Basil III

views updated May 29 2018


(14791533), grand prince of Moscow, sovereign of all Russia (since 1505), the eldest son of Ivan III and Sophia Paleologue.

Basil III continued the policy of his father in unifying Russian lands; under his rule, the last semi-autonomous polities, such as Pskov (1510), Ryazan (c. 1521), and Novgorod Seversk (1522), lost the remainder of their independence and were incorporated into the Russian state. Basil's reprisals against Pskov resemble that of Ivan III against Great Novgorod: The Pskov veche (assembly) was abolished, three hundred families of townspeople were evicted from the city, and their homes were occupied by servicemen and merchants from Muscovy. The only important difference is that, unlike his father, Basil III did not need to resort to military force: The Pskov inhabitants bemoaned their fate but made no attempt to resist.

An Austrian diplomat, Sigismund von Herber-stein, who visited Moscow twice (in 1517 and 1526) and left a detailed and reliable account of Muscovite affairs in the reign of Basil III, noted that "in the sway which he holds over his people, [the grand prince] surpasses the monarchs of the whole world " (Herberstein, 1851, 1:30). Herberstein was especially impressed by the tight control that Basil III had over the nobility, including his own brothers. This system of permanent surveillance included special oaths of loyalty, encouraging denunciations, and inflicting political disgrace upon anyone suspected of disloyalty. Those who dared criticize the grand prince's policy underwent harsh punishment, like Ivan Bersen-Beklemishev, who was executed in 1525.

Several factors contributed to Basil III's ability to control the aristocratic elite. First, the composition of the elite changed dramatically during his reign due to numerous princely families from annexed Lithuanian lands who now entered Muscovite service. The growing tensions between the newcomers and hereditary Muscovite servitors precluded any possibility of united aristocratic opposition to the power of the grand prince. Second, Basil III relied on an increasing corps of state secretaries (dyaki and podyachie ), and trusted upstarts, like the majordomo of Tver, Ivan Yurevich Shigona Podzhogin. Thus, the growth of bureaucracy and autocracy went hand in hand.

In foreign policy as well as in domestic affairs, Basil III followed in the footsteps of his father, Ivan III, though with less success. In the west, he tried to tear away from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania its frontier territories inhabited by east Slavic Orthodox populations. In two wars with Lithuania (15071508, 15121522) his only though important prize was the city of Smolensk (1514).

In the east, Basil's major concern was to pacify or subjugate the bellicose khanate of Kazan on the Middle Volga, a splinter of the Golden Horde. In 1519 he managed to put on Kazan throne his vassal, Shah-Ali. But this achievement of Muscovite diplomacy irritated another Moslem polity, the Crimean khanate. In 1521 the khan of Crimea, Mohammed-Girey, invaded Russia. His unexpected raid threw the whole country into a panic. No defensive measures were taken, and the khan without hindrance reached the outskirts of Moscow. Then the Tartars withdrew, looting towns and villages on their way and carrying off thousands of captives.

Basil III married twice. His first wife, Solomonia, descended from the Muscovite boyar family of Saburov. When, after twenty years of conjugal life, no child was born, the grand prince forced Solomonia to take the veil and confined her to a convent (1525). In spite of opposition among the clergy and courtiers caused by this divorce, Basil III married again (1526); his new choice was Elena, the daughter of a Lithuanian émigré to Muscovy, prince Basil Glinsky. Four years later this marriage produced a long-awaited heir, son Ivan (future tsar Ivan IV the Terrible).

Basil III contributed significantly to building autocracy in Russia, but his unexpected death in December 1533 revealed the implicit weakness of this system: With a three-year-old heir on the throne, the country inevitably entered a period of political crisis.

See also: crimean khanate; golden horde; grand prince; ivan iii; ivan iv; kazan; paleologue, sophia; sudebnik of 1497


Crummey, Robert O. (1987). The Formation of Muscovy 13041613. London: Longman.

Herberstein, Sigismund von. (18511852). Notes upon Russia, tr. R. H. Major. 2 vols. London: Hakluyt Society.

Vernadsky, George. (1959). Russia at the Dawn of the Modern Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Mikhail M. Krom