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Time of Troubles: 1584 to Tsar Michael in 1613

On his death-bed in 1584, Ivan IV (the Terrible) appointed Boris Godunov as one of the guardians of his son and heir, Feodor. Like many sons of domineering men, Feodor was weak in will and initiative. Moreover, according to biographers, he was feeble minded. He was never more than a figurehead although 27 when becoming tsar, and a possible successor to Feodor was Ivan's son by his seventh marriage: Dmitri. In 1591 Dmitri was nine and a half, and that year he died after his throat was slit. Officials claimed that the boy had accidentally cut himself playing with a knife during an epileptic fit. Believing that Dmitri had been murdered, mobs attacked and killed Dmitri's guardians. Historians suspect that agents of Feodor's former guardian, Godunov, had murdered Dmitri. At any rate, when Feodor died in 1598, at the age of 40, Ivan's family had no heirs for the throne, and Boris Godunov was accepted as Moscow's new tsar.

Godunov had the Russian army win back the port of Narva from the Swedes, and he invited the British to trade through the port, without tolls. He tried to advance the interests of Russia's middle-class. Near Moscow, he had fortresses and towns built to check raiding by the Tatars and Finnish tribes. Tsar Godunov was the first of Moscow rulers to send young people abroad to study, and the first to allow Lutheran churches.

But despite Godunov's efforts to do well for Russia, his reign ended in disaster. Drought came in 1601, followed by famine. Packs of people roamed about the countryside searching for something to eat. People tried eating bark from trees, and it is said cannibalism appeared again. Nobles could not feed their slaves and drove them out to starve, and an army of desperate slaves harassed Moscow. Rumor spread that Godunov was a usurper and that Russia was being punished for its sins. The famine lasted until 1604, killing as many as 100,000 in Moscow and a third of Godunov's subjects.

Godunov died suddenly in 1605, in his fifties. He was succeeded by his one son, Theodor II. These were what historians call the Time of Troubles, and rebellion against Moscow authority was in motion. Someone to be known as the "False Dmitri" claimed to be Muscovy's true tsar. He and his army pushed through the Ukraine and entered Moscow in triumph. Godunov's wife and Theodor II were assassinated. Nobles were pleased to be rid of the Godunovs, and the people of Moscow were delighted, believing that another of God's miracles had rescued them from the usurpers and had brought them their true tsar.

Soon they were disappointed, as the "False Dmitri" failed to follow traditional etiquette. He did not attend church services and went about town dressed as a Pole with an entourage of Poles. The Poles were Roman Catholic and were believed by the Eastern Orthodox Russians to be heretics. In May 1606, the "False Dmitri" married a Catholic woman who brought with her from Poland more Poles. A Muscovite prince, Basil Shuisky, with allies among the nobles, overthrew and assassinated the "False Dmitri" and proclaimed that he had been an impostor. And many Muscovites were pleased again. The body of the "False Dmitri" was publicly displayed and then burned. His ashes were put into a cannon, which was fired in the direction of Poland.

Outside Moscow to the west, north and south, rebellions continued. The tsar from 1606 was Basil Shuisky. In early 1609, Tsar Shuisky sought and won help from Sweden in exchange for agreeing to an "eternal" alliance against Poland and giving up any plan to expand into Livonia. In agreement with Shuisky, 6,000 soldiers arrived from Sweden to combat rebel forces. Sigismund III of Poland was not pleased by the alliance between Sweden and Moscow and declared war on Moscow.

In Moscow in 1612, Tsar Shuisky was overthrown by a group of nobles who invited the Poles to create law and order. An army from Poland pushed into Moscow. The son of Sigismund III, Vladislav, a Roman Catholic, was installed there as tsar. The Swedes believed that if Russia were being carved up they should take a portion for themselves, and they seized the area around Novgorod. The patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Hermogen, refused to recognize the Polish tsar, and in retaliation the Catholic government let him starve to death. The traditional hostility between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians intensified, and Orthodox Russians formed an army of national liberation. The Poles were driven from Moscow in 1613, and the Russian family named Romanov seized the opportunity to fill the vacant throne.

The Romanov family was descended from a German nobleman who had migrated to Moscow in the 1300s. In the 1500s one of the Romanov daughters, Anastasia, had become Ivan IV's first wife. Her son, Theodor, had been the last tsar of Ivan’s family, the Riurikid dynasty, hence the Romanov claim to royalty. The patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Moscow was a Romanov, and he proclaimed his sixteen-year-old son Michael as tsar. A national council of nobles, called the Zemsky Sobor, elected Michael as tsar, and the Russians were relieved to have a legitimate tsar to rally around.

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