On January 16, 1547, at age sixteen, Ivan the Terrible was crowned with Monomakh’s Cap at the Cathedral of the Dormition (Успенский Собор — Uspensky sobor) in Moscow. He was the first to be crowned as Tsar of All the Russias, hence claiming the ancestry of Kievan Rus’. Prior to that, rulers of Muscovy were crowned as Grand Princes, although Ivan III the Great, his grandfather, styled himself “tsar” in his correspondence. Two weeks after his coronation, Ivan married his first wife Anastasia Romanovna, a member of the Romanov family, who became the first Russian tsaritsa. Ivan IV Vasilyevich (Ива́н Васи́льевич, or Ivan Vasilyevich), commonly known as Ivan the Terrible or Ivan the Fearsome (Ива́н Гро́зный — Ivan Grozny; a better translation into modern English would be Ivan the Formidable), was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547, then Tsar of All the Russias until his death in 1584. The last title was used by all his successors.
During his reign, Russia conquered the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan and Sibir, becoming a multiethnic and multicontinental state spanning approximately 1,560,000 square miles (4,050,000 km²). He exercised autocratic control over Russia’s hereditary nobility and developed a bureaucracy to administer the new territories. He transformed Russia from a medieval state into an empire, though at immense cost to its people, and its broader, long-term economy.
Historic sources present disparate accounts of Ivan’s complex personality: he was described as intelligent and devout, yet given to rages and prone to episodic outbreaks of mental instability that increased with his age. In one such outburst, he killed his son and heir Ivan Ivanovich. This left his younger son, the pious but politically ineffectual Feodor Ivanovich, to inherit the throne.
Ivan was an able diplomat, a patron of arts and trade, and founder of the Moscow Print Yard, Russia’s first publishing house. He was popular among Russia’s commoners, except possibly the people of Novgorod and surrounding areas, and he is also noted for his paranoia and harsh treatment of the Russian nobility.
The English word terrible is usually used to translate the Russian word grozny in Ivan’s nickname, but this is a somewhat archaic translation. The Russian word grozny reflects the older English usage of terrible as in “inspiring fear or terror; dangerous; powerful; formidable”. It does not convey the more modern connotations of English terrible, such as “defective” or “evil”. Vladimir Dal defines grozny specifically in archaic usage and as an epithet for tsars: “courageous, magnificent, magisterial and keeping enemies in fear, but people in obedience”.
Ivan was the first son of Vasili III and his second wife, Elena Glinskaya, who was of half Serbian and half Lipka Tatar descent, the Glinski clan (nobles based in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) claiming descent from the Mongol ruler Mamai When Ivan was three years old, his father died from an abscess and inflammation on his leg that developed into blood poisoning. Ivan was proclaimed the Grand Prince of Moscow at the request of his father. His mother Elena Glinskaya initially acted as regent, but she died of what many believe to be assassination by poison, in 1538 when Ivan was only eight years old.
The regency then alternated between several feuding boyar families fighting for control. According to his own letters, Ivan, along with his younger brother Yuri, often felt neglected and offended by the mighty boyars from the Shuisky and Belsky families. In a letter to Prince Kurbski Ivan remembers, “My brother Iurii, of blessed memory, and me they brought up like vagrants and children of the poorest. What have I suffered for want of garments and food!!” It should be noted, however, that the historian Edward L Keenan has presented compelling reasons to doubt the authenticity of the source in which these quotes are found.
Upon being crowned Tsar in 1547, Ivan wanted to send the message to the world and to Russia that he was now the only supreme ruler of the country, and his will was not to be questioned. “The new title symbolized an assumption of powers equivalent and parallel to those held by former Byzantine Emperor and the Tatar Khan, both known in Russian sources as Tsar. The political effect was to elevate Ivan’s position.” The new title not only secured the throne, but it also granted Ivan a new dimension of power, one intimately tied to religion. He was now a “divine” leader appointed to enact God’s will, as “church texts described Old Testament kings as ‘Tsars’ and Christ as the Heavenly Tsar.” The newly appointed title was then passed on from generation to generation: “succeeding Muscovite rulers … benefited from the divine nature of the power of the Russian monarch … crystallized during Ivan’s reign.”
Despite calamities triggered by the Great Fire of 1547, the early part of Ivan’s reign was one of peaceful reforms and modernization. Ivan revised the law code, creating the Sudebnik of 1550, founded a standing army (the streltsy), established the Zemsky Sobor (the first Russian parliament of the feudal Estates type) and the council of the nobles (known as the Chosen Council), and confirmed the position of the Church with the Council of the Hundred Chapters (Stoglavy Synod), which unified the rituals and ecclesiastical regulations of the whole country. He introduced local self-government to rural regions, mainly in the northeast of Russia, populated by the state peasantry.
By Ivan’s order in 1553 the Moscow Print Yard was established and the first printing press was introduced to Russia. Several religious books in Russian were printed during the 1550s and 1560s. The new technology provoked discontent among traditional scribes, leading to the Print Yard being burned in an arson attack. The first Russian printers, Ivan Fedorov and Pyotr Mstislavets, were forced to flee from Moscow to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Nevertheless, printing of books resumed from 1568 onwards, with Andronik Timofeevich Nevezha and his son Ivan now heading the Print Yard.
Ivan had St. Basil’s Cathedral constructed in Moscow to commemorate the seizure of Kazan. Legend has it that he was so impressed with the structure that he had the architect, Postnik Yakovlev, blinded so that he could never design anything as beautiful again. In reality, Postnik Yakovlev went on to design more churches for Ivan and the walls of the Kazan Kremlin in the early 1560s, as well as the chapel over St. Basil’s grave that was added to St. Basil’s Cathedral in 1588, several years after Ivan’s death. Although more than one architect was associated with this name and constructions, it is believed that the principal architect is one and the same person.
Other events of this period include the introduction of the first laws restricting the mobility of the peasants, which would eventually lead to serfdom, instituted during the rule of future tsar Boris Godunov in 1597.
The 1560s brought hardships to Russia that led to dramatic change of Ivan’s policies. Russia was devastated by a combination of drought and famine, unsuccessful wars against the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Tatar invasions and the sea-trading blockade carried out by the Swedes, Poles and the Hanseatic League. His first wife, Anastasia Romanovna, died in 1560, and her death was suspected to be a poisoning. This personal tragedy deeply hurt Ivan and is thought to have affected his personality, if not his mental health. At the same time, one of Ivan’s advisors, Prince Andrei Kurbsky, defected to the Lithuanians, took command of the Lithuanian troops and devastated the Russian region of Velikiye Luki. The series of treasons made Ivan paranoically suspicious of nobility.
On December 3, 1564, Ivan departed Moscow for Aleksandrova Sloboda. From there he sent two letters in which he announced his abdication because of the alleged embezzlement and treason of the aristocracy and clergy. The boyar court was unable to rule in Ivan’s absence and feared the wrath of the Muscovite citizenry. A boyar envoy departed for Aleksandrova Sloboda to beg Ivan to return to the throne. Ivan agreed to return on condition of being granted absolute power. He demanded that he should be able to execute and confiscate the estates of traitors without interference from the boyar council or church. Upon this, Ivan decreed the creation of the oprichnina.
The oprichnina consisted of a separate territory within the borders of Russia, mostly in the territory of the former Novgorod Republic in the north. Ivan held exclusive power over the oprichnina territory. The Boyar Council ruled the zemshchina (‘land’), the second division of the state. Ivan also recruited a personal guard known as the Oprichniki. Originally it was a thousand strong. The oprichniki were headed by Malyuta Skuratov. One known oprichnik was the German adventurer Heinrich von Staden. The oprichniki enjoyed social and economic privileges under the oprichnina. They owed their allegiance and status to Ivan, not to heredity or local bonds.
The first wave of persecutions targeted primarily the princely clans of Russia, notably the influential families of Suzdal. Ivan executed, exiled or forcibly tonsured prominent members of the boyar clans on questionable accusations of conspiracy. Among those executed were the Metropolitan Philip and the prominent warlord Alexander Gorbaty-Shuisky. In 1566 Ivan extended the oprichnina to eight central districts. Of the 12,000 nobles there, 570 became oprichniks, the rest were expelled.
Under the new political system, the Oprichniki were given large estates, but unlike the previous landlords, could not be held accountable for their actions. These men “took virtually all the peasants possessed, forcing them to pay ‘in one year as much as [they] used to pay in ten.'” This degree of oppression resulted in increasing cases of peasants fleeing, which in turn led to a drop in the overall production. The price of grain increased by a factor of ten.
Conditions under Oprichnina were worsened by the 1570 epidemics of plague that killed 10,000 people in Novgorod. In Moscow it killed 600–1,000 daily. During the grim conditions of the epidemics, famine and ongoing Livonian War, Ivan grew suspicious that noblemen of the wealthy city of Novgorod were planning to defect, placing the city itself into the control of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1570 Ivan ordered the Oprichniki to raid the city. The Oprichniki burned and pillaged Novgorod and the surrounding villages, and the city was never to regain its former prominence.
Casualty figures vary greatly in different sources. The First Pskov Chronicle estimates the number of victims at 60,000. According to the Third Novgorod Chronicle, the massacre lasted for five weeks. The massacre of Novgorod consisted of men, women and children were tied to sleighs, which were then run into the freezing waters of the Volkhov River, which Ivan ordered on the basis of unproved accusations of treason and tortured its inhabitants and killed thousands in a pogrom there, the archbishop was also hunted to death. Almost every day 500 or 600 people were killed or drowned. Yet the official death toll named 1,500 of Novgorod’s big people (nobility) and mentioned only about the same number of smaller people. Many modern researchers estimate the number of victims to range from 2,000–3,000 (after the famine and epidemics of the 1560s the population of Novgorod most likely did not exceed 10,000–20,000). Many survivors were deported elsewhere.
Oprichnina did not live long after the sack of Novgorod. During the 1571–72 Russo-Crimean war, oprichniks failed to prove themselves worthy against a regular army. In 1572, Ivan abolished the Oprichnina and disbanded his oprichniks.
In 1547, Hans Schlitte, the agent of Ivan, recruited craftsmen in Germany for work in Russia. However, all these craftsmen were arrested in Lübeck at the request of Poland and Livonia. The German merchant companies ignored the new port built by Ivan on the River Narva in 1550 and continued to deliver goods in the Baltic ports owned by Livonia. Russia remained isolated from sea trade.
Ivan established close ties with the Kingdom of England. Russo-English relations can be traced to 1551, when the Muscovy Company was formed by Richard Chancellor, Sebastian Cabot, Sir Hugh Willoughby and several London merchants. In 1553, Richard Chancellor sailed to the White Sea and continued overland to Moscow, where he visited Ivan’s court. Ivan opened up the White Sea and the port of Arkhangelsk to the Company and granted the Company privilege of trading throughout his reign without paying the standard customs fees. Muscovy Company retained the monopoly in Russo-English trade until 1698.
With the use of English merchants, Ivan engaged in a long correspondence with Elizabeth I of England. While the queen focused on commerce, Ivan was more interested in a military alliance. During his troubled relations with the boyars, the tsar even asked her for a guarantee to be granted asylum in England should his rule be jeopardized. Elizabeth agreed on condition that he provided for himself during his stay.
Ivan IV corresponded with overseas Orthodox leaders. In response to a letter of Patriarch Joachim of Alexandria asking the Tsar for financial assistance for the Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, which had suffered from the Turks, Ivan IV sent in 1558 a delegation to Egypt Eyalet by archdeacon Gennady, who, however, died in Constantinople before he could reach Egypt. From then on the embassy was headed by Smolensk merchant Vasily Poznyakov. Poznyakov’s delegation visited Alexandria, Cairo and Sinai, brought the patriarch a fur coat and an icon sent by the Tsar and left an interesting account of its 2½ years of travels.
While Ivan IV was a minor, armies of the Kazan Khanate repeatedly raided the northeast of Russia, In the 1530s the Crimean khan formed an offensive alliance with Safa Giray of Kazan, his relative. When Safa Giray invaded Muscovy in December 1540, the Russians used Qasim Tatars to contain him. After his advance was stalled near Murom, Safa Giray was forced to withdraw to his own borders.
These reverses undermined Safa Giray’s authority in Kazan. A pro-Russian party, represented by Shahgali, gained enough popular support to make several attempts to take over the Kazan throne. In 1545, Ivan IV mounted an expedition to the River Volga to show his support for pro-Russian factions.
In 1551, the tsar sent his envoy to the Nogai Horde and they promised to maintain neutrality during the impending war. The Ar begs and Udmurts submitted to Russian authority as well. In 1551, the wooden fort of Sviyazhsk was transported down the Volga from Uglich all the way to Kazan. It was used as the Russian place d’armes during the decisive campaign of 1552.
On June 16, 1552, Ivan IV led a 150,000-strong Russian army towards Kazan. The last siege of the Tatar capital commenced on August 30. Under the supervision of Prince Alexander Gorbaty-Shuisky, the Russians used battering rams and a siege tower, undermining and 150 cannon. The Russians also had the advantage of efficient military engineers. The city’s water supply was blocked and the walls were breached. Kazan finally fell on October 2, its fortifications were razed, and much of the population massacred. About 60,000–100,000 Russian prisoners and slaves were released. The Tsar celebrated his victory over Kazan by building several churches with oriental features, most famously Saint Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow.
The fall of Kazan had as its primary effect the outright annexation of the Middle Volga. The Bashkirs accepted Ivan IV’s authority two years later. In 1556, Ivan annexed the Astrakhan Khanate, destroyed the largest slave market on the Volga, and had a new fortress built on a steep hill overlooking the river. These conquests complicated the migration of the aggressive nomadic hordes from Asia to Europe through Volga. As a result of the Kazan campaigns, Muscovy was transformed into the multinational and multi-faith state of Russia.
In 1568, the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet Paşa, who was the real power in the administration of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Selim, initiated the first encounter between the Ottoman Empire and her future northern rival. The results presaged the many disasters to come. A plan to unite the Volga and Don by a canal was detailed in Constantinople. In the summer of 1569 a large force under Kasim Paşa of 1,500 Janissaries, 2,000 Spakhs, and few thousand Azaps and Akıncıs were sent to lay siege to Astrakhan and begin the canal works, while an Ottoman fleet besieged Azov.
Early in 1570, Ivan’s ambassadors concluded a treaty at Constantinople that restored friendly relations between the Sultan and the Tsar.
In 1558, Ivan launched the Livonian War in an attempt to gain access to the Baltic Sea and its major trade routes. The war ultimately proved unsuccessful, stretching on for 24 years and engaging the Kingdom of Sweden, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Teutonic Knights of Livonia. The prolonged war had nearly destroyed the economy, while the Oprichnina had thoroughly disrupted the government. Meanwhile, the Union of Lublin had united the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland, and the Commonwealth acquired an energetic leader, Stefan Batory, who was supported by Russia’s southern enemy, the Ottoman Empire. Ivan’s realm was being squeezed by two of the great powers of the time.
After rejected peace proposals from his enemies, Ivan IV found himself in a difficult position by 1579. The displaced refugees fleeing the war compounded the effects of the simultaneous drought, and exacerbated war engendered epidemics, causing much loss of life.
Batory then launched a series of offensives against Muscovy in the campaign seasons of 1579–81, trying to cut the Kingdom of Livonia from Muscovite territories. During his first offensive in 1579, he retook Polotsk with 22,000 men. During the second, in 1580, he took Velikie Luki with a 29,000-strong force. Finally, he began the Siege of Pskov in 1581 with a 100,000-strong army. Narva in Estonia was reconquered by Sweden in 1581.
Unlike Sweden and Poland, Denmark under Frederick II had trouble continuing the fight against Muscovy. He came to an agreement with John III of Sweden, in 1580, transferring the Danish titles of Livonia to John III. Muscovy recognized Polish–Lithuanian control of Livonia only in 1582. After Magnus von Lyffland, brother of Fredrick II and former ally of Ivan, died in 1583, Poland invaded his territories in the Duchy of Courland, and Frederick II decided to sell his rights of inheritance. Except for the island of Saaremaa, Denmark was out of the Baltic by 1585.
In the later years of Ivan’s reign, the southern borders of Muscovy were disturbed by Crimean Tatars. Their main purpose was the capture of slaves. Khan Devlet I Giray of Crimea repeatedly raided the Moscow region. In 1571, the 40,000-strong Crimean and Turkish army launched a large-scale raid. Due to the ongoing Livonian War, Moscow’s garrison was as small as 6,000, and could not even delay the Tatar approach. Unresisted, Devlet devastated unprotected towns and villages around Moscow and caused the 1572, Fire of Moscow. Historians estimate the number of casualties of the fire from 10,000 to as many 80,000 people.
To buy peace from Devlet Giray, Ivan was forced to relinquish his claims on Astrakhan in favor of the Crimean Khanate (although this proposed transfer was only a diplomatic maneuver and was never actually completed). This defeat angered Ivan. Between 1571 and 1572, preparations were made upon his orders. In addition to Zasechnaya cherta, innovative fortifications were set beyond the River Oka that defined the border.
The following year, Devlet launched another raid on Moscow, now with a 120,000-strong horde, equipped with cannons and reinforced by Turkish janissaries. On July 26, 1572, the horde crossed the River Oka near Serpukhov, destroyed the Russian vanguard of 200 noblemen and advanced towards Moscow.
The Russian army, led by Prince Mikhail Vorotynsky, was half the size, estimated at between 60,000–70,000 men; yet it was an experienced streltsi army, equipped with modern firearms and gulyay-gorods. On July 30, the armies clashed near the River Lopasnya in what would be known as the Battle of Molodi, which continued for more than a week. The outcome was a decisive Russian victory. The Crimean horde was defeated so thoroughly that both the Ottoman Sultan and the Crimean khan, his vassal, had to give up their ambitious plans of northward expansion into Russia.
During Ivan’s reign, Russia started a large-scale exploration and colonization of Siberia. In 1555, shortly after the conquest of Kazan, the Siberian khan Yadegar and the Nogai Horde under Khan Ismail pledged their allegiance to Ivan, in hope that he would help them against their opponents. However, Yadegar failed to gather the full sum of tribute he proposed to the tsar, so Ivan did nothing to save his inefficient vassal. in 1563 Yadegar was overthrown and killed by Khan Kuchum, who denied any tribute to Moscow.
In 1558, Ivan gave the Stroganov merchant family the patent for colonizing “the abundant region along the Kama River”, and in 1574, lands over the Ural Mountains along the rivers Tura and Tobol. They also received permission to build forts along the Ob and Irtysh rivers. Around 1577, the Stroganovs engaged the Cossack leader Yermak Timofeyevich to protect their lands from attacks of the Siberian Khan Kuchum.
In 1580, Yermak started his conquest of Siberia. With some 540 Cossacks, he started to penetrate territories that were tributary to Kuchum. Yermak pressured and persuaded the various family-based tribes to change their loyalties and become tributaries of Russia. Some agreed voluntarily, under better terms than with Kuchum; others were forced. He also established distant forts in the newly conquered lands. The campaign was successful, and the Cossacks managed to defeat the Siberian army in the Battle of Chuvash Cape, but Yermak was still in need for reinforcements. He sent an envoy to Ivan the Terrible, with a message that proclaimed Yermak-conquered Siberia a part of Russia, to the dismay of the Stroganovs, who had planned to keep Siberia for themselves. Ivan agreed to reinforce the Cossacks with his streltsi. Yermak’s conquest expanded Ivan’s empire to the east and allowed him to style himself Tsar of Siberia in the tsar’s very last years.
In 1581, Ivan beat his pregnant daughter-in-law (Yelena Sheremeteva) for wearing immodest clothing, and this may have caused a miscarriage. His second son, also named Ivan, upon learning of this, engaged in a heated argument with his father, resulting in Ivan’s striking his son in the head with his pointed staff, fatally wounding him.
Ivan died from a stroke while playing chess with Bogdan Belsky on March 28 [O.S. March 18], 1584. Upon Ivan’s death, the Russian throne was left to his unfit middle son Feodor. Feodor died childless in 1598, ushering in the Time of Troubles.
Little is known about Ivan’s appearance, as virtually all existing portraits were made after his death and contain uncertain amounts of artist’s impression. In 1567, ambassador Daniel Prinz von Buchau described Ivan as follows: “He is tall, stout and full of energy. His eyes are big, observing and restless. His beard is reddish-black, long and thick, but most other hairs on his head are shaved off according to the Russian habits of the time”.
According to Ivan Katyryov-Rostovsky, the son-in-law of Michael I of Russia, Ivan had an unpleasant face, with a long and crooked nose. He was tall and athletically built, with broad shoulders and narrow waist.
In 1963, the graves of Ivan and his sons were excavated and examined by Soviet scientists. Chemical and structural analysis of his remains disproved earlier suggestions that Ivan suffered from syphilis, or that he was poisoned by arsenic or strangled. At the time of his death he was 178 cm tall and weighed 85–90 kg. His body was rather asymmetrical and had a large amount of osteophytes uncharacteristic of his age; it also contained excessive concentration of mercury. Researchers concluded that while Ivan was athletically built in his youth, in his last years he had developed various bone diseases and could barely move. They attributed the high mercury content in his body to the use of ointments for joints healing.
Ivan completely altered Russia’s governmental structure, establishing the character of modern Russian political organization. Ivan’s creation of the Oprichnina, answerable only to him, not only afforded him personal protection but curtailed the traditional powers and rights of the boyars. Henceforth, Tsarist autocracy and despotism would lie at the heart of the Russian state. Ivan bypassed the Mestnichestvo system and offered positions of power to his supporters among the minor gentry. The Empire’s local administration combined both locally and centrally appointed officials; the system proved durable and practical, and sufficiently flexible to tolerate later modification.
Ivan’s expedition against Poland failed at a military level, but it helped extend Russia’s trade, political and cultural links with Europe; Peter the Great built on these connections in his bid to make Russia a major European power. At Ivan’s death, the empire encompassed the Caspian to the southwest, and Siberia to the east. Southwards, his conquests ignited several conflicts with expansionist Turkey, whose territories were thus confined to the Balkans and the Black Sea regions.
Ivan’s management of Russia’s economy proved disastrous, both in his lifetime and after. He had inherited a government in debt, and in an effort to raise more revenue for his expansionist wars, he instituted a series of increasingly unpopular and burdensome taxes. Successive wars drained Russia of manpower and resources, bringing it “to the brink of ruin”. After Ivan’s death, his empire’s nearly ruined economy contributed to the decline of his own Rurik Dynasty, leading to the “Time of Troubles”.
Ivan’s notorious outbursts and autocratic whims helped characterize the position of Tsar as one accountable to no earthly authority, only to God. Tsarist absolutism faced few serious challenges until the late 19th century. Ivan’s legacy was manipulated by Communist Russia as a potential focus for nationalist pride; his image became closely associated with the personality cult of Joseph Stalin. While early Soviet, Marxist–Leninist historiography “attached greater significance to socio-economic forces than to political history and the role of individuals”, Stalin wanted official historians to make Russia’s history “comprehensible and accessible” to the populace, with an emphasis on those “great men”, such as Ivan and Peter the Great, who had strengthened and expanded the Russian state. In modern, post-Soviet Russia, a campaign has been run to seek the granting of sainthood to Ivan IV; the Russian Orthodox Church opposed the idea.
Scott #5064 was issued by the USSR on y 6, 1982, part of a set of five stamps depicting cquerware paintings (Scott #5063-5067). The 10-kopeck denomination portrays “Minin’s Appeal to Count Posharski” by I.A.. Fomitchev, painted in 1953. It was printed using lithography and perforated 12½x12. Interestingly, I could find no online references to the painting itself; all search returns were for the stamp. The incident in the painting occurred during Russia’s Time of Troubles.
The Time of Troubles (Смутное время — Smutnoe vremya) was a period of Russian history comprising the years of interregnum between the death of the last Russian Tsar of the Rurik Dynasty, Feodor Ivanovich, in 1598, and the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty in 1613. In 1601–03, Russia suffered a famine that killed one-third of the population, about two million. At the time, during the Polish–Muscovite War (1605–18) (known as the Dimitriads), Russia was occupied by the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and suffered from many civil uprisings, usurpers and impostors.
After Feodor’s death, his brother-in-law and closest adviser, boyar Boris Godunov, who had already acted as regent for the mentally-challenged Feodor, was elected his successor by a Great National Assembly (Zemsky Sobor). Godunov’s short reign (1598–1605) was not as successful as his administration under the weak Feodor.
Extremely poor harvests were encountered in 1601–03, with night time temperatures in all summer months often below freezing, wrecking crops. The probable cause of climatic changes was the eruption of Huaynaputina volcano in Peru in 1600. Widespread hunger led to the mass starvation of about two million Russians, a third of the population.
The government distributed money and food for poor people in Moscow. This led to refugees flocking to the capital and increasing the economic disorganization. The oligarchical faction, headed by the Romanovs, considered it a disgrace to obey a boyar. Conspiracies were frequent. Rural districts were desolated by famine and plague. Large bands of armed brigands roamed the country committing all manner of atrocities. The Don Cossacks on the frontier were restless. The central government demonstrated it could not keep order.
Under the influence of the great nobles who had unsuccessfully opposed the election of Godunov, the general discontent was expressed as hostility to him as a usurper. Rumors circulated that the late tsar’s younger brother Dmitri, thought to be dead, was still alive and in hiding.
In 1603, a man calling himself Dmitri—first of the so-called False Dmitris—and professing to be the rightful heir to the throne, appeared in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The real prince Dmitry of Uglich, son of Ivan IV, had been stabbed to death at early age, before his brother Feodor’s death, either by accident or by Godunov’s order. The mysterious individual who was impersonating him was regarded as the rightful heir by many of the population.
He attracted support both in Russia and outside its borders, particularly in the Polish Commonwealth and the Papal States. Factions in the Polish Commonwealth saw him as a tool to extend their influence over Russia, or at least gain wealth in return for their support. The Papacy saw it as an opportunity to increase the hold of Roman Catholicism over the Eastern Orthodox Russians.
A few months later in 1603, Polish forces crossed the frontier with a small force of 4,000 Poles, Lithuanians, Russian exiles, German mercenaries and Cossacks from the Dnieper and the Don, in what marked the beginning of the Polish Commonwealth’s intervention in Russia, or the Dymitriad wars. Although the Polish Commonwealth had not officially declared war on Russia — Sigismund III Vasa quietly supported the intervention, but the Commonwealth was too preoccupied with its conflicts with Sweden and Turkey to start another war with Russia — some powerful magnates decided to support False Dmitri with their own forces and money, in the expectation of rich rewards afterward. False Dmitri was married per procura to Marina Mniszech, and immediately after Godunov’s death in 1605, he made his triumphal entry into Moscow.
The reign of False Dimitri was short. Before a year had passed, Vasily Shuisky, an ambitious Rurikid prince (knyaz), formed a conspiracy against him. His forces murdered False Dimitri soon after his marriage in the Moscow Kremlin, together with many of his supporters, who were brutally massacred. Shuisky and his men were estimated to have killed 2,000 Poles. The reaction to the massacre in Poland was strong, but the government decided to postpone revenge against those responsible.
Shuisky seized power and was elected tsar by an assembly composed of his faction, but the change did not satisfy the Russian boyars, Commonwealth magnates, Cossacks, or the German mercenaries, and soon a new impostor, likewise calling himself Dmitri, son and heir of Ivan the Terrible, came forward as the rightful heir. Like his predecessor, he enjoyed the protection and support of the Polish–Lithuanian magnates. After Shuisky signed an alliance with Sweden, the king of the Commonwealth, Sigismund III, seeing the Russian–Swedish alliance as a threat, resolved to intervene and began the Polish–Muscovite War (1605–18).
Polish–Lithuanian troops crossed the Russian borders and laid siege to the fortress of Smolensk. After the combined Russo–Swedish forces were destroyed at the Battle of Klushino, Shuisky was forced to abdicate. Before False Dmitri II could gain the throne, the Polish commander, voivode, and magnate Stanisław Żółkiewski, put forward a rival candidate: Sigismund’s son, Władysław. Some people in Moscow swore allegiance to him on condition of his maintaining Orthodoxy and granting certain privileges to them. On this understanding, they allowed Polish troops to enter the city and occupy the Kremlin.
The Polish king opposed the compromise, deciding to take the throne for himself and to convert Russia to Roman Catholicism. The contending factions were opposed and his plan aroused the anti-Catholic and anti-Polish feelings in Russia. The Swedes disapproved as they were rivals of the Poles on the Baltic coast. They declared war on Russia, supporting a false Dmitri of their choice in Ivangorod.
Russia was in a critical condition. The throne was vacant. The great nobles (boyars) quarrelled among themselves. Orthodox Patriarch Hermogenes was imprisoned. Catholic Poles occupied the Moscow Kremlin and Smolensk. The Protestant Swedes occupied Novgorod. Continuing Tatar raids left the south borderlands of Russia completely depopulated and devastated.
Enormous bands of brigands swarmed everywhere. Tens of thousands died in battles and riots. On March 17–19, 1611, the Polish and German mercenaries suppressed riots in Moscow. They massacred 7,000 Muscovites and set the city on fire. Many other cities were also devastated or weakened. For example, on September 22, 1612, the Poles and Lithuanians exterminated the population and clergy of Vologda.
The nation rose together under the leadership of Kuzma Minin, a Nizhny Novgorod merchant, and Prince Pozharsky. After the battle for Moscow on October 22, 1612 Old Style (November 1 New Style), the invaders retreated to the Kremlin, and on October 24–27 O.S. (November 3-6 N.S.) the nearby Polish army was forced to retreat. The garrison in the Kremlin surrendered to the triumphant Pozharsky. The festival of National Unity Day commemorating this event on November 4 was held annually until the rise of communism, when it was replaced by celebrations for the October Revolution. National Unity Day was reinstated by President Putin in 2005.
A Grand National Assembly elected as tsar 16-year-old Michael Romanov, the young son of the metropolitan Philaret. He was connected by marriage with the late dynasty and, according to the legend, had been saved from the enemies by a heroic peasant, Ivan Susanin. After taking power, the new Tsar ordered the 3-year-old son of the False Dmitri II to be hanged, and had Dmitri’s wife Maryna strangled.
The Ingrian Wars against Sweden lasted until the Treaty of Stolbovo in 1617. Russia’s Dymitriad wars against the Commonwealth would last until the Peace of Deulino in 1619. While gaining peace through the treaties, both nations forced Russia to make some territorial concessions, though they lost the majority of them over the coming centuries. Most importantly, the crisis was instrumental in unifying all classes of the Russian society around the Romanov tsars and established foundations for the powerful Russian Empire.