Feb 262012

In the 12th century, Moscow barely made a mark on the maps as a fortified outpost. By the 15th century, it had become a world power. In less than 200 years, a non-entity established itself not just a significant political center, first of a principality, then of a country, but even as the focus of a cultural revival – or a cultural shift – a new period in Russian history.

Kievan Russia was marked by the absence of a strong, central power and by a continuous struggle with Asiatic nomads. A quasi-permanent state of disunion and conflict between the various branches of the ruling dynasty allowed the Mongols to invade the land, and to keep control for 250 years. But progressively, the Mongol empire itself started dissolving under internal pressure, while the Russian princes managed to unite again and again under the banner of charismatic leaders and mark significant, if not decisive, victories against the invaders.

The rise of Moscow came, indirectly, from Novgorod. Aleksandr Nevskii, famous for defeating the Teutonic Knights, installed his oldest son Daniil in Moscow. Daniil was not in line for Kiev, and Moscow had barely become a principality by the time of his father’s death. But from the very beginning, Daniil strove to establish a different kind of inheritance system for his descendants. From that point on, the responsibility of rulership shifted progressively from the entire Rurikid dynasty to a specific line, or family. Other principalities soon followed suit and established their own local dynasties.

In terms of government and social structure, this resulted in a more stable ruling system, but also a more sedentary and entrenched ruling group. The nobility became more defined, a state inheritable with lands and wealth and power, and therefore more static. The focus of Russian shifted from a multitude of principalities with Kiev at their head, to a unified land with Moscow at its center.

The rise of Moscow also coincided with the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The significance of this non-Russian event is that the center of the Orthodox world had been until then in Constantinople, and suddenly it was no more.

By that time, Ivan III The Great reigned in Moscow, several generations of rulers after Ivan I, and Moscow was now an established power. As a result, the Moscow metropolitan also became the most influential Orthodox leader.

This new focus both in the secular and in the spiritual areas will define the self-image of Muscovite Russia. This is also what will define the future self-perception of the 19th century romantic movement with its search for a unique national identity.

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