He was born in 1479 the son of
Ivan III Vasil'yevich, grand prince of Moscow and his
second wife, Sofia Fominichna Paleologa, Byzantine princess. He married first
Solomonia, daughter of Yurii Konstantinovich Saburov, and then in 1526 to
Yelyena, daughter of Vasilii L'vovich Glinskii. His
sons from the second marriage were Yuri, appanage
prince of Uglich and Tsar Ivan IV. The family is shown
on this chart.
Summary of Reign
Vasilii III was spared the difficulties associated with civil war or even
serious differences of opinion with brothers and uncles that so plagued the
reigns of some of his forbearers. However he was faced with extensive external
warfare on three fronts except for the approximately ten years from 1528 to
1534. In the west he continued his father's war against Lithuania over the
lands between the Dnieper and Oka Rivers. Campaigns were conducted during
1507-08 and 1512-22. He annexed Pskov in 1510 and succeeded in his father's
goal of taking Smolensk in 1514. He acquired the remaining pieces of Riazan
territory in 1521 and all of Novgorod-Severskii in 1522.
To the south Vasilii had to contend with the effects of Mengli Gerei's reversal
of alliances after the final destruction of the Golden Horde in 1503. The Tatar
raids began in 1507 and grew in intensity until by 1521 the Crimean and Kazan
Tatars in alliance were again at the gates of Moscow as the Mongols had been
over a hundred years previously. Vasilii continued to use his own Tatars based
at Kasimov and strengthened the southern defenses with additional service
people and fortifications.
To the east Vasilii continued his father's efforts to control Kazan by
placing friendly Tatars on the throne, but immeshed Moscow in the inherently
unstable internal politics of the shifting Tatar hordes. The result was at
least intermittant warfare on that front as well. Vasilii built a fortress at
Vasil'sursk in 1523 that served as a base for further operations against Kazan.
Vasilii also continued his father's interest in Western ideas, particularly in
the military sphere. The Italians who initially arrived with his mother were
succeeded by still others. The Kremlin was re-built as a north Italian fortress
by architects from Milan. Other fruits of western military technology arrived
as well with improved artillery and firearms.
In the spring Vasilii III sent his armies to conquer Kazan, but the
Russians suffered two defeats and failed in their mission.(1)
Mohammed Amin returned the Russians he held prisoner and signed a treaty
The autonomy of Pskov was an obstacle to the centralization of the Russian
army and judicial administration. The town was bound by treaty to help Moscow,
but it did so only conditionally and reluctantly. Even on campaign, the Pskov
army was a separate unit. Vasilii III isolated Pskov the same way his father
had isolated Novgorod and then fomented internal discord in the town. Finally,
he tricked the nobles into assembling to meet him, then arrested and deported
them. He removed 300 boyar families and 6,500 middle class citizens and
replaced them with his Muscovite followers, including a garrison of 1,000
deti-boyarski and 500 pishchalniki from Novgorod.(2)
Vasilii's brother, Prince Simeon, attempted to revolt but was
Until 1512 the cornerstone of Ivan III's foreign policy had been the
alliance with Mengli Gerei. After the fall of the Horde and Moscow's annexation
of Severia, the Tatars of Crimea were no longer so interested in the alliance.
Moreover, Vasilii III instead of actively pursuing the alliance was too miserly
to give the accustomed presents to the Tatars. Therefore, in 1512 Mengli Gerei
changed sides and allied himself with Lithuania. This began the long bitter
struggle between Moscow and Crimea that lasted until the annexation of the
Crimea by Catherine II.(4)
Campaign against Lithuania
Vasilii renewed the war with Lithuania by sending Prince Daniel Shchenya
with an army to seize Smolensk, which he did after a fierce artillery
bombardment. Vasilii appointed Prince Vasilii V. Shuisky as his lieutenant for
the city instead of Mikhailinsky, a west Russian noble who considered himself
due the position. Another Russian commander was Vasilii's favorite, Ivan F.
A month later the the Lithuanians, commanded by Prince Konstantin I. Ostrozhsky
(the looser at Vedrosha in 1500), decisively defeated the Russian army at the
Orsha River. Even so, the Russians managed to keep Smolensk. The skirmishes
continued until 1522.(5)
The Crimean Tatar Khan raided Moscow. The Starosta of Cherkassy, Ostafi
Dashkevich, led Cossacks to help the Tatars by seizing Chernigov and
Novgorod-in-Severia, but he didn't take the towns.(6) This break with Crimea and the troubles with
Kazan the same year required Moscow to improve the border defense system. In
the spring troops went on "shore duty" along the Oka River.
Fortresses built during the early 1500's included Zaraisk, Tula, and Kaluga.
Cossack companies settled south of the Oka line. Vasilii III tried to obtain
help from the Nogai and from Astrakhan but without much success.(7)
The Khan of Kazan, Mehemmed Amin, died and Vasilii sent Shah Ali,
Mehemmed's brother, to be the new Khan. Kazan agreed, but then under Crimean
influence, revolted and invited Sahib Gerei, the Crimean Khan's brother, to be
the new Khan of Kazan.
Shah Ali returned to Moscow and Sahib Gerei killed or enslaved the
Russians residing in Kazan.
The Crimean Khan, Mehemmed Gerei, (Mengli's son) launched a major attack
on Muscovy, reaching the suburbs of Moscow during the summer. He received aid
from Lithuania and from the Starosta of Cherkassy, Ostafi Dashkevich, who
raided Severia with the Ukraine Cossacks. Vasilii III retired to Volok "to
get more troops," leaving Moscow under the command of the Tatar prince,
Peter, husband of Vasilii's sister, Evdokia. Peter sent presents to bribe Khan
Mehemmed who retired with much booty. Moscow annexed Riazan during this year
when the last duke, Ivan VI, was accused of negotiating with Mehemmed Gerei and
fled to Lithuania during the Tatar raid. The Riazantsi were deported and
replaced with Muscovites.(8)
Vasilii built the fortress of Sursk at the confluence of the Sura and
Volga Rivers, halfway between Nizhni Novgorod and Kazan as a base for further
campaigns against Kazan.(9)
Vasilii III married Elena Glinskaya, after divorcing his first wife. Elena
was of Mongol family descent; her father and uncle were famous military
commanders who transferred allegiance from Lithuania to Moscow.
The Kazantsi agreed to let Vasilii appoint a new Khan, so he sent Yan Ali,
the Tsarivich of Kasimov and brother of Shah Ali. This restored Moscow's
suzerainty over Kazan.(10) Vasilii died in
1533, leaving the throne to his infant son, Ivan IV.
1. Ian Grey, Ivan the Terrible, Philadelphia,
Lippencott, 1964, p. 167. Vernadsky, op. cit. Vol. IV p. 140, 142.
2. Vernadsky, op. cit. Vol. IV p. 143-145.
3. ibid. p. 155.
4. Grey, Ivan the Terrible, p. 167. According
to Grey, the war began in 1508, but the first campaign recorded was in 1512.
Vernadsky, op. cit. Vol. IV p. 153.
5. Vernadsky, op. cit. Vol. IV p. 155-156;
Grey, Ivan the Terrible, p. 168. For a detailed description of the
battle of Orsha see Razin, op. cit. p. 353; and for the main campaigns
of the war, pages 351-354.
6. Vernadsky, op. cit. Vol. IV p. 255.
7. ibid. p. 154; Grey, Ivan the
Terrible, p. 168.
8. Vernadsky, op. cit. Vol. IV p. 153, 156,
157, 255; Grey, Ivan the Terrible p. 167. In February 1521 the Ottoman
Turks resumed the offensive in Hungary, by 29 August they captured Belgrade. In
1522 the Austrians began to construct a fortified military border in Croatia,
manned by refugee peasants, mostly Serbs, and mercenaries. This fortified line
was similar to the ones which the Russians began building soon afterwards. The
austrian military border lasted into the 19th century. For a complete study of
this system see Guther Rothenburg, The Austrian Military Border in Croatia
1522-1737, Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960; and The Military
Border in Croatia 1740-1881, Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966.
9. Vernadsky, op. cit. Vol. IV p. 162.
10. In the West, Turkish power was expanding during
this period. Sulemian defeated the Hungarians at Mohacs and then entered Buda
on 12 Sept. 1526. His advance guard reached as far as Vignna. Then in 1529 the
Sultan brought his whole army into Austria and besieged Vienna unsuccessfully.