Tsardom of Russia

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Ancient Russian principalities 1054-1132.

The Tsardom of Rus' (Russian: Царство Русское) was the official name for the Russian state between Ivan IV's assumption of the title of Tsar in 1547, and Peter the Great's foundation of the Russian Empire in 1721. The name originated from the fact that it contained all of the Rus lands free of foreign states' domination. Some sources refer to this state as Muscovy, the term originally applied to its predecessor, the Grand Duchy of Moscow.

Byzantine heritage

By the 16th century, the Russian ruler had emerged as a powerful, autocratic ruler. After Grand Duke Ivan III's marriage to Sophia Paleologue, Princess Sophia of Achaia, the niece of the last Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, he styled himself Tsar, which is Russian for Caesar. The Moscow court now adopted Byzantine terms, rituals, titles, and emblems such as the double-headed eagle, which survives as the coat of arms of Russia.[1]

At first, the Byzantine term autocrat connoted only the literal meaning of an independent ruler, but in the reign of Ivan IV (r. 1533-1584) it came to mean unlimited rule. Ivan was crowned Tsar and thus was recognized, at least by the Russian Orthodox Church, as Emperor. Philotheus of Pskov had claimed that, once Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Russian Tsar was the only legitimate Orthodox ruler and that Moscow was the "Third Rome" because it was the final successor to Roman Empire in the east, the centre of early Christianity. That concept was to resonate in the self-image of Russians in future centuries.

Early reign of Ivan IV

The development of the Tsar's autocratic powers reached a peak during the reign of Ivan IV, and he became known as 'the Terrible' (his Russian epithet, groznyi, means "thunderous"). Ivan strengthened the position of the tsar to an unprecedented degree, demonstrating the risks of unbridled power in the hands of a mentally unstable individual. Although apparently intelligent and energetic, Ivan suffered from bouts of paranoia and depression, and his rule was punctuated by acts of extreme violence.

Ivan IV became Grand Prince of Moscow in 1533 at the age of three. The Shuisky and Belsky factions of the boyars competed for control of the Regency until Ivan assumed the throne in 1547. Reflecting Moscow's new imperial claims, Ivan's coronation as Tsar was an elaborate ritual modeled after those of the Byzantine emperors. With the continuing assistance of a group of boyars, Ivan began his reign with a series of useful reforms. In the 1550s, he promulgated a new law code, revamped the military, and reorganized local government. These reforms undoubtedly were intended to strengthen the state in the face of continuous warfare.

Foreign policies of Ivan IV

Russia remained a fairly unknown society in western Europe until Baron Sigismund von Herberstein published his Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (literally: Notes on Muscovite Affairs) in 1549. This provided a comprehensive view of what had been a rarely visited and poorly reported state. In the 1630s, Russian Tsardom was visited by Adam Olearius, whose lively and well-informed writings were soon translated into all major languages of Europe.

Further information about Russia was disseminated by English and Dutch merchants. One of them, Richard Chancellor, sailed to the White Sea in 1553 and continued overland to Moscow. Upon his return to England, the Muscovy Company was formed by him, Sebastian Cabot, Sir Hugh Willoughby, and several London merchants. Ivan 'the Terrible' used these merchants to exchange letters with Elizabeth I of England.

Despite the domestic turmoil of 1530s and 1540s, Russia continued to wage wars and to expand and recover territories. Ivan defeated and annexed the Kazan Khanate on the middle Volga in 1552 and later the Astrakhan Khanate, where the Volga meets the Caspian Sea. These victories transformed Russia into a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state. The Tsar now controlled the entire Volga River and gained access to Central Asia.

Expanding to the northwest toward the Baltic Sea proved to be much more difficult. In 1558 Ivan invaded Livonia, eventually embroiling himself in a twenty-five-year war against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, and Denmark, all of whom had occupied the Baltic States or parts of them. Despite occasional successes, Ivan's army was pushed back, and Russia, for the time being, failed to secure a coveted position on the Baltic Sea.

Hoping to profit from Russia's concentration in Livonian affairs, Devlet I Giray of the Crimean Khanate, accompanied, it is said, by as many as 120 thousand horsemen, repeatedly devastated the Moscow region, until the Battle of Molodi put a stop to such northward incursions. But for decades to come, the southern borderland was annually pillaged by the Nogai Horde and the Crimean Khanate, who took local inhabitants with them as slaves. Tens of thousands of soldiers protected the Great Abatis Belt — a heavy burden for a state whose social and economic development was modest. The wars drained Russia.


During the late 1550s, Ivan developed a hostility toward his advisers, the government, and the boyars. Historians have not determined whether policy differences, personal animosities, or mental imbalance caused his wrath. In 1565 he divided Russia into two parts: his private domain (or Oprichnina) and the public realm (or zemshchina). For his private domain, Ivan chose some of the most prosperous and important districts of Russia. In these areas, Ivan's agents attacked boyars, merchants, and even common people, summarily executing some and confiscating land and possessions. Thus began a decade of terror in Russia which culminated in the Massacre of Novgorod (1570).

As a result of the policies of the Oprichnina, Ivan broke the economic and political power of the leading boyar families, thereby destroying precisely those persons who had built up Russia and were the most capable of administering it. Trade diminished, and peasants, faced with mounting taxes and threats of violence, began to leave Russia. Efforts to curtail the mobility of the peasants by tying them to their land brought Russia closer to legal serfdom. In 1572 Ivan finally abandoned the practices of the Oprichnina.

According to a popular story, the Oprichnina was started by Ivan in order to mobilize resources for the wars and to quell opposition to it. Regardless of the reason, Ivan's domestic and foreign policies had a devastating effect on Russia, and they led to a period of social struggle and civil war, the so-called Time of Troubles (Smutnoye vremya, 1598-1613).

Ivan IV was succeeded by his son Feodor, who was mentally deficient. Actual power went to Feodor's brother-in-law, the boyar Boris Godunov (who is credited with abolishing "Yuri's Day", the only time of the year when serfs were free to move from one landowner to another). Perhaps the most important event of Feodor's reign was the proclamation of the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1589. The creation of the Patriarchate climaxed the evolution of a separate and totally independent Russian Orthodox Church.

In 1598 Feodor died without an heir, ending the Rurik Dynasty. Boris Godunov then convened a Zemsky Sobor, a national assembly of boyars, church officials, and commoners, which proclaimed him Tsar, although various boyar factions refused to recognize the decision. Widespread crop failures caused a famine between 1601 and 1603, and during the ensuing discontent, a man emerged who claimed to be Tsarevich Demetrius, Ivan IV's son who had died in 1591. This pretender to the throne, who came to be known as "False Dmitriy I", gained support in Poland and then marched to Moscow, gathering followers among the boyars and other elements as he went. Historians speculate[2] that Godunov would have weathered this crisis has he not died in 1605. As a result, False Dmitriy I entered Moscow and was crowned Tsar that year, following the murder of Tsar Fedor II, Godunov's son.

Time of Troubles

Subsequently, Russia entered a period of continuous chaos, known as "The Time of Troubles" (Смутное Время). Despite the Tsar's persecution of the boyars, the townspeople's dissatisfaction, and the gradual enserfment of the peasantry, efforts at restricting the power of the Tsar were only half-hearted. Finding no institutional alternative to the autocracy, discontented Russians rallied behind various pretenders to the throne. During that period, the goal of political activity was to gain influence over the sitting autocrat or to place one's own candidate on the throne. The boyars fought among themselves, the lower classes revolted blindly, and foreign armies occupied the Kremlin in Moscow, prompting many to accept Tsarist absolutism as a necessary means to restoring order and unity in Russia.

During the Time of Troubles, including the civil war, the struggle over the throne was complicated by the machinations of rival boyar factions, the intervention of regional powers, Poland and Sweden, and intense popular discontent, led by Ivan Bolotnikov. False Dmitriy I and his Polish garrison were overthrown, and a boyar, Vasily Shuysky, was proclaimed Tsar in 1606. In his attempt to retain the throne, Shuysky allied himself with the Swedes, unleashing the Ingrian War with Sweden. False Dmitriy II, now allied with the Poles, appeared under the walls of Moscow and set up a mock court in the village of Tushino.

In 1609 Poland intervened in Russian affairs, captured Shuisky, and occupied the Kremlin. A group of Russian boyars signed in 1610 a treaty of peace, recognising Ladislaus IV of Poland, son of the Polish king Sigismund III Vasa, as Tsar. In 1611, False Dmitriy III appeared in the Swedish-occupied territories, but was soon apprehended and executed. The hated Polish presence led to a patriotic revival among the Russians, and a volunteer army, financed by the Stroganov merchants and blessed by the Orthodox Church, was formed in Nizhny Novgorod and, led by Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, drove the Poles out of the Kremlin and Moscow. In 1613 a zemsky sobor proclaimed the boyar Mikhail Romanov as Tsar, beginning the 300-year reign of the Romanov dynasty.


The immediate task of the new dynasty was to restore order. Fortunately for Russia, its major enemies, Poland and Sweden, were now engaged in a bitter conflict with each other, which provided Russia the opportunity to make peace with Sweden in 1617. The Polish-Muscovite War (1605-1618) was ended with the Truce of Deulino in 1618, restoring temporarily Polish-Lithuanian rule over some territories, including Smolensk, previously lost by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1509.

Under Mikhail Romanov, state affairs were in the hands of the Tsar's father, Filaret, who in 1619 became Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Later, Mikhail's son Aleksey I (r. 1645-1676) relied on a Boyar, Boris Morozov, to run his government. Morozov abused his position by exploiting the populace, and in 1648 Aleksey dismissed him in the wake of the Salt Riot in Moscow.

After an unsuccessful attempt to recover Smolensk from Poland in 1632, Russia made peace with Poland two years later. The Polish King Wladyslaw IV, whose father and predecessor Sigismund III Vasa had been forcibly elected by Russian boyars as Tsar of Russia during the Time of Troubles, renounced all claims to the title as a condition of the peace treaty.

Legal code of 1649

The autocracy survived the Time of Troubles because of the strength of the government's central bureaucracy. Government functionaries continued to serve, regardless of the rulers or the boyar faction controlling the throne. In the 17th century, the bureaucracy expanded dramatically. The number of government departments (prikazy ; sing., prikaz ) increased from twenty-two in 1613 to eighty by mid-century. Although the departments often had overlapping and conflicting jurisdictions, the central government, through provincial governors, was able to control and regulate all social groups, as well as trade, manufacturing, and even the Orthodox Church.

The Sobornoye Ulozheniye, a comprehensive legal code introduced in 1649, illustrates the extent of state control over Russian society. By that time, the boyars had largely merged with the new elite, who were obligatory servitors of the state, to form a new nobility, the dvoryanstvo. The state required service from both the old and the new nobility, primarily in the military because of permanent warfare on southern and western borders and attacks of nomads. In return, the nobility received land and peasants. In the preceding century, the state had gradually curtailed peasants' rights to move from one landlord to another; the 1649 code officially attached peasants to their domicile.

The state fully sanctioned serfdom, and runaway peasants became state fugitives. Landlords had complete power over their peasants. Peasants living on state-owned land, however, were not considered serfs. They were organized into communes, which were responsible for taxes and other obligations. Like serfs, however, state peasants were attached to the land they farmed. Middle-class urban tradesmen and craftsmen were assessed taxes, and, like the serfs, they were forbidden to change residence without official consent. All segments of the population were subject to military levy and to special taxes. By chaining much of Russian society to specific domiciles, the legal code of 1649 curtailed movement and subordinated the people to the interests of the state.

Under this code, increased state taxes and regulations exacerbated the social discontent that had been simmering since the Time of Troubles. In the 1650s and 1660s, the number of peasant escapes increased dramatically. A favorite refuge was the Don River region, domain of the Don Cossacks. A major uprising occurred in the Volga region in 1670 and 1671. Stenka Razin, a Cossack who was from the Don region, led a revolt that drew together wealthy Cossacks who were well established in the region and escaped serfs seeking free land. The unexpected uprising swept up the Volga River valley and even threatened Moscow. Tsarist troops finally defeated the rebels after they had occupied major cities along the Volga in an operation whose panache captured the imaginations of later generations of Russians. Razin was publicly tortured and executed.


Russia continued its territorial growth through the 17th century. In the south-west, it recovered eastern Ukraine, which had been under Polish occupation. The Cossacks, warriors organized in military formations, lived in the frontier areas bordering Poland, the Crimean Tatars' lands, and Russia. Although they had served in the Polish army as mercenaries, the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Host remained fiercely independent and staged a number of rebellions against the Poles. In 1648, the peasants in Ukraine joined the Cossacks in rebellion during the Khmelnytsky Uprising, because of the social and religious oppression they suffered under Polish rule. Initially, Ukrainians were allied with the Crimean Tatars, which had helped them to throw off the Polish yoke. Once the Poles convinced the Tartars to switch sides, the locals needed military help to maintain their position.

In 1654 a Ukrainian leader, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, offered to place these southern provinces back under the protection of the Russian Tsar, Aleksey I. Aleksey's acceptance of this offer, which was ratified in the Treaty of Pereyaslav, led to Russo-Polish War (1654-1667) a protracted war between Poland and Russia as the Russians tried to drive the hated Poles back to their natural homeland. The Treaty of Andrusovo, which ended the war in 1667, split Ukraine along the River Dnieper, leaving the western sector with Poland and the eastern sector as an autonomous Cossack Hetmanate under the suzerainty of the Tsar.

Russia's re-incorporation of eastern Ukraine, had unintended consequences. Most of the population were Orthodox, but their close contact with the Roman Catholic Church (due to Polish occupation) and the counter-Reformation in Poland also brought them Western intellectual currents. Although these links stimulated creativity in many areas, it also undermined traditional Russian religious practices and culture. The Russian Orthodox Church discovered that its isolation from Constantinople and to a lesser extent Kiev had caused variations to creep into its liturgical books and practices.

The Russian Orthodox patriarch, Nikon, was determined to bring the Russian texts back into conformity with the Greek originals. But Nikon encountered fierce opposition among the many Russians who viewed the corrections as improper foreign intrusions, or perhaps the work of the devil. When the Orthodox Church forced Nikon's reforms, a schism resulted in 1667. Those who did not accept the reforms came to be called the Old Believers; they were officially pronounced heretics and were persecuted by the church and the state. The chief opposition figure, the protopope Abbacum, was burned at the stake. The split subsequently became permanent, and many merchants and peasants joined the Old Believers.

The Tsar's court also felt the impact of the West. Kiev was a major transmitter of new ideas and insight through the academy founded there in 1631. Among the results of this infusion of ideas into Russia were Baroque styles of architecture, literature, and icon painting. Other more direct channels to the West opened as international trade increased and more foreigners came to Russia. The Tsar's court was interested in the West's more advanced technology, particularly when military applications were involved. By the end of the 17th century Polish, and West European penetration had somewhat undermined the Russian cultural synthesis - at least among the elite - and had prepared the way for an even more radical transformation.

Conquest of Siberia

Russia's eastward expansion encountered relatively little resistance. In 1581 the Stroganov merchant family, interested in fur trade, hired a Cossack leader, Yermak Timofeyevich, to lead an expedition into western Siberia. Yermak defeated the Siberian Khanate and claimed the territories west of the Ob' and Irtysh rivers for Russia.

From such bases as Mangazeya, merchants, traders, and explorers pushed eastward from the Ob' River to the Yenisey River, then to the Lena River and to the coast of the Pacific Ocean. In 1648 Cossack Semyon Dezhnev opened the passage between North America and Asia. By the middle of the 17th century, Russians had reached the Amur River and the outskirts of the Chinese Empire.

After a period of conflict with the Manchu Dynasty, Russia made peace with China in 1689. By the Treaty of Nerchinsk, Russia ceded its claims to the Amur Valley, but it gained access to the region east of Lake Baikal and the trade route to Peking. Peace with China consolidated the initial breakthrough to the Pacific that had been made in the middle of the century.


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  2. Ruslan Skrynnikov. Boris Godunov. Moscow: Nauka, 1983. Reprinted 2003. ISBN 5-17-010892-3.
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  • Franklin, Simon, Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c950-1300, Cambridge University Press, England, 2002, ISBN: 0-521-81381-6
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