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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Catherine II – #4 Best Russian Ruler

Catherine II

Catherine posing for the painter Rokotov.

Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great makes it to #4 on my list as best Russian ruler. Born in 1729 in Stettin, Prussia as Sophia Augusta Fredricka, she was betrothed to the orphaned grandson of Peter the Great whom she married in 1745. This loveless marriage was to produce one son, likely not her husband’s, a boy who would become Paul I. The one most associated with fathering Paul was Sergei Saltykov.

Her early years in the court of Empress Elizabeth were difficult. The empress was a controlling women who had little tolerance for independent thinkers such as Catherine. She wrote a autobiography of the times in the court of Elizabeth which showed how isolated she felt.

When Elizabeth died, Catherine’s husband, now known as Peter III, assumed the throne. He proved to be extremely unpopular in the court as he ended the war with Prussia and immediately declared was on Denmark. To make things worse, he alienated the house guard units and the influential Russian Orthodox Church. There was one issue that made Catherine nervous and that was the very real threat of her being divorced and sent to a convent as he had taken and flaunted his mistress Yekaterina Dashkova.

On July 9, 1762, Peter III was deposed and strangled to death. Some believe Catherine was in on the murder but that is highly unlikely. The new empress was crowned on October 3rd of the same year and quickly consolidated her power. She quickly began to focus the early years of her reign on the promotion of administrative efficiency and expansion of educational opportunities. Catherine was also a patron of the arts as seen by her founding of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Her international flair culminated in the victorious Russo-Turkish which was somewhat tarnished by a domestic rebellion. Emelian Pugachev led thousands of disgruntled Cossacks and serfs in 1773-75. The city of Kazan was burned by the rebels but their army was eventually brutally quashed by the Russian army.

She did much to raise the world’s image of Russia and greatly improved the administration of local laws and taxes within the country. While she has numerous flaws, overall Catherine made Russia a better place than she left it. Unfortunately, her son Paul I, would unravel much of her work and put the Romanov dynasty on a death spiral that would culminate with the abdication of Nicholas II in 1917.

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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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Ivan I – #5 Best Russian Ruler

Ivan I of Moscow

Ivan I Danilovich Kalita

Ivan I Daniilovich Kalita, aka, Ivan Moneybags is my selection as the 5th best Russian ruler of all time. His leadership initially as the Grand Prince of Moscow then Vladimir, was critical in the growth of Moscow during the time of the Golden Horde. Ivan I also was known as the “gatherer of Russian lands” as he greatly increased the area of control and the wealth for future Grand Princes of Moscow.

Born in 1288 to Grand Prince Daniel of Moscow making him the grandson of Alexander Nevsky, Ivan I was a very shrewd man who would bring great wealth to his people. His rule was a time when the Golden Horde had reached its zenith. Its control over Russia was complete. Anyone wishing to be a Grand Prince had to go to the Horde’s capital in Sarai to ask permission. Many were killed there due to court intrigues. Ivan knew how to manipulate the system though and survived and thrived under the Horde’s rule.

As Grand Prince, Ivan was given the job of collecting taxes or tribute for the Horde. He was masterful at it and this brought him great favor with the khan at the time, Muhammad Ozbeg. Many have speculated on why Moscow rose so quickly under his rule such as its central location, but I feel his wise rule set the stage. Many of the other princes of Russia despised him but they could do little. If they tried to attack Moscow, they would face the wrath of the Horde.

Over the years, Ivan loaned many of his fellow princes money which they eventually proved unable to repay. In those cases, the Grand Prince of Moscow would take their land and incorporate it into his realm. Another trick he used was to invite as many people to come to Moscow as he could. Because the Mongols continued to raid the Russian steppes, many came to get away from them.

Due to his good relations he had with the khan in Sarai, he was able to set up his son as not only his successor in Moscow but in Vladimir as well. This continued over the years which brought much stability to Russia until the Time of Troubles in the early 1600’s.

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Boris Godunov – #5 Worst Russian Ruler

Boris Godunov

Tsar Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov, was the ruler of Russia directly before the Time of Troubles. While this in and of itself is bad enough it is his 1597 decree which tied the peasants to the land, thereby officially legitimizing serfdom that places him on this list of worst Russian rulers. His rule though had a number of positives but his edict tying the peasantry to the land trumps any good he did.

Born in 1551, Boris Godunov’s family was of Tatar origin being descendants of the Mongol Horde. We first learn about him in 1570 when he is mentioned as an archer of the guard during  a campaign in Serpeisk. He became an oprichnik, a member of the secret police. Boris eventually married  Maria Grigorievna Skuratova-Belskaya daughter of the head of the Oprichnina which benefited his career.

Eventually Boris Godunov made his way into the court of Ivan the Terrible because of the marriage between Boris’s daughter  Irina Godunova and the Tsar’s second son and future Tsar Feodor. It was an unusual match as Feodor was only 14 and Irina was 24 which was considered old for a marriage. It is likely that it was because of his feeble mindedness that a women of her age was chosen. At the time of the wedding in 1580 Boris Godunov was elevated to the position of boyar.

Before his death Ivan the Terrible, decided that a council led by Boris Godunov, Feodor Nikitich RomanovVasili Shuiski would guide his weak minded son. This effectively put a great deal of power into Boris’s hands as his daughter was the new Tsar’s wife. When Tsar Feodor died in 1598 there was one person who was left related to Ivan IV and that was his child Dmitri. The church did not recognize the relation as it was Ivan’s child from his 7th wife but Godunov took no chances. He had the child and mother sent into exile but a few years later the child died. The manner of his death, self-inflicted stabbing while having a seizure was questionable at best.

A Zemsky Sobor was held to choose a new Tsar and Boris Godunov was selected. His reign, which lasted from 1598 to 1605 started out as a prosperous time but that changed with the famine times between 1601-1603. The Tsar was blamed for the bad times as many believed it was punishment for the murder of Dmitri. When Godunov died in 1605 few mourned his passing. The country quickly disintegrated into chaos and plunged into war against competing factions for control of Russia.

 

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Dmitri Donskoi – #6 Best Russian Ruler

Saint Dmitri Donskoi

Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoi

Dmitri Donskoi, whose 30 year reign from 1359-1389 as Grand Prince of Moscow and Vladimir was notable for many things but the most important was when he stood up to the Mongol’s of the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo. There, he defeated the army of  Mamai which marked the turning point in the relationship between the Horde and Russia. While Mamai’s successor Tokhtamysh, invaded Russia and sacked Moscow, the stranglehold on Russia was broken.

Now had this been the only achievement by Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoi, he might have made this list but probably not this high. His reign saw a doubling of the territories of Moscow as well as building the first stone Kremlin around the city. This stone wall prevented the Lithuanian army which placed Moscow under siege twice under Algirdas. When a third siege was attempted the two side signed a peace treaty to end hostilities for the moment.

Born to Ivan II, also known as Ivan the Meek, Dmitri Donskoi was named regent when he turned nine years old. Effective rule over the country was in the hands of Metropolitan Aleksey. Over time, Dmitri settled disputes with other Grand Princes, especially Mikhail II of Tver. This unification of the princes and their solidarity with Dmitri Donskoi was a major factor in their ability to stand up to the Mongols of the Golden Horde.

When Dmitri decided to try to throw off the yoke of the Mongol’s, it was at a time that the Horde was suffering through a civil war. Still, was he strong enough to take on his mortal enemy? Two other figures were to play an important role in Donskoi’s victory Prince Jogaila of Lithuania and Russian prince Oleg of Ryazan. Both were enemies of the Grand Prince of Moscow and had pledged to help Mamai destroy Moscow once and for all. The only problem was that neither made it to the Battle of Kulikovo as Dmitri Donskoi attacked Mamai ahead of their arrival.

There are certain turning points in history and this was one of them. Had Donskoi held back his attack and allowed the armies of Lithuania and Ryazan join up with Mamai, we would have a far different history of Russia to recount if Russia would have survived at all. There would be many who would have moved Donskoi higher on the list because of this, but I feel that other Russian rulers had bigger influences on the country. Still, I struggled mightily on where to put Dmitri on my list.

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Nicholas I – #6 Worst Russian Ruler

Nicholas Pavlovich Romanov

Tsar Nicholas I of Russia

Nicholas Pavlovich Romanov (Episodes 56 and 57) was born on July 6, 1796 to Empress Maria Feodorovna and Tsar Paul I in Gatchina. His reign, which lasted for thirty years from 1825 to 1855 was marked numerous crises and a nation changing revolt. While the revolt, by the Decembrists, was ultimately a failure, it lit the torch of dissent that would eventual lead to the overthrow of Nicholas II in 1917.

The younger brother of Alexander I, the Tsar Liberator, Nicholas became the most autocratic and oppressive of the Tsar’s. His ascension to the throne and his death in 1855 were framed by two events, the Decembrist Revolt and the Crimean War. Both were disasters with the former showing the dissatisfaction with the monarchy and the latter causing unbelievable misery to the Russian troops.

As the third son of Paul I, he was not considered Tsar material. His older brothers, Alexander and Constantine were the two who were groomed to lead. Nicholas was given a strict Prussian style military education per the instructions of his father. This led Nicholas to view everything during his rule as a military exercise.

In 1819, his father, Alexander I made a surprise visit on Nicholas at his Anichkov Palace home. He was there to announce that he, rather than Constantine would be the next Tsar as his older brother renounced his succession. The problem was, this decision was to be kept private which would cause problems when Alexander passed away in 1825.

When his father died in November of 1825, Nicholas initially pledged allegiance to Constantine but after his brother again denounced his claim, Nicholas announced that he would take the throne. This did not please many in the military and with the gentry as they knew that the new Tsar would be a overly conservative one. This led to a number of officers to rebel. The Decembrist Uprising was quickly and brutally crushed with five conspirators executed. The rest were exiled to Siberia.

From here, Nicholas’s rule was marked by his mistrust of the gentry and his belief that only through autocracy and the Romanov’s in particular, could Russia be ruled effectively. He turned Russia into a police state, setting up a spy network that would continue on until 1917 and then get transformed into the secret police of the Soviet Union.

The condition of the millions of serfs were discussed and a recommendation of freedom for them was made, but Nicholas could not agree to this. He believed that while serfdom was evil, freeing them would be even worse. This fact alone would have put him on this list but what he did next cemented his legacy as one of the worst rulers.

When he took over in 1825, Nicholas continued trying to expand the Russian Empire, especially southward towards the Ottoman Empire. In 1853, the Tsar provoked a war with the Ottoman’s over the control of the Holy Land. What Nicholas did not comprehend was French and British concerns over Russian aggression. They joined with the Ottoman’s, much to the surprise of the Tsar. The coming Crimean War, was a total disaster for the Russians. Thousands of brave soldiers died for naught. Nicholas would not see the end of the war as he died on February 18th, 1855. The Russian Empire was at its largest but, because of the outcome of the war, it would be greatly reduced.

His legacy is one of an autocratic, unbending and uncaring militarist who was more concerned with his status that the well being of his people. This is what puts him on this list.

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Elizabeth I – #7 Best Russian Ruler

 

Elizabeth I of Russia

Portrait of Elizabeth I of Russia

Elizabeth I (Episodes 40 & 41), daughter of Peter the Great and his wife Catherine I, was one of the most liked of the Russian Tsar’s because of her refusal to execute anyone during her reign. She also led Russia through two of Europe’s most important conflicts, the War of Austrian Succession (1740–8) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Elizabeth spent huge sums of money on  The Winter Palace and the Smolny Cathedral which are some of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

She was born on December 29, 1709 to Peter the Great and his wife Catherine but their marriage was not announced until 1712. This caused Elizabeth’s enemies to later use this issue to claim that she was illegitimate. Her father’s intention was to have her marry young Louis XV of France but they declined as they felt that her mother’s low birth status was below them. Her eventual betrothal was to one Prince Karl Augustus of Holstein-Gottorp, son of Christian Augustus, Prince of Eutin. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Prince Karl died a few days after the betrothal.

When Peter II came to power in 1727, Elizabeth was banished from the court. Peter, the grandson of Peter the Great was controlled by the old boyar family the Dolgorukii’s who despise Peter the Great’s reforms. When Tsarina Anna took control, she was still not allowed to take part in the court. Her anger stewed in her but there was little she could do. If she married below her status, she would lose everything. But, much to her chagrin, no noble family would approach her as she had no standing at the Russian court. Because of this, she was said to have had numerous affairs with commoners over the years.

When she finally deposed Ivan VI in 1742 and had him locked up, with the help of the  Preobrazhensky Regiment, she asked them, “”Who do you want to serve? Me, the natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?” Elizabeth decided right away to clean up the corruption and get rid of the German advisers that many in the Russian hierarchy despised.

She then began to rule her country by starting with the signing the Treaty of Åbo, which arch enemy Sweden which ceded much of Finland to the Russian empire. Elizabeth was smart to surround herself with brilliant advisers, none more so than Aleksey Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin. His deftness in foreign negotiations were important factors in helping Russia expand its borders.

Her handling of the major European conflict, the Seven Years War helped elevate Russia in the eyes of Europe. The main reason for Elizabeth’s intervention in the war was her deep dislike for the Prussian ruler, Frederick the Great. She would have succeeded in crushing him except that she died before she was able to complete the job.

During her reign she had to come up with an heir to her throne as she was childless. Her selection was Peter of Holstein-Gottorp her nephew. Next up was the choice of a bride which was settled on when Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst was selected and given the Russian name of Catherine in honor of Elizabeth’s mother. The child the two supposedly had would be known as Paul and will come up in the future as one of the worst rulers of Russia.

When Elizabeth died in December of 1761 (Old Calender), Russia had expanded greatly and had taken center stage in European politics. Her refusal to execute anyone led her to be loved by the people. While extravagant in her personal life, she did expand support for the arts and was one of the most prolific of the rulers in the building of churches.

 

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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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Vladimir I – #8 On The Best List

St. Vladimir

Vladimir the Great

Vladimir I, also known as Vladimir the Great (Norse – Volodmyr) was one of the most influential Russian rulers in history. Born in 958, he was the son of Sviatoslav who died in 972. Vladimir’s brother Yaropolk assumed the throne violently by killing their other brother Oleg. Forced to flee to Novgorod, Vladimir hired a band of Varangian mercenaries to help him overthrow Yaropolk.

In June of 980, Vladimir seized the capital in Kiev with the help of the boyar Blud who turned on Yaropolk who was eventually captured and killed. Once settled in his role as Grand Prince, he began to expand Kievan influence by attacking the Bulgars, pushing towards the Polish border in  Galicia and northwest towards Lithuania. On his way, the Grand Prince attacked the land of Polotsk, whose Prince refused Vladimir’s request for his daughter Rogneda in marriage. Not one to be told no, the Kievan prince took the young woman anyway.

This was not to be the only wife or concubine that the pagan Prince had. Some estimates believe he had over 800 women in his service. While the country had a smattering of Christians throughout the land due to his grandmother Olga’s influence, paganism was still the religion of the land. Vladimir promoted the Perun, who was the god of thunder as the lead diety. Human sacrifice was the norm until the Grand Prince began to see a growing population of Christians. He saw a political opening to expand his power base but he had to act prudently and wisely.

According to the Primary Chronicle, he sent emissaries to the centers of a number of religions to bring back information about each. The reports on the Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox religions were brought back. At the time, Constantinople was the seat of the Orthodox religion as well as being the capital of the most powerful civilization in the world, Byzantium.

It is said that Vladimir chose Orthodoxy because of divine inspiration but it is likely because of political benefits of being allied with such a great power. He decided to press the issue by attacking the Byzantine city of Chersonesos and demanded the hand of the Emperor Basil II’s sister, Anna. This was an impossible request as the Grand Prince was still a pagan. To make the deal, Vladimir was baptized in Cherson, taking the name Christian name Basil and Anna was sent to be his wife.

On his return to Kiev, the Grand Prince ordered all pagan statues destroyed and the people mass converted to Orthodox Christianity under threat of death. His conversion of the people was one of the most important events in Russian history. Vladimir’s rule marks the end of the Varangian era and the beginning of the Christian era which was to last until 1917.

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