IV. HOLY RUSSIA: 1584–1645

1. The People

“You have only to look upon a map of the world,” said Nadiezdin in 1831, “to be filled with awe before the destiny of Russia.” As early as 1638 it had reached through Siberia to the Pacific, and along the Volga to the Caspian; not yet, however, to the Black Sea—hence many wars. The population was only ten million in 1571.39 The soil might easily have fed these millions, but reckless tillage exhausted farm after farm, and the peasants moved on to fresher fields.

This migratory tendency seems to have shared in bringing serfdom. Most tenants received advances from their boyar landlords to clear, equip, and plant their farms; they paid as much as 20 per cent on such loans;40 many of them, unable to repay their borrowings, fell into servitude to their landlords, for a law of 1497 made a delinquent debtor the slave of his creditor till the debt was redeemed. To escape such servitude some peasants fled to Cossack camps in the south; some won freedom by agreeing to develop new and difficult terrain—and so Siberia was settled; some migrated to the towns to join the craftsmen there, or work in the mines or in the metallurgical or ammunition industries, or to serve the merchants, or peddle goods in the streets. The landowners complained that the desertion of farms by tenants—usually leaving debts unpaid—disrupted agricultural production, and made it impossible for the owners to pay the rising taxes demanded by the state. In 1581 Ivan the Terrible, to assure continuous cultivation, forbade the tenants of his administrative class (the oprichniki) to leave their farms without the owner’s consent. Though that class was now losing its distinctive existence, the serfdom so established continued on its estates, and was soon demanded of their tenants by the nobles and the clergy who owned the greater part of Russia’s land. By 1648 most Russian peasants were in fact, if not in law, serfs bound to the soil.41

Russia was still close to barbarism. Manners were coarse, cleanliness was a rare luxury, literacy was a class privilege, education was primitive, literature was largely monkish chronicles, priestly homilies, or liturgical texts. Of five hundred books published in Russia between 1613 and 1682, nearly all were religious.42 Music played a prominent role in religion and in the home, and art was the handmaid of the Orthodox faith. Architecture built complex churches bulging with chapels and apses and bulbous domes, like the Church of the Virgin of the Don in Moscow. Painting adorned churches and monasteries with frescoes, now mostly covered over, or raised iconostases (icon panels) rich in pictorial invention rather than artistic skill,43 as in the Church of the Miracle of St. Michael at Cracow. By 1600 icon painting had ceased to be an art and had become an industry, producing stereotyped pieces on a large scale for domestic piety. The outstanding art product of the age was the hundred-meters-high bell tower of Ivan Veliki (John the Great), raised by a German architect in the Kremlin Square (c. 1600) as part of Boris Godunov’s program of public works to relieve unemployment.

In the picturesque churches, bright with costly ornaments, somber with calculated gloom, hypnotic with solemn ceremony and sonorous chants and prayers, the Orthodox clergy molded the people to piety, obedience, and humble hope. Seldom has a religion so closely co-operated with the government. The czar gave the example of faithful religious observance and beneficence to the Church; in return the Church invested him with awesome sanctity, made his throne an inviolable altar, and inculcated submission and service to him as a duty owed to God. Boris Godunov established the patriarchate of Moscow as independent of Constantinople (1598); and for almost a century the metropolitan of Moscow rivaled the dignity, sometimes challenged the power, of the czar. When (1594) an embassy came to Moscow from Pope Clement VIII to propose a union of the Orthodox and Latin churches under the papacy, Boris rejected the plan with scorn. “Moscow,” he said, “is now the true orthodox Rome”; and he caused prayers to be offered up for himself as “the only Christian ruler on earth.”44

2. Boris Godunov: 1584–1605

As yet he was ruler in fact only. The Czar was Feodor I Ivanovich (1584–1598), the feeble son of Ivan IV the Terrible, and the last of the Rurik line. Feodor had seen his elder brother die under his father’s demonic blow; he had allowed his own will to be broken; he took refuge from the dangers of the palace in devotion to religion; and though his people called him a saint, they recognized that he lacked the iron to govern men. Ivan IV had appointed a council to guide the youth; one member of it, Feodor’s brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, made himself dominant and became the ruler of the reign.

Ivan IV, by the last of his seven wives, had left another son, Dmitri Ivanovich, who was now (1584) three years old. To protect the child from intrigues other than their own, the Council sent him and his mother to live in Uglich, some 120 miles north of Moscow. There, in 1591, the young Czarevich died, by means not yet determined. A commission headed by Prince Vasili Shuiski (a member of the Council) went to Uglich to investigate; it reported that the boy had cut his throat in an epileptic fit; but Dmitri’s mother charged that he had been killed by an order of Godunov.45 Boris’ guilt was never established, and is questioned by some historians.46 The mother was forced to take the veil, and her relatives were banished from Moscow. Dmitri was added to the calendar of Orthodox saints, and was temporarily forgotten.

Like Richard III of England, Boris ruled more successfully as regent than later on the throne. Though lacking formal education, and perhaps illiterate, he had a shrewd ability, and seems to have labored earnestly to meet the problems of Russian life. He reformed internal administration, checked judicial venality, favored the lower and middle classes, undertook public works to give employment to the urban poor, mitigated the lot and the dues of the serfs, and—says a contemporary chronicle—was “beloved of all men.”47He enjoyed the respect and confidence of foreign powers.48 When Czar Feodor I died (1598), the Zemski Sobor, or national assembly, unanimously asked Godunov to take the crown. He accepted it with coy protestations of unworthiness, but there is some suspicion that the assembly had been prepared by his agents. Several nobles, resenting his defense of the commonalty,49 contested his right to the throne, and conspired to depose him. Boris imprisoned some, exiled some, and compelled Feodor Romanov (father of the first Romanov czar) to become a monk. Several of the defeated group died so conveniently for Boris that he was accused of having them murdered. Living now in suspicion and fear, he spread spies everywhere, deported suspects, confiscated their property, put men and women to death. His early popularity faded, and the poor harvests of 1600–04 left him without the support of the starving populace against the persisting intrigues of the nobility.

One intrigue became famous in history, literature, and music. In 1603 a young man appeared in Poland who claimed that he was the supposedly dead Dmitri, the legitimate heir to the throne of Feodor Ivanovich. Boris, on good grounds,50 identified him as Grishka Otrepieff, an unfrocked monk who had been in the service of the Romanov family. The Poles, fearful of expanding Russia, were pleased to find in their midst, available to their use, a claimant to the crown of Muscovy; they were further delighted when “Dmitri” married a Polish girl and joined the Roman Church. King Sigismund III, who had just signed (1602) a truce with Russia for twenty years, connived at Dmitri’s recruiting of Polish volunteers. The Jesuits warmly espoused the pretender’s cause. In October 1604 Dmitri crossed the Dnieper with four thousand men, including Russian exiles, German mercenaries, and Polish knights. The Russian nobles, professing neutrality, gave him secret support; fugitive peasants joined the advancing force; the starving people, longing to be deceived, accepted the new Dmitri at his word, and carried his banner as the symbol of monarchical legitimacy and their desperate hopes. While the shouting, praying mob moved upon Moscow from the west, the Cossacks, always ready for a fray, dashed up from the south. The movement became a revolution.

Seeing it as a Polish invasion, Boris sent his army westward. It defeated a detachment of Dmitri’s forces, but missed the rest. In his Kremlin chambers Godunov received no news but of the swelling and advancing mob, the spreading disaffection, the toasts drunk by the boyars even in Moscow to the health of Dmitri, whom they heralded to the people as the holy czarevich chosen by God to be czar. Suddenly, after doubts and agonies known to Pushkin and Moussorgsky rather than to history, Boris died (April 13, 1605). He had commended his son Feodor to the care of Patriarch Basmanov and the boyars; but the priest and the nobles went over to the pretender. Godunov’s son and widow were killed, and in a delirium of national ecstasy the “False Dmitri” was hailed and crowned as Czar of All the Russias.

3. “Time of Troubles”: 1605–13

The new Czar was not a bad ruler as kings go. Unimposing in stature, unprepossessing in face, he could nevertheless handle a sword and ride a horse like a born boyar. He had a perceptive and furnished mind, eloquent address, genial manners, and an unaffected simplicity that shocked the protocol of palace life. He surprised his staff by assiduity in administration, and his army by training it in person. But his superiority to his environment was too conscious and manifest. He openly expressed his scorn of boyar coarseness and illiteracy; he proposed to send noble sons to be educated in the West; he planned to import foreign teachers to establish high schools in Moscow. He laughed at Russian customs and neglected Orthodox ritual; he failed to salute the images of the saints, he dined without having the table sprinkled with holy water, he ate veal, which was considered ritually unclean. He concealed—perhaps he had never taken seriously—his conversion to Catholicism, but he brought to Moscow his Polish Catholic wife, escorted by Franciscan friars and a papal legate; he himself had Poles and Jesuits in his entourage. He spent too freely the revenues of the treasury, doubling the pay of army officers and allotting to his friends the estates confiscated from the Godunov family. Restless and martial, he planned a campaign against the Khan of the Crimea, and practically declared war by sending the Moslem ruler a pigskin coat. When he almost denuded Moscow of soldiers by ordering them south, the boyars feared that he was opening the capital to Polish invasion.

A few weeks after Dmitri’s accession a boyar faction under Shuiski conspired to depose him. Shuiski confessed that he had recognized the pretender only to get rid of Godunov; now the tool must be cast aside and a real boyar enthroned.51 Dmitri discovered the plot and had the leaders arrested. Instead of summarily executing them, as tradition demanded, he granted them a trial by the Zemski Sobor—which, for the first time, was now chosen from all ranks and classes. When it condemned Shuiski and others to death, he commuted the sentence to banishment, and after five months he allowed the exiles to return. Many who had believed him to be the son of Ivan the Terrible felt that such unorthodox clemency cast doubt on his royal parentage. The pardoned conspirators renewed their conspiracy; the Romanov family, upon which Dmitri had rained plums of patronage, joined in the plot. On May 17, 1606, Shuiski and his followers invaded the Kremlin with their armed retainers. Dmitri defended himself well, killing several of his assailants with his own hand, but he was overcome and slain. His body was exposed on the place of executions; a ribald mask was thrown over his face, a flute was placed in his mouth; later his corpse was burned, and a cannon shot his ashes to the winds to discourage further resurrections.

The victorious boyars proclaimed Shuiski Czar Vasili IV. He bound himself to put no man to death, to confiscate no property, without consent of the Duma—the assembly of boyars; and he solemnly vowed, in the Uspenski Cathedral, “that ill shall unto no man be done without the Council”—i.e., the Zemski Sobor, or assembly of all classes. These guarantees, though often violated, formed a historic step in the evolution of the Russian government.

They failed to appease those large elements of the population that mourned the deposition of Dmitri. A rebellion broke out in the north; a second False Dmitri was set up as its leader, and Sigismund III of Poland gave him unofficial support. Shuiski solicited the aid of Sigismund’s enemy, Charles IX of Sweden; Charles sent a Swedish force into Russia; Sigismund declared war upon Russia; his general Zolkiewski took Moscow. Shuiski was deposed (1610), was carried off to Warsaw, and was forced to become a monk. A faction of the boyars agreed to recognize Sigismund’s fourteen-year-old son Ladislas as czar, on condition that the independence of the Orthodox Church be maintained and that the Polish army help the nobles to suppress the social revolt that was threatening aristocratic government in Russia.

The revolt was first of all a religious and patriotic repudiation of a Polish czar. Hermogenes, Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, forbade the people to swear allegiance to a Roman Catholic sovereign. The Poles arrested him; he soon died in his cell, but his proclamation made Ladislas’ rule impossible. Religious leaders called upon the people to drive out the Poles as Roman Catholic heretics. Government seemed to dissolve, and Russia fell into turmoil. A Swedish army held Novgorod and proposed a Swedish prince for the Russian throne. Peasants in the north and the south, Cossacks in the south, repudiated Ladislas and set up their own rule in the provinces. Bands of brigands pillaged villages and towns and tortured all who resisted. Agriculture was disrupted, food production fell, transportation was hazardous, famine rose, and in some districts the population resorted to eating human flesh.52 A rebel mob entered Moscow, and in the confusion most of the city was burned to the ground (March 19, 1611). The Polish garrison retreated into the Kremlin and waited in vain for Sigismund to come to its support.

At Nizhni Novgorod a butcher, Kosma Minin, organized another rebel army, inspired by Orthodox devotion. He called upon each family to give up a third of its possessions to finance an advance upon the capital; it was done. But the people would follow only a titled leader. Minin invited Prince Dmitri Pozharski to serve as their general. He consented, and the new army marched upon Moscow, fasting and praying. Arrived, they laid siege to the Polish garrison in the Kremlin. It held out till it was reduced to eating rats and men and boiling Greek manuscripts for broth; then (October 22, 1612) it surrendered and fled. That year was long celebrated in Russian memory as the year of liberation, and when, two centuries later, the French were driven from Moscow, the victorious Russians set up in their again incinerated capital a monument to Minin and Pozharski, the butcher and the prince who had set them so heroic an example in 1612.

Pozharski and Prince Dmitri Troubetskoy invited lay and ecclesiastical representatives from all regions of the empire to a council for the election of a new ruler. Various boyar families pulled various wires; finally the Romanovs prevailed; the council chose Michael Romanov, then only fifteen, and the Moscow populace, quickly gathered and quickly coached, acclaimed him Czar (February 21, 1613). The people, having saved the state, humbly returned it to the nobility.

The new government suppressed social disorder and revolt, confirmed and extended serfdom, pacified Sweden by ceding Ingria, and signed a fourteen-year truce with Poland. The truce freed from long captivity Michael’s father, Feodor Romanov, whom Boris had forced to become the monk Philaret. Michael made him Patriarch of Moscow, and welcomed him as a councilor so powerful that the people called Philaret “the Second Czar.” Under the combined rule of father and son, despite more uprisings and wars, Russia achieved, after a generation of turmoil, an unsteady and discontented peace. The Time of Troubles (Smutnoe Vremia), which had begun with Boris’ death, ended with Michael’s accession; and this in turn began the Romanov dynasty, which was to rule Russia till 1917.

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