The Evolution of the Russian Aristocracy
Internal consolidation accompanied outward expansion of the state. By the fifteenth century, the rulers of Muscovy considered the entire Russian territory their collective property. Various semi-independent princes still claimed specific territories, but Ivan III forced the lesser princes to acknowledge the grand prince of Muscovy and his descendants as unquestioned rulers with control over military, judicial, and foreign affairs.
Gradually, the Muscovite ruler emerged as a powerful, autocratic ruler, a tsar. By assuming that title, the Muscovite prince underscored that he was a major ruler or emperor on a par with the emperor of the Byzantine Empire or the Mongol khan. Indeed, after Ivan III's marriage to Sophia Paleologue, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, the Muscovite court adopted Byzantine terms, rituals, titles, and emblems such as the double-headed eagle. At first, the term autocrat
connoted only the literal meaning of an independent ruler, but in the reign of Ivan IV (r. 1533-84) it came to mean unlimited rule. Ivan IV was crowned tsar and thus was recognized, at least by the Orthodox Church, as emperor. An Orthodox monk had claimed that, once Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Muscovite tsar was the only legitimate Orthodox ruler and that Moscow was the Third Rome because it was the final successor to Rome and Constantinople, the centers of Christianity in earlier periods. That concept was to resonate in the self-image of Russians in future centuries.