March 15, 2001

Century of Rebellion; Years of Tsar Alexi

Century of Rebellion; Years of Tsar Alexi

Tsar Alexis; Aleksei Mikhailovich; reigned from 1645 to 1676. He was succeeded by his son, Fedor III (1676 - 1682), then Ivan V (1682) and, finally, by his youngest son, Peter the Great (1682 - 1740). Alexis had a total of sixteen children, by two wives, born between the late 1640s and ca. 1674. Alexis' reign and personal thought was tormented with a conflict between a devotion to old Russian tradition and the new, emerging elements of Western Europe. Alexis considered Ivan the Terrible to be the perfect role model of a Russian ruler. However, Alexis broke with tradition by being the first Russian ruler to have realistic images painted of him and made and signed laws in his own hand. History notes Alexis' most important accomplishments to have been the, so called, unification of Russia and Ukraine and the strengthening of Russia's southern border against the threat of the Crimean Tatars.

Tsar Michael (Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov), Alexis' father, was the first Romanov ruler. Michael employed the services of one B. I. Morozov. At his father's request, Alexis did the same. Morozov was a wealthy and powerful land owner with some 55,000 peasants and countless mills to his name. Morozov's role in government was to research and implement reforms designed to control social rebellion. For the most part, Morozov caused more discontent. In 1648, he was forced to do away with his new tax on salt. The cancellation of a burdensome tax sounds good, except, Morozov demanded collection of back taxes for 1646 and 1647. This act basically tripled the tax burden for 1648. This was more than the people would tolerate and the Moscow Uprising of 1648 commenced.

June of 1648 turned out to be a bloodbath in Moscow. Roughly 2,000 people died, the city was besieged by raging fires and angry crowds murdered every ranking and allegedly corrupt official they could get their hands on. Tsar Alexis had no choice but to send Morozov into exile. This was difficult for the Tsar as Morozov was, also, his brother-in-law and teacher. Morozov returned to Moscow in October of 1648, but never again played a role in the government.

The positive result of the uprising was the presentation of roughly 70 petitions from the people to the government. The most immediate action was the forgiveness of back taxes. Alexis feared he was facing another version of Russia's Times of Trouble; a chapter still fresh in the collective mind. He had no choice but to organize a council which was selected for the purpose of writing a new law code. This council met in the fall of 1648 and on January 29, 1649, issued the document which would replace the existing law code, Sudebnik.

The Ulozhenie included 967 articles with roughly 90 the result of public petitions. Possibly the most reaching article was the establishment of serfdom. Previous laws bound a serf to the land. There had been a statute of limitations on how long a run away serf could be sought, captured and forced to return to their master's land. The new law code removed this limitation and set the stage for a serf system which closely resembled slavery. The restriction on movement were applied to anyone who was liable for back taxes. Such persons were not allowed to change their place of residence until their taxes were paid. The council rejected the idea of regional, localized governments and judiciaries. All aspects of the government were to remain centralized around the Tsar.

One of the major petitions put before the council came from merchants. They demanded restrictions on foreign imports which competed with their own goods. The council elected not to address this issue. However, the Tsar found a way around the issue which, in effect, accomplished the goal of the merchant's demands. King Charles I of England was executed in mid-1649. Alexis made his contempt for this action known and banned all trade with England.

The law code of 1649 did little if anything to create a new order. In fact, it reinforced the old traditions and was behind the times almost as soon as it was published. Despite the measures taken by Peter the Great to modernize Russian society, Alexis' law code remained in effect until January 1, 1835.

The century of rebellion continued with few breaks in the action. In 1654, Russian was at war with Poland-Lithuania. Heavier taxes were levied on the people to pay for the war. The government began minting copper coins. In 1658, one copper rouble was worth the same as a silver rouble. Inflation soon set in and, in 1661 it took four copper roubles to equal 1 silver and fifteen by 1663.

In 1662, angry mobs of peasant rebels stormed the Tsar's summer palace in Kolomenskoe where they were met by the Streltsy. When it was over, 63 rebels were executed and countless others exiled. Further rebellion grew in the southern border region of the Don Cossacks. The leader of this uprising was Stepan Razin. Thanks to the influx of run away serfs and others, the population of this region had grown to a point where the people could not sustain themselves by farming. Russia's war with Poland (1654 - 1667) increased the population of the wild steppes. The government saw this heavily populated region as a natural defense against the nagging pursuits of the Crimean Tatars. Nonetheless, the return of some 10,000 runaway serfs was enforced.

In 1667, Razin gathered a group of Cossacks and began a two year journey from the lower Volga to the Persian coast; plundering and wreaking havoc on landowners and governmental officials. Eventually, Razin amassed roughly 20,000 followers and made preparations to assault Moscow. His plan was foiled when, in 1671, Razin was betrayed by the Cossacks who delivered him to Moscow where he was executed.

The Cossacks who lived, primarily, along the Dnieper, figured significantly in 17th century Russian history. Led by Bohdan Khmelnitskii, they found a common enemy with Russia; that being the Polish-Lithuanians. The Cossacks charged that the latter abused Ukrainian peasants, persecuted the Russian Orthodox Church by demanding allegiance to Roman Catholicism and greatly reduced the number of Cossacks in the employ of the Polish king. Khmelnitskii wanted to establish an independent Cossack republic with the blessing of the Tsar. The Tsar certainly wanted to assist his fellow Orthodox brothers, in so doing, reinforcing the stability of Russia's southern borderlands. But, he knew this would mean war with Poland-Lithuania. Alexis did not believe Russia was strong enough to take on such an challenge. This all changed with the appointment of Nikon as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (1652).

The so called union of Ukraine and Muscovy took place on January 6, 1654, when Khmelnitskii, on behalf of the Cossacks, acknowledged the Tsar's sovereignty and vowed unconditional allegiance. Ukraine retained autonomy with the exception of affairs involving Poland and the Ottomans. In these matters, they followed Moscow's lead. Even though Alexis liked to refer to himself as the tsar of All Great and Little Rus, Ukraine really was not absorbed into the Russian Empire until much later.

War with Poland-Lithuania, predictably, broke out in 1654 and was resolved in 1667. Moscow quickly reassumed Smolensk which it lost to Poland in 1634. Sweden decided to get in on the action and tried to take the Polish ports along the Baltic. Moscow aimed its attentions against Sweden in 1656 and managed to take Livonia. Moscow and Poland agreed to a treaty in 1667. Ukraine was to be divided. Poland gave up its holdings in western Russia and Moscow forfeited its position west of the Dnieper, but kept Kiev.

Two Russian foreign ministers greatly increased the expansion of Western ideals in Russia. In the 1660s, Ordin-Nashchokin focused his attentions on the Baltic region and the fortification of the merchant class. His successor, A.S. Matveev (1671) was more concerned with maintaining Russia's southern border. Russia, who now shared a border with the Ottoman Empire, made a dramatic policy shift and endorsed support of Poland against the Turks.

In 1667, Russia retained control of Kiev. This was the beginning of the decline of Poland's power in Europe and dramatically changed the relationship between the Turks and Moscow. It, also, opened the door for an influx of scholarly individuals from Ukraine to Russia. The first hospital and poorhouse were founded and Ukrainian style of education was introduced at the new school at the Andreev Monastery.

Tsar Alexis displayed a different outlook as well. This was due, in part, to his marriage to his second wife in 1671. Natalia Cyrilovna Narishkina was only twenty years old when she married Alexis who was ca. 42. She was the mother of Peter the Great (June 10, 1672), Theodora Alexenova (Sep 11, 1673) and Natalie Alexinova (Sep 4,1674). Natalia was far more open and interested in the ways of the West, an active advocate for change and had a profound influence upon the tsar. Alexis died in 1676 and Natalia lived until 1694.

The first theatrical production in Russia was presented in 1672 and the tsar's palace at Preobrazhenskoe. Titled Ahasuerus and Esther (ref. Book of Esther), this nine hour play was written by Johann Gottfried Grigorii, a Lutheran clergyman. This marked the beginning of the court theatre at which plays and ballets were staged.

Predictably, the Orthodox Church objected to Western influences. The West represented the Church of Rome and the Protestant movement. The unified Christian Church had suffered the Great Schism in 1058 which divided Christianity between Rome (Catholic) and Constantinople (Orthodox). The liturgy, dogma and traditions of the West grew to become quite different from that of the East.

Orthodoxy had limited influence over the tsar or the people when it came up against the growing fasination with Western culture. In the mid-1600's, the Orthodox Church was successful in having foreigners; specifically Germans and Poles; relocated to separate districts and away from Moscow. But, the power of the Church, in regards to matters of society, was seriously reduced by the, so called, Nikon affair and a Church schism.

Nikon was born to peasant stock in 1605 and went by the name of Nikita. He was schooled in a monastery, got married and served as a parish priest in Moscow. After ten years of marriage and the death of their children, Nikon convinced his wife to become a nun and join a convent. This allowed Nikon to enter the Solovetski monastery on the White Sea in the north. He soon became a hermit monk on one of the neighboring islands. He soon found the Solovetski community disagreeable and joined the nearby Kojeozerski monastery in 1643.

In 1646, Tsar Alexis appointed Nikon to the office of Archimandrite of the Novospaski Lavra in Moscow. Soon after, in 1649, Nikon became the Metropolitan of Novgorod. He had won the favor of the tsar, founded several poorhouses and was known for many good works within the secular community. Nikon remained in constant correspondence with Alexis and spent part of each year at court.

Nikon's primary goal was the revise the existing Slavonic Bible and other liturgical books. Patriarch Iosif died in 1652 and Alexis appointed his friend Nikon to this, the highest office of the Russian Orthodox Church. Nikon's first concern was with the reunification of the Ruthenians; Little Russians; with Orthodoxy. Poland had control of this area until 1667. Thanks to the Synod of Brest (1596), the people had been forced to enter into communion with Rome and the Catholic Church. The Ruthenians rose against Poland in 1653 and united with Russia. The Metropolitan of Kiev and most of his clergy united under the Patriarchate of Moscow. This greatly increased the scope of the Patriarchate's ecclesiastical power.

The reformation of the Russian Orthodox liturgical books was the primary goal of Nikon's tenure as Patriarch. The Bible that was being used in the Church was a translation from the original Greek texts to Slavonic; language created for just this purpose by the brothers, Sts Cyril and Methodius (mid to late 800s). Over the centuries, changes to the Scriptural details and rituals appeared in the translations. Nikon believed that the Russian Church had gone too far away from the original Orthodox tradition of Constantinople (Byzantium) during the some 200 years since the latter's fall as an empire. Nikon's idea was to revert back to the original Byzantine tradition, foregoing much of the developments of the Russian Church.

Nikon was in close contact with the Greek Patriarchs on this matter. Possibly the most controversial issue of ritual was the act of crossing oneself. Over the years, the Russians had been taught to make the Sign of the Cross using two fingers after the Catholic fashion. In Orthodoxy, the Sign is made with three fingers; the thumb and the first two fingers placed together; symbolizing the Holy Trinity.

Nikon's reforms were met with loud and often violent opposition. Makarios, Patriarch of Antioch, traveled to Moscow and attended Nikon's synods in 1654 and 1655. Finally, in 1655, with the blessings of the Eastern Patriarchs, Nikon published his revised liturgical books and laws regarding unity with the Greek traditions and rituals. The next synod, 1656, endorsed Nikon's measures and even excommunicated anyone caught making the Sign of the Cross with anything other than three fingers. These harsh and swift measures begged rebellion. Nikon was accused of being a traitor to Russian and for trying to Hellenize the nation and corrupting the old faith.

While a member of the Solovetski community, Nikon belonged to a group known as Friends of God and later the Zealots of Piety. This group called for a focus on individual and internal spirituality. Nikon's reforms brought considerable anger from this group. With their leader, archpriest Avvakum Petrovich, they became known as the old ritualists or old believers, steadfastly loyal to the old Russian rites and traditions. Still in the good graces of the tsar, Nikon was able to see to it that, by 1653, Avvakum and his followers were banished. A year after Nikon's death (1681), Avvakum was burned at the stake, a martyr of the Russian Church schism.

The Old Believers represented a much broader revolt and, thus, problem than simply the issue of the old rites. They protested against serfdom, the centralized nature of the government and the tainting of the nation by allowing Western traditions and ideals to enter Russia. The Old Believers' stronghold was the Solovetskii monastery, Nikon's first community, on the White Sea. The group was made up of over 500 sympathetic monks and fugitives from the Razin rebellion.

What happened to cause Nikon to fall so quickly out of the good graces of the tsar is a bit of a mystery. Most agree that it had to do with Nikon's campaign to make the Church separate from the state. In fact, Nikon proposed that the tsar himself should be subordinate to the Patriarch. He, evidently, was not content with the duel authority of tsar and patriarch; the first being concerned with matters of the material world and the latter matters of a spiritual nature. Alexis tried to appease Nikon by granting him the title of Great Sovereign in 1654. This was not enough and the two former friends entered into a personal feud. The leaders of Russia's secular and spiritual lives were at war. Alexis demanded Nikon's resignation but could not force it. By canon law, only the Eastern Patriarchs could remove Nikon from his office.

In 1667, Tsar Alexis called for a great synod for the purpose of bring charges against Nikon. The synod was attended by the Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria, as well as several Greek and Russian bishops and metropolitans. The Patriarch of Alexandria not only endorsed Nikon's dismissal, but went to far as to advocate a stronger role of the tsar in Church affairs.

Tsar Alexis showed up, in person, to act as the official accuser of Nikon who attended the synod in his patriarchal vestments. The official charges against Nikon included neglect of his spiritual duties since 1658, betraying the Church by complaining to Constantinople about the Russian clergy and unjust actions towards his bishops. The synod lasted a week and, ultimately, voted to strip Nikon of the patriarchate and all the duties and privileges that came with this office. He was demoted to a mere monk and sentenced to confinement in the Therapontof monastery on the White Sea. Nikon was replaced by Joasaph II (1667 - 1672), formerly the archimandrite of the Trinity Lavra in Moscow.

Tsar Alexis died in 1676. His son and heir, Fedor II (1676 - 1682) withdrew the sentence invoked on Nikon and released him from his confinement. Enroute to Moscow, Nikon died (Aug. 17, 1681), was buried in the Cathedral Church of Moscow with full honors given the patriarchs and all charges against him were revoked.

The whole affair of Nikon's fall, the anger of Alexis towards him and harsh sentence imposed by the 1667 synod remain a bit of a mystery. The issue at hand was not Nikon's reform of the liturgical books. In fact, this was endorsed by the synod and upheld by Nikon's successor. Nikon is known for his stubborn will and quick and often harsh actions. His attempt to separate the Church from the state and, in fact, make the latter subordinate to the first, probably was the Nikon's greatest offense, in the eyes of his critics. Regardless of the reasons, one thing is for certain. The actions of Nikon and controversy surrounding him caused a schism within the Russian Church. Old Believers still exist today and consider themselves both the true heirs of Orthodoxy and separate from the Church of Moscow.

Tsar Alexis' lifetime and reign were characterized by rebellion and the introduction of Western culture. When he died (1676), Russia was primed to enter the era of modernity (1676 - 1689). Alexis' heir, Alexis Alexeiovich, (b. 1653) died on January 17, 1670. The younger Alexis and been well groomed to follow in his father's place. Instead, the tsar's second son, Fedor III (b. 1661), a sickly and physically weak youth, became the next tsar of Russia. Fedor's reign was uneventful and he passed away just six years later in 1682. Next in line was Ivan V (b. Aug. 27, 1666) who was mentally retarded and reigned fourteen years until his death on January 29, 1696.

The only remaining male heir of Alexis I was Peter I (the Great). During Ivan's reign, Peter's mother was encouraged to make a case for her son as a more capable ruler of Russia. This caused considerable friction between Natalia's family, the Naryshkins, and the family of Alexis' first wife, the Miloslavskiis. It, also, meant the banishment of A. S. Matveev, the foreign chancellor at the time who supported Natalia's claim. Matveev was well educated and familiar with the leaders and cultures of the West. Ivan V's reign suffered greatly the loss of this advisor.

Eventually, Peter I became tsar in 1696, at the age of 24, but not without a deadly struggle with his half-sister, Sophia, Regent of Russia.

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Bilingual series of short, lesser known, but highly significant works that show the traditional view of Dostoyevsky as a dour, intense, philosophical writer to be unnecessarily one-sided. 
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
The Little Humpbacked Horse (bilingual)

The Little Humpbacked Horse (bilingual)

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602