Tsardom of Russia



In the 16th century, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) conquered vast territories, and used extensive terror methods against his people. The following, “Time of Troubles,” nearly finished Russia as an independent state. Stability came only with the new Romanov Dynasty at the beginning of the 17th century.


In the 16th century, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) conquered vast territories, and used extensive terror methods against his people. The following, “Time of Troubles,” nearly finished Russia as an independent state. Stability came only with the new Romanov Dynasty at the beginning of the 17th century.

State and society

According to the state ideology of Russia, the Tsar was an absolute monarch, with unlimited power, who personally owned the land and the people of Russia.

The most prominent of the high nobility, the boyars, formed the, “Boyar Duma.” Tsar Ivan the Terrible significantly limited their power. There was also a wider parliament called the, “Assembly of the Land,” (Zemsky Sobor), whose role was very limited.

Foreign relations

After the contradictory reign of Ivan the Terrible, and during the Time of Troubles, Poland and Sweden nearly succeeded in occupying Russia.

With the new Romanov Dynasty in place from 1613, a long and successful era followed. Russian expansion to the east through Siberia, and all the way to the Pacific Ocean, was completed, and a distinctive culture developed in partial isolation from the rest of the world. Slavophiles (intellectuals who dislike Western influences in Russia) have often named it the, “Golden Age,” in Russian history.


The Orthodox Church had a continuous influence on culture and everyday life in Russia. The separate, “Patriarchate of Moscow,” was established in 1589. One of the defining events of 17th century Russia, was the schism (raskol), that was followed by the church reform of Patriarch Nikon in 1653, and created the popular movement of, “Old Believers,” in protest.


Ivan the Terrible becomes tsar
Romanov dynasty begins
Schism in Russian Orthodox Church
St Petersburg established




Ivan the Terrible


The process of centralizing power in Russia under Moscow rule was completed by Ivan the Terrible. He expanded Russia’s territory greatly, but caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands.


Ivan was born in 1530. He was only three years old when his father, Vasily III, the son of Ivan the Great, died. For the next fourteen years a vicious fight for power between boyar families ensued, resulting in many murders. Murder was probably also how his mother, Elena Glinskaya, died.

Beginning of the Reign

In 1547, Ivan was proclaimed Tsar, and he started his independent rule. He was the first Russian monarch to consistently name himself Tsar, and, after him, every Russian ruler did the same. The first half of his reign was promising. He reformed various laws and summoned, Zemsky Sobor, the parliament, in 1549.

Ivan the Terrible expanded his territory to the Caucasus, and to the Caspian Sea by conquering the Mongol Khanates of Kazan in 1552, followed by Astrakhan four years later. During his reign, the conquest of Siberia began under the command of a legendary Cossack named, Yermak. Moreover, Ivan also started the Livonian War in the Baltics, initially conquering a number of important merchant towns. At the end of his reign, he was defeated, in Livonia, by Sweden and Poland.


After the death of his wife, Anastasia, Ivan changed. He became extremely paranoid and vengeful. The defection of Ivan’s close friend, Andrey Kurbsky, to the King of Poland, further worsened his mental condition.

In 1564, Ivan the Terrible started the domestic policy of state repression and terror called the, “Oprichnina”. The Oprichnina (1564-72), was the Tsar’s personal dominion, where his loyal warriors and confreres, called Oprichniki, had unlimited power to terrorize the boyars and the entire population. The rest of the country was called the, “Zemschina,” and was ruled by the Boyar Duma.

The wave of terror reached an unimaginable extent. Some areas were entirely depopulated, and thousands of people were executed.

Later years

When the Crimean Khan burned down Moscow in 1571, Ivan broke down and ended the Oprichnina. His later years were mostly unsuccessful as he lost many battles and ceded land to the Poles and the Swedes. In 1581, he accidentally killed his older son and heir, also named, Ivan. Tsar Ivan the Terrible died, rather unexpectedly, in 1584, leaving his country in relative disorder.




Time of Troubles


The Time of Troubles was one of the weakest points in the history of the Russian state. Fifteen years of unrest, civil wars, and famine, killed about one-third of the population, and took Russia very close to being occupied by Poland and Sweden


Ivan the Terrible left two sons as heirs. The elder son, although mentally disabled, became Tsar Fyodor I. The second son, Dmitry of Uglich, was only eight when, one day, he was discovered dead with his throat cut. Some blamed Fyodor’s brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, for the murder.

Time of Troubles

When Fyodor I died childless in 1598, the 700-year-old Rurik Dynasty ended, and the Time of Troubles (Smutnoye Vremya) began. At first Boris Godunov became Tsar and managed to maintain stability relatively well, but, during his time, a great famine occurred that killed about one-third of the population. In 1605, Boris Godunov suddenly died, and that caused the rival boyar families to begin a fierce fight for power. In the meantime, foreign powers also intervened, especially Poland and Sweden, attempting to conquer as much land as possible.

Three impostors

In 1605, a Russian monk from Poland declared that he was the real Dmitry of Uglich, and that he had survived the assassination attempt fourteen years earlier.

He became known as the first, “False Dmitry,” claiming the throne and ruling for a year. He was removed and murdered, but the following years saw the appearance of False Dmitry II, and False Dmitry III, who were both also killed.

Fight for Independence

Around 1610 to 1612, there was a real possibility that Moscow might fall under the rule of the Polish King Sigismund III. Firstly, his son, Vladyslav, was designated future Tsar, and later, the King himself tried to become the ruler of Russia. At the same time, a Polish garrison was established in the Kremlin in Moscow.

Things were looking really dark until 1612. Then Russia was finally saved by a reuniting of people, inspired by the church and lower nobility. The peasants’ improvised army, led by butcher, Kuzma Minin, and minor prince, Dmitry Pozharsky, recaptured Moscow after three years of occupation, and finally drove the Poles and Swedes out of Russia.



The First Romanovs


Having survived the Time of Troubles, Russia faced the 17th century with the newly established Romanov Dynasty. Mikhail I began as a weak compromise candidate who was in favor of the boyars. Nevertheless, having eventually achieved 304 years in power, the Romanovs became one of the longest surviving European dynasties.


After the Poles were driven out of Moscow, the Russian nobility decided to peacefully settle the question of who was to be the next sovereign.

In 1613 the parliament of boyars, merchants, warriors and priests (Zemsky Sobor), came together. They looked for a compromise candidate who would be, at least distantly, related to Ivan the Terrible.

Romanov dynasty

A suitable young man was found: Patriarch Filaret’s sixteen-year-old son, Mikhail Romanov. He was a distant relative of Ivan the Terrible’s wife, Anastasia Romanova. The fact that he was a young, inexperienced person, therefore politically weak, and also not being in Moscow at that moment, made him a safe candidate to all the parties.

The boyars expected Mikhail Romanov, to ensure peace and stability. And he did surprisingly well. In 1617, the Stolbovo Peace Treaty with the Swedes was signed, and in 1618 the Deulino Truce with the Poles was agreed. These two treaties definitively ended their intervention in Russian affairs.

During the rule of Mikhail Romanov’s successor, Tsar Alexey I, the church reform of Patriarch Nikon was enacted in 1653. That caused a schism (raskol) between the official (reformed) church of Russia, and the Old Believers, who escaped to the peripheral areas of Russia, or out of the country altogether. Alexey also conquered most of the Ukrainian territories held by Poland, including Kiev. The following rulers, Fyodor III, and, Regent Sophia Alexeyevna, were intellectuals who promoted Russian culture.

Most of the 17th century was characterized by relative political and religious seclusion from the rest of the world (and especially from Europe), that helped form a specific Russian mentality..




Peter the Great


Until the 1700’s, Russia was, technologically, way behind the rest of Europe. One could say Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) dragged the country, kicking and screaming, out of the Middle Ages. His reforms made Russia an international player for the first time in history.


Peter wanted to change Russia’s backwardness. His goal was a technologically advanced country, and for that he turned his eyes to the West. He also wanted to introduce Western culture and mentality into Russia. For that, he was hailed by the Westernizers (in contrast to the Slavophiles), in Russian cultural history.

Great Northern War

In order to open up the, “ …window to Europe,” Peter needed access to the ports of the Baltic Sea to participate in international trade, and he also needed a navy to protect them.

After an extensive army reform, ship-building and industrialization, Russia broke Sweden’s domination over the Baltic Sea in the Great Northern War. In 1709, Peter defeated Swedish armies in the decisive Battle of Poltava on the soil of Ukraine. Peter also conquered the Eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, where many important port towns were situated.


Apart from the military industry, Peter also revolutionized Russian society. He made Russian nobility look, and act, like Europeans. The most important examples for his reforms came from the Netherlands and Sweden.

He made a universal, “Table of Ranks,” that allowed anyone to ascend the social ladder. The Boyar Duma was replaced by the, “Governing Senate,” (the inner circle of the Tsar). They introduced new taxes, and subdued the church directly under the state. The first hospitals and museums were introduced.

In 1703, Peter began the construction of his new capital, Saint Petersburg, partially on the remains of the small Swedish town of Nyen near the Baltic Sea. Most of the new capital was situated in the middle of a swamp. The construction was undertaken by peasants who emptied the swamp, an operation that cost tens of thousands of lives. Thus, it is said, “… the city was built on bones.”



Empire of Russia