Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

Basil and Lithuania

Alexander, King of Poland, died childless and was succeeded by his brother, Sigismond. Basil was eager to be elected Prince of Lithuania, and wrote to his sister, Elena, begging her to use all her influence for his nomination. Sigismond, however, like his brother and father, united both crowns, which caused some discontent in Lithuania.

Alexander's chief favorite had been Prince Michael Glinski, a powerful noble of Tartar origin, who had served on important missions to Spain, Italy, and Austria. He was a brave and skilful general, a man of vast understanding and spirit, and so rich and ambitious that he was envied and hated by the other nobles, who ceased not to accuse him before Sigismond of harboring designs upon the throne of Lithuania. Their persecution at last became so fierce that Prince Michael wrote to Basil for aid and protection. Basil declared war. Glinski joined his forces to the army of Moscow, which again invaded the principality. The war was short, and was followed by a "perpetual peace." Sigismond confirmed Basil in his father's conquests, and gave Glinski and his friends leave to dwell in Russia.

Glinski was too ambitious to be satisfied with the results of this peace, and he constantly sought pretexts for another war. Albert, Margrave of Brandenburg, began to quarrel with his uncle and overlord, the King of Poland. The Emperor and the Master of the Teutonic Knights supported him, and many German and Livonian princes came to his aid. The chance was too good to lose. Basil was easily persuaded. He accused Sigismond of failing to exchange prisoners, of plundering the merchants of Moscow, of allowing his subjects to treat his sister Elena, Alexander's widow, with great indignity, of tempting his brother Simon to play the traitor, and finally of urging the Tartars to ravage Russia. On this plea he declared war, saying,—

As long as my horse is in condition and my sword cuts sharp there shall be neither peace nor truce with Lithuania."

The Grand Prince, with his brothers George and Dimitri, with Prince Michael Glinski and other famous captains, set forth to capture Smolensk. Six weeks they lay in front of the old city but were without the skill to take it. The Grand Prince strengthened the heart of his army with mead and beer, and the soldiers drank till midnight and then made an assault upon the walls and built great mounds of earth. All night they fought and all the next day, in the Dnieper and on the banks, but it was in vain. The attack failed, and so did a second. Afterwards Basil came back to the charge; his guns did great execution and damage to the fortress, and some of the citizens wanted to give up to the Grand Prince, while others feared the King. The chief bishop came to the bridge and beat his forehead to Basil, and begged for a truce. A fresh volley of artillery was his answer. He returned, clad in his robes and holding the cross and the sacred ikons, and escorted by the Polish lieutenant, by all the clergy, and the people, and he cried,—

"Gosudar! Grand Prince! Much Christian blood has been shed; the land of thine inheritance is laid waste. Ruin not the city, but spare it."

Basil yielded, and the citizens took the oath, though many of the nobles, feeling more at home with the elegant Poles than with the rough Russians, obtained his permission to take service with the King.

"The taking of Smolensk," says a Russian chronicler, "was a splendid field-day for Russia; for the capture of another's property can flatter only an ambitious prince, but to regain possession of one's own is always a cause of rejoicing."

Michael Glinski, disappointed in his hopes of becoming Prince of Smolensk, resolved secretly to desert the ungrateful Basil, and having obtained a promise of pardon from Sigismond he left the Grand Prince's camp by night. One of his servants betrayed him; he was taken in chains to Moscow and thrown into prison.

The Grand Prince's army, eighty thousand strong, was immediately set in marching order and came to the banks of the Dnieper. The Poles and Lithuanians, under command of the same Constantine who was captured at Vedrosha and afterwards escaped, began to cross the river by an improvised bridge, and when half of them were over the Russian commander was advised to attack them, but he was puffed up in his own conceit.

"Let us wait," said he, "until the whole army has crossed, for such is our strength that without doubt we shall be able with but little trouble either to wipe out this army or, surrounding them, to drive them like cattle to Moscow, and afterwards to take possession of all Lithuania."

When the armies got into position the Russians sounded their clarions and made the first attack. The battle raged long and furiously; many times the fortunes of the day shifted from side to side. The Russians outnumbered their foes three to one, but at last the Lithuanians, by a feigned retreat, threw the Russian van into disorder which spread through the whole host. They fled and were put to terrible slaughter, and all the chief captains were taken and distributed among the strongholds of the land.

When Basil heard of this defeat he returned in haste to Moscow and left Smolensk to defend itself as well as it might.

"Constantine celebrated the victory which he won over a people of the same religion as himself, and gave thanks to God in the Russian tongue for having destroyed the Russians."

The Emperor Maximilian, who wanted Sigismond to marry his granddaughter Bona of Milan, sent his ambassador to Basil to mediate for the King of Poland. The Austrian baron, with much difficulty, persuaded the haughty Sigismond also to send envoys to the Grand Prince, but when they declared that they had no power to treat unless Basil would give up Smolensk Basil dismissed them. The German baron, however, made a long speech, showing how all Christian Europe, except Poland and Russia, was in deepest peace, and all the kings were united by bonds of friendship or marriage to his illustrious Emperor, who wished to make common cause against the Turk, the conqueror of Damascus, Jerusalem, and Egypt.



Pope Leo X. also was anxious to have the aid of Russia in the great crusade, and proposed that Sigismond should take command of the united Christian armies, and that Basil should turn his sword against the Ottoman and rescue Constantinople, the inheritance of Sophia, his mother.

The negotiations came to nothing, but were afterwards renewed with better success by Pope Clement VII., the Emperor Charles, and his brother Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and Infanta of Spain. Basil swore to keep the truce. He took a gilt cross which hung by a silken cord and looked upon it and made the sign of the cross three times, "bowing his head each time so that his hands nearly touched the ground; then advancing nearer and moving his lips as if in prayer, he wiped his mouth with a napkin, and after spitting upon the ground he kissed the cross and touched it first to his forehead and then to each eye; then stepping back he again bowed his head and crossed himself."

When the Lithuanian ambassadors had done the same, Basil bade the mediators to report to Clement, Charles, and Ferdinand that he had done these things for the love which he bore them, and to prevent the shedding of Christian blood by wars between Russia and Poland. Nevertheless he kept Smolensk.