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Time of Troubles #12 Seminal Moment

Time of Troubles

The Appeal of Minin during the Time of Troubles

The Time of Troubles, it could be argued, could be listed as the greatest threat to Russia’s existence but as for important events, I have it ranked only number twelve for a number of reasons. Granted, it was a troublesome time to be a Russian with the great famine killing one-third the populace of the country. It also saw the Bolotnikov Rebellion, which showed the great rift between the haves and the have-nots. And of course, its end gave us the first in a long line of Romanov Tsars.

When looking back at the Time of Troubles, you see a number of events within its time frame of that influenced the future of Russia. One of the most important ones is the edict by Tsar Vasily Shuisky to lengthen the time that serfs could be hunted down and returned to their masters from 5 years to 15. That would expand during later rulers but it set the precedent and locked the serfs down in no uncertain terms.

The Time of Troubles also marks the end of the Rurik Dynasty with the death of Tsar Feodor, son of Ivan the Terrible. The Rurik Dynasty had lasted from 862 – 1598, a period of over 700 years. Had Ivan not killed his more able bodied son Ivan Ivanovich, it may have lasted much longer and may not have had to suffer through the Time of Troubles.

It also marked one of the high points in Russian unity and pride, especially after the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612 under the leadership of Kuzma Minin, a Nizhny Novgorod merchant, and Prince Pozharsky. The groundswell of support was crucial in the survival of the country and had it not happened, we likely would not know the country of Russia as we know it.

While it is a critical time in Russian history, it ranks far below some of the others that I will be addressing in the coming weeks.

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Stalin – #1 Worst Russian Ruler

Stalin

Joseph Stalin

My selection for worst ruler in Russian history is Joseph Stalin for a number of reasons. His barbaric rule, filled with paranoia and genocide, cost the lives of tens of millions of Russian and Soviet lives. The way Stalin handled his colleagues led to a group of men who, after his death in 1953, were unable to lead their country out of its morass. While he may have saved the Soviet Union from the forces of Nazi Germany, his brutality was unmatched except by a few.

Born, Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvilli in 1879, the former Orthodox seminarian, became known in the revolutionary community as Koba before adopting the name Stalin. Arrested numerous times before the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, there are rumors of his being a double agent for the Okhrana (the secret police of the Tsarist regime). Any proof of this and anyone who knew about it was wiped out when he became head of the Soviet state.

When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin quickly consolidated his power base to take control of the USSR. Because he was a paranoid man, he found enemies in every corner and use the NKVD, led by Nikolai Yezhov to begin to systematically destroy anyone opposed to his rule. Time and again, numerous purges were carried out where tens of thousands of people were tortured, exiled or executed for real and more often, made up charges of treason. The show trials during the Great Terror of 1936-1939 purged all the Old Bolsheviks that Stalin believed could be threats to his reign. Only those who were totally subservient to him were allowed to live.

To his west, Nazi Germany was arming themselves and despite being warned that they intended to attack the Soviet Union, Stalin signed a non-aggression agreement with them in 1939. When Germany decided to break the agreement in 1941, Stalin’s policies of purging many of the upper echelon of the Soviet army caused a disaster at the front. The USSR was totally unprepared for the invasion and because of this, millions of people died. While he did rally the people and eventually crush the Germans, it was at an incredible cost.

Post World War II, when the Soviet people felt that their sacrifices would lead to a better life, Stalin kept them down trodden. Before his death, he planned another purge of his inner circle and potentially, another world war. Thankfully he died in 1953 before he could unleash another Great Terror. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, he left a group of neutered men to try to run the country. This eventually led to the failure of the communist system and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

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Alexander Nevsky – #3 Best Russian Ruler

Alexander Nevsky

Saint Alexander Nevski

Alexander Nevsky, born on May 20, 1220 is in my opinion, the third best Russian ruler of all time. The grandson of Vsevolod the Big Nest, his exploits against the Swedes and the Germans were legendary. He also placated the Mongols of the Golden Horde, protecting the people from their raids. In the opinion of many Russians, he stands as one of their favorite Russian rulers alongside Peter the Great and strangely enough, Joseph Stalin.

According to the Primary Chronicles, “By the will of God, prince Alexander was born from the charitable, people-loving, and meek the Great Prince Yaroslav, and his mother was Theodosia. As it was told by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Thus sayeth the Lord: I appoint the princes because they are sacred and I direct them.’ “… He was taller than others and his voice reached the people as a trumpet, and his face was like the face of Joseph, whom the Egyptian Pharaoh placed as next to the king after him of Egypt. His power was a part of the power of Samson and God gave him the wisdom of Solomon … this Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated …”

The Novgorodian people elected Alexander Nevsky to be their military leader as they were being threatened by the Swedes. At the Battle of Neva, Alexander when he was but 19 years old, defeated the Swedish Army, thus preventing an all out invasion. Even though he won the day, and was given the name Nevsky because of it, the jealous boyars pushed him away. He was recalled the following year as the Livonian Order once again invaded the area, and again Alexander repulsed them.

The importance of these victories cannot be understated. The Mongols had just invaded the region and the people were shell shocked. They needed a home grown hero and Nevsky was the man. While some thought that the Russian people should fight off the Horde, Alexander was shrewd and wise enough to know better. He knew that if he were to wage war with the Mongols, Russia could very well have been wiped off the face of the earth. Better to placate them by paying tribute than to risk the lives of his people.

In 2008, the Russian people voted Nevsky as both the greatest hero of Russian history and the greatest Russian of all time. High honors which are well deserved. If not for the accomplishments of the two men ahead of Alexander, I would have also made him number 1.

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Paul I – #3 Worst Russian Ruler

Paul I of Russia

Paul I of Russia, whose mother was Catherine the Great, clocks in as the third worst ruler in Russian history. Born on September 20, 1754, Paul Petrovich was supposedly the son of Tsarevich Peter and his wife Catherine. It is more than likely the actual father was Sergei Saltykov. When he was born, he was taken away from his mother and was raised by Empress Elizabeth until he was eight years old. When Elizabeth passed away in 1762 he was surrounded by tutors such as Nikita Panin but his mother had little to do with him.

His early childhood would shape his mind set as he became entranced with military parades and processions. This would become an abnormal obsession when he and his second wife, Maria Fiodorovna, lived at the estate at Gatchina. There, Paul had his own personal army, which he ruled over, sometimes quite cruelly.

After his mother died, he decided to reverse many of Catherine’s decrees, known as ukases. During his five year reign, Paul issued over two thousand ukases. It was his first domestic ukase in April of 1797 that lands him on this list as one of the worst Russian rulers. His idea of male primogeniture for the succession to the throne doomed the Romanov family. Instead of being able to select the best member of the family, male or female, the first born male had to become Tsar. The culmination of this rule was the ascension of Nicholas II, a man ill-suited for the position by his own admission.

While this ukase was a terrible blunder, if that was all Paul had done wrong, I would have dropped him down the list. Instead, he alienated the nobility with higher taxes, reintroducing corporal punishment for the nobility, and randomly sending people into exile to show off his unlimited power. He then angered the military by changing to a more Prussian model.

By 1801, his vacillation between supporting Britain or France was thought of as dangerous for Russia by many members of the court. A plot was hatched to remove Paul from the throne and replace him with his son Alexander, someone who Catherine had preferred. In March of 1801, A number of men stormed into his room and brutally murdered the Tsar. It is unlikely that his son was in on the assassination plan but was probably made aware that his father was to be taken off the throne.

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Lenin – #4 Worst Russian Ruler

 

Lenin

Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (episodes 70-72), born on April 22, 1870 is, in my opinion the number four worst ruler in Russian history. The founder of the Soviet Union, Lenin started Russia on a path that would lead to the deaths of tens of millions of people. While his toppling of the corrupt Tsarist regime, his ruthlessness and his putting Joseph Stalin in a position of power that would lead to terrible consequences, places him on this list.

Born in Simbirsk, as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov to a wealthy middle class family, he became disenchanted with the Tsarist regime early on. His radicalism became more fervent after his brother Sasha was executed during the reign of Tsar Alexander III. Lenin began to read more and more works of leftist writers like Karl Marx. The works that had the most influence on him were Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to be Done? and of course Marx’s Das Kapital.

In 1894, he met the love of his life, fellow radical, Nadezhda “Nadya” Krupskaya. Lenin was introduced to other leftists who he debated with as to the methods of overthrowing the Tsarist regime. Some wanted to assassinate the Tsar, others, like Vladimir, called for patience, insisting on waiting for the right moment.

That moment happened in 1917 when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. Still the time was not right as the Provisional Government stepped into the void. Biding his time, Lenin returned from self-imposed exile in Finland to lead the Bolshevik’s to overthrow the government in November. Consolidating his position, he ordered the murder of anyone with ties to the old Tsarist regime. He approved the execution of the entire family of former Tsar Nicholas II.

The ensuing Civil War cost hundreds of thousands of lives due to the fighting and the ensuing period of famine. Lenin continued along the path of ruthlessly suppressing any dissent though the newly formed secret police, the Cheka. At the time, he was debating who to hand the power to after he died. The choice was either Leon Trotsky or Joseph Stalin. He unfortunately had place Stalin into positions that ultimately led to Joseph’s taking control after Lenin’s death in January of 1924.

Lenin’s brutality and his misguided vision wrapped in his ideal of Marxism-Leninism led to great suffering in Russia. It is for these reasons I place him as one of the worst leaders in Russian history.

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Brezhnev – #7 On The Worst Rulers List

Brezhnev

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982 (Episodes 102 and 103). His 18 year reign was second to only Joseph Stalin during the years of the USSR. Brezhnev’s time was marked by an economic stagnant time that has been blamed in part for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Born in 1906 in the city of Dniprodzerzhynsk (aka  Kamenskoe) in the Ukraine to a Russian working family, Brezhnev joined the Komsomol in 1923. He became a member of the Communist Party six years later. His education, like many of his colleagues was not an intellectual one but a technical one. Over the years he moved up the ladder, especially after the Great Purges of 1937-39 on the orders of Joseph Stalin.

During World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, Brezhnev helped evacuate industry from the Ukraine east, ahead of the German advance. During those years he met his mentor, Nikita Khrushchev the man he eventually was to oust in 1964. At the end of his military service, he left as a Major General but had never really served in a fighting unit.

Quickly, Brezhnev began to move up the ladder once again serving as a First Secretary of his home region and later as a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. When Stalin had died in 1953 his career looked quite bright as Khrushchev had begun to assume power. He was then made First Party Secretary of the Communist Party of theKazakh SSR. In 1957 he helped his mentor defeat the “Anti-Party Group” which helped him gain a place on the Politburo. Within a few years in became apparent that he was being groomed to take over from Khrushchev as he was made Second Secretary.

Starting in 1962, Khrushchev was becoming more and more erratic in his behavior and he plunged his country into the Cuban Missile Crisis (Episode 99). By 1964, Brezhnev and his fellow Politburo members had had enough so they orchestrated a coup that took out his mentor peacefully (Episode 101),  a first in Soviet history.

Whereas Khrushchev was a reformer, Brezhnev was the opposite. He quickly reversed many of the more recent reforms put in place by the former leader and began to retrench and place his own cronies into positions of power. At the beginning of his reign, he shared power with Alexei Kosygin and Nikolai Podgorny. Over the years he played each against the other with him eventually taking sole control of the Soviet Union.

Brezhnev turned to the United States to discuss détente. The two nations were in the midst of the Cold War and an unsustainable arms race. The toll on the Soviet economy was staggering. The USSR was focused on military buildup at the expense of their people. Food and consumer product shortages began to show up with greater frequency. This led to more dissatisfaction but it was becoming increasingly difficult to speak out as Brezhnev began a policy of repression led by his eventual successor Yuri Andropov.

During his time as head of the USSR, he sent in troops to crush the Czechoslovakian uprising (the Prague Spring) and started the war in Afghanistan. This war was to produce a cooling between the two super powers, the US and the USSR. The Americans boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics and further damaged the Soviet economy by stopping all grain exports to them.

More and more, Brezhnev’s cronies dug their hands deeper into the pockets of the people with a level of corruption not seen since the late-Tsarist times. Not only did Leonid Illyich not do anything about the corruption, he seemingly encouraged it. It is this position that makes me place the man on the list of worst Russian/Soviet leaders.

When he died in 1982, the countries economy was in shambles and the corruption so deep that within nine short years, the USSR would be forced to dissolve under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Alexander I – #9 On The Best Russian Ruler list

Alexander I, was the head of the Russian state when it was invaded by Napoleon. His patient leadership during the invasion and Alexander’s change from leading the army himself to relying on his more experienced generals was key to winning the war. Since I recently blogged on Alexander, instead of rehashing his life, you can read about it here.

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Gorbachev – #9 On the Worst List

Yuryi Abramochkin / Юрий Абрамочкин Photo of Gorbachev

Yuryi Abramochkin / Юрий Абрамочкин Photo of Gorbachev

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is considered by many in the West as being one of the most enlightened Soviet or Russian rulers of all time. In Russia on the other hand, he ranks at or near the bottom and for good reason. Despite the Nobel Peace Prize and the West’s glee at the end of communist rule in the USSR, his domestic policies were an unmitigated disaster for the people he was supposed to protect.

Born in Gorbachev was born in Stavropol Krai in Russia into a peasant UkrainianRussian family on March 2, 1931. His beginnings were humble and the work hard but young Gorbachev made do. He was considered quite a bright young man but schooling would have to take a back seat in 1941 when the Soviet Union was invaded by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi forces. While he claims in his memoirs that the Nazi’s planned to kill everyone in his village, he never was at risk for death in his lifetime until possibly the attempted coup in 1991.

When he took over as head of the Soviet state in 1985 as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he was handed a totally corrupt and rotting system. Despite that, he was very naive in how he handled the domestic issues with no clear cut plan on how to overcome the issues. At first he believed that simply by replacing and moving old time Brezhnev cronies and replacing them with younger and supposedly more idealist communists that things would rebound. Instead, things kept getting worse by the day.

Seeing this happening, Gorbachev decided on radical reform without truly thinking things out. Perestroika and Glasnost were his two guiding ideologies but they were only vague ideas that meant little economically to the people of the Soviet Union. When the country began to dissolve, his policies did little to reverse the suffering of the people as food and consumer good shortages were rampant. When the country finally was disbanded, hunger and misery were widespread throughout Russia.

When I initially began my research into Gorbachev, I was wearing rose-colored glasses as the media and the U.S. government painted a pretty picture of the man. As I delved further into his life and times, it became more and more apparent that his reign as head of the Soviet state puts him on the list of worst rulers of Russian or Soviet history.

 

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Khrushchev #10 – Best Russian Ruler List

Khrushchev

Khrushchev Nikita

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev is in my opinion, #10 on the list of best Russian rulers. Many might disagree but he did some impressive things in his time following the terror that was the rule of Joseph Stalin. Khrushchev was in a tough position when he came to power and he tried as much as possible to reform a corrupt and broken system. While he ultimately failed, the fact that he tried as hard as he did was good enough in my humble opinion to make the good ruler list.

Born on April 15, 1894 to a peasant family, this unlikely man rose to the pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union in 1953. Khrushchev survived the Great Purges of the late 1930’s, the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and the intrigues following Stalin’s death to make the grab for power. While many condemn him for participating in Stalin’s purges, it was either that or face his own demise. He did what he had to to survive. But when he had the opportunity to expose the murderous era he did so with great bravery and put himself into a great deal of peril as well.

His administration and rule were marked by a lot of highs and lows. One of Khrushchev’s high points is the so-called Secret Speech where he exposes the abuses of Stalin. Of his lows, there is little doubt that the Cuban Missile crises is top of the list.  In between, he tried as hard as any Russian or Soviet leader to better the plight of his people. Reading his memoirs and studying his time in office, it is apparent that he truly tried to make the necessary reforms to raise up the standard of living in his country.

While erratic in his behavior, sometimes coming off as a buffoon, he was a man of conviction in a system that was corrupt at its core. Khrushchev stood far above any Soviet leader in my opinion and deserves a spot in the list of best rulers of Russia.

 

 

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Russian Rulers – The Worst – #10

Sviatopolk Coinage

Coinage from the era of Sviatopolk I

Starting today, I will be listing the best and the worst Russian Rulers (and Soviet) of all time. Top ten lists often times illicit controversy and argument but that is what I’m looking for. My overall hope is that it makes you think and will further everyone’s enjoyment of Russian history.

My #10 pick for the worst of the Russian Rulers is Sviatopolk the Accursed. Sviatopolk I was sandwiched between two of the better Russian rulers of all time, Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise. His rule, while not that bad, was marked by the murder of his two brothers, Boris and Gleb. These two were considered among the earliest Russian Orthodox saints.

Sviatopolk’s reign was a relatively short one, from 1015-1019. The people of Kiev did not receive his leadership with any real warmth. His murder of his brothers, the third one being Sviatoslav made him quite disliked. This was why history knows him as Sviatopolk the Accursed.

After the murders of his three brothers, the remaining one, Yaroslav, one of the better future Russian rulers, decided to take action. At the time, Yaroslav, then Prince of Novgorod, defeated his brother near the town of  Lubech, near the  Dnieper river. Sviatopolk fled to Poland where his father-in-law was based. With his help, Sviatopolk returned to defeat Yaroslav, causing him to flee back to Novgorod.

Back and forth they went, Yaroslav returning to defeat Sviatopolk. When the defeated Grand Prince headed towards the steppe, he recruited one of the early Russian rulers most hated enemy, the Pecheneg peoples. His initial foray was successful but eventually he was soundly defeated and on his way back to Poland, he died at the age of 39.

There is some controversy surrounding Sviatopolk and whether he truly killed his three brothers. Some historians believe it was Yaroslav who ordered the murders. We will never really know but I will go along with the version from the Primary Chronicles and that my choice of Sviatopolk as one of the worst Russian rulers is justified.

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