This website is part of The New York Public Library's Online Exhibition Archive. For current classes, programs, and exhibitions, please visit
Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825
1453 Through the Reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) The Time of Troubles to the First Romanovs (1598-1682) Peter the Great and His Legacy (1682-1762) The Age of Catherine the Great (1762-1801) The Reign of Emperor Alexander I (1801-1825)


Explore this Section:

From the Fall of Constantinople to the Reign of Ivan the Terrible: A Summary of Russian History
Russia Symbol Introduction
Russia Symbol Prior to 1453
Russia Symbol The Period of Mongol Invasion and Rule, 1237–1480
Russia Symbol Muscovy Emerges as a Power
Russia Symbol 1453–1584: Moscow Becomes the "Third Rome"
Russia Symbol Ivan IV Descends into Madness
From the Fall of Constantinople to the Reign of Ivan the Terrible: A Summary of World History
World Symbol
World Symbol
Special Features

Russia's Globalization:
A Key

Events marked Russia Symbol are specific to Muscovy/Russia's internal development.
Those marked World Symbol are important world historical or cultural events.
Engagement Symbol indicates specific points of sociocultural or military engagement between Muscovy/Russia and foreign powers or individuals.



 World Symbol      Eurasia

Persian Poetic Glory
  Persian Poetic Glory
NYPL, Spencer Collection

Before the founding of the Mongol Empire by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, the area from Russia to the Pacific was inhabited by many tribes, principalities, and states of various races. Genghis Khan (r. 1206–27) first conquered North China in 1215, and West Asia in 1220, but it was his grandsons who completed the conquests of China and carried out that of Southern Rus'. In China, Khubilay established the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty in China in 1280. In the territories of Kievan Rus', and encompassing principalities to the north such as Moscow, Batu founded the Khanate of Kipchak, known to Europeans as the Golden Horde. Islamicized under the Khan Uzbek (fl. ca. 1317), the Horde ruled Russia from 1237 to 1480. The Horde ultimately tore itself apart with internal strife, and Russia broke the hold of the "Tatar yoke" (Tatar was the name the Russians used generically for the Mongols).

After Slavic Russia broke the hold of the Turkic Golden Horde, no one controlled the many tribes, races, and states in Central Asia and Siberia. The area was a power vacuum, and beginning in the late 16th century, Muscovy pushed its sphere of control eastward and southward.

Exotic West Asia
  Exotic West Asia
NYPL, Slavic and Baltic Division

Russia's engagement with West Asia – the area that encompasses modern-day India, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan), and Turkey – began well before 1453. No single political or cultural change after Russia's conquest by the Mongols exerted a greater impact on Russia than a clash that occurred quite outside Muscovy's own lands. In 1453, a vigorous new power in Anatolia, the Ottoman Turks, under the dynamic leadership of Sultan Mehmet II (r. 1444–46 and 1451–81), known as the Conqueror, used cannons and legions of disciplined troops to breach the walls and capture Christian Constantinople. This event set in motion a series of major changes in relations between West Asia and other regions. Russian Orthodox Christianity already related directly to the religion of Constantinople. Before the 15th-century penetration by those Asian horsemen, Greek Constantinople helped buffer from encroachments the emerging Slavic principalities – Muscovy and others – that became known as Russia. Now, with the Ottoman Turks' onslaught on Constantinople, Russian security, economy, and culture felt the pressure of powerful forces from West Asia that persisted for at least 200 years.

A Sultan Captures the European Imagination
  A Sultan Captures the European Imagination
NYPL, Spencer Collection

The Turks’ principal ambition was expansion westward into Christian Europe, and eastward and southward into the Muslim Middle East. Their greatest sovereign, Sultan Süleyman I, “the Magnificent” (r. 1520–66), added such cities as Belgrade, Budapest, and Baghdad to the list of his possessions. On the European front, the Turkish advance stopped before Vienna in 1529, while a similar stalemate occurred in eastern Anatolia and western Iran. Nonetheless, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was considered the mightiest power on earth, and Istanbul was a famous metropolis, combining its past glory as the capital of Orthodox Christianity with a newly assumed greatness as the center of Orthodox Islam. By the time of Süleyman the Magnificent, the Ottomans were ruling a vast and rich empire whose Asian and African possessions stretched from the Persian Gulf and the Caucasus to Egypt and North Africa, while its European territory included Greece, Serbia, Hungary, and Rumania. European envoys and merchants flocked to Istanbul, Alexandria, and other Ottoman emporia to see and purchase the sophisticated and exotic spices and textiles that had been brought from India, Africa, or the Far East. Visitors from such places as Venice, the Habsburg Empire, and France often returned with lively descriptions of Istanbul and other parts of Turkey, and artists produced marvelous portraits of the Ottoman capital.

Among the visitors to the Ottoman Empire were envoys from Russia. The tsars, no less than other Europeans, coveted the same Oriental and Turkish articles of commerce, and they may even have had an edge over the rest of Europe by being able to offer the sultans coveted luxury items such as furs, amber, and walrus and narwhal ivory. In 1514, Tsar Vasilii III (r.1505–33) sent an envoy to Selim I (1512–20) proposing a treaty of friendship and requesting that Russian merchants be allowed to trade in the sultan’s domains. Selim responded positively, and sent his emissary, Kemal Bey (fl. 16th century), to Moscow. Other embassies followed, and trade flourished. The most active points of contact and exchange were Kefe in the Crimea and Azov at the mouth of the Don River.

A Persian Woman
  A Persian Woman
NYPL, Slavic and Baltic Division

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Ivan III and his grandson Ivan IV, "the Terrible" (r. 1533–84), Muscovites with visions of power to emancipate themselves from foreign domination, carried their people outward into territories and cultural confrontations until then scarcely known to them. Ivan IV, especially, largely ignored the potent Ottoman Turks under his contemporary, Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66), and engaged himself in active diplomacy, trade, and exchange, especially with Safavid Persia and Shaybanid Central Asia. He, and later leaders, fascinated with the exoticism of West Asia: they treasured its ornaments and weapons, and imitated its costumes and manners.

A half century after the fall of Constantinople, another Muslim dynasty emerged on the world stage: the Safavid dynasty founded in Persia by Shah Ismail (1501–24). Tales of the splendor of the Safavid court held its Muscovite counterpart in awe, and Ivan was eager to establish trade ties. Persia also presented a formidable challenge to further expansion south to the Caspian, and east into West Asia.

By the end of the 16th century, separate Muslim empires in West Asia had coalesced and conquered extensive territories. The Ottomans had advanced to the very gates of Vienna. Meanwhile, Humanist thought and learning, coupled with the disintegration of European religious unity, and the competition for overseas colonization and resources were transforming most of western and northern Europe culturally, politically, and technologically. Muscovy, on the other hand, remained largely aloof from the foment outside its borders. Events of the late 16th – early 17th centuries, however, would compel the Tsars of Muscovy to pursue greater contact with northern and southern neighbors.