Glinski, Elena (c. 1506–1538)

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Glinski, Elena (c. 1506–1538)

Grand princess of Moscow whose regency saw the creation of a single monetary system for Russia, the obstruction of potential separatist movements, and the restriction of the growth of monastic landholding. Name variations: Yelena, Helen or Helena Glinskaya, Glinskaia, or Glinsky; Helene of Glinski; Elena Vasil'evna (patronymic). Pronunciation: Ie-LIE-na Va-SIL'-evna GLIN-skee. Born possibly in Lithuania, or in or near Moscow, around 1506; died on April 3, 1538, in Moscow, Russia, possibly of poisoning; regent of Moscow from 1533 to 1538; daughter of Prince Basil (or Vasili) L'vovich Glinskis (also known as Slepyi, meaning the Blind) and Princess Anna Stefanovna Glinskaia; ward of Michael (Mikhail) Glinski, a Lithuanian mercenary; became second wife of Vasili also known as Basil III Ivanovich (1479–1534), grand prince of Moscow (r. 1505–1534), on January 21, 1526 or 1527; children: Ivan IV the Terrible (1530–1584), tsar of Russia (r. 1533–1584); Yuri of Uglitsch (b. 1533).

On the night of December 3, 1533, the grand prince of Moscow, Basil III, died as a result of an illness that had lasted only a few days. While on his death bed, according to some chronicles, the grand prince handed over the crown to his young wife Elena who was supposed to be her son Ivan's guardian and rule the country on his behalf up to the time of his maturity. Basil's decision to make his wife regent (if this actually was the case) apparently had no precedent in the history of the Muscovite dynasty. Thanks to many surviving wills and testaments of princes of Moscow, the traditions of this royal dynasty are relatively well-known. Princes' widows had previously received enough of an estate to support themselves, but they had never been officially appointed rulers of the state.

That story, composed mainly during the reign of Elena's son, Ivan IV the Terrible, who considered his mother the lawful successor to his father, is not the only one told, however. According to opposing chronicles, when Elena asked her dying husband about the future of their children and her own fate, the grand prince bequeathed the throne to his son Ivan. As for Elena, she received only the customary support for a widowed grand princess, "as it had always been from ancient times." Whatever version of the event is correct, less than six months later a released Polish captive, upon returning home from Moscow, reported to his government that great Russian nobles ruling on behalf of the infant sovereign "do everything in accordance with the will and orders of the Grand Princess Elena."

The date of Elena Glinski's birth is unknown. Because she was married in 1526, one may assume she was born around 1506. Her father Prince Basil Slepyi (Basil the Blind) belonged to a large clan of Glinskis and was one of the most powerful nobles in Lithuania in the second half of the 15th century. Elena's mother Anna Glinskaia was the oldest daughter of the Serbian military governor Stefan Yakshich.

According to the legendary information provided by the Russian books of ranks rodoslovnye knigi, the Glinskis were descendants of Mamai, ruler of one of the Mongolian Empire's successor states, the Golden Horde, from the 1360s through 1380. The founder of the Glinski family branch, a certain Mongol prince Lekhsada, the legend goes, became a Christian and entered the service of the grand prince of Lithuania, Vitovt. Lekhsada then governed or held the town of Glinski (near the city of Poltava, in the territory of modern Ukraine) and that is the origin of the family name. By the end of the 15th century, the Glinskis had become extremely powerful magnates in Lithuania, the growing political rival to the main powers of Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Crimean Khanate.

Around the time Elena was born, her uncle Michael Glinski, also known as Dorodnyi (Portly), relocated the family to Russia. He, along with his brothers, including Elena's father Basil the Blind, attempted to create a separate state from some eastern territories of the Lithuanian kingdom. Their attempt concluded with a rebellion against the king of Lithuania in 1508. When the failure of the rebellion became clear, the Glinski brothers accepted the offer of the Lithuanian king's enemy, Russian Grand Prince Basil III, to enter his service. The Glinskis were rewarded with lands (given as patrimonial estates, votchiny) in the Moscow region. It is possible that Elena was born somewhere in Lithuania shortly before her family moved to Russia. Most likely, however, she was born either in Moscow, where her father was then serving, or somewhere near Moscow, in an estate that the Russian grand prince had granted to her father.

Practically nothing is known about Elena's childhood, except that she spent her teenage years fatherless: her father died before 1522. Elena's mother would outlive her daughter by 15 years, dying in 1553. Elena also had two brothers who survived her, and a brother and two sisters whose dates are not known.

It is supposed that Elena absorbed some features of her family's Western European way of life. Her famous uncle Michael, who was destined to play a significant role in her life, was particularly affiliated with the West. This prominent diplomat was educated at the court of the German emperor Maximilian I, then was in the service of Albrecht of Saxon, and spent some time in Italy where he accepted the Catholic faith. However, Michael Glinski could hardly have influenced Elena directly during her childhood. In 1514, her flamboyant and ambitious uncle was accused, perhaps not without reason, of plotting treason against the Russian sovereign. As a result, Michael Glinski was arrested and spent a few years in prison. Although the Emperor Maximilian petitioned the Russian grand prince on his behalf, Michael Glinski was released from prison only after Elena's marriage to the grand prince.

Probably Michael Glinski's arrest put Elena's family—a family of newcomers—at a disadvantage among the Muscovite elite. Though the reasons are unknown, the unpopularity of the Glinskis among larger circles of the society is hard to deny. Generally, a foreign noble clan entering the Russian grand prince's service was hardly a rarity, and many Russian nobles of the time could trace their roots to either Western (mainly Lithuanian) or Eastern (mainly Tatar) immigrants. Nonetheless, hostility against the Glinski clan would come to a climax many years after Elena's death.

Years before, however, neither the unpopularity of the Glinskis nor her uncle's political untrustworthiness prevented Elena from winning the love of the Grand Prince Basil III. According to Sigmund von Herberstein, an Austrian envoy in Moscow, when the grand prince began to look for a second wife, he was attracted by Elena's noble origin. At the same time, according to a Muscovite chronicler, the grand prince fell in love with young Elena because of her beauty, youthfulness, and, most of all, purity. For reasons of state, the majority of the Muscovite nobles approved Basil III's decision to divorce his first childless wife Solomonia and marry again. However, divorce because of a wife's infertility was against the precepts of the Gospel and the habits of the Orthodox Church. The Metropolitan (Patriarch) of Russia, Daniil, authorized the divorce only after significant pressure from the monarch, and Solomonia, despite her explicit protests, was made a nun and sent to a remote nunnery.

Little is known of Elena's personal life during her marriage. Her husband was greatly enamored of her, as their surviving correspondence shows. Apparently to please her predilection for Western ways, he began to shave his beard, which was contrary to the established Muscovite manner and almost unprecedented in the conservative Muscovite society of the 16th century. In the eyes of supporters of the grand prince, Elena fulfilled her function by providing heirs to Basil, and thereby to the major line of the Muscovite house.

However, the birth of an heir in as late as the 52nd year of the grand prince's life provoked a sense of instability at the Muscovite court. As the rebellious Prince Andrei Kurbski, a famous correspondent of Ivan the Terrible claimed, there was a fear that Basil III's brother, Prince Yuri of Dmitrov, would challenge the infant on the throne. The situation was worsened by problems that continued to surround the second marriage of the Grand Prince Basil III. The grand prince's divorce and second marriage aroused the indignation of many Russians. As one of the chroniclers argued, such marriages were adulterous. This opinion found its confirmation in the rumors spread soon after Basil's divorce that virtuous Solomonia gave birth to a son in her exile. Those regarding Solomonia as an innocent victim considered Basil unjust and, therefore, an improper ruler.

In this situation, Elena's young son Ivan's claim to the throne seemed very unstable, as opposed to the claims of his uncles, especially the oldest, Prince Yuri of Dmitrov. Moreover, the idea of a son as the father's successor was relatively new. For centuries, Rurikids, the members of the Russian ruling family, recognized the principle of lateral succession in which seniority passed from the head of the family to his younger brothers, not to sons. Yet the principle of succession was changing: Basil's grandfather, Basil II (1425–1462), successfully fought throughout his reign against his uncle's claims to the throne of Moscow.

Glinskaia, Anna (d. 1553)

Russian princess. Name variations: Anna Glinskaia; Anna Stefanovna Glinskis. Born Anna Stefanovna; died in 1553; oldest daughter of the Serbian military governor Stefan Yakshich; married Prince Basil (or Vasili) L'vovich; children: Elena Glinski (c. 1506–1538); as well as sons.

On the night of December 3, 1533, the Grand Princess Elena became a widow with two sons aged about three and one. The oldest Ivan was soon crowned as the grand prince of Moscow. The regency was established, comprised of the ruler's younger uncle Prince Andrei of Staritsa, Metropolitan Daniil, Prince Michael Glinski, and some major boyars (nobles of the highest rank at the Russian court), including Moscow's Andrei Shuiski. Moreover, both narrative and documentary sources of the time refer to Elena as the main figure in the council. The following four years, until Elena's death, would be filled with events that shocked contemporaries and appeared as a prologue to the bloody reign of Ivan the Terrible. Later chronicles argue about Elena's part in the bloody political executions of the nearest royal relatives. Some claim she was heavily involved; others claim she was just a figurehead for the other regents. Either way, it is significant that these actions were carried out in her name. The major events were as follows.

Almost immediately after Elena's son was announced as the Grand Prince Ivan IV, actions were taken against his oldest uncle, Prince Yuri of Dmitrov, who was accused of plotting against Ivan. The sources contradict each other about whether Prince Yuri planned to usurp the throne or whether he was victimized by the actions of a member of the regent council, the prominent Moscow boyar Andrei Shuiski. In any event, both Yuri and Shuiski were arrested and put in the Kremlin's tower. Though Shuiski remained in detention until the death of Elena Glinski, Yuri died suddenly in confinement in 1536, while in irons; he was buried without any honor and his principality was announced to be the property of Elena's son Ivan, the grand prince.

Soon after Prince Yuri's arrest, his brother Prince Andrei of Staritsa, a member of the regent council and supposedly a major figure in Moscow's government, suddenly left Moscow for his hometown. According to chronicles, Andrei was offended by the failure of his request for new lands, and thus preferred to leave the capital.

Meanwhile the government's boyar appointments strengthened the Glinskis' faction. Thus, Prince Ivan Penkov owed his promotion to boyar rank to his marriage to Elena's sister; another newly appointed boyar, Prince Ivan Fedorovich Belski, was a royal relative. Prince Ivan Obolenski, promoted to ranks of boyar and konushii, was openly partial to the Glinskis; there were rumors that he was Elena's lover. (Six days after Elena's death, Obolenski would be arrested and killed by boyars.) Supposedly, Michael Glinski's disapproval of his niece's alleged affair cost him his life. Elena is said to have imprisoned her uncle, put him into irons, and charged him with plotting against the grand prince. Shortly afterward, in the fall of 1534, Michael Glinski suddenly died in the same prison from which he had been liberated after Elena's wedding.

The next three years in Russian history were marked by intense activity by the government. First, it undertook and successfully carried out a monetary reform. By this time, with the growth of Russia's international and domestic trade, a deficit of coins had become increasingly apparent. The old monetary system allowed huge possibilities for counterfeiting. Since the second half of the 14th century, Russian principalities had based their monetary systems on local units of weight. By the end of the 15th century, native coinage of the principalities, now subject to Moscow, was gradually suspended and an increasing quantity of coins issued by the Muscovite princes was in circulation. Silver coins from the largest western Russian trading cities, Novgorod and Pskov, continued to circulate. These cities preserved their mints even after their subjugation to Moscow. In addition, plenty of miscellaneous old coins of varying weights were still in circulation. All this facilitated coin forgery which began spontaneously in the early 1530s and caused a significant monetary crisis. Active searches for the criminals and the imposition of severe punishments, such as cutting off hands and pouring hot tin down throats, proved to be useless.

The remedy for the currency problem was found in the monetary reform of 1534. Elena Glinski's government prohibited usage of any old coins altogether. The government took all old monies out of circulation and monopolized the right to strike new ones. The only legal money for all Russian lands would be coins made in Moscow. However, the Muscovite government decided to keep monetary standards originally used in Novgorod, the most prominent Russian trading town, which profited greatly from of its international trade, especially with German towns of the Hanseatic League. The new coin was referred to as kopeika, because it depicted an equestrian with kop'e (spear). The word kopeika in Russian has remained the name of a small monetary unit, though the coin itself, then the Soviet kopeika, was swept away by the inflation following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

One of other important issues in the Muscovite state of the 16th century was that of ownership of landed property, and in particular, of the monasteries' rights to it. The government of Elena Glinski issued documents to limit the Orthodox Church's landed estates. The state forbade nobles of a secondary rank (deti boiarskie), who constituted the majority of potential land sellers, to sell, mortgage, or donate lands to monasteries without the government's permission. Moreover, in the northwestern area, the government took a census of the clergy's meadow lands, announced them to be the state's property, and forced the clergy to pay rent.

The regency, led by Elena Glinski, also focused on the construction of fortifications. The years 1534 to 1537 are marked by work done on the Kremlins of Moscow, Novgorod, and many provincial towns. Not only were old constructions renewed and improved, often with stone or earth walls substituting for wooden ones, but many new fortresses were also built. This provided increasing security for the populations of growing towns against both Tatar and Lithuanian raids, which were common at the time. The method for financing the constructions was unprecedented in Muscovy. While imposing special taxes on the population to provide for the new fortifications, the government disregarded the monasteries' and clergy's traditional tax exemptions and collected money from them.

The foreign policy of Elena Glinski's government was focused on establishing peaceful relations with Lithuania. At this time, Lithuania, Russia's most dangerous and active neighbor, regularly assaulted Russian borders in attempts to enlarge territories subject to Lithuanian kings. After a series of local victories, Moscow concluded a favorable armistice with Lithuania in 1536, allowing the Russians to start preparations for attacking their eastern enemies, the Tatars.

This external activity was paralleled by keeping a watchful eye on internal potential rivals of the sovereign within the royal family. Next in line was Elena's younger brother-in-law, Prince Andrei, residing in his Staritsa principality. By 1537, the government attempted to receive the second written declaration of Andrei's loyalty to the young grand prince. (Prince Andrei signed the first declaration upon Ivan IV's ascension to the throne.) There is no evidence of Andrei's having signed the second document. However, he was soon invited to Moscow and, after some hesitation, forced to go there. Like the older royal uncle, he was accused of plotting against his nephew, arrested, chained and put in prison. Soon after, word came of his sudden death in the Kremlin's tower. Prince Andrei was buried without honor and his principality was added to Ivan IV's lands, just like the principality of Dmitrov, the patrimony of late prince Yuri. Thereby the most important appanage principalities of the 16th century ceased to exist, and Muscovy was well on her way in achieving full control over all Russian lands.

This would be the last power move of Elena Glinski. Some contemporaries, such as Herberstein, the Austrian envoy in Moscow, suspected she was poisoned. According to the chronicles, however, during the last months of her life, Elena visited many monasteries around Moscow, donating to them substantial sums of money. This might be an indication of an illness which she may have hoped to overcome by praying in the holy places. Poisoned or not, Elena Glinski died on April 3, 1538.

Hostility towards the Glinski clan would come to a climax many years after Elena's death, when Elena's brothers, counting on their close relationship to their nephew Ivan IV, then a teenage sovereign, tried to regain political power. In the summer of 1547, when extreme heat caused both harvest failure and destructive fires in Moscow, the townspeople revolted. As Ivan IV emphasizes in his letters to Prince Andrei Kurbski, his maternal relatives were subject to the people's anger. One of Elena's brothers barely escaped capture by the mob while another brother was killed by a crowd in the middle of Moscow. And finally, Elena's mother Anna was accused of causing a fire in Moscow. Popular opinion held that she had done so by witchcraft: by cutting out people's hearts, boiling them, and sprinkling the water over houses.


Akty, otnosiashchiesia k istorii Zapadnoi Rossii. Vol. 2. St. Petersburg, Russia: 1846.

Herberstein, Sigmund von. Notes upon Russia. 2 vols. Edited and translated by R.H. Major. Works issued by the Hakluyt Society, 1st ser., nos. 10, 12. Reprint of the 1851–52 ed, published by the Hakluyt Society. NY: B. Franklin, 1963(?).

Kurbsky, Prince A.M. History of Ivan IV. Edited and translated by J.L.I. Fennel. Cambridge: University Press, 1965.

Lobanov-Rostovskii, A.B. Russkaia rodoslovnaia kniga. Vol. 1. St. Petersburg: Izdatel'stvo A.S. Suvorina, 1895.

Perepiska Ivan Groznogo s Andreem Kurbskim. Edited by Ia. S. Lur'e, Ir. D. Rykov. Leningrad: Nauka, 1979.

Polnoe sobranie russkikh letopisei. Vol. 13. Moscow: Nauka, 1965; Vol. 34. Moscow: Nauka, 1978.

Spasskii, I.G. The Russian Monetary System. Chicago: Argonaut, 1967.

The Testaments of the Grand Princes of Moscow. Translated and edited by Robert Craig Howers. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Tikhomirov, M.N. "Zapiski o regenstve Eleny Glinskoi i boiarskom pravlenii 1533–1547 gg.," in Istoricheskie zapiski. Vol. 46. Moscow, 1954.

suggested reading:

Alef, Gustaf. "Aristocratic Politics and Royal Policy in Muscovy in the Late Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries," in Rulers and Nobles in Fifteenth-Century Muscovy. London: Variorum Reprints, 1983.

Baron, Samuel. "Herberstein, England and Russia," in Explorations in Muscovite History. Hampshire: Variorum, 1991.

Skrynnikov, R.G. Tsarstvo terrora. St. Petersburg, Russia: Nauka, 1992.

——. Ivan the Terrible. Edited and translated by Hugh F. Graham. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1981.

Smirnov, I.I. Ocherki politicheskoi istorii Russkogo gosudarstva 30–50 godov 16 veka. Moscow-Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1958.

Vernadsky, George. A History of Russia: Russia at the Dawn of the Modern Age. Vol. 4. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959.

Zimin, A.A. Rossia na poroge novogo vremeni. Moscow: Mysl', 1972.

Elena Pavlova , graduate of the Leningrad State University, Russia, and Ph.D. candidate in Russian history, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois