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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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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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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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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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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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Persian Interactions with Russia

One of the greatest praises one can get is when someone takes your idea and runs with it. Mike Rakshan did just that with his new podcast, The History of Persia. His obvious passion for the subject is likely due to his being of Persian descent like mine being because of my Russian descent. You can tell in his voice that this is a project that comes from the heart which makes it a great listen. Also, thanks for the shout out at the beginning of the podcast. Much appreciated.

Interactions between Russia and the Persian’s (present day Iran) have persisted from the time that people inhabited the land of the Rus until present day. Through Persia the Russians were exposed to the religion of Islam and it is thought that Persian emissaries came to the court of Vladimir the Great to present their religion to him although some believe it was Bulgarian Muslim’s who made the presentation.

Persian merchants were major trading partners with the Kievan Rus back in the late 10th and early 11th century. While Constantinople was the biggest partner, Persians were not far behind. Through the time of the Samanid dynasty 819 – 999, Ghaznavids 963–1186 and the shared invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century trading continued.

Now under the thumb of the different Mongol Hordes, there was still some trade going on but because of how devastated the Persian population was, it went down to a trickle. As both countries struggled to shake off the domination, they began to evolve in different ways. But they did have a common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman-Persian Wars were fought from about 1514-1823.

The Russians began to come into conflict with the Ottoman’s as they began their expansion south, beginning with the ascension to the throne by Peter the Great. His Great Embassy through Europe was to gather allies in his fight to take Ottoman territories (Episode 31)  like the base at Azov. When he saw the threat of the Swedes under Charles XII he signed a treaty with the Ottoman’s much to the dismay of the Persian leaders who were themselves were fighting wars with the Ottomans.

Moving to the more recent dealings,things between the USSR and the Shah of Iran were cool. Under Gorbachev, better relations with Iran were tried as a buttress against American influence in the Middle East. With Putin, conflicts arose between the Persian Iranians and Russia die to conflicts in the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, former members of the USSR were developing their independent energy resources which was opposed by Iran.

I look forward to hearing more about Persian history from Mike as it seems to be a long and interesting one.

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Kiev Captured by the Mongols

Viking Arriving in Russia

On December 6, 1240, a Mongol invasion force led by Batu Khan, captured the city of Kiev. It has generally been acknowledged as the end of the era of Kievan Rus. Once a flourishing mecca whose rulers children married into the houses of many European leaders, it would be centuries before it would regain its luster.

While this was the death blow to Kiev as a center of Russia it was already in a state of decline. The reasons for the decline are numerous but some were more important that others. The first reason was the appanage system of the passing of lands to multiple sons following the passing of their father. It caused a splintering of the lands, especially in Kiev as brothers battled brothers for control of the countryside. Civil war was common after the death of the last unifying Grand Prince, Yaroslav the Wise in 1054.

After the Grand Prince’s death, Iziaslav I took over but he was overthrown a few years into his reign in 1068. With the help of the Polish Army, he retook Kiev in 1069 but was thrown out again, this time by his brothers in 1068. Returning in 1076 he only lasted two more years until he was finally killed in battle in 1078. All this warring was wearing down the people and caused a general financial recession to hit the region.

Subsequent rulers kept Kiev as the main city of Russia but its influence was slowly eroding to other cities especially Novgorod but another issue was causing it to lose its economic strength and that was the deterioration of it main trade partner the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople was losing its power as attacks from the Crusaders and pressure from the Muslims were shrinking their territories. Since Kiev was a main center of trade to the Byzantines from the Vikings in the north a slowing economy meant that the Varangian traders went looking for other more lucrative areas. Gradually, Kiev began to slide downward in influence and prestige.

The next near fatal blow was delivered by Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky of Vladimir when he sacked Kiev in 1169. This caused Kiev to lose its perception as the center of the people of the Rus. By now cities like Vladimir-Suzdal had surpassed Kiev. Then as if to just heap more misery on the once bustling town, the Mongols arrived and destroyed what was left of Kiev. It was not to be until the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution that the city was to thrive again. Today it is a thriving and vibrant city of 2.8 million inhabitants in the Ukraine.


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Alexander Nevsky Day

Saint Alexander Nevsky

Icon of Saint Alexander Nevsky

Today is the feast day for Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky (Episode 5)  in the Russian Orthodox Church. Nevsky is one of the heroes of the early years of Russian history. He was both Grand Prince of Novgorod and Vladimir during the 1200’s.

From 1228 to 1233, Alexander Yaroslavich ruler Novgorod together with his brother Fyodor. When his brother died in 1233, Alexander enlisted his brother Andrei to help expand Novgorod’s lands. Quickly they began to encroach upon Finnish lands which caused the Swedes, Teutonic Knights and Livonian Swordbearers to challenge Alexander. In 1240, the Swedes attacked at the Neva River but were defeated by Alexander’s small army. This is how he came to acquire the name Nevsky.

After winning the battle, he quarreled with the citizens of Novgorod and left, heading to Pereyaslavl Zalessky. In short order, a German army seized nearby Pskov and threatened Novgorod which cause the populace to beg Alexander to return. After coming back in 1241, he began to recapture lost territory including Pskov.

In 1242 the famous “Battle on the Ice” occurred between Nevsky’s army and the main force of the Teutonic Knights on Lake Peypus (aka Lake Chud). This legendary battle increased Alexander Yaroslavich’s stature among his people but especially with the Khan of the Golden Horde. The Mongols admired military courage so when Alexander went to Sarai to visit Khan Batu he was sent all the way to Mongolia to see the Great Khan in Karakorum. There, he received the title of Grand Prince of Kiev and of all the Rus in 1249.

He served the Mongols well, often times putting down rebellions within his lands. While some felt that this was a traitorous act, he was able to prevent mass executions which was the preferred method of meting out punishment by the Horde.

After his fourth visit to the Golden Horde in 1262, Alexander Nevsky fell ill. On his way home, he became a monk and died on November 14, 1263 in the town of Gorodets. He was canonized as saint in the Russian Orthodox Church during the reign of Ivan IV (the Terrible).

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