January 01, 2019

Rewriting the Code

Rewriting the Code
Zemsky Sobor (Sergei Ivanov, 1908)

On June 1, 1648, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich was 19 years old and had been ruling for just three years. As he was returning to Moscow after completing a pilgrimage, Muscovites surrounded the royal cortege and began pleading with him to protect them from the abuses being perpetrated by officials whose sole occupation seemed to be extracting bribes. Although the tsar’s subjects were begging their “father” to intercede on their behalf, they were not behaving like typical humble supplicants. They quickly began to demand – demand! – changes, first and foremost the punishment of said odious officials.

One of the men for whose blood these importunate subjects thirsted was the tsar’s own tutor, Boris Morozov, who was despised for his greed. He had earned particular disdain after trying to impose an indirect tax on salt, which would have sent all prices soaring. Although the tax had been abolished a year earlier, hatred toward this boyar had not abated. The day of what is now known as the Salt Riot turned bloody. A crowd managed to get their hands on some of the despised officials and literally tore them to pieces. The tsar succeeding in saving Morozov, tearfully pleading for his tutor’s life, but he was compelled to send him into remote exile, which proved to be Morozov’s salvation. The capital was in turmoil for several more days, and it was not just the impoverished and deprived who partook in the mayhem. In fact, everyone from clerks and artisans to merchants and even nobles were shouting, rioting, and perhaps even setting houses on fire. More surprising yet, the rioters were not put down or dispersed.

The tsar came out to address the rebels, attempting to chasten them. Finally, after the killing of Pleshcheyev and Trakhaniotov, two particularly despised dyaks (functionaries who helped the boyars run Russia in the fifteenth through seventeenth century), and the tsar’s pledge to uphold justice henceforth, the rioters finally headed home.

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