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Ivan the Terrible: 1547-1584

The grand prince Vasili dies when his son Ivan is only three. In the next few years the child is at the centre of a violent struggle between factions of boyars - Russia's landed nobility, drawn from a small number of families (about 200) who take for granted a position of influence in the council of any grand prince of Moscow.

The young Ivan's experience of the boyars shapes his subsequent determination to clip the wings of Russia's nobility by creating a strong centralized state - though this is a policy shared, admittedly, by any 16th-century monarch who has the strength to attempt it.

Ivan IV is crowned at the age of sixteen, in 1547, taking the title tsar rather than grand prince. Three weeks later he marries Anastasia, from one of the great boyar families. (Her father's name is Roman. When Anastasia's great-nephew is elected tsar, in 1613, his dynasty becomes known as the Romanovs.)

Ivan is a man of piety who rules with ferocious severity. In his old age he sends money to monasteries with a list of 3000 people for whom the monks are to pray; the names are of men he has executed. Understandably he earns the name Terrible. The Russian word grozny is closer to Awe-Inspiring, but in a reign such as this awe and terror are akin.

While strengthening the administration, Ivan lays plans to increase Russia's territory and trade. To the east his main concern is to extend the dominance of his grandfather, Ivan III, over the Tatar khans. Three separate Tatar regions are brought under control. In 1552 Ivan marches into Kazan, on the upper reaches of the Volga; four years later he annexes Astrakhan, the area through which the great river flows into the Caspian. The Volga becomes wholly Russian.

Close to the end of Ivan's reign, in 1581, the khanate of western Siberia is conquered - beginning a process of imperial expansion which, in less than 100 years, brings the Russian frontier to the Pacific.

Livonian War: 1558-1583

Ivan's policies are less successful in the west. Here his ambition is to trade with western Europe through the Baltic. Since the seizure of Novgorod in 1478, Moscow has had access to the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. But down the Baltic coast, in Livonia, there are established commercial towns and harbours. The weakness of the Teutonic Knights in the mid-16th century makes these desirable outlets seem a tempting acquisition.

In 1558 Ivan invades the region, launching the 25-year Livonian War. In spite of initial successes, it brings Russia nothing but expense and aggravation.

The war ranges Poland and Sweden against Russia, in what can be seen as an early bout in a long battle for the Baltic. When peace is finally signed - with Poland in 1582, with Sweden in 1583 - the tsar has to cede all the early gains he has made in Livonia. He even loses to Sweden some of Russia's territory on the Gulf of Finland.

Shortly before the end of this conflict, in 1581, Ivan the Terrible deals himself his own worst blow. In a family quarrel he strikes and mortally wounds his heir and favourite son, also called Ivan. As a result he is succeeded in 1584 by a somewhat inadequate younger son, Fedor I.

Boris Godunov: 1584-1605

Knowing that his son Fedor is feeble-minded, Ivan IV appoints two guardians to act as regents. One is Boris Godunov. A member of a Tatar family, whose ancestors arrived in Russia with the Golden Horde, he is given the status of boyar in 1580 when Ivan chooses Boris's sister Irina to be the bride of Fedor. So Boris is brother-in-law as well as guardian to the new tsar, when he succeeds his father in 1584.

Early in Fedor's reign there is some support for another son of Ivan's - an infant, by the name of Dimitri, born in the year of the tsar's death. His existence would be insignificant but for its provoking, some twenty years later, a trio of pretenders - the false Dimitris.

To nip rebellion in the bud, Boris Godunov exiles the infant and his mother to Uglich. There Dimitri dies at the age of seven, in 1591. Rumour has often pointed to Boris as his murderer, but there is no clear evidence of this - and the three subsequent pretenders deny even the death of the child.

During Fedor's reign Boris rules with complete confidence, as if he were himself the tsar. Towns lost to Sweden in 1583 are recovered. The new Russian presence in Siberia is strengthened. A measure to increase rural stability has less good effects; Boris denies to the peasants any right of transferring their labour from one landowner to another. He thus introduces the serfdom in Russia which prevails until 1861.

After Fedor I dies childless in 1598, Boris is elected tsar by the zemski sobor (land assembly). This council, similar to the estates general in other countries, is an innovation of Ivan IV who first summons it in 1549. In Russia there are four constituent parts, meeting separately - the church, the boyars, other landowners, and freemen from certain cities.

Although Boris is elected by the full assembly, there is opposition to him among the boyars. He has continued Ivan IV's policy of restraining their power, and he is personally resented as an upstart. As a result there is some support from the boyars, in 1604, for the first of the false Dimitris.

False Dimitris and other troubles: 1604-1613

In 1603 a minor Russian nobleman arrives in Poland and lets it be known that he is Dimitri, son of Ivan IV and the rightful heir to the throne in Moscow. He convinces almost everyone, thanks to a blend of gullibility and a Polish inclination to interfere in Russian affairs. In August 1604 he marches into Russia with an army.

The pretender has some early successes, reinforced by the reluctance of many boyars to destroy any enemy of Boris Godunov. But his real stroke of good fortune comes with the sudden death of Boris in April 1605. Two months later Boris's widow and young son are murdered. The pretender enters Moscow to general acclamation as the rightful tsar.

The false Dimitri cannot long convince Moscow's grandees, and his foreign retinue gives offence. In May 1606 he is assassinated in the Kremlin - an event followed by the butchering of some 2000 foreigners in the streets of Moscow.

In 1607 a second Dimitri emerges. This time nobody believes him, but it suits many to join his campaign. With an army of Poles, Cossacks and discontented Russians he nearly reaches Moscow in 1608 - and again in 1610, before he is murdered later in that year. A third Dimitri is acclaimed tsar in 1612 by a mob of Cossacks rampaging around Moscow. Within months he is captured and executed in the city.

This anarchy, particularly in the period from 1610 to 1613, becomes known in Russian history as the 'time of troubles'. It is an anarchy which Russia's neighbours hope to turn to their advantage.

Sigismund III of Poland has designs on the tsarist throne; in 1610 a Polish army is invited into Moscow by one Russian faction. Another faction seeks Swedish support, offering the crown to the brother of Gustavus II. In the autumn of 1612 a Russian army with Swedish sympathies advances on Moscow. The Poles in the city withdraw into the impregnable Kremlin.

This impasse finally unites the rival factions. The Poles capitulate and leave Moscow. The Russians at last agree on a national candidate for the throne.

During the troubles the 17-year-old Michael Romanov has been in hiding with his mother in a monastery near Kostroma. The young man has distinguished family connections. His great-aunt was Anastasia, first wife of Ivan the Terrible. In March 1613 a message reaches the monastery: a zemski sobor has elected Michael as tsar. It is the beginning of the Romanov dynasty.

Expansion to the east: 1613-1676

The reigns of the first two Romanov tsars (Michael 1613-45, Alexis 1645-76) are notable chiefly for the rapid expansion of Russian territory to the east. There is also one significant gain in the west, when Kiev and a large part of Ukraine is ceded by Poland - but this is largely the result of an uprising by the Cossacks in the region.

The Cossacks also play a large part in Russia's drive to the east. The pattern is for Cossack bands to press into new regions of Siberia, as yet occupied only by tribes of hunters. The Cossacks establish fortified settlements and demand tribute for Moscow from the local people.

There is nothing surprising about this to the native Siberians. The Mongols have previously been here, collecting tribute in the same way, and the tribute is now paid to Russia in the same currency - fur. The furs of Siberia become a major part of Moscow's trade with the nations of Europe.

The speed of advance across these open but inhospitable regions is astonishing. At the start of the Romanov era, in 1613, there are Russian outposts as far as the Yenisei river (1750 miles east of Moscow). The Lena river (another 1000 miles east) is reached in 1630, and the Pacific coast (750 miles further) in 1649. In the next century Vitus Bering explores the Siberian coast up into the Arctic Circle (see Bering's voyages).

From the start the Russian authorities find a secondary use for Siberia, as a place of enforced exile in appalling conditions. One of the first to suffer this very Russian punishment is the leader of the rebels in the doctrinal crisis which splits the Russian Orthodox church during the 17th century.

He is Avakkum Petrovich, whose offence is to reject the reforms introduced by Nikon, the patriarch of Moscow.

Russian Orthodoxy and the Old Believers: 1652-1667

The only major schism within Russian Orthodoxy is created almost single-handedly by an energetic monk who is appointed patriarch of Moscow and all Russia in 1652. He is Nikita Minin, who becomes known by the single name Nikon.

From early in the Romanov dynasty there has been a reform movement within the Russian church, attempting to correct the ritual wherever it has deviated over the centuries from the Greek Orthodox example. Nikon is an enthusiastic reformer, and as a close friend of the tsar (Alexis) he has almost unlimited power to insist on changes.

Many of the errors which Nikon discovers and corrects seem trivial. Russians have been crossing themselves with two fingers where they should have used three; conversely they have been singing three alleluias where they should have sung two. But by 1655 the patriarch is going further. He sets about removing from churches and homes any icons which show the holy figures in an incorrect manner.

By 1656 there is such vocal opposition to the new measures that Nikon excommunicates all who reject his reforms. But well before this he has used simpler methods to silence his opponents.

From the start of the reforms it is clear that Nikon's chief opponent is the priest Avvakum Petrovich. In 1653 Avvakum is banished to Tobolsk in Siberia. He is subsequently sent even further east, to the Lena river. It is ten years before he is recalled to Moscow.

By then the tsar has had enough of Nikon's autocratic ways and has dismissed him. But his reforms are retained, with the result that the dissidents eventually become a separate sect known as the Old Believers (Raskolniki). They themselves later split into the Popovtsi, who establish a church hierarchy of their own, and the more radical Bezpopovtsi, who survive to this day without either priests or sacraments.

The schism becomes final when a church council of 1666-7 offers no concessions, opting instead for a policy of continuing persecution.

Avvakum is sent to imprisonment in a small fort within the Arctic Circle, near Naryan-Mar. Here he spends the last fourteen years of his life writing books. They include the first Russian autobiography, entitled simply Zhitie (Life). In a racy and colourful style, which has made his book a classic of early Russian literature, Avakkum describes the battle to defend the old rites - together with the bitter experiences of the first Russian author to suffer exile in Siberia.

Boyhood of Peter the Great: 1676-1689

The death of the tsar Alexis, in 1676, is followed by a struggle between two halves of his family. His many children by his first wife include a talented daughter, Sophia, and two extremely feeble sons. The elder, Fedor, is merely sickly; the younger, Ivan, is mentally deficient.

By his second wife, Natalia Naryshkina, Alexis has a vigorous and bright child, Peter, who is only four when the tsar dies in 1676. For a few years the rivalry between the families is muted, because Fedor III is the obvious heir and is capable of ruling. But he dies, at the age of twenty, in 1682.

The unsuitability of Ivan for the throne causes a zemski sobor in Moscow to proclaim Peter as tsar. But Sophia and her relations contrive to turn an uprising by the dissatisfied household troops, the Streltsy, against the family of Peter's mother, the Naryshkin - many of whom are killed in a palace massacre.

The result is an agreement that Ivan V and Peter I shall be joint tsars, with Sophia acting as regent. Sophia sends Peter, now aged ten, out of Moscow to live with his mother in the village of Preobrazhenskoye. An important influence in the boy's life proves to be a nearby settlement where foreigners are allowed to live. He is fascinated by news of a wider world than Russia.

By 1689, when Peter is seventeen, Sophia faces the likelihood of losing her status as regent. She fosters a new plan by the Streltsy to wipe out the Naryshkin clan and with them the young tsar. This time the Naryshkin are able to foil the plot and to take control of Moscow themselves.

Sophia is confined to a convent. Peter comes into his inheritance, nominally at first as co-tsar - until his half-witted half-brother, Ivan V, dies in 1696.

Azov: 1695-1696

Peter's first military campaigns indicate vividly the character of the man. He is irked, like his predecessors, by Russia's lack of a port on any sea (except the White Sea in the north, frozen for much of the year). He selects the fortified town of Azov as a suitable target. If he can take this from the Crimean Tatars, it will give him access to the sea of Azov and thus to the Black Sea. As the Tatars are Muslim vassals of the Turks, he will also be striking a blow for Christendom.

In the summer of 1695 he leads a large Russian army to the south. For two months they besiege Azov without success. By the end of November the young tsar is back in Moscow.

Peter's reaction to this total failure is characteristic. He organizes a rapid and astonishing response, gathering some 26,000 craftsmen and labourers in and around Voronezh. This is a town in a forested region on a tributary of the river Don, which reaches the sea at Azov. During the winter of 1695-6 Peter's labourers fell trees, drag them to new timber yards, saw them into planks and assemble them into ships. The tsar, in whose childhood the pleasures of carpentry and boating have featured prominently, now toils in the yards alongside his work force.

By April two warships, four fire-ships, twenty-three galleys and many smaller boats are ready for launching.

In mid-May the tsar and his fleet set off downstream towards Azov. This time, when they reach the fortress, Russian naval power prevents Turkish relief from arriving by water. In July Azov surrenders.

This brilliant revenge for last year's failure gives Peter more ambitious ideas. He decides to visit the most powerful European nations to enlist support against the Turks. At the same time he will be able to oberve at first hand details of western technology which may be of use to Russia. The proposed expedition becomes known as the Grand Embassy.

The Grand Embassy: 1697-1698

The Grand Embassy, led by three official ambassadors and consisting of some 250 people, leaves Moscow in March 1697. Peter sometimes adopts the semi-anonymous role of Petr Mikhailhov, a Russian sailor, but often - when there are negotiations to conduct or military establishments to inspect - he admits to being the tsar.

He works for four months as a ship's carpenter in the dockyards of the Dutch East India Company at Saardam. Perhaps there he manages to preserve his disguise. But in England, where he also spends time in the dockyard at Deptford, his identity is well known. He rents the house of John Evelyn, who notes in his diary some of the Tsar's engagements in the spring of 1698.

It becomes all too evident during Peter's travels that he has no chance of putting together an alliance against Turkey. The nations of Europe are preparing for a conflict on their own territory, now seen to be inevitable, when the childless king of Spain dies.

With this established, Peter again demonstrates his flexibility and resolution. If he cannot secure his new port on the Sea of Azov, perhaps he can win a much more valuable presence on the Baltic. Russia's access to that sea is blocked by Sweden. But Sweden's Charles IX has just died, in 1697. He has been succeeded by a 15-year-old.

As soon as he is back in Moscow, in 1698, Peter begins negotiations to make peace with Turkey. While they progress, secret discussions are held between Denmark, Poland and Russia to form an alliance against Sweden.

On 8 August 1700 the message reaches Peter that peace has been concluded with Turkey (it does not even involve the return of Azov). The very next day the Russian army is given new orders - to march into Livonia, the Swedish province which lies between Russia and the Baltic. It is the beginning of Russia's involvement in the long Northern War which will leave the country transformed, twenty-one years later, into a major European power.

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