With Ivan III (1462-1505) the Grand Duchy of Moscow began an expansion policy which ended with the formation of a great empire. Ivan was surrounded by enemies: the mighty Novgorod to the N, the Tatars to the SE and S, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, now united with the Polish kingdom, to the W and SW. Ivan possessed a military superiority which allowed him to enslave Yaroslavl (1463), Perm (1472), Rostov (1474), Tver (1485). Meanwhile, the struggle with the tenacious Novgorod had ended with the victory of Ivan (1471), reaffirmed later (1478) with the suppression of the independence of that city, which had now begun to rapidly decline. Fighting against Mongols and Lithuanians was less simple: a coalition against Muscovy it was always possible. Ivan did not beat the Mongols, who avoided the pitched battle, but ceased to be a tributary, especially as the Golden Horde had now reduced to a modest khānate around Astrahan. Not even with the Lithuanians Ivan was victorious, but by now his borders reached a short distance from Kijev and Smolensk. Ivan’s authority over the Eastern Slavs had a marked increase when the tsar married (1472) Zoe (later Sofia) Palaiologos, nephew of the last Byzantine emperor. With this act, Ivan accepted the inheritance of the Byzantium empire on the religious level and made Moscow the “third Rome”, destined for the mission of Christianizing Eastern Europe. When Ivan died, he left an enormously enlarged state to the N for the annexation of the many dependent countries of Novgorod that extended widely to the Barents Sea and even beyond the Urals. The successors of Ivan III had to solve two big problems: that of the insertion of a compact Slavic kingdom between the Tartar-Turks pressing from the SE, the Lithuanian-Poles threatening from SW and W, and the Teutonic Order which, dominating in Livonia, stood as a major obstacle between Russia and the Baltic; and that of giving Muscovy a social structure that would allow the gathering of the men necessary for the defense of the country and the availability of sufficient arms for agriculture and crafts.
This was the task that Ivan IV the Terrible took on (1547-84). History remembers him especially the unbridled passion, the often brutal cruelty, the killing of his son, the terror erected as a system of government. But it must also be remembered that Ivan, a man of clear and sometimes brilliant ideas, transformed Russia into a great monarchy, open to the influences of the West and already on its way, even economically, towards an imperial future. With Ivan IV, Muscovy arrived in Kazan (1547-52) and in Astrahan (1557), inflicting a serious setback on the Mongols and opening up the routes of eastern trade to his subjects. In the West, the Tsar claimed to attack the Teutonic Order in Livonia, but he only reaped defeats and humiliations. However, if Muscovy seemed blocked on the western front, its progress, from the point of view of the internal order, was important. The old aristocracy of the boyars was in fact flanked by a “service nobility” (the so-called pomeščiki), destined to supplant it; the cumbersome division of the territory of the state into two parts was only a means of depriving the boyars and taking away from them the major possessions that, in general, went to enrich the pomeščiki. Even more significant, if not exactly positive, was the push given by Ivan to stabilize the peasant in his condition of servant (even if the full implementation of serfdom it only took place around 1650). Under Ivan was born, among the peasants not strictly necessary for agricultural work, even a not completely primitive rural handicraft. Nor can we forget that, during this reign, a courageous migration to the Urals and Siberia began (1582): an undertaking which, in the following centuries, was to be transformed into one of the most grandiose colonization in history.
The Muscovite autocracy now seemed firmly founded, also due to the presence of a conditioned nobility in the service of the monarch and devoid of rebellious attitudes; but the death of Ivan IV revealed how much unfounded and provisional still remained in the structures of the new state. An inert Tsar, Theodore I (1584-98), and an energetic ruler of Mongolian ancestry, Boris Godunov, later elected Tsar (1598-1605), awakened the magnate opposition; and this, already favored by the raging famines (1601-03), found support in Polish ambitions. A suitor arose, perhaps a Polish one, who introduced himself as Demetrius, a son of Ivan IV who had been murdered years earlier (the reappearance of the deceased as suitors is a constant in Russian history); he with a small army of Polish volunteers, with a Polish wife of illustrious lineage, with the help of the Roman Church and the Jesuits, managed to be proclaimed tsar (1605) in place of Boris, who died mysteriously. A rebellion of boyars overthrew and suppressed it (1606), placing an executioner, Vasily Shuisky, on the throne, forced to defend himself against a second false Demetrius and against Polish forces that King Sigismund III successfully launched to conquer Moscow, not without the help of a part of the boyars and nobles. Time worked, however, in favor of a Russian national recovery. In the general disorder, the second Demetrius, Tsar Basilio and finally also the Poles, who had held the Kremlin for over two years (1610-12), disappeared from the scene. The Zemskij Sobor, the assembly of landowners which had already elected Boris Godunov and which now supported the “national” candidacy of Michele Romanov, a sixteen year old related to Ivan IV, took over again. The nobility of the dvorjani took up again (courtiers), who saw his rights restored, and at the same time the healthy patriotism of Russian cities (the national “crusade” started from Nizhny Novgorod). Nonetheless, Moscow’s Russia was in pitiful conditions: most of the peasants, having abandoned the countryside, had migrated to the South, strengthening the Cossack population which, militarily organized but independent to the point of anarchy, had contributed so much to making the situation confused and tragic. politics during the so-called smuta (disorder, age of troubles).