In 1613 Muscovy ended a period of political and economic hardship by naming as tsar Mikhail Romanov (r. 1613–45), whose family would rule Muscovy and then Russia for the next 300 years. The immediate task of the new dynasty was to restore order. Fortunately for Muscovy, its major enemies, Poland and Sweden, were engaged in a bitter conflict with each other, which provided Muscovy the opportunity to make peace with Sweden in 1617 and to sign a truce with Poland in 1619. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the city of Smolensk from Poland in 1632, Muscovy made peace with Poland in 1634. Polish king Wladyslaw IV, whose father and predecessor Sigismund III had manipulated his nominal selection as tsar of Muscovy during the Time of Troubles, renounced all claims to the title as a condition of the peace treaty. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

After a series of weak rulers, Peter I (the Great, r. 1682–1725) emerged at the end of the seventeenth century as a powerful force for change. In a series of wars, political reforms, and extensive contacts with the West, Peter laid the foundation of the Russian Empire as a world power open to foreign cultural influences. The eighteenth century ended with another powerful monarch, Catherine II (the Great, r. 1762–96), who further expanded the empire and attempted political and social reform. By the first half of the nineteenth century, Russia was one of the most influential countries in Europe. However, Russia did not share the advances of the Industrial Revolution, and the survival of serfdom as the basis of Russian agriculture further hindered social and economic progress in this period. **

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. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

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. *

Boris Godonov and the False Dimitri

Ivan's remaining son Fedor Ivanovich (Fyodor I ) became tsar. Fyodor I (ruled 1584-1598) was a weak leader and mentally deficient. Perhaps the most important event of Fedor's reign was the proclamation of the patriarchate of Moscow in 1589. The creation of the patriarchate climaxed the evolution of a separate and totally independent Russian Orthodox Church.

Fyodor I was manipulated by his brother-in-law and advisor Boris Godonov, a descendant of a 14th-century Tatar chief who converted to Christianity. Fyodor died childless, bringing an end the Rurik line. Before he died he handed over power to Boris Godonov, who convened a zemskiy sobor , a national assembly of boyars, church officials, and commoners, which proclaimed him tsar, although various boyar factions refused to recognize the decision.

Boris Godonov (ruled 1598-1605) is the subject a famous ballet, opera and poem. He ruled behind the scenes when Fyodor was tsar and he ruled outright as tsar for seven years after Fyodor died. Godonov was an able leader. He consolidated Russia's territory but his rule was marked by drought, famine, rules that bound the serfs to their land, and a plague that killed half a million people in Moscow. Godonov died in 1605.

Widespread crop failures caused a famine between 1601 and 1603, and during the ensuing discontent, a man emerged who claimed to be Dmitriy, Ivan IV's son who had died in 1591. This pretender to the throne, who came to be known as the first False Dmitriy, gained support in Poland and marched to Moscow, gathering followers among the boyars and other elements as he went. Historians speculate that Godunov would have weathered this crisis, but he died in 1605. As a result, the first False Dmitriy entered Moscow and was crowned tsar that year, following the murder of Tsar Fedor II, Godunov's son. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

"False Dimitri" ruled from 1605 to 1606. Russians were overjoyed by the prospect of the return of the Rurik line. When it soon discovered that Dimitri was an imposter he was murdered in a popular revolt. Afterwards other "sons" of Ivan appeared but they all were dismissed.

Time of Troubles

In a period known as the Time of Troubles (1606-13), Russia fell into anarchy, civil war, tribal fighting, intervention by the Swedish and Polish armies, and attacks by Cossacks form the south. With no other choices, Moscow opened its gates when the Polish army appeared in 1610 and forced the Russians to accept the son of a Polish king, Vasily Shuysky (ruled 1606-10), as their tsar—the False Dimitri. He was challenged by another False Dimitri and eventually removed by the same Boyars who placed him in power to begin with.

At the heart of the trouble was a conflict between the Boyars (landowners) and the tsarist government and attempts by Poland and Sweden to ally themselves with Boyars to take over the tsarist government. A Russian guerrilla army, organized by the Church and supported by Cossacks, gathered in the countryside and eventually fought their way into Moscow and ousted the Poles.

After the exposure of the False Dimitri, Muscovy entered a period of continuous chaos. The Time of Troubles included a civil war in which a struggle over the throne was complicated by the machinations of rival boyar factions, the intervention of regional powers Poland and Sweden, and intense popular discontent. The first False Dmitriy and his Polish garrison were overthrown, and a boyar, Vasiliy Shuyskiy, was proclaimed tsar in 1606. In his attempt to retain the throne, Shuyskiy allied himself with the Swedes. A second False Dmitriy, allied with the Poles, appeared. In 1610 that heir apparent was proclaimed tsar, and the Poles occupied Moscow. The Polish presence led to a patriotic revival among the Russians, and a new army, financed by northern merchants and blessed by the Orthodox Church, drove the Poles out. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Muscovy was in chaos for more than a decade, but the institution of the autocracy remained intact. Despite the tsar's persecution of the boyars, the townspeople's dissatisfaction, and the gradual enserfment of the peasantry, efforts at restricting the power of the tsar were only halfhearted. Finding no institutional alternative to the autocracy, discontented Russians rallied behind various pretenders to the throne. During that period, the goal of political activity was to gain influence over the sitting autocrat or to place one's own candidate on the throne. The boyars fought among themselves, the lower classes revolted blindly, and foreign armies occupied the Kremlin in Moscow, prompting many to accept tsarist absolutism as a necessary means to restoring order and unity in Muscovy.

Early Romanovs

In 1613, after the Poles and false Dimitri’s were thrown out, a zemskiy sobor (assembly) met and chose a new tsar: 17-year-old Michael Romanov, a boyar who was a distant relative of the first wife of Ivan the Terrible.

Michael (Mikhail) Romanov (ruled 1613-45) unified Russia and established the Romanov line. The Romanovs ruled Russia for more than three centuries (from 1613 to 1917) until Nicholas II was forced to abdicate during the Bolshevik Revolution. Michael Romanov was succeeded by Alexey (ruled 1645-76) and Fyodor III (ruled 1676-82).

During much of the Romanov period French was the court language and tsara had absolute power. They made laws through decree and picked and chose their minister and did what ever they pleased. The early Romanovs were weak rulers. Under Mikhail, state affairs were in the hands of the tsar's father, Filaret, who in 1619 became patriarch of the Orthodox Church. Mikhail's son Aleksey (r. 1645-76) relied on a boyar, Boris Morozov, to run his government. Morozov abused his position by exploiting the populace, and in 1648 Aleksey dismissed him in the wake of a popular uprising in Moscow. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Boyars, Serfs and Cossacks in the 17th Century

The autocracy survived the Time of Troubles and the rule of weak or corrupt tsars because of the strength of the government's central bureaucracy. Government functionaries continued to serve, regardless of the ruler's legitimacy or the boyar faction controlling the throne. In the seventeenth century, the bureaucracy expanded dramatically. The number of government departments (prikazy ; sing., prikaz ) increased from twenty-two in 1613 to eighty by mid-century. Although the departments often had overlapping and conflicting jurisdictions, the central government, through provincial governors, was able to control and regulate all social groups, as well as trade, manufacturing, and even the Orthodox Church.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The comprehensive legal code introduced in 1649 illustrates the extent of state control over Russian society. By that time, the boyars had largely merged with the elite bureaucracy, who were obligatory servitors of the state, to form a new nobility, the dvoryanstvo . The state required service from both the old and the new nobility, primarily in the military. In return, they received land and peasants. In the preceding century, the state had gradually curtailed peasants' rights to move from one landlord to another; the 1649 code officially attached peasants to their domicile. *

The state fully sanctioned serfdom, and runaway peasants became state fugitives. Landlords had complete power over their peasants and bought, sold, traded, and mortgaged them. Peasants living on state-owned land, however, were not considered serfs. They were organized into communes, which were responsible for taxes and other obligations. Like serfs, however, state peasants were attached to the land they farmed. Middle-class urban tradesmen and craftsmen were assessed taxes, and, like the serfs, they were forbidden to change residence. All segments of the population were subject to military levy and to special taxes. By chaining much of Muscovite society to specific domiciles, the legal code of 1649 curtailed movement and subordinated the people to the interests of the state. *

Under this code, increased state taxes and regulations exacerbated the social discontent that had been simmering since the Time of Troubles. In the 1650s and 1660s, the number of peasant escapes increased dramatically. A favorite refuge was the Don River region, domain of the Don Cossacks. A major uprising occurred in the Volga region in 1670 and 1671. Stenka Razin, a Cossack who was from the Don River region, led a revolt that drew together wealthy Cossacks who were well established in the region and escaped serfs seeking free land. The unexpected uprising swept up the Volga River valley and even threatened Moscow. Tsarist troops finally defeated the rebels after they had occupied major cities along the Volga in an operation whose panache captured the imaginations of later generations of Russians. Razin was publicly tortured and executed. *

Expansion of 17th Century Russia

Muscovy continued its territorial growth through the seventeenth century. In the southwest, it acquired eastern Ukraine, which had been under Polish rule. The Ukrainian Cossacks, warriors organized in military formations, lived in the frontier areas bordering Poland, the Tatar lands, and Muscovy. Although they had served in the Polish army as mercenaries, the Ukrainian Cossacks remained fiercely independent and staged a number of uprisings against the Poles. In 1648 most of Ukrainian society joined the Cossacks in a revolt because of the political, social, religious, and ethnic oppression suffered under Polish rule. After the Ukrainians had thrown off Polish rule, they needed military help to maintain their position. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1654 the Ukrainian leader, Bogdan Khmel'nitskiy (Bohdan Khmel'nyts'kyy), offered to place Ukraine under the protection of the Muscovite tsar, Aleksey I, rather than under the Polish king. Aleksey's acceptance of this offer, which was ratified in the Treaty of Pereyaslavl', led to a protracted war between Poland and Muscovy. The Treaty of Andrusovo, which ended the war in 1667, split Ukraine along the Dnepr River, reuniting the western sector with Poland and leaving the eastern sector self-governing under the suzerainty of the tsar. *

In the east, Muscovy had obtained western Siberia in the sixteenth century. From this base, merchants, traders, and explorers pushed eastward from the Ob' River to the Yenisey River, then to the Lena River. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Muscovites had reached the Amur River and the outskirts of the Chinese Empire. After a period of conflict with the Manchu Dynasty, Muscovy made peace with China in 1689. By the Treaty of Nerchinsk, Muscovy ceded its claims to the Amur Valley, but it gained access to the region east of Lake Baikal and the trade route to Beijing. Peace with China consolidated the initial breakthrough to the Pacific that had been made in the middle of the century. *

Westernization in 17th Century Russia

Muscovy's southwestern expansion, particularly its incorporation of eastern Ukraine, had unintended consequences. Most Ukrainians were Orthodox, but their close contact with the Roman Catholic Polish Counter-Reformation also brought them Western intellectual currents. Through Kiev, Muscovy gained links to Polish and Central European influences and to the wider Orthodox world. Although the Ukrainian link stimulated creativity in many areas, it also undermined traditional Russian religious practices and culture. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Russian Orthodox Church discovered that its isolation from Constantinople had caused variations to creep into its liturgical books and practices. The Russian Orthodox patriarch, Nikon, was determined to bring the Russian texts back into conformity with the Greek originals. But Nikon encountered fierce opposition among the many Russians who viewed the corrections as improper foreign intrusions, or perhaps the work of the devil. When the Orthodox Church forced Nikon's reforms, a schism resulted in 1667. Those who did not accept the reforms came to be called the Old Believers (starovery ); they were officially pronounced heretics and were persecuted by the church and the state. The chief opposition figure, the archpriest Avvakum, was burned at the stake. The split subsequently became permanent, and many merchants and peasants joined the Old Believers. *

The tsar's court also felt the impact of Ukraine and the West. Kiev was a major transmitter of new ideas and insight through the famed scholarly academy that Metropolitan Mogila (Mohyla) founded there in 1631. Among the results of this infusion of ideas into Muscovy were baroque architecture, literature, and icon painting. Other more direct channels to the West opened as international trade increased and more foreigners came to Muscovy. The tsar's court was interested in the West's more advanced technology, particularly when military applications were involved. By the end of the seventeenth century, Ukrainian, Polish, and West European penetration had undermined the Muscovite cultural synthesis--at least among the elite--and had prepared the way for an even more radical transformation. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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