Absolute Monarchs: Russia

Absolute Monarchs: Russia Video

Hi, and welcome to this video on the Russian government during the 16th century! In this video, we’ll take a look at the rise of the Russian tsars from the rule of Ivan III to the establishment of the Romanov dynasty. We’ll also examine the grim rule of Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible, and the Time of Troubles which followed his death. Finally, we’ll also consider religious and cultural developments along the way. Let’s get started!

Foundations of Modern Russia

The foundations for modern Russia were laid in the late 15th century by the Grand Duke of Moscow, Ivan III. Ivan successfully freed Moscow from paying tribute to the Mongols and brought several principalities of the Rus’ under his control. Ivan took to calling himself “Tsar,” a name derived from the Latin title Caesar. At this time, Moscow assumed the identity of the ‘Third Rome’, the final successor to the Roman Empire.

The fall of the seat of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople (which is known as the second Rome), resulted in an influx of Byzantine scholars and artists to Moscow. Nineteen years later, in 1472, Ivan married a Byzantine princess named Sophia, who would prove to be an influential figure in his court.

In 1497, Ivan introduced a new code of laws, the Sudebnik, which provided the legal framework for the Tsars who followed. For instance, one of these new laws was to grant the peasantry one day a year in which they could legally leave one landowner for another, which would become known as Yuri’s Day. Ivan used his code of laws to curb the privileges of the Russian nobility, the Boyars, and the Orthodox Church which had benefited from Mongol rule through land grants and tax exemption.

Around this time, a religious movement rose up, centered around the teachings of Nil Sorsky, an Orthodox monk who opposed the dissipation of the Orthodox Church. His followers were known as the Non-Possessors as they believed the accumulation of material wealth was contrary to the church’s teachings. On the other side of this religious divide were the so-called Possessors or Josephites, named after Joseph Volotsky. Volotsky argued that wealth was a necessary part of the church’s mission to support schools and hospitals. His views had the backing of the Tsars, and ultimately prevailed, though the followers of Sorsky’s ideals never truly vanished.

Sandwiched between the reigns of Ivan III and Ivan IV was the steady but unspectacular 28- year rule of Vasili III. In search of producing an heir, Vasili divorced his wife of 20 years to take a much younger bride, Elena, in 1526. She gave birth to two boys – Ivan in 1530 and Yuri in 1532. Vasili died suddenly in 1533, leaving Elena to act as the 3-year-old Ivan’s regent.

Elena died five years later at only 28 years of age. It was commonly believed, and modern research supports the idea, that she was poisoned by the Boyars who saw an opportunity to extend their power. Ivan and Yuri were neglected; they were denied food and clothing and those who showed any kindness to the boys were punished severely. During this time, two noble houses, the Shuiskys and Belskys, rose within the power vacuum and rolled back the restrictions placed by Ivan’s predecessors.

Their actions would have dire consequences.

Rise and Rule of “Ivan the Terrible”

Ivan was a precocious child hardened by his difficult upbringing. At the age of 13 he ordered the guards to throw a member of the Shuisky family into a cell where he was eaten alive by dogs. Ivan was crowned Tsar of Russia four years later, formalizing his grandfather’s unofficial title to claim the divine right to rule Russia. His commonly used suffix ‘the terrible’ is a mistranslation of the Russian word ‘grozny’ which actually means ‘fearsome’.

Ivan the Terrible’s rule is best remembered for the grotesque violence inflicted on his political opponents he suspected of plotting against him. Like other monarchies at the time, Ivan strengthened and centralized his domain, which left the powers of the Russian high nobility, the Boyar Duma, greatly limited. Similarly, the influence of the Russian parliament was also significantly curbed.

Ivan conquered the remaining Mongol khanates up to the Caucasus mountains, bringing great swathes of territory under Russian control. His reign took a darker turn with the death of his wife and the betrayal of a close friend. Foul play by the Boyars in his wife’s death was suspected but never proven. In 1564, Andrey Kurbsky betrayed Ivan to side with the Kingdom of Poland, a rival in Ivan’s Baltic ambitions.

From 1565-1572, Ivan inflicted the state policy of Oprichnina upon his people, a seven-year reign of terror. Oprichnina placed a portion of the Tsardom under Ivan’s complete control in which his personal guard, the Oprichniki, were tasked with rooting out disloyal subjects and destroying the power of the nobility. Land was confiscated and families were banished into the wilderness at the height of winter. Of all the excesses of violence and terror inflicted, none was more egregious than the sack of Novgorod in 1570.

Before the massacre, Novgorod was an important Baltic trading hub which rivaled Moscow in influence and wealth. Suspecting the populace of conspiring with his enemies, Ivan led an expedition to the city. Over a five-week period, the city was looted and much of the population was murdered. One source claims that children were chained to their mothers and thrown into the icy waters of the Volkhov River. Soldiers reportedly patrolled the rivers making sure none made it out.

There were other aspects to Ivan’s long reign beyond the violent excesses he is most infamous for; he was also a patron of the arts and the church and encouraged foreign trade. In 1555, English merchants set off to discover a northern route to China only to be trapped in the ice. The expedition was then repurposed to establish a permanent trade route between Russia and England. This route continued to trade until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It still exists today as a charitable organization. Ivan also founded the publishing house, the Moscow Print Yard, which produced books until it was folded into the Russian State University in 1908.

In the latter part of his reign, Ivan suffered a series of military defeats in the Baltic and the premature death of his eldest son and heir, also named Ivan, in 1581. Some sources claim his son was killed by the Tsar himself in a furious argument. The haunting image of Ivan IV holding his dying son was the subject of a painting by Ilay Repa in 1885. Whether by the Tsar’s hand or other causes, the early death of Ivan’s eldest son would be painfully apparent in the succession crisis that followed.

Ivan the Terrible died in 1584 and he was succeeded by the emotionally frail Feodor. Feodor’s younger brother Dmitry was found with his throat cut in 1591. The official ruling claimed the 8- year-old had accidentally cut himself during an epileptic fit. Strangely, this is not the end of Dmitry’s story.

The Time of Troubles

Boris Godunov was Feodor’s brother-in-law and was widely suspected to have orchestrated Dmitry’s murder. He was the de facto Tsar as Feodor was incapable of rule and became the official Tsar of Russia in 1598. Godunov’s seven-year reign was marked by the passage of a series of educational reforms, including the practice of sending students abroad to study, and a terrible famine which killed up to a third of the entire population.

The period that followed Gudonov’s death is referred to as the Time of Troubles. The troubles began with the emergence of a young man claiming to be the deceased Dmitry of Uglich, the rightful Tsar of Russia. He was backed by Poland and arrived in Russia with an army to press his claim. In the meantime, the son of Boris Godunov, Feodor II, was deposed and strangled after just a few weeks of rule. It apparently took four men to subdue the unfortunate Tsar.

False Dmitry, as he is now remembered, became Tsar in the aftermath and took a Polish bride. He planned a series of reforms to ease the plight of the peasantry, to promote religious tolerance, and to pardon nobles who had been exiled. He did not live to see any of them pass as he was deposed and executed in May 1606, resulting in a reign of 11 months. He was cremated and his remains were shot out of a cannon in the direction of Poland. Yet, this is still not the end of the story of Dmitry of Uglich.

Another man claiming to be Dmitry arrived the following year and False Dmitry I’s widow even acknowledged him as her husband. His campaign collapsed in 1610 without success but yet another False Dmitry arrived on the scene in 1611. In the meantime, a group of nobles, the Seven Boyars, deposed the Tsar and invited a Polish prince to take the throne and put an end to the succession crisis. The arrival of the Poles prompted an uprising led by a butcher and a minor noble. The largely peasant army succeeded in driving the Polish forces out of the Russian capital in 1612.

The following year brought an end to the Time of Troubles. The Russian parliament chose the 16-year-old Michael Romanov, a descendant of Ivan the Terrible’s first wife, as Tsar. The young Tsar concluded peace treaties with Sweden and Poland in 1617 and 1618, respectively. The latter treaty allowed his father Feodor to return from exile and be appointed Patriarch of Moscow in 1619. Until his death in 1633, Feodor was essentially the Tsar in all but name.

The borders of Russia expanded greatly under Michael’s rule as the Cossacks conquered Siberia and beyond. As well as territorial gains, the economy and agricultural sector also began to recover after the years of chaos. Michael was the first of 18 Romanov Tsars of Russia, a dynasty that lasted 300 years.

Michael’s successor Alexis I endured a difficult start to his reign, as a riot over a tax on salt destroyed large parts of Moscow. After the rebellion was crushed, a new legal code was passed which bound peasants and slaves together as a single class of serfs in 1649. Under the terms of the new code, a serf was bound to the land and could never rise in status. There were many other challenges awaiting Alexis, but that’s a topic for another video.

Ok, before we go, let’s look at a couple of quick review questions:

Review Questions

1. Moscow was greatly influenced by the arrival of refugees from which fallen city?

  1. Rome
  2. Paris
  3. Constantinople
  4. Kiev


2. Ivan the Terrible established trade relations with which European power?

  1. Sweden
  2. England
  3. Poland
  4. The Holy Roman Empire


I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!


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by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: February 8, 2024