At the beginning of the seventeenth century
Russia covered vast tracts of land, but were sparsely inhabited. Poland
covered about 375,000 square miles (modern Poland has an area of about 120,000
square miles). Muscovite Russia expanded rapidly - tripling its size during the
sixteenth century to about 2 million square miles. Russia seized lands in the south
and east from the
Tartars - the Khanates of Astrakhan, Kazan and Sibir.
In comparison with Western Europe, Poland and
Russia were thinly populated, and both saw reductions early in the
century. Poland's population fell by about a million (c. 3.2 to c. 2.25
million) between 1578 and 1662.
Russia suffered a serious famine
1602-3. The late 1590s and early 1600s were a particularly bad phase
of the "little
ice age" that afflicted all Europe - the winters of exceptional
severity that it produced, impacted Russia even worse than areas with milder climates.
Furthermore, the poor crops coincided with an increase in the taxes and
exactions of government and landlords, so many peasants fled their lands.
Large areas with few people gave government
problems. One solution was to delegate power to local nobles, another
was rigid centralization; Poland opted for the former, Russia for the
latter. The Russian tsars came to wield a power as despotic as the
Turkish sultans, and far less limited by law or custom than that of any
Western European monarch.
Russia: Fedor I and Boris Godunov
Fedor I (1557-98) (Theodore - or Fyodor/ Fedor - Ivanovich) was the son of Ivan the
Terrible. Ivan IV was a powerful personality who had exercised
autocratic authority and introduced many reforms into government. He had
also terrorized his subjects, especially the senior nobles or boyars,
and murdered his talented son Ivan (1581).
Fedor was feebleminded, and the real power in
government was held by Boris Godunov (1551?-1605) whose
sister, Irene (Irina), married Fedor. Boris, who was descended from a
Russified Mongolian family, was illiterate but very wealthy and very
talented at court intrigue.
One success of Godunov's rule was the
establishment of the Russian patriarchate. Russia had been converted
by Greek Orthodox missionaries and was technically subject to the
Patriarch of Constantinople. From 1448 onward the Russian Church
governed itself in ecclesiastical matters (i.e. it was
autocephalous - it had its own head) but only in 1589 did Godunov persuade the patriarch
of Constantinople to recognize his close friend, Job (Iov), the Metropolitan of Moscow,
The recognition of the Russian patriarch increased Godunov's prestige
and the Church's status, especially as it instituted a number of new new bishoprics.
Like Ivan the Terrible, Godunov wanted to limit
the power of the great noble families, the boyars. To do
this he tried to create a service nobility -
- dependent on central government because they held
their estates only if they served the Tsar as soldiers or
administrators. The estate granted in exchange for service was
known as a pomestie; the holder of a pomestie was a
pomeshchik (pl. pomeshchiki.)
The government needed to ensure that the service
nobility's land would be tilled; it also wanted peasants to pay taxes to
support the costs of military expansion. To achieve this a series of
edicts forbad the peasants to leave the land. The enserfment of the
Russian peasantry took place over a long period but by the
mid-seventeenth century it extended to almost all areas but Siberia
and the North of Russia. The condition of serfs varied across Russia
but they had few rights against their masters and were only better off
than slaves in that they could not be sold (except with the land on which they
Unsurprisingly, peasants tried to flee these
conditions. Many joined the Cossacks (from the
Turkic kazak - free man.) Cossacks were originally Tatars who
had been granted rights by Russia in exchange for defending Russia's
southern border. They lived in military, quasi-democratic communities
and their numbers were swollen by peasants escaping from serfdom in
Poland-Lithuania as well as from Russia.
Godunov was able to control the boyars and insist
that they fulfilled service obligations, but the 200 or so families
remained very powerful. The Tsar's powers over boyars were
customarily limited by the mestnichestvo system. This ranked
boyar families according to genealogical precedence - when the
Tsar wanted to appoint someone to an administrative post or military
command, he had to chose the candidate from the oldest family, not
the best qualified. The system not only meant that incompetents were
placed in important jobs, it also caused endless quarrels amongst
boyar families, all of whom wanted to interpret the complicated
rules to their own advantage. The Tsars also tried to manipulate the
rules to give themselves greater freedom; however, it was only in 1682 that
the mestnichestvo system was finally abolished.
In 1598, Fedor died childless. With his death
ended the Rurik dynasty which had ruled Muscovy since the ninth
century. Fedor's younger half-brother Dmitrii (Dimitri) had died under suspicious
circumstances in 1591. When Boris Godunov convened a special
zemskii sobor (representative assembly) and had it elect him Tsar,
suspicion began to grow that he might have had a hand in Dmitrii's
1598-1613: The Time of Troubles (Smutnoe
Boris Godunov's reign began with a desperate
famine. The harvest failed in 1601, 1602, and largely in 1603. Over
100,000 people died of malnutrition in Moscow alone.|
|Rumors began to fly that God was punishing Russia
for Godunov's usurpation of the throne, and at this moment (so the traditional account goes) a plausible
young ex-monk (Gregory Otrepiev; Grigorii or Grishka Otrep'ev) popped up in Lithuania, claiming that he
was Dmitrii and had miraculously escaped death at Godunov's hands (more recently the identification of the False Dmitrii as Otrepiev has been questioned.)
A number of Polish and Lithuanian aristocrats (interested in weakening Russia)
backed Dmitrii. The boyars - bloodily
purged by Godunov in 1601 - may also have secretly given Dmitrii some
In October 1604, the False Dmitrii, supported by
various Polish and Cossack mercenaries and adventurers, invaded
Russia. The discontented populace welcomed him, and Boris Godunov died
suddenly (April 1605) just when military victory over the False Dmitrii seemed
imminent. In May 1605, senior soldiers of Fedor II (Godunov's son)
rebelled and went over to Dmitrii. The Muscovites then also rose, and
arrested Fedor II and his mother (they were later strangled). (The
true) Dmitrii's godfather took charge of the city.
Dmitrii entered Moscow in triumph in June 1605 and
was crowned Tsar, 21 July 1605.
Dmitrii's relatively informal ways shocked some
traditional Russians. He did not always surround himself with a crowd
of courtiers and boyars when going out; he did not spend hours
every day at Orthodox church services; and he freely associated with
Catholics and Poles. His bitter enemy the boyar Vasilii (Basil)
Shuiskii responded by spreading rumors that Dmitrii was a foreign
puppet, but Dmitrii had significant support among other
boyars, including the Romanovs and his "mother's" family (i.e. the
family of the true Dmitrii's mother,) the Nagoi
17 May 1606, a
contingent of Vasilii Shuiskii's armed supporters attacked the Kremlin and assassinated
Dmitrii. At the same
time Shuiskii had heralds tell the city that the Poles (hundreds of
whom were in the city to celebrate Dmitrii's marriage to a Polish
aristocrat) were responsible for the assassination. The Muscovites
killed about 400 Poles.|
|Vasilii Ivanovich Shuiskii promptly had himself
proclaimed Tsar, and was crowned 1 June 1606.
2. Tsar Vasilii Shuiskii
Shuiskii had displayed Dmitrii's naked, mutilated
body in Red Square for three days. Nonetheless, rumors soon began to
fly that the True Dmitrii had once again miraculously escaped
death and would return.
An acquaintance of the first false Dmitrii, named Mikhail
Molchanov, decided that the time was ripe for Dmitrii's resurrection.
He slipped away to Poland-Lithuania and an ally of his, Grigorii
Shakhovskoi, governor of Putivl in Ukraine, announced Dmitrii's
return. Much of southern Russia proclaimed its loyalty to Dmitrii, and
Vasilii was unable to establish control there.
Dmitrii (really Molchanov) dared not yet return to Russia or
show himself too publicly in Poland, as he bore no physical
resemblance to the first false Dmitri. Instead he used Dmitri's
official seal to commission Ivan Bolotnikov, a member of an
impoverished pomeshchik family, to command his armed forces. At the
same time, Istoma Paskov, another minor pomeshchik, raised an army in
Cossacks and soldiers from the southern frontier
formed the center of Dmitrii's army, but as they advanced towards
Moscow, towns rebelled and joined the cause as did many gentry and
In October 1606, the two rebel armies laid siege
to Moscow, but Shuiskii took advantage of the shaky morale caused by
Dmitrii's failure to join his troops, and bribed Paskov and other
officers to change sides. In December 1606, Shuiskii's army was able to
drive Bolotnikov from the gates of Moscow.
In 1607 a band of Terek Cossacks, who wanted
a pretext for raiding the lower Volga area, decided to create
their own pretender to the throne. A young Cossack apprentice,
Ilia Korovin (the son of a cobbler) had visited Moscow so they
decided he could play the role of Tsarevich Petr (Peter) - son
of Fedor I. Fedor had no son, but oral history had invented
one, and Petr's mentors were soon able to concoct a story about
how he had escaped the clutches of the evil Boris Godunov. Petr
raised an army and was accepted by Dmitrii's supporters as his
heir. The cruelty of Petr and his Cossacks undermined support
for the rebel cause.
During 1607 Vasilii Shuiskii's forces made progress,
inflicting a defeat on the rebels at the Battle of Vosma and laying
siege to their main camp at Tula.
|In late 1607 yet another pretender emerged -
the "second false Dmitrii" or the "brigand of Tushino". Mikhail Molchanov
looked nothing like Dmitrii, but Bolotnikov's agents found a
passable look-alike in Belorussia and trained him to play the
role. He entered Russia in May 1607, and support for the rebel
cause immediately picked up. By late 1608 more than half Russia
acknowledged him as Tsar. Molchanov became Molchanov again, returned to
Russia, and joined Dmitrii's court.
In October 1607 Tula surrendered. Tsarevich
Petr and Ivan Bolotnikov were imprisoned. Petr was repeatedly
tortured until he confessed to his humble origins, and then hanged. Bolotnikov
was banished and then secretly blinded and drowned.|
3. The Final Phase
From 1609, foreign intervention by
Poles fundamentally changed the nature of Russia's civil war. In
February 1609 Vasilii made a deal with
Charles IX of Sweden granting him territory on the Baltic in
exchange for military assistance.
Sigismund III of Poland (bitter enemy of Charles IX) responded by
invading Russia and attempting to seize the vital fortress of
A few of Dmitrii's boyar supporters agreed (February 1610) to acknowledge Sigismund's
Ladislaus as Tsar in exchange for
On 17 July 1610 demonstrators in Red Square (egged
on by boyars tired of Vasilii) demanded the Tsar's deposition.
He was arrested, beaten up and forced to become a monk.
A council of seven boyars was chosen to
rule; its first action (August) was to accept Ladislaus as Tsar. This
was unpopular enough, but then Sigismund suddenly annouced that he
would be Tsar himself, and arrested Vasilii Golitsyn and
Romanov, two important boyars who refused to accept this change.
Polish troops occupied Moscow.
In December 1610 the second false Dmitrii was
murdered by the captain of his bodyguard. Russia now had no Tsar - real
or false - but fortuitously this created an opportunity for Russians to
ally against foreign intervention, whichever Tsar they had previously
In March 1611 Moscow rose up against the Poles,
who burnt much of the city to the ground in the course of suppressing the unrest.
Smolensk finally fell to the Poles (June 1611) but the Russians still
continually harried Polish supply routes.
Vasilii had promised the fortress of Korela to
Charles IX of Sweden, but its garrison refused to hand it over. A
Swedish army invaded northern Russia and seized Korela in March 1611.
A third false Dmitrii appeared in 1611-12.
The Swedes tried to make a deal with the new impostor, but he
refused. He briefly attracted some Cossack support, but he
was captured (May 1612) taken in chains to Moscow and hanged.
Russian patriotism found its expression in an
unlikely duo - Kuzma Minin, a butcher of Nizhnii Novgorod, and
Prince Pozharskii, a modest, unassuming, incorruptible
nobleman. Pozharskii's poorly armed but highly motivated army took
Moscow from the Poles, October 1612.
Pozharskii and Minin immediately convened a zemskii sobor
(a representative body) to elect a new tsar. On 21 February 1613, it
chose Mikhail Romanov. He was crowned 21 July 1613.
Mikhail (Michael) Fyodorovich Romanov, a descendant of Ivan
IV's first wife, was only sixteen years old when elected. A dim
reactionary, he hurried to return power to the boyars -
especially to the Romanovs and their in-laws.
The Time of Troubles severely damaged the towns, trade,
industry, and economy of Russia.