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End of the Rurik Dynasty & Establishment of the Romanov Dynasty

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we examine the period of history known in Russia as the Time of Troubles, when the Rurik Dynasty petered out and nobles fought over the throne until Michael Romanov was elected Czar.

Rurik to Romanov Rule in Russia

In the United States and elsewhere in the 21st-century world, governments often try to make governmental transition as easy and smooth as possible. For example, every two years, after either the presidential or mid-term elections, the House of Representatives quietly begins a new congress in January with little fanfare. Elsewhere, such as in Syria, where demonstrations erupted into an open, years-long rebellion against the Syrian ruler, things are not quite as smooth.

Historically, transitions between dynasties often more closely resembled Syria rather than the United States. In this lesson, we'll explore the transition between the Rurik Dynasty and the Romanov Dynasty in Russia at the turn of the 17th century, and the chaotic period surrounding the transition.

Pre-Transition

The Rurik Dynasty was founded in 862 in Novgorod in what is today northeastern Russia. From this beginning, the Rurik expanded the territory they held across Eastern Europe, creating the Kievan Rus. They also held territory as far south as modern-day Romania and as far west as Moscow. The Kievan Rus fell apart during the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, but the Rurik Dynasty survived in power, founding the Duchy of Muscovy, with its capital in Moscow, near the end of the 13th century.

Extent of territory controlled by Kievan Rus
Map of Kievan Rus

Over the next few hundred years, the Ruriks expanded their territory to include most of what is today eastern Russia, and the 16th-century Rurik ruler, Ivan IV (also known as Ivan the Terrible), assumed the title 'Czar of all Russia.' The name stuck, though the dynasty did not.

Upon Ivan IV's death in 1584, Ivan's son, Feodor I, took the throne as Czar of Russia. Feodor was a sickly person, and was possibly mentally handicapped. Ivan IV had spent his lifetime reforming the Russian government and centralizing power in himself at the expense of the traditionally powerful Russian nobility. By extension, this meant that whoever managed to control the weak and ineffectual Feodor would essentially rule Russia. This was accomplished by his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov.

Boris Godunov
Boris Godunov

Just like Ivan, Godunov tried to keep the powerful families of Russia in check. Furthermore, he dealt harshly with the Russian peasants, beginning the process of enserfment, which essentially tied the Russian peasantry to the land. Despite appeasing the nobility, one thing Godunov could not plan for was the death of the actual king; Feodor I died childless in 1598, ending the Rurik Dynasty.

Time of Troubles

Godunov attempted to hold onto power through calling a special representative assembly of the Russian noble families and managing to get himself elected Czar. Godunov's shaky claim to the throne was undermined by a series of famines and droughts which struck Russia in the first years of the 17th century. Rumors spread throughout the country that Russia was being punished for allowing Godunov to usurp power.

Into this stepped the first False Dimitri - a man (possibly a former monk) who claimed to be Feodor I's half-brother Dimitri, who had died in 1591. Supported by Polish, Lithuanian, and Russian nobility who either believed his claim or saw it as a political opportunity, Dimitri amassed an army and invaded Russia in October 1604. The timing proved fortuitous, as Boris Godunov died suddenly in April of the following year. Dimitri's forces swept into Moscow and Dimitri was crowned Czar of Russia. Only a year later, however, Dimitri's enemies in the Russian nobility overthrew the imposter's reign and murdered him.

A series of invasions and counter-invasions, including one by a second False Dimitri, plagued Russia over the next several years. To make matters worse, Russia's traditional enemies to the west, Poland and Sweden, saw their opportunity and joined the fray, carving out Russian territory for themselves.

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