As they expanded their land ownership, the elite of the Appanage period also expanded womens property rights. In Kievan times, women could inherit moveable goods, but probably not land. In the Appanage centuries, parents and husbands began bequeathing land to their female survivors. Most of these inheritances were life estates given to widows; a recipient received the income from a parcel of land so long as she lived. On her death, it passed to her male heirs. Such usufruct rights were commonly employed across Europe because they provided for widows, while guaranteeing that real property would remain in the widows marital families.

Rus law during the Appanage period also allowed women to inherit land free of any encumbrances. Parents could dower their daughters with land, over which the recipients had full property rights. That is, they could sell, mortgage, and will it. Husbands could also leave land to their wives. Thus when Dmitri Donskoi granted huge acreages to Evdokia in his will, he was acting according to notions of womens property rights that were becoming widely accepted. Anticipating that his sons might claim a voice in their mothers management of her affairs, he wrote, And I bless my princess with all these my acquisitions, and in these acquisitions my princess is free: she may give them to one of her sons or she may give them for the memory of her soul [to a monastery]. And my children shall not interfere in this.21

The right of elite women to own land in the Appanage period increased their role in property management. Married female landowners probably had to defer to their husbands, for land, even if it formally belonged to the wife, was considered a part of a familys overall holdings and thus was properly under the patriarchs control. Widows such as Evdokia, who had been granted both authority and ownership in their husbands wills, had full managerial authority over their holdings, authority similar to that exercised by those noblewomen in Western Europe who inherited fiefs.

The best known of such widows, other than the princesses, came from Novgorod, a prosperous city in northwest Rus. There, in the fifteenth century, three women, Oksinia Esipova, Nastasia Grigoreva, and Marfa Boretskaia, were among the citys largest landholders. One of these women, Boretskaia, led a rebellion against Sophia Vitovtovnas grandson, Ivan III.22




Fifteenth‑century Novgorod was a thriving commercial hub. Its merchants and nobles imported woolen cloth, salt, beer, metal goods, and gold and silver from the Germanic ports to the west, and silk, cotton, jewels, spices, and steel weapons from the Middle East. Their most valuable export was fur. They also sold wax, honey, tar, and hides obtained from the citys far‑flung hinterland and from trade routes that extended into Siberia. Marfa Boretskaia was born into a boyar family that had grown rich from this trade; she married into another, the Boretskiis.23 Boretskaia worked with her husband, Izak, in managing their lands and marketing their products. She also supervised their employees and ran a large household in Novgorod. Boretskaia did all this without leaving home; it was not considered proper for elite women to travel. When her husband died, she took charge of the business herself. She then expanded it and thereby made her family one of the richest in Novgorod.


Marfa at the Destruction of the Veche, as imagined by the late nineteenth‑century painter Klavdi Lebedev. Accessed June 27, 2011.




Lebedev portrayed Boretskaia as a heroic defender of her people against tsarist oppression. The monk who wrote the pro‑Muscovy account in the Novgorod Chronicle of the fifteenth century saw her differently.

AD 1471 The Grand Prince loan [Ivan] Vasilievich marched with a force against Novgorod the Great because of its wrong doing and lapsing into Latinism [Catholicism].

That tempter the devil entered into the wily Marfa Boretskaya, widow of Isaac Boretskii, and that accursed [woman] entangled herself in words of guile with the Lithuanian Prince Mikhail. On his persuasion she intended to marry a Lithuanian Boyar, to become Queen, meaning to bring him to Great Novgorod and to rule with him under the suzerainty of the King over the whole of the Novgorod region.

This accursed Marfa beguiled the people, diverting them from the right way to Latinism, for the dark deceits of Latinism blinded her souls eyes through the wiles of the cunning devil and the wicked imaginings of the Lithuanian Prince. And being of one mind with her, prompted to evil by the proud devil Satan, Pimin the [Catholic] monk engaged with her in secret whispering. This Pimin did similarly trust in the abundance of his riches, giving of them also to the crafty woman Marfa, and ordering many people to give money to her to buy over the people to her will.



Perhaps her commercial success emboldened Boretskaia to become involved in Novgorods turbulent politics. This unusually independent city was run by a boyar oligarchy. Some office‑holders were elected and an all‑male city assembly, the veche, had a voice in city decision‑making. The prince, on the other hand, was a hired gun, who served a limited term as commander of Novgorods army and was not permitted to live in the city. The boyars were able to maintain this happy arrangement until Ivan III, the grand prince of Moscow, came to power in 1462. Ivan sought to eliminate Novgorods special status so as to incorporate the city into his expanding kingdom. Marfa Boretskaia was among those who resisted him.

The conflict burst into warfare in 1471. Novgorods elite families were divided: some wanted to make the best deal possible with Ivan, who, they believed, would prevail eventually. Others, Boretskaia among them, argued that the city should call for help from the powerful Lithuanians. She sent her two sons, Dmitri and Fedor, and her grandson Vasili to the city assembly to argue that if the city chose a Lithuanian to be its prince, that man would bring with him an army formidable enough to defend Novgorod from Ivan. Boretskaia herself may have spoken at the meeting, although it was not customary for women to do so. We are free people of Great Novgorod, a chronicler records her as shouting, and the Grand Prince of Muscovy has caused us many offenses and has perpetrated many injustices; but we will be with Kasimir, King of Poland and Grand Prince of Lithuania.24

Although the assembly remained divided, Dmitri Boretskii and several other boyars took the field at the head of a Novgorod army. Moscow chronicles record that Ivan IIIs mother Maria urged her son to accept the challenge. When the Muscovites won, Dmitri Boretskii was captured and executed, but neither the death of her son nor the failure of the Lithuanians to give the help they had promised weakened Boretskaias resolve. Nor did the fact that Ivan made a peace offer that would have preserved some of the citys liberties. Boretskaia refused to submit even after many other Novgorod families had done so. Her son Fedor fought the grand prince again in 1476, lost, and was taken as a prisoner to Moscow. The next year Boretskaia was driven from her home by a fire that was probably intended either to kill her or to persuade her to submit. Now Ivan was finished with conciliation. He ordered the rebels to leave Novgorod forever. Boretskaia and her grandson were arrested and exiled permanently to Nizhni‑Novgorod, a city far to the east of Moscow. Nizhni‑Novgorod means Lower Novgorod. Perhaps this was Ivans idea of a parting shot. Boretskaia died there.25

Assertive noblewomen such as Boretskaia and Sophia Vitovtovna were empowered by gender ideals that prevailed in Rus society and across Europe. Each was a middle‑aged, widowed mother when she assumed leadership; each acted in defense of and through her sons. Women were supposed to fight for their children; adult sons, as we have seen, were supposed to obey their mothers. Boretskaia and Sophia also drew authority from their social rank, for female members of elite families were powerful people entitled to command the obedience of everyone lower‑ranking than they. Like Olga centuries before, Boretskaia and Sophia Vitovtovna were gritty matriarchs eager to wield their power. There were undoubtedly others whose names we do not know, peasants and princesses, who took maximum advantage of the authority and power that were apportioned to them by law, custom, and fate.

The presence of such exceptional women among the Rus testifies to the opportunities for female agency that existed within European patriarchy. Women, particularly high‑born women, exercised authority within their families and communities. In Appanage times, that authority was enhanced by expanding property rights. It bears remembering, though, that the rich and powerful were a tiny minority of Rus society. Most women were peasants, who shared with their menfolk short lives of struggle with the natural environment and the increasing demands of the ruling class.




The history of women in Russia began when Rus adventurers and Slavic peasants created a confederation that proved strong enough to survive for two centuries. Those centuries saw the establishment of patterns in womens lives that would outlast the confederation itself. Elite women managed households and played politics; merchants worked in family businesses; peasants farmed. Christianity slowly spread among them, remaking their understanding of the supernatural and fortifying the protections afforded them in law. The upheavals of Mongol conquest, plague, and political conflict cost many women their lives, without appreciably altering the gender values and norms that structured those lives.

The Rus lands were an unruly frontier by comparison with western and central Europethat is, they were characterized by vast tracts of unsettled land, minimally defined boundaries, and decentralized politics. Despite the challenges of this world, Rus women lived lives very similar to those of women in English or Saxon lands, because European gender values and mores were as functional on the frontier as in more densely populated, closely governed areas. The similarities would persist in the Muscovite period, but the differences, shaped by the consolidation of monarchical power in Muscovy and by major political, economic, religious, and intellectual change to the west, would grow.






Ivan III, grandson of Sophia Vitovtovna, conqueror of Marfa Boretskaia, great prince of Moscow, referred to himself as tsar in correspondence with foreign governments. The term was an ancient one, created in the Balkans from the Latin word Caesar. By borrowing it, Ivan declared himself heir to Romes power. It was a ridiculous assertion, for Muscovy in the late 1400s was a small, weak kingdom far from the centers of European power. Ivan and his descendants acted on his aspirations by building a government more centralized and powerful than any of its Rus predecessors. They also greatly expanded the territory they governed and fostered trade and diplomatic relations with other European nations, thereby opening Muscovy to greater contact with the outside world. And they and their nobles reduced the peasantry to serfdom and brought tens of thousands of non‑Muscovite women under Moscows rule.

For women, these centuries were a time of enduring gender ideals and wrenching disruptions. The ideals were set out most famously in The Domostroi, a compendium of advice on household management written by an anonymous government official or cleric in the mid‑sixteenth century. The Domostroi described the elite family as a harmonious mini‑kingdom, presided over by a benevolent, wise patriarch and his supportive, authoritative wife. The real lives of most women, princesses as well as peasants, were a good deal grittier than this, but none of the hardships called into question, so far as we can tell, womens notions about themselves or the customs of their daily lives. So women of the peasantry farmed, women of the towns ran the family businesses or worked for the rich, and women of the nobility managed their households and advised their men. This stability in gender arrangements was characteristic of the rest of Europe in these centuries as well.

There were subtle changes afoot among the nobility that, by the end of the seventeenth century, portended far greater changes to come. Low‑ranking military officers who lived in the countryside were frequently away on campaign, leaving their wives to take on greater responsibility for managing the estates. Richer women in the cities were doing similar work, but, unlike women in the countryside, they were spending most of their time sequestered within their households. High‑ranking Muscovite families believed that decorum required that their women hide themselves from public view, and so the wives and daughters of tsars and boyars rode around Moscow in sealed sledges and sat behind screens in church. By the 1660s, some of the privileged, aware that elite women elsewhere in Europe were freer, began to question their seclusion. Their discontent affected Kremlin politics and may have fueled a schism in the Orthodox Church.




The Muscovite period in Russian history was a time of expanding territory and government power. The kingdom grew from an estimated 300,000 square miles when Ivan III took the throne in 1462 to 5.6 million when Peter I was crowned in 1682.1 Governing this extensive territory required the rulers to enlarge the rudimentary bureaucracies they had inherited from the Appanage princes. Their government, small by todays standards, grew sufficiently to achieve the tsars goalsexpanding and defending the realm, maintaining the monarch in power, keeping the peace, collecting taxes, paying bills, and making money from trade. Few European governments of the time attempted more.

The tsars servitors consisted of nobles, who staffed the military and advised the crown, and civil servants drawn from the clergy and merchantry. To keep these men working effectively together, the monarchs had to cultivate the support of the great boyar families while also attending to the needs of the minor nobility, the church, and the richer townsfolk. Politics was the personal interplay of elite men, women, and families, Nancy Kollmann has written, and was shaped by factors such as self‑interest, personal charisma, respect for tradition, loyalty to family, and the obligations of honor and dependency.2 It was a complicated game played by everyone with power, female and male.

From the 1460s to the 1560s, the tsars managed the game quite well. Ivan III (ruled 14621505) and his son Vasili III (ruled 150533) brought under Moscows control much of the land that had been in the Kievan confederation. They also prevailed in power struggles with their own siblings, in the process instituting primogeniture to regulate succession to the throne. The economy grew at a healthy pace, particularly in the 1490s. A bloody power struggle marked the childhood of Vasilis son Ivan IV, but when the young tsar began to rule in the late 1540s, he proved to be an intelligent, hard‑working reformer.

Unfortunately Ivan spoiled many of his own accomplishments after 1560, when he earned the sobriquet the Terrible by turning rapacious and paranoid. His attacks on real and imagined enemies, domestic and foreign, decimated the ruling class, severely weakened the economy, and ushered in decades of political instability. The tsar even killed his heir apparent, an act that resulted in the crowns passing, on Ivans death in 1584, to a mentally incompetent son, Fedor. A de facto regency ensued under the able boyar Boris Godunov, but when, after the death of Fedor in 1598, Godunov made himself tsar, the social bonds that held together Muscovys diverse peoples frayed. From 1598 to 1613, a period known as the Time of Troubles, the poor rose up against the rich, factions of the rich attacked one another, and the Polish king Zygmunt, eager to take advantage of Muscovys weakness, sent troops supporting pretenders to the throne. Peace finally came when an assembly of nobles, merchants, Cossacks, and a few peasants elected a new tsar, Michael Romanov, the first link in a dynastic chain that would stretch into the twentieth century.3

Michael (ruled 161345) and his son Alexis (ruled 164576) strengthened government, modernized the military, increased trade with the rest of Europe, resumed territorial expansion, and completed the legalization of serfdom. From the late fifteenth century onward, the government had tried to limit the peasants right to leave the service of their landlords, in order to guarantee the nobles a stable labor force. It issued laws requiring that people pay their debts before moving away, then restricted the time of year that people could move. Still the peasants fled, sometimes to newly conquered territories, sometimes to the land of a noble who had made them a better offer than their current overlord. The governments efforts to tie the peasants down culminated in the Ulozhenie of 1649, a law code that included provisions binding peasants to the estates on which they resided for the rest of their lives. Their descendants were to inherit this bondage. Limitations were also put on the peasants property rights and access to the court system. Monarchs across Eastern Europe were following the same course in the seventeenth century, decreeing serfdom at the behest of their nobilities even as the institution was fading away in Western Europe. Because the Ulozhenie ratified an enserfment that already existed de facto for most peasants, it did little to change their everyday lives. That would happen in the eighteenth century, when the landlords began to assert greater control over the people who worked their lands.


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