Sly Facts About Sophia, The Mother Of Russia

October 23, 2023 | Dancy Mason

Sly Facts About Sophia, The Mother Of Russia

Life in 15th century Russia was severe, yet Sophia Palaiologina was even tougher. The Grand Princess of Moscow didn't just prevail, she thrived...even if it necessitated maiming and utilizing harmful tactics to ascend the success ladder.

1. She Was Ruthless

Sophia Palaiologina began life as a Byzantine royal, ended as a Grand Princess of Moscow, and endured the fall of great empires and great men in her time. Yet nothing was as fearsome as Sophia herself. Cunning, ruthless, and ambitious, this 15th-century power player stopped at nothing to get to the top—and her darkest act was unforgettable.

Sophia Palaiologina

2. Her Uncle Was A Big Deal

Born in 1449, Sophia was the very definition of privileged and powerful. Just how powerful? Well, her father was the brother of the current Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI. That’s right, Sophia’s uncle was the supreme ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire. Yet this is precisely where it all started to go wrong.

Portrait of Constantine XI Palaeologus, half-length turned to the leftBritish Museum, Wikimedia Commons

3. Her Whole World Fell Apart

In 1453, ruin came into Sophia’s life for the first time. In a supreme example of “born under a bad star,” the Byzantine Empire fell to Sultan Mehmed II and the Ottomans when Sophia was still just a toddler. Just like that, the best part of her power went up in flames, and she hadn’t even been potty-trained yet.

She was also too young to realize that worse was on its way.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in whiteKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

4. Her Family Was In Danger

The Ottomans had hit the Byzantine capital of Constantinople first, but they slowly came for the lands of Sophia’s own father. Sophia’s family did all they could, but seven years after the fall of the Empire, Mehmed’s men were at their doorstep too.

Sophia, her three other siblings, and their powerful parents looked like a tasty morsel to the Ottomans, and there was only one thing left for the family to do.

Thomas Palaiologos father of Sophia PalaiologinaUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

5. She Made A Daring Escape

In these formative years of her life, Sophia learned her first brutal lesson about power. That sometimes, you have to give it up. Rather than face the invaders, Sophia’s father bundled the whole family up and fled to Corfu, seemingly giving up his claim to his lands. Yet this is where Sophia learned a second lesson—a much more cunning one.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina wearing hear jewelryKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

6. Her Father Had A Dying Dream

Sophia’s father had fled, yes, but that didn’t mean he was ready to sign it all away. In fact, he actually wanted more power. While Sophia and the rest of his family stayed in Corfu, he went over to Rome and positioned himself—with the blessing of the Pope—as the next and true heir of the Byzantine Empire.

It’s no wonder Sophia would cling to her own power tooth and nail as an adult. But all this pushing came with harrowing consequences.

Gardiki CastleRobin, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

7. She Lost Her Guiding Star

In 1642, while Sophia was still in Corfu, all this fleeing and tension caught up to the Byzantine royals. That year, her mother departed from this world, leaving her without any consistent parental figure in her life. Her father did call his children to him in Rome, where he would continue to oversee his supposed comeback. Yet fate had a darker plans.Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina  in front of horse and carriageKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

8. She Had Horrible Timing

Travel was no joke back then, and the journey to Rome was long and arduous. When Sophia and her siblings finally arrived, they got more devastating news. In the interim, her father had breathed his last, taking with him all his dreams of reclaiming the Byzantine Empire for his family. Now, for the first time, Sophia was truly alone—and there were people who wanted to use her.Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina  in carriageKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

9. The Vatican Manipulated Her

Although Sophia’s trek to Rome was fruitless when it came to a family reunion, the Papacy saw a golden opportunity. Here were four young minds—Sophia and her siblings—that they could shape, train away from their childhood Orthodoxy to the Catholic faith, and potentially marry out in advantageous matches.

For Sophia, it all happened frighteningly quickly from there.Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina  at nightKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

10. She Got A Brutal Rejection

Within the next year, Rome was selling Sophia as a bride with all they had. The results were mortifying. The first noble they approached, James II of Cyprus, was actually an illegitimate son and, some said, a usurper of his throne. All the same, when the Papacy “offered” the shady James the opportunity to make a proposal to Sophia, he turned her down.

Yes, ouch. Sadly, her luck went deeper down the drain.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina  wearing hear jewelryKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

11. She Was Jilted

Sophia just could not catch a marital break. The next year, the Pope tried again to offer Sophia as a bride, this time to Prince Caracciolo. Lo and behold, he accepted, and the two officially betrothed themselves to each other…and still, it didn’t work out. For one reason or another, the marriage didn’t take place.

So when Sophia’s next opportunity came along, Rome was frothing at the mouth to send her off. If only everyone had thought twice.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina  wearing hear jewelryKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

12. A Tragedy Became Her Opportunity

In 1467, Sophia’s destiny came knocking. That year, Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow lost his young wife, Maria of Tver. As Ivan only had one son from the union, Ivan the Young, he was in the market for another baby-maker—uh, I mean beloved bride—to help pad out his heirs. But Sophia probably should have looked closer at her prospect…

Ivan III of Russia, actor Evgeniy Tsyganov sitting on throneKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

13. Her New Life Looked Terrifying

Ivan’s late wife Maria of Tver had only been in her 20s when she perished from, reportedly, an infirmity that had haunted her most of her life. But according to other sources, the truth is much more disturbing. Some say that Maria was poisoned—by whom, no one knows. But this will give you just an inkling of the chaos of the Russian court. And that’s before we even get to Ivan himself.Ivan III and Maria of Tver's weddingUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

14. Her Suitor Had An Ego

Sophia’s potential suitor was no pushover. A militaristic, autocratic man, Ivan III was one of the first Grand Princes to use the title of Tsar, and unified an immense amount of land under the Russian banner. In other words, he was extremely used to—and very good at—getting his way whenever he wanted. Not that any of this stopped Sophia’s guardians.

Ivan III tearing the khan's letter to pieces on throne wearing a crownAleksey Kivshenko, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Was A Puppet

Despite the extremely suspicious end of Ivan’s last wife and his own personal issues, Rome was still all-in for suggesting Sophia as a new bride for the Grand Prince. For them, if she was a good little envoy for the Catholic faith, she could sway the Russian Orthodox religion over to the Papacy. What else mattered?

As for Ivan…well, his motives were far from romantic, either.

Sophia PalaiologinaKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

16. He Was In It For The Wrong Reasons

Now, all brides back then were basically chattel for men’s ambitions, but Sophia had it particularly badly. When Ivan looked at her pedigree, all he saw was her inheritance over Constantinople. A man who loved a good empire, Ivan began to think Sophia’s name could help him turn Russia into a new Rome, and began pursuing the union right back.

It was a long, lonely road from there.

Ivan III of Russia, actor Evgeniy Tsyganov in traditional clothesKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

17. Her Husband Didn’t Show Up

Being the plaything of powerful men is never fun, and no one knew that better than Sophia over the next months and years. After lengthy negotiations, Ivan sent an envoy over to Rome to marry his bride-to-be in a hasty, in-absentia ceremony in the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica.

That’s right, Ivan didn’t even make the journey over for his own wedding—not an uncommon ritual for the time, but certainly not a joyous one either. And Sophia’s ordeal was just getting started.Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina  wearing hear jewelryKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

18. She Had A Nightmarish Journey

If Sophia’s depressing wedding-by-proxy didn’t sap all the youth and romance out of her, the horrendous journey over to her new home of Moscow certainly did. Although she left in June at high summer, the lengthy distance had her arriving in the capital on a dark, dreary November day. It took her no time at all to start rebelling.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina  in front of horse and carriageKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

19. She Was No Good Little Catholic Girl

When the Vatican married Sophia off to a complete stranger, they thought they were planting an ally in the Muscovite court. Sophia soon sent them an insolent message, loud and clear. Right after her wedding, she converted back to the Orthodox religion she had grown up in. Then really rubbing it in, she refused to let one of her attendants carry the Latin cross before him when they finally reached Moscow.

It was official: Sophia had come into her own. It was also a sign of the boldness and single-mindedness that was to come.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina  wearing hear jewelryKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

20. She Married Him Instantly

Now, don’t get me wrong—Sophia should have been afraid of the Moscow court. Her predecessor had met with a mysterious end, she had few natural allies, and she knew little of the culture she was walking into. But all the same, she hit the ground running, even marrying Ivan III in an official ceremony the very same day she arrived.

As soon as she did, it seems she asked him for a very big favor.

The Marriage of Ivan III and Sophia Palaiologina, 1472Heritage Images, Getty Images

21. She Made A Scandalous Decision

At this time in the Russian court, noble wives showed off just how elite they were by…hiding themselves and almost never coming out. They spent most of their days in terems, or women’s rooms, and when they did go outside, they had their carriages covered and wore concealing clothing. As if that weren’t enough, they also couldn’t socialize with men outside of their own family.

Well, Sophia took one look at that and said “No, thanks,” getting special dispensation to live in the outside world alongside her husband. As to why Ivan said yes…take a guess.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia PalaiologinaKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

22. She Controlled Her Husband

Such was Sophia’s power and attraction, she had Ivan wrapped around her little finger—and bed sheets—almost immediately. She went on to have an incredible 11 children with him, and was almost continually pregnant for a good decade and a half. Yet that was far from the extent of her influence, and the court noticed unsettling signs.

Ivan III of Russia and Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina sitting on thrones Kinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

23. She Surprised Everyone

As Sophia settled into life in Moscow, her behavior began to alarm people. Not only did she refuse to hide herself away, and not only did she rule her husband in the bedroom, but courtiers also started to see how she—gasp—influenced Ivan in the throne room. Obviously shrewd and cunning, Sophia quickly turned into his political confidant.

And let’s just say, her tastes were…not meek.

Ivan III of Russia and Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina sitting on thronesKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

24. She Spoiled Herself

When it came to her ideas, Sophia was big, loud, and despotic. She reportedly brought gold-laden, Byzantine pomp and circumstance to the Kremlin, happily following her husband’s idea that her heritage could turn Moscow into “Third Rome”. To go along with this, she insisted that everyone follow her own ideas of strict etiquette, which meant constantly kowtowing to her.

She even began to call herself “Despoina,” a Byzantine court title meaning “Lady”. But that wasn’t all.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

25. She Hated Submission

Sophia didn’t limit herself to etiquette. She also fundamentally changed the wider dynamics in the Russian court. At the time, Moscow was losing a power struggle with the Mongolian Golden Horde, much to her husband’s chagrin, and had to make a tributary gesture each time the two nations met.

Sophia, infuriated at this act of submission, swept it away with one extremely risky move.Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

26. She Came Up With A Dangerous Solution

A Byzantine Princess and a Grand Princess of Moscow, Sophia bowed to no man or woman, and she expected Ivan III to do the same. As such, she reportedly convinced her husband to do away with this subordinate tribute, even if it meant angering the Mongols. It worked better than she could have imagined.

Within a handful of years, pushed along by this symbolic defiance, Russia was actually victorious over the Horde. But Sophia’s sheer, terrifying competence brought big problems.

Ivan III of Russia and Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina sitting on thronesKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

27. She Divided The Court In Two

If you’ll remember, Moscow already had an heir in Ivan the Young, the son from the Tsar’s first marriage. So as she grew in influence and her own sons grew up, the court began to get very nervous about the fate of the throne. Soon, one faction supported Ivan the Young, and one supported Sophia and her eldest son Vasily.

You can bet Sophia just loved that. But it wouldn’t be so easy to see Vasily to the crown.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

28. She Had Competition

Whatever the court grumblings, Ivan III made his son Ivan the Young his co-ruler in 1477, signaling his intention to crown his eldest son to everyone in his court. To be fair, at that point, Vasily wasn’t even born yet, so there wasn’t much Sophia could do. Even so, her ambitions to topple Ivan the Young grew day by day… and then she met her match.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

29. She Had One Ruinous Day

In 1483, Sophia’s worst nightmare came true. Early in that year, Ivan the Young had married Elena of Moldavia, an intelligent, sharp woman in her own right and an immediate rival for Sophia’s “Court Meddler” title. Then, just 10 months later, Elena gave birth to a son, Dmitry, securing Ivan the Young’s line with incredible speed.

It spelled Sophia’s doom.

Ivan III of Russia and Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina outsideKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

30. She Had A Sharp Fall From Grace

Suddenly, with the birth of Dmitry, Sophia went from dreams of becoming the power behind her son Vasily to the outer margins of court life. Her supporters fell away from her one by one, and Ivan the Young’s power grew day by day. To add insult to injury, Sophia’s influence over her husband and his government also plummeted—and it all led her to an extremely rash act.

Ivan Fryazin showed to Ivan III the portrait of Sophia PalaiologinaViktor Vasilievich, Wikimedia Commons

31. She took from her stepson.

For the first time in her adult life, Sophia was on the outs of power. She did not handle it well. She began to get seriously petty, and when she arranged her niece Maria’s marriage to a Russian prince, she decided the best wedding gift for the new bride was jewels that had belonged to her husband’s first wife.

Essentially, she was stealing Ivan the Young’s inheritance and giving it to her own kin. It was a small act…at first. Then it blew up in her face.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina  running at a forestKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

32. Her Revenge Backfired

Shortly after Sophia's little display of “generosity,” Ivan the Young went looking for those exact same jewels to give his wife. When he discovered the truth, chaos broke loose. Enraged, he ordered a full search for the jewels, and rather than face his wrath, Sophia’s niece and her new husband fled all the way to Lithuania in a self-imposed exile.

This may have saved their skin, but it pointed the finger right back at Sophia. Her position at court sunk even lower—but she had most certainly not learned her lesson.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

33. Her Deepest Wish Came True

Like her father before her, Sophia just could not relinquish any shred of power. She spent the next years lying in wait, watching her son Vasily grow up, and plotting her next move. Then suddenly, a seeming miracle happened: Ivan the Young fell gravely ill, possibly with gout. Sophia’s reaction, though, was surprising.

Ivan III of Russia and Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina outside in winterKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

34. She Turned Into A Caring Mother

Instead of dancing around Ivan the Young’s sickbed, Sophia contacted a doctor immediately and brought him to court with one job only: To heal the heir to the throne, even if he was her main rival. At first, it seemed like she’d backed the right horse, and the doctor promised Ivan III that he could get his son back in fighting trim. Then it all went so wrong.Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

35. Her Efforts Failed

Despite the physician’s many assurances, Ivan the Young only got sicklier as time went on. In March of 1490, the worst happened. Russia’s heir perished, making his young son Dmitry next in line to the throne. The fallout was bloody. Beside himself with grief and anger, Ivan III executed the over-confident doctor for his sins.

Yet this entire time, people might have been looking in the wrong direction entirely.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

36. She Was Hiding A Dark Secret

Time and the ravages of court life had only made Sophia shrewder, and there is evidence she was hiding an enormous secret this entire time. Sophia may have actually poisoned Ivan the Young slowly—so slowly that no one could notice or accuse her. Then, all the while, she acted desperate to “save” him.

Still, while historians can’t say for sure if Sophia was responsible for Ivan the Young’s passing, her next move exposed her as a monster.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

37. She Conspired to End the Life of a Child

Now the only person standing in her son Vasily’s path to the throne was Prince Dmitry. You can bet Sophia knew that, but she had to wait another seven years before pouncing again. This time, she looped Vasily into her machinations, and the two of them began conspiring to off the royal heir. But before she struck, she made a fatal error. 

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

38. She Sweet-Talked Her Way Out Of Execution

Even Sophia Palaiologina can make mistakes. Before she or Vasily could strike out against Dmitry or his mother Elena, they caught onto them first. The palace discovered their plot, and Sophia and Vasily were surely in danger of execution. Yet such were Sophia’s charms that in the end Ivan III merely banished them from court.

It was a gentle tap on the wrist. The real punishment for Sophia came after.

Ivan III of Russia portraitUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

39. Events Didn’t Go Her Way

Just a year after her failed plot to end Prince Dmitry’s life, Ivan III sent a message to Russia—and his now-estranged wife—that he had just the heir he needed, thank you very much. Now that Dmitry was a teenager, the Tsar crowned his grandson as his co-ruler with all the pomp and circumstance Sophia had taught the Russian court. He sent another message, too.

Ivan III of Russia black and white portraitH.F. Helmolt, Wikimedia Commons

40. They Rubbed It In

Not only did Sophia have to accept that Prince Dmitry, not her son, was co-ruler of Russia, she and Vasily didn’t even get invited to his coronation. You know, because they were still in shameful exile for their murderous plots. But if you think Sophia was down and out, well, you’ve learned nothing. She was coming back with a vengeance.

Vasili III of Russia black and white portraitAndré Thévet, Wikimedia Commons

41. She Performed An Incredible Feat

We already know that Sophia was like a dog with a bone when it came to power. Her next triumph outdid everything that came before. Somehow—we don’t know exactly how, but I would give an arm and a leg to hear the deciding conversation—Sophia convinced Ivan III to let her and Vasily back into the Moscow inner circle.

In no time at all, they came back to court. Yes, seriously, even after trying to kill the co-ruler. This was a bad idea.Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

42. She Whispered Into Her Husband’s Ear

For the first little while, Sophia played the good mother and didn’t make too much of a splash in court. Of course, that was never going to last for long. As the 16th century dawned, her old self came right back, and she began whispering once more in her husband’s ear about how their son was so much better than his grandson Dmitry.

The outcome was nearly unbelievable.

court of Ivan III of RussiaSzendrei János, Wikimedia Commons

43. She Changed The Course Of History

Sophia’s silver tongue truly knew no equal, because by 1502, Ivan III had “miraculously” completely changed his mind about having Prince Dmitry as his heir. In April of that year, he crowned Vasily as the new Grand Prince and co-ruler, giving Sophia everything she had been dreaming about for decades. Except there was a dark underbelly to this concession.Ivan III of Russia, actor Evgeniy Tsyganov sitting on throneKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

44. She Watched Her Rivals Fail

Sophia knew that everything came with a price, she just tried to stay on the right side of that ledger. Her victory in Moscow had a sinister effect. Ivan didn’t just decide to swap out Dmitry for Vasily, he also imprisoned his grandson and the boy’s mother Elena. First, they were just under house arrest, but as time went on, their destinies got more desperate.

Domnița Elena Elena of Moldavia mother of 	Dmitry IvanovichUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

45. Her Foe Perished In A Brutal Manner

While Sophia strutted through the marble halls of the Kremlin as the mother of one co-ruler and the wife of another, underneath her Dmitry and Elena were rotting. Eventually, Elena perished, still imprisoned, on January 18, 1505. She may have had hope that her son might yet escape, but Dmitry’s fate was much more tragic.

Ivan III of Russia, actor Evgeniy Tsyganov sitting on throneKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

46. Her Son Was Heartless Too

Young and healthy when he first went behind bars, Dmitry lasted until February 1509. His end reveals the disturbing truth of his final days. The former co-ruler of Russia perished likely from hunger or cold—or else because Sophia’s son Vasily ordered the guards to finally suffocate his one-time rival. Of course by then, Sophia wasn’t around to crow.

Mariya Andreeva as Sophia Palaiologina in head scarf and crownKinokompaniya Moskino, Sophia (2016)

47. She Met A Fitting End

Sophia’s ambition to see her son on the throne was so all-consuming that she herself seemed to peter out the moment it happened. Almost a year to the day that Vasily became co-ruler alongside Ivan III, Sophia passed somewhere in her mid-50s. Yet even then, her bloody legacy didn’t end there.

Katholikon of Ascension Convent (1580s), from an early 19th-century drawingUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

48. Her Sons Suffered Because Of Her

While Sophia had put her eldest son on the throne, this single-minded goal ended up spelling the doom of her other children. When Vasily became a full-blown Tsar after Ivan III passed in 1505, Sophia’s younger sons Yury and Andrey were thrust right into a harsh, paranoid spotlight.

As they matured and Vasily's life came to an end, courtiers suspected them—most likely without any true grounds—of attempting to seize the crown for themselves, and they both ultimately met their end while incarcerated. And that’s not even the most infamous part.

Andrey of StaritsaUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

49. She Had An Infamous Grandson

Sophia’s reputation today is of a cunning, ruthless Tsarina, yes, but she’s also notorious for being the grandmother of Ivan the Terrible. Even though she never met her grandson (as Vasily had him years after her demise), it is evident that the ruler inherited his grandmother's sharp, political acumen... and her inclination towards bloody revenge, given that his notorious reputation stemmed from his act of taking his own son's life.

Tsar Ivan the Terrible (1897) on a throneViktor Vasnetsov, Wikimedia Commons

50. She Was The Mother Of Russia

Love her or hate her (and, let’s be honest, most people hated her), there’s no denying that Sophia Palaiologina helped make the Russian Tsardom into what we think of today. Her Byzantine flair, spectacular betrayals, and constant drive for more power would define the Muscovite rulers to come. Still, there was nothing better than the original.

Sophia PalaiologinaSergey Nikitin, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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