(RUSSIA, to 1700 – continued)

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RUSSIA, to 1700 (4 of 5)

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The Romanovs to Peter the Great

The time of troubles left much of Russia in ruins.  Financially the country was broke. Moscow and other towns had been destroyed by fire. The Romanov tsar from 1613, Michael, struggled in his first few years to restore order. In 1617, Sweden's King Gustavus II, returned to Russia territory around Novgorod in exchange of assurances from Moscow that it would not expand into the Baltic Sea. In 1618, Poland signed a treaty with Moscow that provided a break in hostilities. The Poles still held that Vladislav was Moscow's legitimate monarch, and they still held the town of Smolensk.

In preparation for more war with Poland, Michael began to reconstruct his army, purchasing foreign mercenaries and covering his increased expenses with more taxation. With order re-established in much of Russia, merchants from various countries arrived, and customs duties on trade benefited the state treasury. Trade through the port of Archangel was to double in the coming half century.

Poland's King Sigismund died unexpectedly in April 1632, followed by political instability in that country. Moscow was eager to seize the opportunity against Poland, and for Moscow its armament program became more urgent. Moscow purchased cannon and other military equipment from the Dutch.

Poland was weak and divided: half Polish and the other half Lithuanians, Russians, Jews and Germans. The Polish king was elected by a council of nobility rather than a dynasty, and the king and his government had no power to tax. Nobles disliked the idea of paying taxes to the central government, and Poland's king did nothing that the nobility opposed. Poland's nobility was sovereign over vast territories and drew wealth from exporting grain and timber. Lacking unity, Poland had little success against Moscow. The war between Poland and Moscow fought in the years 1632-34 was concluded with Moscow failing to win back Smolensk. But Poland's new king, Vladislav IV, withdrew his claim to the throne in Moscow.

Meanwhile, Cossacks continued to defy Moscow's authority, and Moscow's war against the Islamic Tatars continued. In 1637, Cossacks seized the Turkish fortress at Azov. In 1641 an Ottoman army and navy drove the Cossacks back. The Cossacks, in turn, offered Azov to Tsar Michael, but Michael believed that his kingdom was not in good enough shape economically to war against the Ottomans, and he declined. Against the Tatars, however, Moscow built an 800-mile wall, with moats and fortresses, along a line as far south as Belgorod. The Tatars were now blocked from making their raids, saving tens of thousands of Russians from slavery and inspiring a rush by Russians to settle on the fertile lands around the area of the Oka River.

A rush to occupy other lands was also in motion. It was during Tsar Michael's reign that the Russians expanded across the southern Ural Mountains and further into the southern steppe, in conflict there with Tatars and other nomads. In 1638 Russian pioneers reached the Pacific Ocean. In 1652, (after Michael's death in 1645) they occupied the area around Lake Baikal, just north of Mongolia, and they would occupy Kamchatka Peninsula in 1696. Siberia had been sparsely populated by native hunter-gatherers, who offered little resistance to the Russians. The Russians traded with these people (much like the French, and soon the British, were trading with natives in North America). The Russians made middlemen of themselves in the fur trade in addition to taking fur pelts of their own – furs that were in demand in Europe and China. It was the opening of Siberia to Russian domination.

Tsar Alexius

In 1645, Michael was succeeded by his sixteen-year-old son, Alexius, who was to rule for thirty-one years. In January 1648, Alexius married the daughter of the aristocratic Miloslavski family whose members became active in the tsar's government. In the summer of 1648, increased taxation, robbery and corruption that arose during the influence of the Miloslavskies caused people in Moscow to rebel, and revolt spread to nearby towns and to Novgorod and Pskov. Facing insurrection and the need to curb the Miloslavskies, Alexius granted concessions to the nobles, and new laws were passed overriding the previous law that limited the hunting of a runaway to nine years. Now a noble was to hunt a runaway to the end of the runaway's life, and a noble could hold a peasant and his offspring to his land as long as he wished. Nobles were allowed to rule over their serfs as they saw fit. Military obligations by the nobility was relaxed, and the nobility were given the right to engage in urban trade, selling hand crafted goods produced by those under their charge.

In 1652 a religious crisis erupted. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Nikon, wished to return to what he thought had been its purity in previous times. Common people resisted changes in how they worshiped. They viewed Nikon as an anti-Christ. Twenty thousand of them burned themselves to death, crossing themselves with two fingers rather than the three fingers that Nikon claimed was proper, and as they burned they sang "hallelujahs." In 1667 a Church council deposed and defrocked Nikon, who went into exile in a monastery.

Since the 1650s, Russia was at war with Poland again, following Ukrainians submitting to the rule of Russia's Orthodox tsar rather than to Polish authority – the Ukrainians being Eastern Orthodox like the Russians and the Poles being Roman Catholic. The war was settled in the 1660s, with Tsar Alexius keeping the Ukraine and winning back the city of Smolensk.

Then in 1670 came the Stenka revolt – in the wake of the new and harsher laws against Russia's peasants. A commander of a band of Cossacks in the Don River region, Stephen Razin, began moving up the Volga River proclaiming freedom for common folks against tsarist officials and landlords. In town after town he was welcomed by common folks, and in town after town members of the upper classes were massacred. Razin's subordinates had similar successes in widespread areas in the hinterland. The  rebel army reached Simbirsk and grew to some 200,000 men. Poor organization and discipline in the rebel army helped forces sent by Moscow to defeat them, forces that included several regiments trained in a Western military manner. Razin and some followers escaped to the Don River area, but in the spring of 1671 he was seized by rival Cossacks, handed over to tsarist officials and publicly executed. And several months later, Astrakhan, the last center of the rebellion, surrendered.

Continuing Economic Inferiority

Russia had improved its military capability, its population had been recovering and its economy was progressing slowly. Trade was increasing. note27  In recent decades printing with movable type had been introduced in Russia. Russians had begun their own iron industry, and with it Russian capitalism had begun to grow. But in Russia, British and Dutch entrepreneurs were still playing a leading role in mining and manufacturing including light textiles and glassmaking. The Russians were without much of a merchant fleet, and Russia was still not developing a prosperous and influential middle-class. The Church was becoming increasingly annoyed by the growing number of foreigners, and, in Moscow, foreigners were obliged to live in a restricted area.

Under Alexius, Russia still lacked the kind of success in agriculture that had allowed the Dutch to advance economically. Russia's economy was still largely subsistence agriculture: the growing of rye, wheat, oats and barley and millet, using wooden and metal plows, and growing vegetables on small plots. South of Moscow cattle and horses were bred. North of Moscow timber was harvested. And some people lived by hunting and fishing. The agricultural region in the middle of Russia had a short growing season. The soil was poor, and often it rained too much. There, grass barely sustained cattle through the winter.  It took three seeds planted to produce one harvested plant, and the growers habitually practiced a downward genetic selection of their seeds, consuming their better seeds and planting their worst.


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