The Great Russian Emperor Who Rescued 60,000 Christians from Slavery to Muslims

Their freedom, and the security of Russia's future, depended on the Tsar's valiant conquest of Kazan.



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One of Russia's greatest emperors, Tsar Ivan IV, also known as Ivan Grozny, was a devout Christian who built many churches, including the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral on Moscow's Red Square. Often mistranslated as "Ivan the Terrible", a better rendition of his name would be “Ivan the Awe-Inspiring” or “Ivan the Awesome”. His contemporaries considered his name to be great and impressive, in the sense of striking fear into the hearts of Russia’s enemies. In 1552, he went into battle against hostile Islamic forces, successfully rescuing over 60,000 Christians from slavery in Kazan.

By the end of the 1400s, the Muslim stronghold of Kazan had pursued an aggressive policy towards Russia, closing the Volga trade route for Russian merchants, making constant raids, devastating settlements, and taking innocent Russians as prisoners. After decades of suffering at the hands of these hostile invaders, medieval Russia decisively sought to secure peace for its borders.

The ancient Christian stronghold of Constantinople had fallen to the Muslims just a century earlier, and Moscow dared not risk a similar fate. Kazan could not be permitted to continue its brutal raids, nor could the Tatars there be allowed to unite with the Turks and intensify the threat. The time had come to act. For Russia, this was a crucial case of national self-defense.

Tsar Ivan IV commanding the troops

Initially, Tsar Ivan led two military operations against Kazan over two consecutive winters, but these campaigns were unsuccessful, in part due to severe weather conditions. Not about to give up, the good emperor strengthened his resolve, and set the stage for a decisive victory.

First, he organized a military blockade of all the waterways leading to the Kazan Khanate, stopping the most important paths for supplies flowing in and out of Kazan. Second, he orchestrated one of the most impressive feats of military construction in history, in close proximity to the city of Kazan, at the mouth of the Sviyaga River, building the entire fortress city of Sviyazhsk in a single month!

The rapid appearance of an impressive fortress struck awe into the hearts of all, both friend and foe. In addition to being a valuable military resource, it also revealed the vast power of the Russian emperor. In preparation for this great spectacle, back in the winter of 1550/51, all the necessary components of the future fortress had been cut down in the Uglich forests. In the spring, they had been disassembled, and the pieces were carefully numbered. Then they were rafted down the Volga, right to the place of construction. Four weeks later, a section of unpopulated wilderness was transformed into the location of a formidible Russian fortress.

Tsar Ivan took the kidnapping of Christians very seriously. He gave a stern order, decreeing that anyone caught with a Christian prisoner would be executed. Predictably, this put a damper on the slave trade in the area. Even before the city of Kazan was conquered, thousands of Christian slaves were released during this time. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Christian slaves still remained within the city, awaiting their freedom.

Tsar Ivan IV, Emperor of All Russia

A large and well-armed army was assembled for the campaign. For the Russian emperor and his entourage, the Kazan campaign had not only political significance, but also religious - it was a campaign of Orthodox Christians against the Muslim infidels. In the summer of 1552, the Russian army, led by Tsar Ivan, set out from Moscow and went to Kazan. It was a strong fortress of that time, enclosed by high wooden walls with fortifications. On both sides, the city was protected by hard-to-reach rivers, with another deep moat. In August, the siege of Kazan began, which turned out to be long and difficult.

Despite the active resistance of the Tatars, the Russian troops outnumbered and outnumbered the artillery. They used battle towers, siege weapons, and mines. And as a result of an explosion, Kazan's primary source of water was destroyed. Soon an epidemic began in the city. The Tatars made sorties and tried to attack the Russian troops, but to no avail.

First, Tsar Ivan tried to hold peace negotiations: he suggested that the citizens of Kazan rely on the will of the sovereign, then he would forgive them. But they refused. This was the beginning of preparations for the assault - the defenses of the fortress were blown up, walls, bridges, and gates were set on fire, and cannons were fired incessantly. On October 2, 1552, the troops of Tsar Ivan launched an assault on the city. As a result of fierce street fighting, the capital of the Kazan Khanate fell. Not a single one of its defenders remained alive in the city, because Tsar Ivan ordered that all armed men be killed, and only women and children be taken prisoner. The fate of Kazan was decided.

A few days later, the Russian army marched back to Moscow, leaving a garrison in Kazan. As a result of this campaign, the Kazan Khanate was liquidated, and the Middle Volga region became a part of Russia.

Tsar Ivan IV conquering Kazan in 1552

One of the emperor's great accomplishments in the campaign was the destruction of Kazan's main mosque, and its replacement with a beautiful Orthodox church. The story is reminiscent of St. Amphiliochius, one of the great saints of the early Church.

As related in the Prologue of Ohrid, this saint personally begged Theodosius the Great to expel all the Arians from every city in the empire, but the emperor did not heed him. (Arians then, like Muslims now, respected Jesus, but did not acknowledge Him as God.)

A few days later, St. Amphilochius came before the emperor again. When the bishop was led into the reception chamber, the emperor was sitting on his throne, and on his right sat his son Arcadius, whom Theodosius had taken as his co-emperor. Entering the chamber, St. Amphilochius bowed to Emperor Theodosius but paid no attention to Arcadius, the emperor’s son, as if he were not there. Greatly enraged at this, Emperor Theodosius ordered that Amphilochius be immediately expelled from the court.

The saint then said to the emperor: “Do you see, O Emperor, how you do not tolerate disrespect to your son? So too, God the Father does not tolerate disrespect to His Son, and is disgusted with the corruptness of those who blaspheme Him and is angered at all those adherents of that cursed (Arian) heresy.” Hearing this, the emperor then understood why Amphilochius had not given honor to his son, and was amazed at his wisdom and daring.

Arians denied the deity of Christ, and so St. Amphiliochius wanted to drive them out of every city. No doubt he would have rejoiced to see Tsar Ivan IV driving a similar group out of Kazan, taking their place of false worship and turning it into rubble. In the spirit of this holy saint, the great Russian emperor brought a heavy blow to Islam's stranglehold over Kazan, replacing the mosque with a glorious new Orthodox church.

The Annunciation Cathedral in Kazan, built during the reign of Tsar Ivan IV

The Annunciation Cathedral is the oldest surviving building inside the Kazan kremlin. Immediately after the conquest of Kazan, Tsar Ivan ordered a wooden church dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary to be built near to where the khan previously had his palace. Three years later, in 1555, a decision was made to replace the wooden church with a stone cathedral, and 80 stonemasons were brought to Kazan to work on it. It was completed in 1562, with the work being overseen by Postnik Yakovlev, who is believed to be the chief architect of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

Far greater than the architectural improvement of Kazan, was the freedom and safety brought to the people. The Russian land became much safer, the borders were expanded, and numerous innocent Christians were freed from bondage. When the city was liberated, at least 60,000 Orthodox Christian slaves were freed from their Muslim slavemasters. By some accounts, the number may have been as high as 100,000. They owed their freedom to Tsar Ivan IV. Never again would they be subjected to forced servitude in Kazan.

Source: Fr. Joe’s Newsletter - Moving to Russia



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