The first Romanovs

Statue in Kiev of Bohdan Khmelnytsky

Michael (1613-45)

Michael's accession ended the Time of Troubles, but some loose ends had to be tied up. The rebel Cossack leader, Zarutskii, was defeated and central control reestablished in Astrakhan and the lower Volga region.
In February 1617, Sweden finally agreed in the Treaty of Stolbovo to withdraw from Novgorod, but she retained all the Baltic coastline.
After further intermittent fighting with Poland, Russia ceded Smolensk and lands in Western Russia in the Treaty of Deulino (1618).
The Treaty of Deulino also led to the return of Michael's father, Filaret (Philaret) Romanov (who had been imprisoned by the Poles). Filaret soon became Patriarch of the Russian church. He was far more intelligent and strong-willed than his son, and effectively controlled government until his death in 1633.


In 1632, Russia attacked Poland to try and regain Smolensk and the western lands. But their army performed poorly and Russia was attacked simultaneously from the south by the Crimean Tatars. The Russians were forced (February 1634) to accept an armistice that let Poland retain Smolensk.

Russia's real enemy was the Crimean Tatars who repeatedly raided southern Russia seizing slaves and plundering property. Throughout the sixteenth century and during the first half of the seventeenth century, many thousands of Russians were seized, enslaved, and sold in the slave-markets of the Ottoman empire. In 1637, the Cossacks (who held the front line against Tatar incursions) seized the Turkish fortress of Azov. In 1641 the Turks (overlords of the Tatar khanates) launched a counterattack and bullied the Russians into abandoning the Cossacks. The Zemsky sobor had no stomach for the costs of war, and Michael's finances were still in a parlous state. Russia did nothing to retaliate as the Turks encouraged the Tatars to raid still more boldly in 1643 and 1644.


"The long columns of captives wending their way across the steppe into slavery were the most eloquent testimony to Russia's continued inability, despite thirty years of slow recovery, to safeguard her essential security" (Keep)


Alexis (1645-76)

Alexis  (Aleksey Mikhaylovich) was only sixteen when he acceded to the throne. Real power was held by the boyar Boris Morozov, who largely controlled government even after popular demonstrations in 1648 led to his formal dismissal.
Morozov encouraged Alexis to admire the West, but Alexis limited Westernization to the upper-class elite. He tried to bring the army up to modern Western standards and encouraged commerce - especially when he could profit personally from it. He introduced ballet at his court. The Tsar was also extremely pious; he spent hours at Church services and frequently fasted.
Morozov attempted to increase government revenues by heavy taxes on tobacco and salt. The salt levy was so unpopular that it was withdrawn in 1647, but prices remained high and Moscow revolted in June 1648.
To appease the crowds, Alexis executed two of his advisors, and Morozov fled to a monastery. Alexis also called a zemsky sobor. This instituted a new legal code, the Ulozheniye of 1649. The Ulozheniye codified existing law, granted the service nobility rights, and made taxation more equitable, but it also formally tied serfs to the land.
In the 1650s, the government also attempted to raise money by debasing the coinage. The replacement of silver coins with copper caused inflation and economic dislocation. The "copper rebellion" of 1662 was one expression of popular discontent.
In 1670 Stenka (Stepan) Razin, a Cossack hetman (leader) from the Upper Don region, who had successfully raided Russian and Persian settlements since 1667, raised an army and marched on Moscow, determined to purge the Tsar's court of greedy boyars. His 7,000 Cossacks were joined by many peasants, and numbered about 20,000 by the time it reached Simbirsk. But the ill-trained and ill-equipped rabble were no match for troops trained in Western European warfare. They were easily defeated (October 1670) and Razin fled.

Razin on his way to execution

Razin was captured by rival Cossacks and sent to Moscow (April 1671) where he was tortured and executed in Red Square (June 1671).



In the the early seventeenth century the Ukraine was largely under the control of Poland-Lithuania. It was largely peopled by Cossacks. They spoke their own dialect (sometimes called Ruthenian), and followed their own customs and culture in small quasi-democratic, self-governing communities. Poland hoped to make the unruly Cossacks more controllable by giving noble status to Cossack leaders while enserfing the poorer Cossacks.
Like Russians they were Orthodox in religion, but Poland wanted to bring Ukraine into the Catholic Church. They tried to do this by introducing the Uniate Church, which was Orthodox in its rituals and employed a Slavonic liturgy, but which accepted the primacy of the Pope.
The attempt to Catholicize and enserf the Cossacks resulted in unrest from 1624 onwards, culminating in the great rebellion led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595-1657) (Polish Bohdan Chmielnicki , Russian Bogdan Khmelnitsky) in 1648.
Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a nobleman from Chigrin, originally cooperated with the Poles, but after a dispute with them fled (1647) to the Zaporozhian Cossacks. With the help of Crimean Tatars he attacked Polish forces. Many Ukrainian peasants, townsfolk and Orthodox priests joined his rebellion. After encountering defeat at the Battle of Beresteczko (1651) (resulting in part from the fact that the Tatars turned coats and abandoned the Cossacks) Khmelnytsky turned to Russia for help.



In the Pereyaslav Agreement (1654) the Cossack rada (council) agreed to submit to Russian rule in exchange for help against the Poles.
Russia invaded Poland (retaking Smolensk in October 1654) and thirteen years of intermittent warfare followed. Russia and Poland each gained and lost control of the Ukraine during this time. In 1657, Khmelnytsky died and there followed a period of anarchy and internal conflict known in Ukrainian history as "The Ruin."


The Russo-Polish Truce of Andrusovo (1667) divided the Ukraine at the Dnieper river, giving the eastern part (including Kiev) to Russia  and the western to Poland.


Russia's control of the Ukraine was soon challenged by Turkey. But in the long-term the absorption of the Ukraine into the Russian state was very important. Not only was it a fertile and productive region, but also it was far more Westernized than most of Russia and thus helped Russia proceed with modernization.

Patriarch Nikon

Nikon and the Schism


Learning had never been of great importance in the Russian Orthodox church - ritual was. However, traditional Russian liturgy and rites had grown ever further away from those of the rest of the Orthodox communion. An Orthodox revival centered on Kiev had begun, and in 1616 the Patriarch Dionysius had tried to bring some of its reforms to Russia. He met fierce opposition from traditionalists who believed that the Russian church was right, and that all the other Orthodox churches had been corrupted by Catholic and Islamic influences.
Tsar Alexis was also interested in reform and during the early 1650s invited scholars from Kiev, the metropolitan of Nazareth, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and the former patriarch of Constantinople to visit him at court. Most importantly, Alexis made Nikon patriarch of Moscow in 1652.
Nikon (1605-81) (originally Nikita Minin) was a forceful personality; born a peasant, he rose through the ranks of the Russian Church, and impressed Alexis mightily. Nikon was determined to assert the authority of his office and be (like Filaret before him) co-ruler of Russia.
Nikon was also a convinced reformer. From 1653 onwards he tried to introduce ceremonial reforms that would bring Russian liturgy and ceremonial in line with the Greek Orthodox Church of Constantinople.


The vital questions at issue in the dispute between the reformers and the Old Believers included: the use of two or three fingers in making the sign of the cross; the correct spelling of the name of Jesus; whether religious processions  should move towards or against the sun; should the exclamation alleluia! be made two or three times.


Alexis backed Nikon's reforms but grew tired of Nikon's power plays. When in 1658, Nikon made a spectacular resignation threat, Alexis accepted it. Nikon tried to back-pedal but was finally deposed by an assembly of churchmen in 1666-67. Nikon was exiled to a monastery.

The same council, however, endorsed Nikon's reforms, and anathematized the opponents of the changes, whose numbers were growing steadily. The state joined in penalizing these "Old Believers" (starovertsy) - up to 20,000 of whom (inspired by millenarian fervor) burnt themselves to death in their churches rather than abandon the old rituals.


A few attempted resistance - the monks of Solovetsky were besieged by the Tsar's troops from 1668 to 1676 before finally surrendering.


The Old Believers' most eloquent spokesman was the archpriest Avvakum. His autobiography gave voice to the passionate commitment to Russian tradition that inspired the movement. He was burnt at the stake in 1682.


"O you teachers of Christendom, Rome fell away long ago and lies prostrate, and the Poles fell in the like ruin with her, being to the end the enemies of the Christian. And among you Orthodoxy is of mongrel breed; and no wonder ---if by the violence of the Turkish Mohmut [Mohammed] you have become impotent, and henceforth it is you who should come to us to learn" (Avvakum.)


[Despite persecution the Old Believers survived on the fringes of Russian society. In 1971, a council of the Russian Orthodox Church finally reversed the anathemas of 1665 and permitted the old rites.]


Fedor III (1676-82)

Fedor III (Fyodor Alekseyevich b. 1661) was too young and too ill to accomplish much himself, and others controlled policy.
One achievement of the reign was the final abolition of the mestnichestvo  system in 1682. The tsar was no longer constrained by its rules, but many boyars clung to its memory to preserve their status.  


(Not all offspring shown)

Fedor III had a younger brother Ivan - like himself the son of Mary Miloslavskaia and like himself a sickly child. He also had a younger half-brother, Peter, the son of Alexis' second wife Nathalie (Natalya Kirillovna Naryshkina.) When Fedor died childless in 1682, the two boyar families (Miloslavsky and Naryshkin) jockeyed to place their own candidate on the throne.
Initially, the Naryshkin party triumphed, having Peter declared Tsar in April 1682. But then the Milolavsky family, led by Sophia, Ivan's sister, organized a coup amongst the Moscow garrison, murdered leading Naryshkins and had Ivan V proclaimed senior Tsar.  


Peter & Ivan

Sophia (Sofya Alekseyevna) then became regent, and made her lover, Vasilii Golitsyn, her chief advisor. Golitsyn was eager to improve ties with the West, and negotiated a peace treaty with Poland (1686) confirming the Truce of Andrusov. He improved commercial relations with Sweden and England, and joined the Holy League against Turkey. Unfortunately, the campaigns against the Crimean Tatars failed entirely.
These defeats helped strengthen Peter and the Naryshkins, so Sophia tried to act preemptively and stage another coup (August 1689.) This time most of the soldiers (streltsy) failed to support Sophia. Sophia was sent to a nunnery and Peter regained power.
In practice, his mother Nathalie (Natalya Kirillovna Naryshkina) and uncle (Lev) in association with the Patriarch of Moscow (Ioakim) ran affairs until 1694 when Peter himself took power.


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