Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

How a Many-Winged Eagle


In almost all respects Basil's reign was like that of his father. Indeed, there was little difference between the Russian grand princes of Moscow. From John Money-bag  to John the Terrible they were all alike in their cold, stem, passionless faces, in their selfish, unchivalrous, unscrupulous way of heaping up wealth, in their cruelty to their subjects and their families.

Ivan the Great had brought Novgorod into subjection, but Pskof was spared for a little, It was now the turn of My Lord Pskof the Great. The men of Pskof were involved in a quarrel with the royal lieutenant, whom they charged with having come contrary to law, and with showing wanton cruelty to the people. Basil, having heard of the disorder, came to Novgorod to hold court and summoned before him the magistrates of Pskof. He heard their complaints, and his anger was kindled against them; he had them seized and thrown into prison. They humbled themselves before him, and he sent word to them:—

"Ye deserve prison and disgrace, but the sovereign is ready to show mercy if ye obey his will: unhang the Council bell and let the Council cease henceforth. And the sovereign himself wishes to come to Pskof and worship in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. And if ye obey his will your sovereign will have mercy and not seize your land. But if ye accept not his terms then your sovereign will do the deed as God inspires him, and Christian blood will flow."

The magistrates and the chief nobles of Pskof replied,—

"At the sovereign's terms we beat the forehead;" and they kissed the cross that they would serve Basil, his children, and his grandchildren till the end of the world.

A merchant of Pskof, on his way to Novgorod, heard the news; he left his goods on the road and galloped back to tell his fellow-townsmen what their magistrates had done, and "on the men of Pskof there fell fear and trembling and anguish; their throats grew dry by reason of their sorrow, and their lips parched. Many times, the Germans had come against them," says their chronicle, "but never before had there been such grief."

The bell of the Council was set ringing, and some cried, "Let us raise the shield against the Grand Prince! Let us close the gates of the city!" but the wiser ones saw how idle it was to resist since the nobles were on the other side. They sent to Basil, in Novgorod, a messenger, who burst into tears and said,—

"O Gosudar, be gracious to thine ancient inheritance for we, thy orphan children, were before and are now always dependent upon thee, and we did not think to resist thee. God and thou are the masters of this thine inheritance, and of us thy slaves."

Basil sent them his scribe Dalmatof, who repeated the conditions of pardon, and stood before the people waiting for their reply, and the people beat their foreheads upon the ground, and could speak never a word, because their sobs and tears choked them. It was only the infants at the breast who shed no tears." At last they cried,—

"Envoy of the Grand Prince, give us till to-morrow; we will take counsel and decide." And again the sobs broke forth, for "how should not their eyes have filled with scalding tears, and how could their hearts fail to be torn up by the roots?" asks the chronicle. Next morning the people met in council for the last time, and gave their answer to Dalmatof:—

"In our annals it is written that our fathers and our fore-fathers kissed the cross to the Grand Prince, their proprietor, who dwelt in Moscow, and swore that we of Pskof should serve him and never turn aside to Lithuania nor the Germans. For should we turn to Lithuania or the Germans, or be rebels to the Grand Prince, then the wrath of God would come upon us,—famine, fire, floods, and the inroad of the pagans. And the vow which the Grand Prince the proprietor took to us was the same, and the penalty the same if he broke it. Now thy inheritance, the city of Pskof, and we and the bell are in the hands of God and the Prince, and we have no wish to renounce the ancient oath and bring bloodshed upon our heads, and we have no wish to raise the shield against the Grand Prince nor shut the gates of the city. And if our proprietor the Grand Prince wishes to visit his inheritance, we are heartily glad to welcome him, lest he destroy us in the end."

Then Dalmatof had the great bell, the symbol of their independence, taken down from the tower of Trinity Church, and carried by night to the Grand Prince in Novgorod, and Basil himself came to Pskof and posted his men in the citadel, a thousand Muscovites and five hundred Novgorod artillerymen. He transplanted to Moscow three hundred boyars with their wives and children, and filled their places with as many families from the ten cities of Moscow; and thus in place of the refined and kindly manners of the men of Pskof were introduced those of the Muscovites, which are more debased in every respect, "for there was always much integrity, candor, and simplicity in the dealings of the men of Pskof."

"Alas," cries the annalist, "glorious city of Pskof! why this lamentation and tears? How can I but weep and lament? An eagle, a many-winged eagle with lion's claws, has swooped down upon me; he has taken captive my three cedars of Lebanon—my beauty, my riches, my children. Our land is a wilderness, our city destroyed, our commerce brought to naught. Our brothers have been carried away to a place where our fathers never dwelt, nor our grandfathers, nor our great-grandfathers."

Thus vanished the last spark of popular liberty in Russia.

Only two princes in all Russia were now in any wise independent. These Basil quickly brought under his hand. The Prince of Riazan escaped into Lithuania, and his rich domain was added to Moscow. Prince Basil Shemiakin of Severia was invited to Moscow, and at first honorably entertained. Suddenly Basil threw him into prison on a charge of treason, and took possession of his country, rich in fortresses and towns, fertile fields and wide forests. One of the Grand Prince's jesters had hinted at the fall of the last independent prince; he went through the streets of Moscow swinging a broom, and replying to all questions "that the Grand Prince's dominions were not yet cleaned, and that now was the fitting time to sweep all garbage out of the land." Basil also took pains that his nephew and his brothers should not cross his path. Dimitri, who was according to Western laws the true heir to the throne, died in prison. His brother Simon tried to escape to Lithuania, but was brought back, and pardoned only at the prayer of the Metropolitan.

Thus Basil strengthened his empire.