Ivan the Great earned his sobriquet and makes his way on to my list as the best Russian ruler for a number of reasons. When I first put together my list, I had him behind both Alexander Nevsky and Peter I, but after careful review and research, he became my number one. The eldest son of Vasily II, he was the co-regent with his father to help solidify his family’s hold on to the throne. This was necessary as Russia was just leaving the period of their greatest civil war to date.
Because of the war, Ivan the Great felt a need to incorporate the previously independent city states into his realm as the Grand Prince of Moscow. Some of the principalities joined peacefully and willingly like Yaroslav and Rostov while others needed to be coaxed militarily. Novgorod and Tver were two of the states most resistant to Ivan’s pressure. After the battle at the Shelon River in 1471, Novgorod accepted Ivan the Great as their leader. Three years later, they tried to revolt again but were soundly defeated and their veche system (people’s assembly) was abolished.
It was after his total defeat of the Novgorodians that Ivan took the title of gosudar vseya Rusi or sovereign of all Russia. This was the first time that a Russian ruler had truly united his people. From here he also completely shed the yoke of the now weakened Golden Horde and stopped paying them any tribute. Khan Ahmad tried in 1472 and in 1480 to defeat Ivan the Great but failed both times. After the defeat of the Tatar’s at the Ugra River the yoke was finally overthrown.
What Ivan the Great also did was open up relations with countries to his west and south like Venice, Crimea, Hungary, Denmark and the Ottoman empire. He brought Italian architects to Moscow where the built the towers and walls of the Kremlin, something that remains to this day.
He also took on the idea of Moscow being the successor of Byzantium and of Rome when he married a Byzantine princess, Sophia Paleologue as his second wife. She bore Ivan the Great a son, who would become Vasily III. Ivan would go down in history as a shrewd politician and also earn the title of “gatherer of the Russian lands.”