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Time of Troubles

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Time of Troubles

When Ivan IV died in 1584, he was succeeded by his son Feodor I. Feodor was mentally simple and childlike, incapable of governing; he was glad to hand his responsibilities over to his able brother-in-law Boris Godunov, who ruled in fact although not in name.

Feodor died in 1598. Hereditary rule had been the law in Russia since 1450, but since Feodor was the last of his family, a successor would have to be chosen by other authority figures. A council of six hundred boyars, clergy, and military officers elected Boris Godunov. His election began an era known in Russian history as the Time of Troubles. Although Boris was an intelligent and capable ruler, he had many enemies and was not popular among his subjects. For one thing, he had been an oprichnik and his wife was the daughter of the leader of this feared and hated gang; for another, many people suspected him of having murdered Feodor’s younger brother Dmitri, who had been discovered stabbed to death in 1591 in a mystery that historians have yet to solve. In addition, the boyars opposed Boris’s plans to reorganize the administration and make it more efficient. They preferred to cling to the privileges and personal advantages they enjoyed in an inefficient system.

The Time of Troubles was a period of chaos on many levels. First, there was social unrest within the Russian population. Second, there was a struggle for power among a variety of candidates for the throne. Third, fighting broke out among the armies of Sweden, Poland, and Russia as part of the struggle over who would rule the empire.

Social Unrest

In 1597, Boris issued a ukase, or royal edict, restricting the liberty peasants to move freely throughout the empire. In 1601, however, crop failure resulted in famine that caused thousands of peasants to defy the ukase, since remaining on barren land was tantamount to a death sentence. Many peasants roamed the countryside looking for food; others moved into towns and cities looking for work that would pay wages. By 1603, there was widespread social unrest; the czar had to muster the army to put down rebellion among the peasants and other members of the poorer classes.

The Struggle for Power

After the death of Feodor, Russia reverted to the days before Vasili II, when power was taken by violence and conquest rather than inheritance. Boris Godunov was a duly elected regent, but despite his intelligence and undoubted administrative ability, he was unable to unify and control the diverse elements within his realm. The situation was ripe for the appearance of a strong leader, but although several men tried to grab power, none could hold on to it.

In 1601, the first claimant appeared, declaring that he was Dmitri, Feodor I’s younger brother. According to his story, the body identified in 1591 as Dmitri’s had been someone else’s; he, the real Dmitri, had been smuggled out of Russia and grown up in safety. The claim was false; historians believe the False Dmitri to have been a Russian nobleman. Whoever he really was, the False Dmitri won the support of the Polish army by promising to turn over some territory to King Zygmunt III on his accession to the Russian throne. Despite a triumphal march into Moscow two months after Godunov’s death in 1605, with thousands of Poles and Cossacks in his train, the False Dmitri could not maintain power, and the boyars, who had never believed his claim of royal birth, murdered him in 1606. The boyar Vasili Shiuskii then assumed power, with the support of his fellow nobles, but although he did succeed in putting down a major peasant uprising, he was eventually forced out.

The Invasions from the West

In 1607, a second False Dmitri appeared, again from Poland. Poland invaded Russia with the new claimant and soon established a rival Russian government in the Upper Volga region. The early success of this group forced Shiuskii to summon Swedish mercenaries to help him put it down. However, Shiuskii soon found himself trying to fight both the Poles and the Swedes, both of whom saw strategic advantages to be gained by opposing rather than supporting him. Poland and Russia began discussing the possibility of a Polish czar in exchange for an end to the fighting, but there were loud outcries of anger in the Orthodox Church against this plan, since the Poles were not Orthodox. In the end, a national uprising led to the election of a new Russian czar, the sixteen-year-old boyar Mikhail Romanov, in 1613. His direct heirs would rule Russia until the Revolution of 1917.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Czars of Russia Practice Test

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