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Alexander Nevsky – #3 Best Russian Ruler

Alexander Nevsky

Saint Alexander Nevski

Alexander Nevsky, born on May 20, 1220 is in my opinion, the third best Russian ruler of all time. The grandson of Vsevolod the Big Nest, his exploits against the Swedes and the Germans were legendary. He also placated the Mongols of the Golden Horde, protecting the people from their raids. In the opinion of many Russians, he stands as one of their favorite Russian rulers alongside Peter the Great and strangely enough, Joseph Stalin.

According to the Primary Chronicles, “By the will of God, prince Alexander was born from the charitable, people-loving, and meek the Great Prince Yaroslav, and his mother was Theodosia. As it was told by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Thus sayeth the Lord: I appoint the princes because they are sacred and I direct them.’ “… He was taller than others and his voice reached the people as a trumpet, and his face was like the face of Joseph, whom the Egyptian Pharaoh placed as next to the king after him of Egypt. His power was a part of the power of Samson and God gave him the wisdom of Solomon … this Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated …”

The Novgorodian people elected Alexander Nevsky to be their military leader as they were being threatened by the Swedes. At the Battle of Neva, Alexander when he was but 19 years old, defeated the Swedish Army, thus preventing an all out invasion. Even though he won the day, and was given the name Nevsky because of it, the jealous boyars pushed him away. He was recalled the following year as the Livonian Order once again invaded the area, and again Alexander repulsed them.

The importance of these victories cannot be understated. The Mongols had just invaded the region and the people were shell shocked. They needed a home grown hero and Nevsky was the man. While some thought that the Russian people should fight off the Horde, Alexander was shrewd and wise enough to know better. He knew that if he were to wage war with the Mongols, Russia could very well have been wiped off the face of the earth. Better to placate them by paying tribute than to risk the lives of his people.

In 2008, the Russian people voted Nevsky as both the greatest hero of Russian history and the greatest Russian of all time. High honors which are well deserved. If not for the accomplishments of the two men ahead of Alexander, I would have also made him number 1.

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Ivan I – #5 Best Russian Ruler

Ivan I of Moscow

Ivan I Danilovich Kalita

Ivan I Daniilovich Kalita, aka, Ivan Moneybags is my selection as the 5th best Russian ruler of all time. His leadership initially as the Grand Prince of Moscow then Vladimir, was critical in the growth of Moscow during the time of the Golden Horde. Ivan I also was known as the “gatherer of Russian lands” as he greatly increased the area of control and the wealth for future Grand Princes of Moscow.

Born in 1288 to Grand Prince Daniel of Moscow making him the grandson of Alexander Nevsky, Ivan I was a very shrewd man who would bring great wealth to his people. His rule was a time when the Golden Horde had reached its zenith. Its control over Russia was complete. Anyone wishing to be a Grand Prince had to go to the Horde’s capital in Sarai to ask permission. Many were killed there due to court intrigues. Ivan knew how to manipulate the system though and survived and thrived under the Horde’s rule.

As Grand Prince, Ivan was given the job of collecting taxes or tribute for the Horde. He was masterful at it and this brought him great favor with the khan at the time, Muhammad Ozbeg. Many have speculated on why Moscow rose so quickly under his rule such as its central location, but I feel his wise rule set the stage. Many of the other princes of Russia despised him but they could do little. If they tried to attack Moscow, they would face the wrath of the Horde.

Over the years, Ivan loaned many of his fellow princes money which they eventually proved unable to repay. In those cases, the Grand Prince of Moscow would take their land and incorporate it into his realm. Another trick he used was to invite as many people to come to Moscow as he could. Because the Mongols continued to raid the Russian steppes, many came to get away from them.

Due to his good relations he had with the khan in Sarai, he was able to set up his son as not only his successor in Moscow but in Vladimir as well. This continued over the years which brought much stability to Russia until the Time of Troubles in the early 1600’s.

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Dmitri Donskoi – #6 Best Russian Ruler

Saint Dmitri Donskoi

Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoi

Dmitri Donskoi, whose 30 year reign from 1359-1389 as Grand Prince of Moscow and Vladimir was notable for many things but the most important was when he stood up to the Mongol’s of the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo. There, he defeated the army of  Mamai which marked the turning point in the relationship between the Horde and Russia. While Mamai’s successor Tokhtamysh, invaded Russia and sacked Moscow, the stranglehold on Russia was broken.

Now had this been the only achievement by Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoi, he might have made this list but probably not this high. His reign saw a doubling of the territories of Moscow as well as building the first stone Kremlin around the city. This stone wall prevented the Lithuanian army which placed Moscow under siege twice under Algirdas. When a third siege was attempted the two side signed a peace treaty to end hostilities for the moment.

Born to Ivan II, also known as Ivan the Meek, Dmitri Donskoi was named regent when he turned nine years old. Effective rule over the country was in the hands of Metropolitan Aleksey. Over time, Dmitri settled disputes with other Grand Princes, especially Mikhail II of Tver. This unification of the princes and their solidarity with Dmitri Donskoi was a major factor in their ability to stand up to the Mongols of the Golden Horde.

When Dmitri decided to try to throw off the yoke of the Mongol’s, it was at a time that the Horde was suffering through a civil war. Still, was he strong enough to take on his mortal enemy? Two other figures were to play an important role in Donskoi’s victory Prince Jogaila of Lithuania and Russian prince Oleg of Ryazan. Both were enemies of the Grand Prince of Moscow and had pledged to help Mamai destroy Moscow once and for all. The only problem was that neither made it to the Battle of Kulikovo as Dmitri Donskoi attacked Mamai ahead of their arrival.

There are certain turning points in history and this was one of them. Had Donskoi held back his attack and allowed the armies of Lithuania and Ryazan join up with Mamai, we would have a far different history of Russia to recount if Russia would have survived at all. There would be many who would have moved Donskoi higher on the list because of this, but I feel that other Russian rulers had bigger influences on the country. Still, I struggled mightily on where to put Dmitri on my list.

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Persian Interactions with Russia

One of the greatest praises one can get is when someone takes your idea and runs with it. Mike Rakshan did just that with his new podcast, The History of Persia. His obvious passion for the subject is likely due to his being of Persian descent like mine being because of my Russian descent. You can tell in his voice that this is a project that comes from the heart which makes it a great listen. Also, thanks for the shout out at the beginning of the podcast. Much appreciated.

Interactions between Russia and the Persian’s (present day Iran) have persisted from the time that people inhabited the land of the Rus until present day. Through Persia the Russians were exposed to the religion of Islam and it is thought that Persian emissaries came to the court of Vladimir the Great to present their religion to him although some believe it was Bulgarian Muslim’s who made the presentation.

Persian merchants were major trading partners with the Kievan Rus back in the late 10th and early 11th century. While Constantinople was the biggest partner, Persians were not far behind. Through the time of the Samanid dynasty 819 – 999, Ghaznavids 963–1186 and the shared invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century trading continued.

Now under the thumb of the different Mongol Hordes, there was still some trade going on but because of how devastated the Persian population was, it went down to a trickle. As both countries struggled to shake off the domination, they began to evolve in different ways. But they did have a common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman-Persian Wars were fought from about 1514-1823.

The Russians began to come into conflict with the Ottoman’s as they began their expansion south, beginning with the ascension to the throne by Peter the Great. His Great Embassy through Europe was to gather allies in his fight to take Ottoman territories (Episode 31)  like the base at Azov. When he saw the threat of the Swedes under Charles XII he signed a treaty with the Ottoman’s much to the dismay of the Persian leaders who were themselves were fighting wars with the Ottomans.

Moving to the more recent dealings,things between the USSR and the Shah of Iran were cool. Under Gorbachev, better relations with Iran were tried as a buttress against American influence in the Middle East. With Putin, conflicts arose between the Persian Iranians and Russia die to conflicts in the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, former members of the USSR were developing their independent energy resources which was opposed by Iran.

I look forward to hearing more about Persian history from Mike as it seems to be a long and interesting one.

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Kiev Captured by the Mongols

Viking Arriving in Russia

On December 6, 1240, a Mongol invasion force led by Batu Khan, captured the city of Kiev. It has generally been acknowledged as the end of the era of Kievan Rus. Once a flourishing mecca whose rulers children married into the houses of many European leaders, it would be centuries before it would regain its luster.

While this was the death blow to Kiev as a center of Russia it was already in a state of decline. The reasons for the decline are numerous but some were more important that others. The first reason was the appanage system of the passing of lands to multiple sons following the passing of their father. It caused a splintering of the lands, especially in Kiev as brothers battled brothers for control of the countryside. Civil war was common after the death of the last unifying Grand Prince, Yaroslav the Wise in 1054.

After the Grand Prince’s death, Iziaslav I took over but he was overthrown a few years into his reign in 1068. With the help of the Polish Army, he retook Kiev in 1069 but was thrown out again, this time by his brothers in 1068. Returning in 1076 he only lasted two more years until he was finally killed in battle in 1078. All this warring was wearing down the people and caused a general financial recession to hit the region.

Subsequent rulers kept Kiev as the main city of Russia but its influence was slowly eroding to other cities especially Novgorod but another issue was causing it to lose its economic strength and that was the deterioration of it main trade partner the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople was losing its power as attacks from the Crusaders and pressure from the Muslims were shrinking their territories. Since Kiev was a main center of trade to the Byzantines from the Vikings in the north a slowing economy meant that the Varangian traders went looking for other more lucrative areas. Gradually, Kiev began to slide downward in influence and prestige.

The next near fatal blow was delivered by Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky of Vladimir when he sacked Kiev in 1169. This caused Kiev to lose its perception as the center of the people of the Rus. By now cities like Vladimir-Suzdal had surpassed Kiev. Then as if to just heap more misery on the once bustling town, the Mongols arrived and destroyed what was left of Kiev. It was not to be until the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution that the city was to thrive again. Today it is a thriving and vibrant city of 2.8 million inhabitants in the Ukraine.


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