Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rise of the Romanovs
In 1610, the successor of the first False Dimitri, Vasili Shiuskii, still tacitly held on to power in Moscow, after several attempts by rival noble families and other imposters to dislodge him. Nonetheless, after several days of open protest and rebellion in the streets of Moscow, Vasili finally surrendered in July 1610. He was arrested and later forced to become a monk.
After this episode, a council of nobles named the son of the King of Poland Czar. Soon after, the King of Poland declared that he would rule himself and he took the throne by force, occupying Moscow with Polish troops. This provided an opportunity for all of Russia to unite against the rule of a foreign monarch. It took a few years to drive the Poles and Swedes from Russian territory. Afterward, the generals of the prevailing Russian army held yet another special assembly which elected Michael Romanov Czar.
Only 16 years old when he took power, Michael I was the first Romanov Czar. The Romanovs were a noble family that had been powerful in Russia since the mid-14th century. Though his mother initially protested the election of so young a man (indeed, Michael reportedly burst into tears when learning of his election), he proved to be an able and capable ruler. In addition to pushing out the invaders from abroad, Michael also improved the Russian economy and completely reorganized its administrative system. The dynasty he founded lasted up until the Russian Revolution ended Russia's rule by Czars in 1917.
Transition can be tough, as it certainly was for Russia when the last Czar of the Rurik Dynasty died in 1598. What ensued is known as the Time of Troubles, when a series of false monarchs and noble families all claimed the throne for themselves. Russia was torn apart by the nearly two decades of invasion and revolution. In the end, Michael Romanov was elected Czar and began the Romanov Dynasty, a dynasty which lasted until the Russian Revolution.
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