Saturday, January 2, 2016

Time of Troubles: The Time Before the Romanovs (Part 1)

In the Times of Trouble by Sergei Ivanov
Time of Troubles was a turbulent period in Russian history. Explore this period where intrigue, rivalry, pretenders, rebellions and invasions plagued the lands of Russia.

It was a period of lawlessness in the land of the Tsars. For fifteen years (from 1598 to 1613), a period known as the Time of Troubles, Russia suffered civil war, rebellion and foreign invasions. On the other, the most powerful position in the land – the Tsar of All Russia - went into crisis after crisis. Rival factions and pretenders left Russia leaderless and weak. The country needed a legitimate and strong leader or faced inevitable end of its existence as a sovereign country.

Prologue to the Time of Troubles

The Time of Troubles originated after the bloody reign of Tsar Ivan IV “the Terrible”. His personal conflict with his son led him to murder his heir. As a result, in his death in 1684, the throne went to his feeble and weak minded son who ruled as Tsar Feodor. Son of Tsar Ivan IV and Anastasia Romanovna, he grew up as a pious and oblivious man, showing no potential in becoming an effective ruler. His weakness came in a bad time when Russia just recently emerged from the turbulent reign of the late Tsar. Nevertheless, Feodor found an able and competent man to rule Russia on his behalf – Boris Godunov. Godunov, a charming and intelligent man, rose to prominence during the reign of Ivan IV. Ivan trusted him, to the point the Tsar made him the executor of his last will. He became the most powerful and influential man in the Kremlin and even more influential and powerful after he persuaded Tsar Feodor to marry his sister Irena. When Feodor fell terribly ill, he appointed Irena to become her co-ruler.

Effectively, Boris, through his sister, ruled Russia. Under his guidance, he began improve Russia’s finances by imposing new taxes. He also tackled the issue of shortage of manpower in farms owned by the landed gentry or boyars - the powerbase of the Tsarist autocratic rule. During the reign of Ivan IV, peasants moved from one location to the next on their own personal decision. This led to numerous idle lands that translated to lower food production. To prevent a famine, Godunov issued an order forbidding peasants freedom of movement. He also gave the nobility the right to pursue and capture their former peasants. In foreign policy, Godunov along with Tsar Feodor waged war against Sweden in 1590 to take lands in the Gulf of Finland known as Ingria. At the end of the conflict in 1595, Russia regained Ivangorod, which Russia lost in a previous war against the Swedes. In 1591, Godunov also managed to defeat Crimean Tartar attacks that threatened Moscow itself. They then pushed them back and set up fortified defensive positions in the river Don and Volga.

Tsar Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov
Tsar Feodor passed away in 1598. With Feodor heirless, tradition dictated that the position of the Tsar would fall to one of his surviving brothers. But none remained. Feodor’s last remaining brother, Dmitry, passed away in what many claimed under suspicious circumstances – a stab in the neck – in 1591. Court intrigue, especially from Godunov’s rivals, the Shuiskys and the Romanovs, stipulated that Godunov had Dmitry murdered in order to break the line of succession. Nevertheless, later investigations led by one of Godunov’s rival, Vasily Shuisky, found that Dmitry stabbed his neck due to one of his epileptic attacks and not some conspiracy made by Godunov. But the rumors continued to live on, even in the 19th century as shown in Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. With the death of Feodor, the ruling Rurik Dynasty came to an end. Many then looked to the wife of Feodor, Irena, as the new Tsar; but, Irena refused and took her vows as a nun in a convent. 

Boris then saw an opportunity to finally gain complete control over Russia as Tsar. He secured the support of the influential Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Job. In September of 1598, Job along with other Boyars then convened an assembly – a Zemsky Sobor - composed of clerics, nobles, and other sectors of society that had the mandate to elect the next Tsar. Eventually, the 600-member council filled with his supporters, Godunov emerged as the newly elected Tsar of Russia.

After being elected, Godunov stifled opposition, especially from other rival Boyar clans like the Romanovs and the Shuiskys. He had a prominent Romanov, Feodor, exiled to a convent and forced him to take his vows as a monk and took the name Filaret. Filaret’s son, Mikhail, grew up alone for years before being reunited with his mother Martha, who also was forced to take her vows as a nun.

Boris Godunov’s reign could have been a successful rule if not because of the prevailing conditions. He already proved himself as a competent, able, and efficient administrator. He wanted Russia to develop and in 1602, he sent 18 young Russians to study in Europe. He also welcomed foreign experts to come to Russia to transfer technology to the Russians. However, Godunov suffered a humiliation when none of the Russians sent to Europe return. Many of the foreign experts who came to Russia under Godunov’s invitation found it difficult to live in the country because of the xenophobic sentiment of many Russians. His total fall from grace in the eyes of the Russian people came in 1601.

The great famine of 1601 to 1603 decimated one-third of Russia’s population. Dropping temperatures caused huge slump in food production. Colder climate and lesser food fueled hunger, poverty, and discontent. In Moscow, 120,000 perished due to starvation. Some even took the drastic measure of cannibalism just to survive. Godunov attempted to lessen the hardships of his people by giving alms and food to those impoverished in Moscow. He relaxed laws concerning the freedom of movement of peasants in order for them to look for more fertile and suitable farmlands. 

Nevertheless, his efforts proved to be futile against overwhelmingly terrible events unfolding. With hunger and desperation across the land of Muscovy, brigandage, rebellion, corruption, abuse and criminality rose tremendously, making the condition not just desperate but also chaotic and violent. Following the wake of hunger came the inquiry to the cause of the famine. Ignorance and piety led many peasant to believe that the famine had been caused by the illegitimacy of their Tsar. Rumors of Boris Godunov’s involvement to the alleged murder of the younger brother of the late Tsar Feodor, Dmitry, resurfaced and undermined the ruling Tsar. Revolts and uprisings began to erupt in different areas of Russia. In 1604, someone emerged that brought the country further into the abyss of civil war.

The First False Dmitry

First False Dmitry
The first so-called False Dmitry emerged in Poland in 1604. A charismatic, young, and intelligent man, he capitalized in the misery of the Russian people and the unpopularity, illegitimacy, and possible crimes of Boris Godunov and declared himself as the dead Tsarevich Dmitry, who survived the alleged assassination and then resurfaced and ready to take his rightful place in the Kremlin. Boris responded with disbelief and suspicion. The Tsar claimed that the False Dmitry in Poland lied about being the dead Tsarevich and in fact an escapee monk named Yuri Grishka Otrepev, who had then been convinced by a rival family – the Romanovs – into pretending and further cause destabilization in his rule. Indeed, today it had been established that the true Tsarevich Dmitry had died in 1591. Meanwhile, the False Dmitry had the support of numerous factions. For instance, Poland, where the False Dmitry had sought refuge, and the Catholic Church supported the pretender. Southern Russians showed their support to the False Dmitry by joining his crusading army to take Moscow and the crown.

The Cossacks of the Don and the Dnieper River had been one of False Dmitry’s main source of support. Cossacks had lived happily and freely in the rivers for years, away from the oppressive hands of the landed gentry and the boyars. But under Boris Godunov’s rule, they had been placed under tight and strong control of Moscow, which caused resentment to the Cossacks and led them to support the False Dmitry.

False Dmitry caused a huge stir but also fanfare among many Russians. Boyars who did not recognized Boris’ rule joined the False Dmitry. Desperate, impoverished, and abused peasants also joined. As the False Dmitry and his army marched, they won land as well as the hearts of many Russian when they entered cities and town not with the flare for plunder and rape hind but with utmost discipline. In January 1605, Dmitry’s forced met Tsar Boris’ army in Dobrynichi, near Bryansk, southwest of Moscow. However, Dmitry suffered a defeat and had to retreat to Putyvl in the south near the River Dnieper. But the retreat proved to be only temporary when events in Moscow unfolded.

Death of Boris Godunov and Reign of the First False Dmitry

Boris Godunov passed away in April 23, 1605 (New Style). His reign became known for the start of the Time of Troubles. His son, Feodor Borisovich Godunov, succeeded him. But discontent and unpopularity of his father shortened the young Tsar’s reign. Boyars who hated Boris entered the Kremlin, placed the Tsar under arrest and later brutally murdered the sixteen year old Tsar. Few days later, False Dmitry triumphantly marched into Moscow. Upon his arrival, the mother of the true dead Dmitry, Maria Nagaia, fearing for her life, had no choice but to recognize the False Dmitry as his supposedly dead son. By July, the False Dmitry became Tsar with his coronation taking place in the Assumption Cathedral.

The rule of False Dmitry became known for its tolerance as well as its strong preference towards the Poles. As reward for the support of the Catholic Church to his campaign, he allowed Catholicism to grow in Russia. This then threatened the position of the traditional Russian Orthodox Church, causing frustration from its clerical ranks.  In foreign policy, Dmitry improved and strengthened his relations with Poland, a traditional enemy of Russia. To cement his ties with the Poles, in May 1606, False Dmitry married a daughter of a Polish noble – Marina Mniszech. She became notorious in Russian history as a witch and the same unpopularity came to his Polish guards. The abusive and rough nature of her guards became unacceptable.

Many Boyars felt humiliated and infuriated to the Poles and also to the False Dmitry. A plot began to be made among the nobility led by the powerful Shuisky clan, with its most prominent figure Vasily Shuisky. In May 17, the Boyars led by Vasily Shuisky burst into the Kremlin and ended the life of the False Dmitry. Marina Mniszech luckily escaped. A rampage against the Poles then followed. Hundreds of Poles and nobles who supported the False Dmitry perished in the process. On the other hand, Shuisky had the body of the False Dmitry burned as proof his death and extinguished any hope of his survival. Then his ashes were placed in a canister and fired back to Poland.

Tsar Vasily Shuisky

Tsar Vasily Shuisky
Vasily Shuisky became Tsar in 1606. After the murder of the first False Dmitry, a makeshift national assembly or a Zemsky Sobor convened to elect a new Tsar. As expected, Vasily Shuisky emerged as the new Tsar. As his first act, he discredited the first False Dmitry as an imposter and brought in the body of the real Dmitry (but actually a fake one) as proof of the death of the true Tsarevich and the falseness of the False Dmitry. Shuisky’s reign, however, did not saw the end of the Time of Troubles but in fact, it just scratched the surfaced. Inefficiency continued within the government. Shuisky knew he could only stay in power with the support of the Boyars and so he awarded them with positions without considering their credibility and talents. He allowed them to be rowdy, corrupt, and abusive. People only became ever more discontented and believed that Shuisky also came to power through illegitimate means. This emotions of the peasantry resulted to a start of a huge rebellion never seen in such great proportion, which sank Russia further to chaos.
Freeze, Gregory. Russia: A History. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Langer, Lawrence. Historical Dictionary of Medieval Russia. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Moss, Walter. A History of Russia Volume I: To 1917. London: Anthem Press, 2005.

Stone, David. A Military History of Russia: From Ivan the Terrible to the War in Chechnya. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press Publishing, Company, 2006. 

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