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Useful Notes: Tsar Tsar Autocrats
While Russian Heads of State
lists the republican Russian leaders, this article, a companion to Tsarist Russia
, is a listing of all Russian monarchs from the early Muscovite period to the Revolution of 1917.
The Rurikids of Moscow: Like in Kievan Rus, but Different
The Rurikid dynasty is as old as Kievan Rus itself. Princes descending from Rurik ruled various principalities of what would later become Russia, Ukraine and Belarus during the Dark Ages, the High Middle Ages and afterwards. However, Russia proper started to differentiate from the rest of the Mongol-dominated Eastern European feudal mess in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with several major distinctly Russian principalities (Moscow, Novgorod, Pskov and Tver were the most important) gaining prominence. The principality of Moscow ended up the richest and the most influential, and it was its branch of the Rurikids that gave the start to the Rurikid Tsars. The numbering of the Moscow Rurikids starts from the age of the Mongol vassalage, so do not be surprised that it starts with a third Ivan. The first Ivan (Ivan the Moneybag) was a Quisling
of the Mongol Horde, and his bag was full of money because he collected taxes on behalf of the Mongols and pocketed a small percent.
The Rurikid era inheritance was male line only. There was only one female ruler during this era, and she was a Princess Regent for her son, the future Ivan the Terrible.
There were also many, many cadet branches of the House of Rurik. Most of them survived as noble but not royal princely families and laid the foundation to the ancient nobility of Russia.
- Ivan III the Great (1462-1505) was the founder of Russia itself, as differentiated from Kievan Rus, which was not exactly Russia and not exactly Ukraine. He was the one who openly defied the Mongols and created Russia as an independent realm. No wonder historians call him the Great. This was done by slowly accumulating power, a lot of political jockeying and no real battles, something that would look good in a series like "Game of Thrones" but wasn't exactly the stuff of epic legends at the time. A legacy of Ivan the Great was the Muscovite "Idea of the Third Rome"; according to it, when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks, Russia succeeded it as the leader of the true (Orthodox) Christendom. Because of that, Russia between the two Greats (Ivan and Peter) did everything to imitate the Byzantine Empire. The still-existing Russian Coat of Arms is a Byzantine two-headed eagle.
- Another thing should be said about Ivan III's title. He did not object to be called tsar (which was, at the time, an equivalent of emperor rather than king), but it was not his coronation title; he retained the old feudal title of grand prince.
- Vasily III (1505-1533). He continued basically everything his father started.
- Grand Princess Elena Glinskaya (1533-1547, regent for her son Ivan IV).
- Ivan IV the Terrible (1533-1584). Of this guy, legends abound, but let's start with hard facts. First, he was the first ruler of Russia who used "Tsar" as his coronation title, claiming imperial status. Second, his cognomen (Russian: Grozny) does not mead "very bad": in Old Russian, it meant "awesome", as in, "worthy of awe". Or "Very badass", if you wish. Third, he wasn't an epitome of sadism and bloodthirstiness; it's true that he started the proud Russian tradition of having a State Sec, but his body count isn't much different from that of his European contemporaries. It just wasn't a good time to be a believer in sanctity of human life.
- Beyond that, basically, Ivan Grozny was a legendary Tsar: his exploits featured a lot of cannonfire, a lot of blood, a lot of epicness and a lot of conquests. Under him, the remnants of the Mongol Horde, the Tatar khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia, were conquered by Russians. More wars were fought to gain sea ports for Russia, but these were somewhat less successful. He also created the first Russian secret police force, the Oprichnina (literally, "The Stand-Alone Organization"), which destroyed the political power of the scheming Boyar aristocracy who were still dreaming of regaining indepencence of Novgorod, Pskov and Tver and restoring the feudal patchwork.
- However, in his last years Ivan IV became exactly as violent as the popular perception paints him to be. He murdered his son and heir Ivan Ivanovich, leaving his weak-minded second son Feodor as the successor. And this laid the foundation for a major political crisis.
- Feodor I (1584-1598). Religious, weak-willed and generally an unremarkable ruler, he relied on his brother-in-law, the boyar Boris Godunov in every matter of state. The Godunovs were an important noble house, one of the most important of the non-Rurikids, and a relation by marriage to the ruling Rurikids made their position even more secure.
The Godunovs: Ambitious but Unlucky
- Boris (1598-1605). When Feodor died with no heir, and Ivan IV's third son Dmitri (Demetrius) died in a mysterious accident involving a game with knives (a whole forest of Epileptic Trees grew out of this, and three pretenders emerged from that forest later), the Godunovs ended up the most influential family, and the head of the house, Boris Godunov, crowned himself the new Tsar. If this would happen in a less troubled time, he would become a good ruler; he was both intelligent, sane and kind. However, years spent as Feodor's closest advisor gave him a reputation of a Manipulative Bastard, and famines of the worst kind happened during his reign. The people saw this as an ill omen and started to whisper about Boris being an usurper. They did not openly rise against him, but when he died...
- Feodor II (1605). Boris Godunov's son and heir didn't rule for even one year. A pretender emerged, who claimed to be the miraculously survived prince Dmitri, and the people weren't afraid to riot agaist a child Tsar.
Non-dynastic tsars and pretenders of the Time of Troubles: Now that's a game of thrones!
- Pseudo-Demetrius I (1605-1606). Historians still argue who he really was; the most well known version of his identity was that of Grigory Otrepiev, an ex-monk. But the one hard fact was that he was backed by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a bitter rival of Russia, locked in a cold war for domination in Eastern Europe. The Poles were happy to have a pocket Russian Tsar, and supported Pseudo-Demetrius' movement against Feodor II Godunov. The pretender won, was accepted as a real long-lost heir of the House of Rurik and crowned Tsar. He was definitely badass: one of his favourite pastimes was hunting bears with a spear. But his fondness for all things Polish, and his marriage to the Polish noblewoman Marina Mniszech, was what led to his downfall. The Boyars rose against him, exposed him as a fraud, executed him, cremated the remains and shot them from a cannon westward, where Poland was located.
- Vasily IV Shuisky (1606-1610). With Pseudo-Demetrius safely dead, the Shuiskys (a cadet branch of the House of Rurik) had the best claim on the throne. Their Tsar, Vasily IV, was a pretty unremarkable ruler that did nothing to stabilize the violent mess Russia became.
- Pseudo-Demetrius II (pretender, 1607-1609). You thought Pseudo-Demetrius was safely dead? Close but no cigar. Soon afterwards, another pretender appeared, who claimed to be both the original Dmitri and the Dmitri whom they cremated and shot from a cannon. Apparently, the early XVII century Russians believed in miracles, but there were people who believed him. Including Marina Mniszech, who pretended to recognize this pretender as her husband. This fraud notably failed to conquer Moscow, but he set up shop in a close-by village of Tushino (today it's a borough of Moscow), giving the second Pseudo-Demetrius a nickname of "the Felon of Tushino" from Vasily's loyalists.
- Wladyslaw Waza (pretender, 1610-1613). When Vasily IV died without an heir, the Russians were totally puzzled who their next Tsar might be. The Poles exploited that weakness and directed an invasion force into Russia, to put their prince, the future King of Poland Wladyslaw IV Waza as Russia's next Tsar. A group of high-born Boyars, the Semiboyarschina (The Rule of Seven Boyars) accepted that claim and let Wladyslaw march into Moscow. The Semiboyarschina had a 0% Approval Rating in the rest of Russia, and later became a Russian byword for "false authority pandering to foreign conquerors" (to the point of that the much latter community of 1990s oligarchs received the unflattering nickname of "Semibankirschina" [ the rule of seven bankers ] on account of their pandering to the USA).
- Pseudo-Demetrius III (pretender, 1611-1612). This pretender was fairly unremarkable as far as the Pseudo-Demetrii go.
The Romanovs: We're here to stay until the bitter end
- Michael (1613-1645). This Tsar, the founder of the Romanov Dynasty, was backed by a people's movement lead by Prince Dmitri Pozharsky and Kozma Minin, a burgher. More precisely, Minin and Pozharsky's movement fought for kicking the Poles out and assembling the Zemsky Sobor (the Council of the Land, the estate-representative organ analogous to the French Etats Generales or the earliest English Parliaments) to elect the new dynasty. The Romanov family were boyars and relatives of one of Ivan the Terrible's wives; they were chosen as the quietest, least scandalous of Russia's noble houses. What Russia wanted most was stability, and that was what it received in full: Michael Romanov was a quiet, ambitionless Tsar. For a large part of his reign, his father, Philaretus, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, was the real regent. During his rule, Russia was almost a parliamentary monarchy: the Zemsky Sobors assembled regularly and influenced the decisions of the Tsar.
- Alexis Mikhailovich the Most Serene (1645-1676). Now this Tsar was important. He was very similar to Ivan III: an adept at political jockeying and getting what he wanted without bloodshed. His age was remembered by historians the "The Age of Rebellions" (Russian: Buntashny Vek), but he managed to deal with all those rebellions without compromising the stability of the realm. The Church went into a bloody schism in his age, but he managed to keep a straight face and lead his country right through it. The taxation reforms caused riots, but his Streltsy (Musketmen) quelled them. However, the greatest threat to his rule was the rebellion of Stepan Razin, an anarchist Cossack pirate leader who is still a folk hero among Russians. Alexis was jovial, fat, cat-loving and absolutely unflappable in his attempts to preserve the conservative, Byzantine Russian state against the tides of the coming Age of Enlightenment.
- Feodor III (1676-1682). A pale shadow of his father, Feodor Alexeievich was willing to preserve what Alexis tried to keep. He was an intelligent man, religious and fond of music, but not a good ruler.
- Ivan V (1682-1696, co-regent with Peter the Great). Feodor's much simpler brother, Ivan was happy to let his younger brother Peter and his older sister Sophia have their way.
- Peter I the Great (1682-1725, the first Emperor of Russia). THE Emperor of Russia, enough said. He was obsessed with the idea of making Russia a proper European power, and didn't stop at the costs. After winning a battle for political dominance with his half-sister Sophia, he triumphed as the undisputed leader of Russia and immediately leaved for an embassy to Europe, to learn the ways of the West. After returning, he forced the Western ways on all Russia, dismissed the Boyar class, created an absolutist regime and proclaimed Russia a formal Empire.
- Catherine I (1725-1727). No matter how ridiculous it sounds, Catherine I wasn't Romanov at all. She was a Swedish camp follower picked up by Peter the Great as a mistress and, later, wife. Because Peter left a trollish succession law which estabilished whoever designated by the previous Emperor as a successor but never managed to designate one, she succeeded him. She was a grieving widow and an alcoholic, but nothing significant as a statesperson.
- Peter II (1727-1730). The next Emperor wanted a return to the Muscovite ways, but smallpox killed him before he could do much.
- Anna Ioannovna the Bloody (1730-1740). A particularly infamous Empress and daughter of the aforementioned Ivan V, she was invited by the High Privy Council, a group of aristocrats formed after Peter II's death, as a figurehead ruler of Russia. She deceived the Council, tore the Conditions by which she was meant to rule, and took the supreme power. During her reigh, German favourites such as Duke Ernst Biren, held all the reins of power in Russia.
- Ivan VI (1740-1741, infant, with Princess Anna Leopoldovna as regent). This Emperor of Russia was ill-fated. At age one, he was deposed by Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth and put into prison. He grew up in prison and later was killed by an officer of Catherine the Great.
- Elizabeth (1741-1761). Better known as the precursor to Catherine the Great, she was just as welcoming to lovers but much less talented in politics. She became famous for the merriment and sex-fest that happened in her court.
- Peter III (1761-1762). A strange man, a fan of table-top war games, a lover of the Prussian order - this Tsar was named a madman, an eccentric, a misunderstood reformer by various historians. Right now we realize he was just a typical geek, brilliant yet socially awkward. Oh, and he is also the source of inspiration for the famous The Elder Scrolls Mad Emperor, Pelagius. He was soon overthrown by his wife...
- Catherine II the Great (1762-1796). In the West, she's famous for banging a horse. The Bolsheviks, happy to support any libel against Tsarism, gladly propagated that rumor. But no credible modern historian believes that myth. She, a German princess, a Romanov by marriage, a Lutheran by birth and a Russian Orthodox by conversion, is one of the most famous Russian rulers. It's true that she had a lot of lovers, but this did not hamper her talent as a statesperson. She was mildly liberal, willing to promote the ideals of the Enlightenment if it didn't disrupt the society.
- Paul I (1796-1801). Another crowned fanboy, Paul was the son of Peter III and Catherine the Great. He was a fan of medieval knightly romances, built castles all over Russia and challenged the other European monarchs to duels. His ideas of running the country were too much for certain nobles, who concocted a plot and killed Paul in his own castle. One important legacy of Paul the First was his succession law, which was semi-Salic and virtually removed any woman's chance to inherit the Russian throne.
- Alexander I the Blessed (1801-1825). A day before he succeeded his father Paul, he said: "My reign will be the same as my grandma's". And he kept true to his word: his reign was also mildly liberal but not much threatening to the remnants of the Russian feudalism. One important thing he did was to allow land-owners to give their serfs freedom. The other important achievement of his was presiding over the army that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte.
- Nicholas I (1825-1855). Known in Russia under the not so much flattering monker of "Nicholas Sticks" (Nikolay Palkin), after his fondness for military corporeal punishments. This Tsar was a conservative, changing the pro-Enlightenment political landscape typical of his predecessor to a reactionary one. The Russian army's loss during the Crimean War was perceived by him as a personal defeat, which drove him through a Morale Event Horizon and led to his death.
- Alexander II the Liberator (1855-1881). The liberal Tsar who abolished serfdom (essentially slavery at the time). He was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln and justifiedly felt a kindred spirit in him, which led to him supporting the Northern war effort in the USA. However, his reforms weren't radical enough for a group of anti-capitalist revolutionaries who sent an assassin to kill him.
- Alexander III the Peacemaker (1881-1894). Another clone of Alexis the Serene and Ivan the Great. This Tsar was very conservative; if only he had the chance to support the CSA, he would do so. But he was merely a tsesarevich (crown prince) at the time. He was another one of the "proceed slowly, with a straight face" tsars, and also a raging alcoholic. His age is remembered as the last stable age of Imperial Russia.
- Nicholas II the Bloody (or the Martyr, or the Spineless, depending on who you ask) (1894-1917). The guy about whom opinions differ. Ask communists, and you will hear a lot of ramblings of how bloody and reactionary he was. Ask monarchists, and you will hear a lot of ramblings on how perfect he was. What remains as hard fact is that he was weak-willed and not very smart, which led to Romanovs And Revolutions.