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Russian Czars During the Reformation: Michael Romanov and Peter the Great

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  • 0:01 Czars during Reformation
  • 0:42 Michael Romanov
  • 2:35 Peter the Great
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

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

In this lesson, we explore the rule of two Russian czars during the Reformation period, Michael Romanov and Peter the Great, both of whom spent their childhoods in exile before ruling Europe's largest country.

Czars during Reformation

If you pay attention to politics, you've probably heard the word 'czar' tossed around more than once. Whether it's the 'Car Czar' President Obama appointed when America's 'Big Three' automakers were in trouble, or the 'Ebola Czar' that was appointed as recently as 2014, it's used colloquially in U.S. politics to describe a point man on a project, someone with the final and most important authority. Well, the reason this Russian word is even in the American lexicon is the absolute power that the czars of Russia wielded in prior centuries. In this lesson, we'll explore the reigns of two of these czars during the Reformation period: Michael Romanov and Peter the Great.

Michael Romanov

In 1613, an assembly of Russian aristocrats declared Michael Romanov the new Czar of Russia. Michael, only 16 years old, was related to a previous czar through his mother, though he and his mother had been exiled from Moscow for nearly a decade. When Michael took the throne, he had his work cut out for him perhaps more than any other 16-year-old in history! Indeed, Russia was in a shambles. After the 1605 death of Boris Godunov, who had taken the throne for himself after being adviser to the Czar, central authority in Russia had disintegrated.

Multiple claimants to the throne vied for power, and the Russian landed aristocracy wavered back and forth between the would-be czars. To make matters worse, Russia's neighbors, Poland and Sweden, were exploiting Russian weaknesses to carve out Russian territory for themselves and creating chaos by throwing their own weight behind claimants that best suited their interests.

Michael's first task as czar was defeating the Western invaders, which had carved up portions of Western Russia for themselves. Sweden and Poland were both defeated within five years, and afterward, Michael's exiled father was allowed to return to Russia. Michael was not a particularly strong personality, and both his father and mother greatly influenced the early years of his rule. Nonetheless, under Michael's reign, the Russian economy improved and agriculture rebounded significantly.

Czar Michael was the first czar to invite the development of foreign industry and investment in Russia; for example, it was under Czar Michael that a Dutch company built a firearms manufacturing operation in Tula, Russia, a city which remains a hub of firearms manufacturing to this day. Czar Michael also oversaw the reorganization and education of the Russian military class in the 1640s - a precursor to the institution of a standing army. Michael died of an illness, which historians have yet to exactly identify, in 1645.

Peter the Great

While Michael Romanov was the first Romanov Czar of Russia, the reign of Peter I some decades later was quite possibly the greatest rule by a Romanov czar, earning Peter the nickname 'Peter the Great.' Like Michael, Peter spent his adolescence in exile. Though technically a joint czar with his half-brother, Ivan, Peter was virtually ignored by the Moscow elite. The exile allowed Peter to spend a great deal of time reading and learning - an education which greatly helped him later in life.

When Ivan died in 1696, Peter succeeded to the throne as Czar Peter I. Peter began his reign by breaking the power of those who had once excluded him, centralizing authority in himself and in the position of czar. Then Peter promptly went on a European tour of sorts, traveling in disguise at times while visiting shipyards, museums, schools, and other sites, all in an effort to learn about European practices.

When Peter returned, he was determined to implement some of these European policies to modernize Russia and make it a true European power. He sent young aristocratic boys to Italy to learn from master shipbuilders in order to construct a Russian navy. Even before his navy could set sail, however, it needed a port. To do this, Peter reorganized the Russian military, making it more efficient, better drilled, and making its offices more meritocratic. He then went to war several times with the Swedish Empire until he had won Russia a port on the Baltic Sea.

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