A History of Russia
Chapter 1: MEDIEVAL RUSSIA
862 to 1682
This chapter covers the following topics:
The Kievan Principality
The ancestors of the Russians, the Slavs, first appear in history as a group of tribes living just south of Europe's largest swamp, the Pripet Marshes in what is now Belarus. The Greeks and Romans knew of them and called them Venedi, but no civilized explorer visited their home before the sixth century A.D., so most of what was known about the Slavs came as hearsay from the Germanic tribes living next to them. Unfortunately the Romans got their best look at the Slavs when the Germans captured them and sold them into slavery. In time, so many of these people ended up in captivity that the name Slav, which originally meant "glorious," became the root for the English word "slave."
The Slavs were a peaceful and disorganized race, who could not prosper until their more aggressive neighbors fell upon hard times. That happened in the late fifth century A.D., when the dissolution of both the Hun kingdom and the Western Roman Empire left an uncivilized vacuum in most of Europe. From their original location the Slavs expanded east until they encountered the Volga Bulgars and the Khazars, west as far as the Elbe River, and south into the Balkans, harassing the shrinking Byzantine Empire until some of them even settled in Greece. Communication broke down over such great distances, and the Slavs broke up into three smaller groups: the Western Slavs (Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks), Southern or "Yugo-Slavs" (Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Bulgarians), and the Eastern Slavs or Russians. Later on religion became another source of division: the Slovenes, Croats, and all of the Western Slavs chose Catholicism (and when they learned to write they used the Latin alphabet); most of the others chose Orthodoxy, and with it the Cyrillic alphabet, a script combining Latin, Greek, and a few new letters, invented by two missionaries who went to the Slavs in the ninth century, St. Cyril and St. Methodius. Ever since that time the Orthodox Russians and the Catholic Poles have hated each other, never getting along for any length of time.(2)
The initial push that started the Eastern Slavs down the road of civilization came from another race of barbarians--the Swedish Vikings, or Varangians. In the eighth century this group settled the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea and began exploring the rivers that came from inland. The Slav-inhabited forests were rich with wood, furs, honey, wax, amber and iron, but the resource that really attracted the Vikings was water! From the land of the Slavs came rivers flowing in every direction: north (the Volkhov and Northern Dvina) to the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean, east (the Volga) to the Caspian Sea, south (the Dnieper and the Don) to the Black Sea, and west (the Berezina, Niemen, and Western Dvina) to the Baltic. All of these streams originate in the Valdai hills, about 300 miles north of modern Smolensk; it was a small matter to sail up one river to its source, drag the boat overland a few miles, and then place it in another river to go in a different direction. The Vikings were eager to get the fabulous treasures of the Byzantine and Arab lands, and this network of rivers became an ideal highway for their dragon-ships. The Slavs could not resist these intruders, and soon their villages became conquered Varangian settlements.(3)
Rurik's successor, a kinsman named Oleg (878-912), began his reign by bringing the other Varangian-ruled city-states in Russia under his authority. Then he chose a new capital, concluding that since Byzantine gold was what the Vikings wanted most, the best place for a capital would be on a river and as close to the Black Sea as possible. That turned out to be on the banks of the Dnieper, right where the forests ended and the Ukrainian steppe began; the Slavic village there, Kiev, grew to become a splendid city. The Greeks, however, were uncooperative about trading with these newcomers, so Oleg sent an expedition to Constantinople to change their minds, consisting of 2,000 ships carrying 80,000 Vikings. When they got there they found most of the Byzantine forces out of town, fighting Arabs, Bulgars and Pechenegs elsewhere, but a chain was drawn across the harbor to keep hostile ships out. Undaunted, Oleg beached his ships a few miles away, ordered his men to make wheels and mount them on the boats, and waited for a good tailwind. The sight of such a huge fleet rolling into Constantinople's suburbs terrified the Greeks and they sued for peace; Oleg went home with a nice trade agreement and a ransom of six pounds of silver paid to each of his men. Byzantine-Russian relations were quite good after that, bringing prosperity to both countries.
A curious tale exists concerning Oleg's death. It seems that one day a sorcerer came to the prince and warned that his favorite steed would cause his death. Oleg never rode that horse again and did not even go near it, but he made sure it was well cared for. Finally the horse died in a pasture, and Oleg went to the place where its bones lay. He laughed and remarked, "So I was supposed to receive my death from this skull?" But when he stamped upon the skull a poisonous snake crawled out and fatally bit him on the foot.
The next Grand Prince of Kiev, a ward of Oleg named Igor, was killed in 945 by a tribe that resisted his tax-gathering missions.(5) His widow Olga exacted a cruel revenge on the murderous tribe, but otherwise she ruled the country well until her son Svyatoslav came of age. Later on she became Russia's first important Christian convert.
By the time Svyatoslav took the throne in 962 the Varangians had been completely assimilated into their Slavic subjects; the last syllable in his name tells the story. Svyatoslav was a formidable warrior who believed that the best defense is a good offense; in a series of campaigns he wrecked the Khazar kingdom and conquered both the Danube and Volga Bulgars, enlarging the size of the country tremendously. He went too far, however, when he decided to make Pereyaslavets, a city on the Danube, his new capital. For the Byzantine Empire that was just too close, and the Greeks combined their forces with the Danube Bulgars to inflict a sharp defeat. Svyatoslav fled back to Kiev, but before he got there he was ambushed by a Pecheneg raiding party. Most of his conquests were lost with his death.
Once Vladimir made that fateful step, he had to decide which religion was the best. Jews, Moslems and Christians were all willing to have Vladimir as a convert; the first to try it were the Khazars, who sent a delegation to teach him Judaism. When Vladimir asked why the Jews did not live in their native land, they answered, "God was angry at our forefathers and scattered us on account of our sins. Our land was given to the Christians." Vladimir, who could see no hope in a faith that exiles its own people, dismissed the Khazars.
The Volga Bulgars sent a delegation preaching the attractions of Islam, and they played right into Vladimir's natural desires when they promised that, "In the next world, Mohammed will give each man 70 fair women." But all prospects for a Moslem Russia disappeared when Vladimir learned that Moslems do not drink alcohol; he dismissed them by saying, "Drinking is the joy of the Rus. We cannot exist without that pleasure."(6) The Germans who came from the pope got the same treatment when they explained that fasting is an important part of Catholicism; Vladimir told them, "Depart hence; our fathers accepted no such principle."
The only case that impressed the Grand Prince came from the single Greek theologian who represented the Orthodox Church. He summarized both the Old and New Testaments and then held up an icon showing the Last Judgment, with the saints and sinners being separated for Heaven and Hell. If the Grand Prince wished to be with the righteous, urged the theologian, then he must be baptized. Still not entirely convinced, Vladimir sent a group of ten "good and wise men" rites of each of the four religions at first hand. Most of the worship they saw was without glory until they came to the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Overwhelmed by the incense, singing, pageantry, etc., they came back reporting that "We knew not whether we were in Heaven or on earth." Thus Russia came into the Orthodox faith.
Undoubtedly there were other reasons for Vladimir's conversion to go along with the spiritual one described above. He had his own grandmother's conversion as an example, to start with. Like the Khazars, he probably did not want to become a Catholic or a Moslem because that would have put him under the domination of the pope or the caliph. Also, the Byzantine Empire respected the strength and courage of the Varangians, and around this time the emperor, Basil II, requested Russian soldiers to help him in his wars. Vladimir responded by asking for Basil's sister, and because the Byzantines did not want to give an imperial princess in marriage to a barbarian, they said they would only do it if Vladimir was baptized. Vladimir accepted baptism, but then had to attack and take the Byzantine city of Kherson in the Crimea, when Basil tried to back out of the promise. After the marriage Byzantium and Russia treated each other as equals.
Vladimir became a fervent evangelist of the new faith for the rest of his life, tearing down the idols he had erected before. Unfortunately, after his death in 1015 the country was plunged into another bloody fratricidal war for the throne on account of Vladimir's pre-Christian lifestyle; he left behind twelve sons from different mothers who cared little for each other. The eldest, Svyatopolk, killed three brothers, Svyatoslav, Boris, and Gleb, to make his claim to the throne stick.(7) A fourth brother, Yaroslav, and he teamed up with his brother Mstislav, rebelled, and finally killed Svyatopolk in 1024. The two victors ruled the kingdom jointly until 1036, when Mstislav died and left the whole realm to Yaroslav.
The eighteen years in which Yaroslav ruled alone (1036-54) are regarded as the peak of Kievan Russian civilization. Yaroslav promoted peace by marrying a Swedish princess, giving two sisters to the monarchs of Poland and Byzantium, and marrying three daughters to the kings of Norway, Hungary, and France. The Cyrillic alphabet was introduced from Bulgaria, and within a few years the Kievan literacy rate had risen to a higher level than most of Medieval Europe; Yaroslav's daughter Anna was able to sign her name to the marriage contract while her bridegroom, Henry I of France, could only make an "X". Every manner of artisan was brought to Kiev, adding beautiful new buildings while Kiev grew into an impressive city of 80,000 people, as big as Paris was at that time. Whereas Vladimir I had been content to build a single church in Kiev, Yaroslav built churches all over the country, including the first Russian cathedrals in Kiev and Novgorod.
Most important of all, Yaroslav wrote down Russia's first law code. It is here more than anywhere else that one can see the differences between the Kievan state and more recent Russian governments. The law code of Yaroslav was the most enlightened and humane of Medieval times; there was no death penalty, and all but the most serious crimes were punished by fines (a reflection of early Russia's preoccupation with commerce). Government was formally described as a mixture of three kinds: autocracy, aristocracy, and democracy. The Grand Prince's power was limited to handling justice and defense; in all other affairs he could be vetoed by the Duma, an advisory councils of boyars, or hereditary nobles. All other free men had a voice of their own in the Veche, an assembly that met in every town to handle local affairs. All of the Veche's decisions, however, required a unanimous vote to pass, leading to violent meetings that often got nothing done.
About the same time (1060), a new Turkish tribe called the Polovtsy(8) migrated into the Ukraine, and they proved to be more savage than their Pecheneg predecessors. With the steppes no longer safe under any circumstances, trade with Byzantium dwindled to a trickle, and stopped completely when Constantinople was sacked by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Kiev could not prosper without commerce, and many Russians moved away; some went to Galicia, in the foothills of the Carpathian mts., but most went northeast to found new cities along the upper reaches of the Volga and its tributary, the Oka. Here in these cold forests, commerce was not feasible (no customers nearby), the soil was poor and it was difficult to clear off farmland. A different society developed here, one that would someday come to dominate all of Russia.
The only prince after Yaroslav that ruled a united Russian state was his grandson Vladimir Monomakh (1113-25), a former prince of Smolensk. He was the first to encourage settlement of the northeast. His son Yuri Dolgorukii (1125-57) saw Russia's future in the northeast and made low-interest loans to attract more settlers. Many new cities were founded during his reign, including Moscow (1147).
Yuri's son, Andrew Bogolubsky (1157-75), made some important changes in the government. He refused to become Grand Prince of Kiev, but instead built a new capital city, Vladimir, in the northeastern city-state of Rostov, with impressive walls and a cathedral to rival that of Kiev. Unlike the princes before him, he refused to respect the ruler of Kiev as "first among equals"; on the contrary, he attacked and looted Kiev in 1169 to show who was boss now. The Chronicle calls this the worst disaster to have befallen the Russian lands; not even the Polovtsy caused that much damage! Relations between the city-states broke down completely after that, and lawlessness became the rule.
At home Andrew eliminated the old system of checks and balances by intimidating the boyars and forbidding the Veche to meet in Vladimir; the Veche still held meetings in the former capitals--either Rostov or Suzdal--but now Andrew had taken away most of the power of his rivals by default. As Vladimir grew to become Russia's dominant city in the late 12th-early 13th centuries, the absolute monarchy that governed it became the model for Russia's tyrants in future ages.
Taking advantage of the season by crossing Russia's sizeable rivers when they were frozen, the Mongols easily eliminated their first target, the Volga Bulgar kingdom. Then they took the Russian cities, starting with Ryazan, Moscow, and Vladimir. Since there was no Russian capital at this time, every city had to be captured, and that took all of 1237 and 1238.(9) Next they descended upon the Ukrainian steppe, conquering the Polovtsy in 1239 and Kiev in 1240. 1241 saw the invaders charge into central Europe, and they defeated the combined armies of Germany, Poland and Bohemia in the battle of Liegnitz. Batu set up a new base of operations in Hungary, but before he could go any farther, he received news that his uncle, the Great Khan Ugedey(10), had died in Mongolia. Since Batu was a candidate for Genghis Khan's throne, he called off the campaign and began the 5,000-mile journey east, sparing the rest of Europe from an invasion it could not have resisted for long.(11)
The Golden Horde
Since the Mongol Empire was now too large to be effectively governed from one place, it broke up into four smaller but still formidable states during the next generation. Batu and his heirs were awarded the northwest corner of it: the Ukraine, the valley of the Volga, and western Siberia. They built a capital city named Sarai near the Volga's delta, converted to Islam, and came to be known as the Golden Horde, after the color of their tents (also sometimes called the Kipchak Khanate, after the previous tribe in the region). They chose not to rule the Russians directly, because in the forests of northern and western Europe, the mounted archers of the steppes would find both their speed and the range of their arrows reduced, putting them at a great disadvantage against the natives. Instead, they gathered tribute every year, giving one of the Russian princes a permit called a yarlyk to claim the wealth of Russia for the Khan. If the annual collection of gold and slaves did not meet the Khan's demands, the Mongols would raid the offenders to show they meant business. Any tribute gathered beyond what the Mongols called for went to the holder of the yarlyk, so the Russian princes often fought for the right of holding this "honor." Under this system the Russians learned a lot about tyranny, brutality, and inhumanity in general, and it shows in the types of governments they would establish in the future. Before 1240 the Russians were generally a friendly, trusting people; those traits do not characterize the Russians who have lived since then.
The most important effect of Lithuanian rule was the permanent ethnic division of the Eastern Slavs. The Russians in Lithuania developed cultural and linguistic differences from their brethren and became known as Byelorussians, or "White Russians."(12) Those who lived under Mongol rule became the Ukrainians or "Little Russians" of today. The Russians in the city-states along the Volga intermarried with the Finns who had inhabited the area before the twelfth century and became the "Great Russians," the group that by virtue of numbers has dominated Russia ever since.
The next important Muscovite prince was Ivan I (1328-41), nicknamed Kalita, or "Moneybag." Ivan was so good at acquiring money that the Mongols let him have the yarlyk for his entire reign; he used it to enrich Moscow greatly. As a token of respect for his efficient leadership, the Khan also gave Ivan the title of Grand Duke of Vladimir, and he looked the other way when Ivan added to it the portentous phrase "and of all Russia."
The next eight monarchs that ruled Moscow, from Simeon to Ivan IV, were all successful at enlarging the Muscovite state, never passing up an opportunity to grab some more land for Moscow. That was one reason why Moscow grew to become the most important city of modern Russia, and others are listed below:
1. Moscow's central location between the other surviving Russian city-states of the fourteenth century.
2. Muscovite princes were long-lived and more competent than their counterparts in other cities.
3. Russian princes were still following the custom of dividing their estates equally between their sons, though it had caused nothing but trouble since Kievan times. Moscow modified this practice: one son was given the lion's share of the inheritance, forcing the other sons to submit to him if they wished to keep the scraps of land left to them.
4. The support of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1300 the leader of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan of Kiev, transferred his see (headquarters) to Vladimir, but only stayed there for a few years before he decided he liked living in Moscow better. From this time on the clergy actively helped manage the state, and they used the weapon of excommunication against Moscow's enemies.
It was under the prince Dmitri Donskoy (1359-89) that Moscow became strong enough to do what was once unthinkable: fight the Mongols and win. In 1378 he stopped paying tribute, and the Mongols gathered together 200,000 troops for the usual punitive expedition. Unlike the times before this, the other Russian city-states stopped their petty bickering and helped Moscow assemble an army of 150,000, and the Church sent its blessings as well. At the battle of Kulikovo Pole (Snipe's Field), the Mongols were defeated and sent fleeing back south, but at a great cost; only 40,000 able-bodied Russians survived, and Dmitri himself was found half dead and surrounded by corpses, his armor shattered and pounded in. The victory did not bring any short-term benefits; two years later the Mongols looted Moscow and killed 24,000 people while Dmitri was away. Nevertheless, Dmitri became a national hero, and the memory of Kulikovo Pole made the Russians stop asking if the Mongol yoke can be thrown off; the new question was, "When will liberation come?"
In the time of Dmitri and his successor Vasili I (1389-1425), the Golden Horde was crippled, first by a civil war, then by a devastating invasion by Tamerlane, the terrible new conqueror of Central Asia and the Middle East. Tamerlane did not stop with the ravaging of the Golden Horde, but marched north against Moscow in 1395. He got as close as Ryazan, 150 miles away, but then suddenly turned back. Tamerlane never explained his strange behavior, but the Russians thought God was responsible: on the same day that Tamerlane ordered the retreat, a popular icon, Our Lady of Vladimir, arrived in Moscow and was paraded around the top of the city walls. This is the first of several mysterious occasions where the Russians believed that divine intervention saved them.
After this Vasili I never again paid the full tribute, but just sent the Khan "gifts" when he felt like it. The next prince, Vasili II (1425-62), reversed the roles of lord & vassal by actually putting a Mongol prince in charge of one of his cities.
1462 to 1505
The son of Vasili II, Ivan III, was a cautious man who "always took two bites at a cherry," preferred to let his troops go into battle without him (uncommon in the age of chivalry), and was afraid of the dark. Nevertheless, Ivan was a shrewd leader and is known to us as "Ivan the Great" for these accomplishments: the unification of Russia under Muscovite authority, the end of Mongol domination, and the transformation of the government into an absolute monarchy. These are described in more detail below.
1. Unification under Moscow: Like his ancestors, Ivan used every trick in the book to gain more land--cash purchase, inheritance, treaties signed under duress, and when all else failed, war. He started by buying Yaroslavl (1463) and Rostov (1474). He also conquered Tver (1485), and persuaded many Russian nobles in Lithuania to transfer their allegiance to Ivan; this move started the rolling back of the Polish-Lithuanian frontier. Ivan bequeathed to his son Vasili III a great nation covering 55,000 square miles, 110 times the size of the 500 sq. mi. fief that Alexander Nevsky had given Daniel more than 200 years before.
Ivan's greatest triumph was the conquest of Novgorod, the last stronghold of Kievan Russian culture. "Lord Novgorod the Great" had always been the largest Russian city-state, with colonies in Finland and even the northern Urals. A member of northern Europe's trading cartel, the Hanseatic League, Novgorod had a thriving commerce with the West. Its government, dominated by the Veche, was the most democratic one that Russia ever had; it could even, and often did, vote the prince of the city out of office. Ivan's covetous eye upon Novgorod's wealth, combined with large numbers of Muscovites moving to Novgorod's lands in the Urals, brought a war in 1478. When Novgorod fell Ivan dissolved the Veche, carried the Veche's bell (a symbol of liberty) off to Moscow, and deported the Novgorod boyars to remote areas, starting a practice for removing troublemakers that tsars and communist officials have used ever since.
2. Liberation from the Mongols: In 1480 Mongol and Muscovite armies met on opposite sides of the Ugra River. The Mongol leader, Ahmed Khan, was even more cautious than Ivan III, so for weeks they watched each other, neither willing to cross the river and make the first move. Finally the troops got restless and both sides went home. This curious stalemate, sometimes called "the non-battle of the Ugra," marks the end of Mongol domination over Russia. At this time the Golden Horde was starting to break up; it collapsed in 1502, to leave in its wake the Khanates of Kazan & Astrakhan (both on the Volga), Crimea, and Sibir (in western Siberia). The Crimean khanate was the strongest, and some raids from it would be a problem as late as the eighteenth century, but never again did the Russians pay tribute to a foreign power.
3. The establishment of absolute monarchy: Ivan's wife was Sophia Paleologus, a niece of the last Byzantine emperor, who had died fighting the Turks when they took Constantinople in 1453. This marriage made Ivan heir to whatever was left from Byzantium. He made the two-headed eagle, a symbol of the Byzantine emperors, the emblem of Moscow's rulers, and gave himself a new title, Tsar, meaning "Caesar" (Czar in Polish). The Church helped by making some contributions of its own. Among them was a remarkable genealogy invented for Ivan that traced his lineage (correctly) back to the founding Varangian father, Rurik--but then went on to trace Rurik's forefathers back through 15 fictitious generations to a brother of Caesar Augustus, "proving" that Ivan III was the heir of Rome & Byzantium not only by marriage, but by blood as well.
Life under an autocratic Russia became more oppressive as time went on. The first to feel it were the boyars, who lost most of their privileges to Ivan III and his successors. Those who suffered the most, however, were those on the bottom of the social ladder--the peasants. In earlier times there were few restrictions placed on the movements of peasants, and they could work for anyone they liked. But the only way to guarantee a supply of peasant labor when it is needed is to bind each peasant firmly to one piece of land. The way the boyar landlords did that was to loan them money, forcing the peasants to keep working for the same landlord until the debt had been paid. Unfortunately most peasants could never earn enough to do that; most could barely meet the excessive interest rates charged them, and so they remained, year after year, in a condition not much better than bondage. This was the beginning of 400 years of Russian feudalism.
For those peasants who could not take this kind of life, the answer was to run away, to the southern and eastern frontiers of the country. Along the Dnieper and Don Rivers, these lawless frontiersmen adopted the nomadic life of the barbarians who had lived there before and came to be known as Cossacks. The Cossacks were fiercely independent, electing their leaders (known by the title of "hetman") by popular vote, and living by hunting, fishing, or raiding somebody else; farming was forbidden, because it symbolized the oppressive life they had freed themselves from. Since they hated the Poles, Lithuanians, Mongols and Turks as much as any other Russian did, they would help the tsar in his foreign wars, but if the tsar or the boyars tried to get their runaway peasants back, the Cossacks would proudly boast, "There is no extradition from the Don."
The next tsar, Vasili III (1505-33), was too colorless to be mentioned in most history books, but he completed the work of reunification that his father had started, annexing Pskov (1510) and Ryazan (1521), and taking Smolensk from Lithuania (1514). This left about three and a half million Russians still under Lithuanian rule, and it would take nearly three centuries before all of them were brought under the rule of the tsars.
1533 to 1584
Ivan IV was only three years old when his father Vasili III died. From that time until he grew up, the government was run first by his mother, then after her death by the boyars. The latter had seen enough of autocracy from the first two tsars, so they tried to regain their lost privileges while they had the opportunity. According to Ivan's own account. the boyars treated him with contempt verging on cruelty. They kept him separated from his friends and favorite servants and lolled about on his late father's bed with their boots on. A group of them once burst into the boy's chamber at dawn and engaged in a furious argument, frightening him into a panic. In public they beat their foreheads on the ground before him, but when alone Ivan had to go hungry and without proper clothes. Perhaps as a result of this, Ivan began very early to display the streak of sadism that marked him all his life; his earliest amusement was throwing small animals from the window of a Kremlin tower. In 1543, at the age of thirteen, Ivan had the most troublesome boyar murdered by the Kremlin dogkeepers, and thereafter he was ruler of Russia in fact as well as in name.
The early part of Ivan's reign, up until about 1560, was his "good" period; most of the time he was rational, an able ruler who surrounded himself with advisors from all walks of life, including those from a peasant background, proving that ability and status are not necessarily found in the same people. He rewrote the law code and asked for forgiveness, both from God and from the people, for the past sins he had committed. Up until this time the boyars had been a most difficult group to control, since they had inherited large amounts of land and felt that they had no responsibilities to the tsar and the state beyond paying taxes. Many of them had private armies and dispensed justice within their own territories, making their lands virtually independent states within the state. Moreover, they could look across the border into Poland-Lithuania and see how much the nobility can do when the king is not watching them all the time; sometimes only anti-Catholic prejudice could keep them loyal to Muscovy. Ivan required the boyars to supply officers and men for his military campaigns, and used arbitrary confiscations and an occasional murder on those who disobeyed. Since the boyars were not trustworthy even when they complied, Ivan created a new nobility that was: the service gentry. Those who made up the service gentry were officers, given small to medium-sized estates as a reward for their service. Since the tsar could give or take away their lands at the drop of a hat, the service gentry remained loyal to him, and he used them as a check against the hereditary nobility.
Another way to limit the influence of the boyars was to limit what the boyars' assembly, the Duma, could do. In 1550 a new assembly, the Zemsky Sobor ("Assembly of the Land"), convened for the purpose of checking the Duma. Its membership was made up of service gentry, clergy, merchants and a few loyal boyars. This was not a true parliament in the Western sense; its members were appointed, not elected, and it was meant to approve the tsar's proposals, not debate or veto them. Still Ivan listened carefully to the grievances that were presented and took steps to remedy the causes of some of them.
In Livonia (modern Estonia & Latvia), the Protestant Reformation finished off the Teutonic Knights; in their place came a secular German state, the Livonian Knights. Ivan saw in this an opportunity for a western victory to match his nearly bloodless ones in the east. It did not work out that way, though, because Sweden, Poland and Denmark agreed that the eastern shore of the Baltic must not become Russian. The Livonian War dragged on for 24 years (1558-82), and ended with a division of the disputed territory among the three Baltic powers.(15)
In the same year as the English expedition, Ivan began slipping into the "bad" period of his life. First he suffered a nearly fatal illness, and he called the boyars to swear loyalty to his infant son. None of them did, and when he recovered he hated them more than ever. Then in 1560 his wife died, and Ivan really went crazy. Convinced that the boyars had poisoned her, he conducted a bloody purge in which not only boyars but their families and servants were murdered or imprisoned. Then he took his treasures and a few trusted servants, and moved to the town of Aleksandrov, 60 miles away. He stayed there in seclusion for a month, until thousands of people, both rich and poor, came there and begged Ivan to return; to them even a mad tsar was better than no tsar at all.
Ivan agreed to return on condition that he be given unlimited power against the "traitors" to the state. To do this he divided the country into two states within the state; the loyal half of Russia became the Oprichnina, and the rest was called the Zemshchina. The borders between Oprichnina and Zemshchina were a fantastic gerrymander that almost defies description; some streets in Moscow were part of the Oprichnina, for instance, but not others. Even individuals were divided; service gentry and English traders were classified as Oprichniks while most boyars and Russian merchants were not. Then the citizens of the Oprichnina were turned loose to destroy all potential rebels, and anyone in the Zemshchina was fair game. For the next eight years (1564-72) lawlessness and terror swept the land, with people killed and dispossessed everywhere. Ivan went back to Aleksandrov and ruled a weird parody of a monastery. His Oprichniks were "monks" and he was the "abbot." After prostrating himself before an altar with such vehemence that his forehead would be bloody and covered with bruises, he would preach sermons on Christian virtues to his drunken retainers, fresh from torturing and raping victims in the cellars (He often participated in that, too.). Afterwards he would send lists of the victims to the Church so that prayers could be said for their souls; when the bloodbath killed so many that he lost track of the victims, Ivan merely remarked, "God knows their names."
When Ivan finally dissolved the Oprichnina, all resistance to his rule was dead, but the hereditary aristocracy had not been eliminated as a class; after they recovered they would cause trouble in the next generation. Ivan returned to Moscow and spent his last days wandering and howling through the palace, his cries audible to those outside. No longer even pretending to be a Christian, he brought in witches from the far north, where paganism still existed. One day in 1584 he looked better and called for his chessboard, but before he could begin the game he suddenly toppled backward and died. He was only 54.
1584 to 1613
For 29 years after the death of Ivan the Terrible there was no competent leadership in Moscow. Part of this was Ivan's fault; in 1581, in a moment of rage, he killed his only promising son (also named Ivan) with a blow from the iron staff he habitually carried around. That left two other sons, the mentally retarded Fyodor and an infant named Dmitri. Unfortunately, with a monarchy you have to take what the royal family gives you, so Fyodor received the crown by default. He spent his 14-year reign saying prayers and listening to church bells, while his father-in-law, a member of the service gentry named Boris Godunov, ran the daily affairs of the country.
Seven years after Dmitri, Tsar Fyodor died childless, and with that the 700-year-old founded by Rurik came to an end. The Zemsky Sobor elected Boris Godunov to be the next tsar. Boris had proven himself to be a good prime minister, but after he became tsar nothing went right. The people never accepted him wholeheartedly because he could not trace his ancestry to the Rurikide tsars. Many boyars, including the influential Romanovs, opposed him for personal reasons, and the Church denounced his attempt to set up a Western-style university in Moscow as "foreign contamination." Drought and famine ravaged the land, causing armed mobs of desperate men to roam the countryside, plundering the estates of the rich.
On top of all this, a young man of unknown origins appeared (modern historians call him "False Dmitri") who claimed that Dmitri's assassins bungled their assignment and killed the wrong boy; now he, the "real" Dmitri, was coming out of seclusion to claim his rightful throne. He went to Poland, promised to make Russia a Catholic country if he gained the throne, and got a Polish army to back him up. Then he marched on Moscow, his band of warriors swelled by Cossacks and peasants along the way. Boris Godunov went to fight him, but bad luck intervened one more time: he had a fatal heart before he could battle the pretender. False Dmitri triumphantly entered Moscow, removed Godunov's son (Fyodor II) from the throne, and was crowned tsar.
The young ruler, whoever he was, only lasted thirteen months. His obnoxious Polish guards & retainers offended the Muscovites. Some Muscovites suspected that he was not even a Russian at all because he never took a bath.(17) A conspiracy, led by a boyar named Vasili Shuisky, slaughtered the Poles and False Dmitri. Shuisky was elected tsar and he showed what he thought of False Dmitri by burning his remains, stuffing them into a cannon and shooting it off in the direction of Poland.
Vasili IV, the "boyar tsar" (1606-10), found himself even less popular than his predecessors. A second False Dmitri appeared, as well as a "False Peter," who claimed to be the non-existent son of Fyodor I. In the south a former slave named Ivan Bolotnikov led a mass revolt of Cossacks, runaway peasants and vagabonds against all authority; the rebellion got all the way to the gates of Moscow before it was driven back. Now the enemies of Russia came in; Sweden declared war and took Novgorod, while the king of Poland, Sigismund III, marched to Moscow and placed his son on the throne. For the next three years a Polish prince ruled as tsar from the Kremlin.
It looked like Russia would disintegrate completely as a nation, but it was saved by a miraculous reuniting of the people. In 1610 the Church got a clever new patriarch, Philaret from the Romanov family. He used the pulpit to rally the people in the name of patriotism and Orthodox Christianity; Holy Moscow, the "Third Rome," must not be allowed to fall to the Catholic "heretics" of the West. The people in surrounding cities gave up one third of their possessions to finance a crusade, and soon a great national army--which to the Poles must have appeared to spring spontaneously out of the earth--marched on Moscow, led by a poor butcher named Kuzma Minin and a boyar named Dmitri Pozharsky. Praying, fasting, and implacable, it wiped out the Poles and liberated Moscow, though it would take several more years and concessions of land to get the Poles and Swedes out of Russia altogether.
1613 to 1682
Philaret offered as a candidate for the throne his own son, sixteen-year-old Michael Romanov. Michael proved to be acceptable to everybody; not only did the Church support him, but Anastasia, the first wife of Ivan the Terrible, came from the same family; thus the all-important link to the Rurikide monarchs existed, by marriage if not by blood. With Michael's coronation the Time of Troubles formally came to an end. His descendants would rule Russia for the next 304 years, until the Russian monarchy was ended by the revolutions of 1917.
The first three Romanov tsars, Michael (1613-45), Alexis (1645-76), and Fyodor III (1676-82), were not strong rulers, and their achievements can be described with just a few words; most of Russia's accomplishments in the seventeenth century were made by ordinary people, with little direction from the Kremlin. The early Romanovs, however, were instrumental at strengthening their authority even further than it already reached. This trend was helped by the dissolution of Russia's embryonic legislature; both the Zemsky Sobor and the Duma broke into competing factions and stopped holding meetings by the middle of the century. Thus, instead of developing into a democracy, the Russians were left with a government, that for all its hideous abuses and imperfections, was the only one they ever knew.
At the same time the caste system started by Ivan III & IV grew more rigid. The most important need for prosperity was a stable population of peasants, businessmen and craftsmen to perform three functions: work the lands of the rich, pay taxes, and provide common soldiers for the army. But the Muscovites were anything but stable; as mentioned previously, whenever life got too tough for them they would flee to the frontier or to any landlord that would keep them out of sight from the census taker and the tax collector. To keep paying for the expenses of government, those peasants who stayed behind were taxed even more, causing them to run away in even greater numbers.(18) Since slaves were exempt from taxation and military service, a surprising number of people, including impoverished members of the service gentry, sold themselves into slavery, where they had more profit and liberty than they had enjoyed as "free men." Tsar Alexis reacted to this in 1649 by rewriting the laws, reducing the peasants to feudal serfs. Whereas in earlier ages the peasant was free to move where he liked when all debts were paid, they were now required to work for the same landlord for life, under threat of torture, exile, or death. Furthermore, the institution of serfdom became hereditary; sons could not leave the households of their fathers. Slavery was also gradually abolished, meaning that the peasants would be forced to remain "free." The new laws failed to halt the flight of peasants, but now landlords had the legal right to keep as many peasants on their lands as possible and reduce their life to actual slavery in everything but name.
The seventeenth century was a hard time for the Russian people to live in, but it was also a time when the nation itself prospered. The most spectacular gain made during this period was Siberia; when the Cossacks conquered the Mongol Khanate of Sibir in 1581, they removed the last barrier keeping the Russians from going all the way to the Pacific. The tribes they met on the way were too primitive and too few in numbers to resist, so a wave of Cossacks, fur traders and anyone who wanted to get away from it all charged east, exploring and settling this huge landmass in much less time than the United States settled its own western frontier.
Another important Cossack who lived at this time was a drunken, illiterate but extremely charismatic leader named Stenka (Little Stephen) Razin. Originally a Caspian pirate, he attracted thousands of followers, poor desperate men who had nothing to lose, when he returned from a highly successful raid against Persia. From there he got the idea to become a rebel, standing up for the rights of underdogs everywhere. He advanced up the Volga, gaining more support from the Moslem tribes there, until he had 200,000 men on his side. But this was a disorganized rabble rather than a fighting force, and Razin had no plans for the future beyond looting the rich; he did not want to become a tsar, for example. Consequently, when his horde met the tsar's army at Simbirsk in 1670, it was shattered, and Razin's support fled as quickly as it came. Razin was captured, taken to Moscow, and subjected to death by torture, but he made no outcry, giving him even more respect in the eyes of the people. Even today the Russians tell fables about Razin, crediting him with supernatural powers.(19)
One other story about the Cossacks is an amusing lesson in diplomacy. Ivan Sirko (1605-80), the hetman or chief of the Cossacks on the lower Dnieper, made several raids on the Ottoman Empire and its Crimean allies in the 1660s. The Ottoman sultan, Mohammed IV, warned the Cossacks not to do it again with this letter:
"I, the Sultan, son of Mohamed, brother of the Sun and Moon, grandson and vicegerent of God, sovereign of all kingdoms: of Macedonia, Babylonia, and Jerusalem, of Upper and Lower Egypt: king of kings, ruler of all that exists; extraordinary, invincible knight; constant guardian of the grave of Jesus Christ; trustee of God himself; hope and comfort of Moslems, confusion and great protector of Christians, command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to surrender to me voluntarily and without any kind of resistance, and don't permit yourselves to trouble me with your attacks!"
In response, Sirko wrote the most offensive letter ever sent from one head of state to another:
"Thou Turkish Satan -- Thou damned brother of the Devil! What manner of beast art thou? The Evil One vomits up what thou swallowest! We fear not thy army, thou Babylonian cook, Macedonian stavebinder, brewer of Jerusalem, Alexandrian goat-thief, Egyptian swineherd, tartar ram, Kamenetz hangman, Podolian evildoer, seed of the very Devil, clown of Hades, swinesnout and mare's ass, red-haired she-dog, unbaptized skull. May the Evil One catch thee!
Ivan Sirko writes his caustic letter, in a famous painting done by Elias Repin, more than two hundred years after the incident. Judging from the looks on the faces of the Cossacks, they must have been roaring drunk!
The sultan paused long enough to have the messenger who brought the letter put to death. Then he sent an army of 55,000 men against Sirko, but none of them ever returned. Eventually, however, the author of that defiant letter offended the tsar as well. One night Sirko was kidnapped and sent to Tobolsk, Siberia, where he died in exile.
Finally, mention should be made of an important controversy in the seventeenth-century Church. It all began in 1652 when the patriarch Nikon, perhaps the most brilliant man who ever led the Russian Church, declared he would reform its practices; he had been to the monasteries of Greece and was appalled at the divergences between Greek and Russian Orthodoxy. This was not a reformation in the sense of the one that created Protestantism; beliefs were never an issue here, only the way in which they were expressed. Among the changes Nikon proposed were:
1. Making the sign of the Cross with three fingers, instead of two.
These differences may seem trivial to us, but to the Russian who lived by ritual, they put one's salvation on the line. Most Russian Christians refused to accept these changes, feeling that it was the Greek Church that was in error, not the Russian; furthermore, many felt that it was a sure sign that the Second Coming was near if the "One True Church" fell into error. Those who opposed Nikon's reforms found a leader in the extremely pious archpriest Avvakum. The tsar, who favored the reforms, struck back savagely, equating resistance with both heresy and treason. Avvakum was exiled to Siberia, and later burned at the stake; his memoirs of his experiences are still emotion-gripping today. Nikon's reforms were imposed upon the Church by force, but eventually Nikon himself was exiled because he was too independent-minded for the tsar's liking. Those Christians who never accepted the reforms are called "Old Believers", and they can still be found in parts of Russia today.
The most important thing to remember about seventeenth-century Russia is the near-total isolation it had from the outside world. The reason for this was given previously; the result was that great events in the West like the Renaissance, Reformation, the exploration of the world, and the birth of modern science went by without having any effect on the Russians whatsoever. Russia had technically been an empire since Ivan IV conquered the Moslems on the Volga, but to westerners the Russian Empire was still called Muscovy, a Medieval state more Oriental than Occidental. This would change in the next age, when Peter the Great through sheer willpower dragged Russia kicking and screaming into the modern world.
This is the End of Chapter 1.
A History of Russia
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