Sigismund II Augustus Stephen Báthory Gregory XIII Fyodor I Godunov, Boris Fyodorovich Dmitry Ivanovich, Prince Dmitry, First False Dmitry, Second False

Władisław II also converted from Eastern Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism, and he required his Lithuanian subjects to become Roman Catholics as well. Although Poland and Lithuania continued to be separate kingdoms until 1569, the two nations were closely linked politically, and Lithuania was culturally influenced by Poland. As the Eastern Orthodox Russians of Moscow, or Muscovy, reached into the western territories, they came into conflict with the Roman Catholic Polish-Lithuanians.





Ivan reached agreements with princes who had been under Lithuanian control, and about 1499, he began preparations for conflict with the Polish-dominated lands to the west. In 1500, with the help of former Lithuanian rulers who had allied themselves with Muscovy, Ivan began a war with the Polish-Lithuanians. He signed a truce in 1503, but by that time he had managed to extend his lands considerably into former Lithuanian territory.

Ivan was succeeded by his son, Vasily III. Vasily continued his father’s westward expansionist policies and took the city of Smolensk from the Lithuanians in 1514. In that same year, though, the Lithuanians defeated Vasily at Orsza. Despite this and other reverses, Russian Muscovy became a larger and stronger state under Vasily than it had been when he inherited the throne.

After Vasily’s death, his three-year-old son, Ivan IV, became grand prince, at first under the regency of his mother. Later known as Ivan the Terrible, at age sixteen, this ruler became the first to take the title of czar, or emperor, derived from the Roman word “caesar.” This title symbolically reinforced the idea that the Russian rulers were the successors of the Byzantine emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire and the foremost protectors of the Eastern Orthodox faith. As he reached young adulthood, Ivan became convinced that his kingdom needed to expand northward, to guarantee access to the Baltic Sea. Ivan therefore invaded Livonia, Livonian War (1557-1582) the site of modern Latvia and Estonia, in 1558.

Czar Ivan IV defeated the forces of the Livonian knights, and Livonia crumbled. However, parts of Livonia appealed to Lithuania for protection. This appeal again brought the Russians into conflict with Lithuania and, therefore, into conflict with Poland, still politically linked to Lithuania. Under the leadership of King Sigismund II Augustus, a descendant of the Lithuanian Jagiełło, Poland resisted Russian expansion. The war also spread to Scandinavia, since the Livonian knights had handed over pieces of their lands to Sweden and Denmark.

In 1569, under the pressure of the war with Russia, King Sigismund strengthened his position by enacting the Union of Lublin, Lublin, Union of (1569) formally uniting Poland and Lithuania. The union did apparently help Poland-Lithuania in its fight against the Russians. Ivan had enjoyed a number of early successes, but the war began to turn against him. Internal disorders and an invasion of the Tatars from Crimea plagued Russia. Ivan may also have suffered from mental problems in the latter part of his reign, since he began a persecution of his own people and at the very end of his life even murdered his own son and heir to the throne in a fit of rage.

After the death of Sigismund, the nobles of Poland elected Stephen Báthory king in 1575. For two years, Stephen fought to establish his rule in Poland. He then turned his attention to the continuing war with Ivan the Terrible. Stephen pushed into Russian territory. At the same time, Sweden established itself in parts of Livonia. Finally, the Orthodox Russian czar was forced to ask the Catholic Pope Gregory XIII to help negotiate a peace. In 1582, Russia was forced to give back to Poland all of the Lithuanian territory Ivan had conquered, and the Russians had to renounce their claims on Livonia.

With the deaths of Ivan the Terrible, in 1584, and Stephen Báthory, in 1586, Russia and Poland lost two aggressive rulers whose territorial ambitions had contributed to the conflicts of the two states. Still, Poland and Russia continued to be rivals. For the rest of the century, internal troubles made Russia the weaker of the two. When Ivan had lost his temper and hit his oldest son with an iron-tipped stick in 1581, he had deprived his empire of a competent heir. Another son of Ivan, the feebleminded Fyodor I, became emperor. Fyodor died in 1598 without an heir of his own, and the ancient Rurik Dynasty of Russian rulers came to an end. This began a period of Russian history known as the Time of Troubles Time of Troubles (Russia) , marked by internal disorder and by intervention and occupation of Russian territory by Polish forces.


The Russo-Polish wars of the sixteenth century brought the expanding powers of Poland-Lithuania and Russia into contact and began centuries of conflict between them. When Russia fell into the Time of Troubles after the death of Czar Fyodor I, Poland played a large part in the difficulties of the Eastern Orthodox nation. Fyodor’s brother-in-law, Boris Fyodorovich Godunov, became the first Muscovite ruler for centuries not to belong to the Rurik Dynasty.

The half brother of Fyodor, Dmitry, had died earlier, in 1591, but there were popular rumors that Dmitry was still alive and was the legitimate czar. Polish forces supported a pretender to the throne who claimed to be Dmitry and is known to history as the False Dmitry. After Boris Gudonov died in 1605, a mob killed Boris’s son and placed the Polish-supported Dmitry on the throne. Dmitry was assassinated soon after, but the Poles helped to support a Second False Dmitry. In the war that resulted, Polish troops invaded Russia and occupied Moscow for a time. The Romanov Dynasty, which ruled Russia until the Revolution of 1917, was established as part of the rallying of the Russians to resist the Polish invaders.

After the rise of the Romanovs, Russo-Polish conflicts cost Poland land and independence. In 1772, Poland lost about one-third of its territory to Russia, Austria, and Prussia, with most of the land going to Russia. In 1793 and 1795, those three nations again divided up Poland, which ceased to exist as a nation. After Poland was reborn following World War I, war with the similarly transformed Soviet Union broke out in the early 1920’.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crummey, Robert O. The Formation of Moscovy, 1304-1613. New York: Longman, 1987. One of the best books available on the consolidation of Russia under the leadership of Moscow, the conflict with Poland, and the Time of Troubles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lukowski, Jerzy, and Hubert Zawadzki. A Concise History of Poland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A useful general history of Poland. Chapter 2 looks at Jagiellonian Poland during the years 1386-1572. At the end of the book, there are useful charts of Polish rulers, including the sovereigns of the Jagiellonian period and the elective rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Payne, Robert, and Nikita Romanoff. Ivan the Terrible. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002. The definitive biography of Czar Ivan IV and his times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riasanovksy, Nicholas V. A History of Russia. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. An updated edition of one the most widely respected and comprehensive histories of Russia, from earliest times to the end of the twentieth century. Chapters 14 and 15 deal with the events of the sixteenth century.

Oct. 19, 1466: Second Peace of Thorn

1478: Muscovite Conquest of Novgorod

1480-1502: Destruction of the Golden Horde

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

c. 1500: Rise of Sarmatism in Poland

Jan. 16, 1547: Coronation of Ivan the Terrible

Summer, 1556: Ivan the Terrible Annexes Astrakhan

1557-1582: Livonian War

Nov., 1575: Stephen Báthory Becomes King of Poland

1581-1597: Cossacks Seize Sibir

1584-1613: Russia’s Time of Troubles

Categories: History