In late July 1514, the army of Prince Vasily III of Muscovy surrounded and soon captured the city of Smolensk, which had been under the control of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Smolensk, now seemingly so close to Russia’s capital, for a long time was actually a world of its own, with no particular ties to Muscovy. In the Middle Ages it sat between opposing influences: the prince of Muscovy and the grand duke of Lithuania both had equal claim to it, until Vasily III incorporated it into his domain.
A century later, during the Time of Troubles (the interregnum that led to major Polish incursions into Russia), after a long siege Polish troops took Smolensk away from Muscovy. Efforts to reach a peace agreement were unsuccessful, largely due to Muscovy’s inability to resign itself to the loss of Smolensk. The two sides could barely manage a truce, which was reached in 1618, only to be violated 14 years later, when Muscovy tried to recapture the city.
The boyar Mikhail Shein, who had gained renown for his heroic efforts against the Poles during the Time of Troubles (brought to an end in 1613 with the crowning of the first Romanov, Mikhail I), now advanced against them with a huge army. The campaign lasted two years and, in the end, the Russians were forced to retreat. Shein paid with his life for his failure to retake Smolensk. The tsar ordered his execution, despite all his past services to Muscovy.
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