Crafty and unscrupulous, the grand dukes of Moscow were feared by their neighbors. Ivan Kalita, as farmer of the poll-tax, grew immensely wealthy. He collected a double tax from Novgorod, which the republic, although allied with Lithuania, dared not refuse. He bought several towns, besides land in the neighborhood of Vladimir, Rostof, and Kostroma. His title was still Grand Duke of Vladimir, but Moscow was the real capital. Ivan took very good care to stand well with the Church. He built convents and churches, and never went out without an alms-bag or kalita to give money to the poor; hence his surname. The seat of the Metropolitan was still at Vladimir, but he often came to Moscow, and finally moved there; so that it became also the capital of the Church. It is reported that the Metropolitan said to Ivan, "God will bless you and raise you above all other dukes, and this city above all other cities. Your house will reign in this place during many centuries; their hands will conquer all their enemies; the saints will make their dwelling here, and here my bones shall rest."
When Ivan with the Alms-bag died in 1341, he left the bulk of his possessions to his eldest son Simeon, and gave only small estates to his other children; he also forbade that Moscow's territory should be divided. His body was scarcely in the grave before the dukes of Tver and Souzdal were on the way to Saraļ to claim the grand dukedom of Vladimir; they were supported by other dukes who disliked and dreaded the Muscovite family. Simeon hurried after them, well provided with some of his father's treasure. He used it so well, that he received the iarlikh, and was installed at Vladimir. Servile toward the khan, he was overbearing toward the other Russian dukes, which procured for him the surname of the Proud. He was the first to assume the title of Grand Duke of all the Russias; and, acting in that capacity, he graciously confirmed the charter of Novgorod, for which he demanded and obtained payment. Simeon died in 1353 of the ''black death," a pestilence which was imported from Asia.
Great changes were taking place at Saraļ, in the Khan of the Golden Horde. Its power was broken by internal discord, when Mourout, the legal heir of Bati, was attacked by a rival Mamaļ, who succeeded in establishing himself at Saraļ. Simeon was succeeded by his brother, Ivan II, an easy-going, good-natured man whose reign of six years did not increase the influence of Moscow. At his death, in 1359, he left several minor children, the oldest of whom was Dmitri, a boy of twelve. Dmitri of Souzdal went to Saraļ—and secured the iarlikh, which made him Grand Duke of Vladimir, but Alexis, the Metropolitan, was loyal to Ivan's children, and appealed to the khan in the name of his young ward. Mourout, the heir of Bati, declared in his favor, and young Dmitri was taken to Vladimir escorted by an army, and installed. (1363.)
The appointment was disputed by the dukes of Tver, Souzdal, and Riazan. Dmitri of Souzdal held an iarlikh from Mourout's opponent, and tried to enter in Vladimir, but was expelled. The Metropolitan excommunicated the opponents of Ivan's son, who held the fort as Grand Duke. Young Dmitri made war upon the Duke of Tver, and after a seven years' struggle (1368-1375), compelled him to renounce his claims.
Dmitri was summoned before the Khan, in 1371. He went but what he saw at Saraļ convinced him that the Tartars were no longer able to uphold their authority. He did not hesitate to engage in a struggle with Riazan, although it was supported by a Tartar army. Thereafter, when orders arrived from the khan, Dmitri ignored them. In 1376, he sent a large army to Kazan on the Volga, and forced two Mongol chiefs to pay tribute. Two years later, in 1378, a battle was fought between Dmitri and one of Mamaļ's generals in Riazan, when the Tartars were defeated, which made the grand duke exclaim: "Their time is come, and God is with us!" The khan sent an army to ravage Riazan, and made preparations to reestablish his authority at Moscow.
To make sure of success, Mamaļ took two years to collect an immense army and to mature his plans. This could not remain secret to the Russians, who, aroused by Dmitri, laid aside their private feuds to make common cause against the infidels. A large number of dukes assembled at Moscow, and even the Lithuanians promised to send troops to Kostroma where the Russian army was gathering. The Metropolitan assured Dmitri of the victory, and sent two monks to go with the troops. Making the sign of the Cross on their cowls, he said, "Behold a weapon which faileth never!"
Russia was united against the Mongol; all the dukes, with the exception of those of Tver and Riazan, lent their aid. These two dreaded Moscow's power, and the Duke of Riazan tried to conclude an alliance with Jagellon of Lithuania and Mamaļ.
Dmitri, at the head of an army estimated at 150,000 men, marched through Riazan to the Don where the Tartars were drawn up, awaiting the reėnforcements of their ally Jagellon, who was still fifteen leagues distant. Dmitri resolved to fight the Tartars before a junction could be effected. He crossed the Don and met the enemy on the plain of Koulikovo,—the Field of the Woodcocks; where a furious battle was fought. It was decided by a sudden attack upon the Tartars from an ambush, which threw them into a panic. The Tartars were routed; Mamaļ's camp, his chariots and camels, were all captured. Dmitri was found in a swoon from loss of blood. He was surnamed Donskoi, in honor of this victory. (1380.)
It seemed as if the end of the Mongol yoke had come, when another great leader appeared among them. Tamerlane, after conquering Bokhara, Hindostan, Iran, and Asia Minor, entered Europe, and ordered Mamaļ to be put to death. He summoned Dmitri Donskoi to appear before him, and received a curt refusal. Tamerlane sent one of his generals with an immense army to Moscow, and Dmitri, not finding the former support, went to Kostroma to collect troops. The Tartars appeared before Moscow, which they tried to carry by assault but failed. They pretended to enter into negotiations, when they surprised the gates and Moscow was delivered up to fire and sword. It is said that 24,000 inhabitants were slaughtered. Vladimir and other towns suffered the same fate.
It is told that Dmitri wept when he saw the charred remains of his capital after the Tartars had withdrawn. There was nothing for it but to make peace with the khan, and once more the Tartar tax gatherers went their rounds. But Dmitri's heart was sore against the Dukes of Tver and Riazan who had abetted Mamaļ, and Novgorod, which had used the opportunity of Moscow's distress to plunder some of its towns. After the country had sufficiently recovered, he compelled the Duke of Riazan to conclude "a perpetual peace," and Novgorod paid an indemnity besides agreeing to an annual tribute.
When Dmitri died in 1389, he left Moscow the most powerful of Russian dukedoms. He was succeeded by his eldest son Vassili, with the consent of his cousin Vladimir, who was the eldest of the family. Vassili mentioned Novgorod as "his patrimony," and acted as if the republic was his private property. He visited Saraļ in 1392, and while there bought an iarlikh, which placed him in possession of Souzdal, Nishni Novgorod, and Mourom. In 1393, the people of Novgorod revolted, but Vassili's army convinced them that the republic was fast losing its former power.
At this time Tamerlane, dissatisfied with his generals, arrived in Europe and after pillaging the Golden Horde, moved westward, spreading ruin and desolation. He drew near to Moscow, where the famous eikon of the Virgin was taken in solemn procession, when the Tartar army stopped and turned to the south, where Azof, Astrakhan, and Saraļ, were plundered and destroyed. (1395.) After Tamerlane's withdrawal, Vassili pretended not to know to whom to pay the tribute, and so paid none at all. The Tartars under Ediger marched upon Moscow to collect it, but the city was bravely defended and Ediger, fearing an invasion from Asia, agreed to accept a ransom of 3000 rubles, which was paid by the boyards.
More dangerous were the attacks of Vitovt of Lithuania, Vassili's father-in-law, who marched three times against Moscow. Both Vitovt and Vassili were indisposed to risk a decisive battle, fearing that, if defeated, their enemies would despoil them. In 1408 a treaty was signed whereby the Ouger was made the frontier between them. This gave Smolensk to Lithuania, and Kozelsk to Moscow.
Vassili extended his territory, and with it his name; one of his daughters married the Byzantine Emperor, John Palaeologus. At his death, in 1425, he left his territory to his son Vassili, the Blind, whose title was contested by his uncle George, on the ground of being the eldest of the family. The dispute was submitted to the khan, in 1431. Both sides humbled themselves, but the argument of Vassili's boyards prevailed. "My Lord Czar," they said to the khan, "let us speak,—us, the slaves of the grand duke. Our master, the grand duke, prays for the throne of the grand dukedom, which is your property, having no other title but your protection, your investiture, and your iarlikh. You are master and can dispose of it according to your good pleasure. My Lord, the Duke George, his uncle, claims the grand dukedom by the act and will of his father, but not as a favor from the all-powerful." Vassili the Blind was the first grand duke to be crowned at Moscow instead of at Vladimir.
His reign was disturbed by constant wars with his uncle, and afterwards with his cousins. In 1446 he was taken prisoner by one of the latter, who ordered his eyes to be put out. In 1450, peace was restored when the second son of George died of poison. Notwithstanding the loss of his sight Vassili displaced considerable energy in reestablishing his authority. Novgorod was forced to pay another indemnity, and to give a written promise that in future all deeds would be void unless stamped with the seal of the grand duke.
The most remarkable incident of Vassili's reign was the Council at Florence, Italy, in 1440, where delegates of the Roman and Greek Churches tried to effect a union. There were seventeen Metropolitans, among them Isidore of Moscow, who signed the Act of Union. When Isidore returned and declared what he had done, a great opposition appeared. Vassili himself insulted the Metropolitan, who fled to Rome. In 1453, Mahomet II captured Constantinople when a host of priests, monks, artists, and learned men fled from the extinct Byzantine Empire, to find an asylum in Russia.
While nothing resulted from the Council of Florence, owing to the opposition of members of the Greek Church, the fall of Constantinople left a deep impression upon Russia, which chose to consider itself as the heir to the Byzantine Empire. More than this, the influence of the men who found a refuge in Russia, served to inoculate the country of their adoption with the semi-oriental civilization which had distinguished Constantinople from Western Europe. The time, too, was propitious. Russia was gradually recovering from the blow of Tartar rule, which had marred its progress during two centuries. Here was, therefore, to all intent and purposes, a virgin soil, which promised to yield a rich harvest to whatever principles were planted in it. It might even regenerate the decaying elements of the Byzantine civilization.