Ivan IV Vasilyevich, first czar of all the Russians, has gone down as one of history’s most notorious despots, infamous for the terrors he carried out among his subjects. Less well known are the numerous and bloody wars he fought to expand his realm. Isolation on the bleak steppes of Eurasia was a fact of life for the state of Muscovy. Wanting to lead his people to prosperity, Ivan’s determined eyes gazed westward toward the Baltic, where he could open his realm to European trade and forge an empire worthy of his crown. In the end, the war he waged there would last a quarter century, consuming his reign and becoming nothing short of an obsession. By the time it was over, Ivan had earned a new title to go along with that of czar: “Ivan the Terrible.”
Expanding Russia to the Sea
Generations of Muscovite rulers had dreamed of expanding their principality to the sea, but by the mid-16th century Muscovy was yet to possess a port on northern waters. Ivan’s grandfather, Ivan III, upon his conquest of the Republic of Novgorod in the 1470s had inherited a narrow slice of territory where the Neva River flowed into the Gulf of Bothnia. There he constructed the fortress of Ivangorod, opposite the wealthy Livonian city of Narva. Lying too far inland, Ivangorod never became a commercial success. By the time of Ivan IV’s coronation in 1547, Muscovy was still geographically and economically isolated.
Muscovites could be forgiven for feeling paranoid about their landlocked entrapment; their Baltic neighbors gave them every reason to be. The regional powers of Denmark, Sweden, and Poland-Lithuania feared the growth of Moscow. To them, Muscovy was a mysterious and superstitious land whose alien form of Orthodox Christianity was contemptible. While Muscovy sought direct contact with the West by way of the sea, its neighbors worked to prevent it through a virtual blockade whereby Western goods and technology, especially weapons, could not reach Ivan’s lands. Occasionally, the blockade led to war. Poland-Lithuania fought to maintain Muscovy’s isolation until a truce in 1532, while Sweden briefly warred with the Muscovites until 1557. The ensuing peace treaty brought a Swedish pledge to refrain from participating in any future coalitions against Muscovy. This provided Ivan with the flexibility to turn elsewhere for conquest: the fledgling state of Livonia.
The Crumbling Livonia
A patchwork of commercial cities spread out through modern-day Latvia and Estonia, Livonia was the most prominent economic menace to Muscovy. The Livonians were middlemen in the trade to Ivan’s lands, and their high tariffs crippled Muscovite growth and limited trade. Ivan understood that the prosperity of his new empire relied on the demise of the independent Livonian states. As it turned out, time was working in his favor. The Hanseatic League, an organization of northern trading cities to which Riga, Reval, and Narva belonged, had long passed its heyday. The growth of cohesive states, most significantly Denmark, doomed the Hanse, whose resources simply could not compete with more modern states. Furthermore, Livonia’s other prominent power, the Livonian Order of Knights, was also suffering rapid decline. Created centuries before for the purpose of converting the heathen peoples of the eastern Baltic, by the mid-16th century the order’s largely Protestant German knights had settled into luxurious complacency as estate holders. The demise of their energy heralded the accompanying decline of their significance and military strength as well.
In 1558, the order held some 60 castles, while independent cities, notably Riga and Dorpat, controlled roughly 50 more. Although often well armed with the latest in gunpowder technology, the fortresses were also obsolete and severely undermanned due to an overemphasis on mounted soldiers. Livonia was falling apart, and powers like Sweden and Lithuania were plotting to collect the spoils of its inevitable disintegration. Ivan, whose personal stake in Livonia’s fall was higher than anyone’s, was determined to grab his just desserts.
“Here is a Little Thing That Will Grow Great”
An invasion required an air of legitimacy. For that Ivan turned to the Livonian city of Dorpat, which he claimed owed Muscovy 50 years’ worth of tribute dating back to a treaty signed in 1503. When pressured, Dorpat demurred and attempted to negotiate a reduction in payments. Soon afterward, the Bishop of Dorpat delivered a letter of protest to the Muscovite ambassador, who replied prophetically, “Here is a little thing that will grow great.” Within a short time, the Livonians caved in and promised to pay the tribute in full, but when their embassy arrived in Moscow empty handed, they effectively gave Ivan all the justification he needed to invade. On January 22, 1558, the Muscovite army crossed into Livonia.
Despite the best efforts of the Baltic powers, the Muscovite army was equal to its closest rivals technologically and militarily. Like the Livonians, the Muscovites relied heavily on cavalry, which in their case was a feudal levy provided by landholders as a condition for keeping their estates. Much of the infantry was formed in a similar fashion with the exception of the streltsy, a hereditary division of musketeers. Initially the streltsy was a mere 3,000 strong, but within only a few years would swell to over 15,000 men. Reinforcing the Muscovites was a large contingent of Cheremis, Circassians, Bashkirs, and Kazan Tatars who fought as vassals. The savage Tatars were particularly adept at instilling terror in the hearts of their enemies.
Ivan the Terrible’s Invasion of Livonia
The 40,000-strong Muscovite army entered Livonian territory near the town of Neuhausen. Its three columns were jointly commanded by Ivan’s uncle, Mikhail Glinsky, and the Khan of Kazimov, Shah Ali, who led the 7,000-man Tatar contingent. Ivan’s close friend, Andrey Kurbsky, led the rear guard. Initially, the Livonians believed that the czar had come only to collect his tribute, but when Ivan refused an envoy who belatedly brought the tribute they quickly realized that it had all been a pretext. Ivan’s primary objective was not Dorpat but Narva, his window to the sea. In the meantime, the Muscovites bypassed or isolated the fortresses in their path and concentrated on looting the countryside to fuel their advance. Livonian towns were temporarily spared, but their fields were laid to waste.
The Muscovite army immediately commenced bombarding Narva upon reaching the city in early May. Defenders hunkered down and prepared for a long siege while sending out pleas for help in every direction. Reinforcements from Reval and Fellin soon arrived, but such gestures of defiance only enraged Ivan. On May 11, a large fire broke out in the center of the city that the Muscovites would later claim was caused by the attempted burning of two religious icons that, despite being the center of the conflagration, miraculously survived. The besiegers used the ensuing chaos as cover to successfully storm the walls and capture the city.
With Narva safely in his hands, Ivan next turned to gobbling up the rest of Livonia. Syrensk and Neuhausen capitulated without much trouble, and on July 19 Dorpat surrendered to Ivan’s Tatars in exchange for guarantees of its traditional liberties and trading privileges. The deal was greatly facilitated by the restraint shown by the Tatars, whom Ivan forbade to pillage the city. All across Livonia peasants were rising against their German masters, something the czar was keen to encourage through demonstrations of his benevolence. The lack of popular resistance enabled the Muscovites to raid as far inland as Riga. Before the close of the year, some 20 fortresses lay under their control.
A Six-Month Truce
The Livonian Order and remaining independent cities frantically begged for assistance from anyone who would listen, but their pleas produced very little. The Hanse was in no position to aid its fellow cities, and the Holy Roman Emperor offered nothing beyond his sympathies. Gotthard Kettler, elected as the new Grand Master of the Order, petitioned Poland-Lithuania for help, but King Sigismund was reluctant to intercede for fear of inciting a conflict with Sweden or Denmark. Sweden, meanwhile, showed interest in replacing the Livonians as the middlemen in the Muscovite trade, which was now flourishing out of Narva. King Gustav Vasa played a delicate game of placating Ivan while attempting to curb Muscovy’s improved trading conditions. It was not until early 1559 that the Livonians at last received a glimmer of hope when King Frederick II of Denmark volunteered to mediate a truce.
It was not a moment too soon. The Muscovites, having crossed the Dvina River, were rampaging through Courland and closing in on Riga. Ivan was in no mood for a truce, but the czar’s chief adviser, Alexei Adashev, implored him to accept the Danish offer, fearing Tatar activity along Muscovy’s southern border. Having failed the previous summer to coax Sigismund into an alliance, Ivan worried that a Baltic coalition was forming against him, although Sigismund’s rejection was a direct result of Ivan’s exorbitant stipulations rather than any plans of his own to attack. Grudgingly, Ivan agreed to a six-month truce in May 1559, even though the order’s refusal to come under his suzerainty and Denmark’s empty yet annoying claim to Livonia as a Danish dependency left a bitter taste in his mouth.