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The Shaping of Modern Europe Index

Introduction to the Reformation

The English Reformation

The English Reformation : Introduction

17th Century Europe

The Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648)
The Conflict Begins
Sweden and France
Germany, Spain and Sweden after 1648
The United Provinces
Beginning of the Decline
Peter the Great and the Rise of Russia (1682-1725)

History Chapters Main Index

 

 

Tsar Boris Gudunov

Tsar Boris Gudunov

 

Emblem of the Romanov Dynasty

The Emblem of the Romanov Dynasty

 

 

The Boyars

The boyars formed the most powerful and influential group of the Russian aristocracy between the 10th and 18th centuries. The boyars were originally the companions and advisers of the princes of Kiev. (The Principality of Kiev was founded by a Swedish viking who took the name Vladimir. He was converted to Byzantine Christianity and adopted the Greek cyrillic alphabet, both of which still form the basis of modern Russian culture.)

Between the 15th and 18th centuries boyars formed a closed and very powerful group around the tsars, providing them with military commanders, provincial governors and the heads of government administration. Because they were so powerful, the boyars were hostile to any form of change or reform which might threaten their position. It is not surprising, therefore, that Peter the Great encountered fierce boyar opposition to his reforms. It also explains Peter's ruthless repression and abolition of the boyars.

 

THE SHAPING OF MODERN EUROPE

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17th Century Europe

Russia

In the early 17th century Russia was the most isolated and backward of European states. The tsar (caesar) ruled the immediate vicinity of Moscow, but the rest of the kingdom of Muscovy was really controlled by powerful and independently-minded nobles - the boyars. In addition, the influence of the traditionalist and ultra-conservative Orthodox Clergy on the mass of the people made any attempts at change difficult, or even dangerous.

The Tsar Boris Gudunov (1598-1605) had attempted to impose strong government but had been met by such forceful opposition that civil war broke out during which Boris himself was killed. After his death the state suffered revolts among the peasants and the Cossacks. There was much damage caused by uncontrolled mobs of soldiers who pillaged villages and towns. The northern city of Novgorod was captured by the Swedes and a Polish prince was declared tsar after Moscow was occupied by Polish armies in 1611.

It was the Orthodox Clergy which led a crusade against the Catholic Polish and Lutheran Swedish invaders. By 1613 an assembly representing all classes of society - the Zemski Sobor (a Russian version of the States-General) - had declared Mikaïl Romanov to be the new tsar.

 

The Romanov Dynasty would stay in power until the abdication of its last representative, Tsar Nicholas II, in 1917.

 

The reigns of the first two Romanov tsars, Mikaïl (1613-1645), and Alexis (1645-1676), were marked by the first real attempt to open up Muscovy to western influence. Foreign technicians arrived to train the army and found the first factories. English, Dutch and German merchants set up businesses in Moscow and the northern port of Archangelsk. Despite all their efforts the results were very limited because of the Russian people who were extremely resistant to new ideas. The nobility and the clergy were afraid of losing their power and influence. In addition, there was a profound belief that it was their duty to defend the values and traditions of "Holy Mother Russia". This anti-foreign sentiment was reinforced by the exhausting war against Poland to the west.

In 1648 the Cossacks of the Ukraine rose in revolt against the Poles and in 1653 they asked for Russian protection. two important consequences resulted from this:

 

  • the region of the Ukraine east of the River Dniepr became part of Russia

  • in return for a great degree of independence, the Cossacks provided loyal military service to all tsars from this time onwards - especially the famous and feared Cossack cavalry.

 

Social conditions

It seems strange that at the same time as they were trying to open Muscovy to western trade and technology, the Romanov tsars were leading Russian society in a very different direction. Just at the time when serfdom was disappearing in the west, the law code of Tsar Alexis introduced it, for the first time, in 1649. For almost a century the peasants had been losing more and more freedom. After 1649 they were totally bound to the soil and the authority of the nobility over them was made absolute. Not surprisingly, in the late 17th century, Russia experienced peasant uprisings similar to those which had occurred in France and England in the 14th century. Like them, the Russian peasants were ruthlessly crushed. The Tsar obtained total autocratic, or absolute, power.

 

Serfdom was only abolished in Russia in 1861, and the autocratic power of the tsars continued until 1917.

 

In 1669 Alexis became a widower, and when he married for a second time his new tsaritza broke all tradition by raising her children in the western manner. Her oldest son, Feodor, ruled briefly and unimportantly between 1676 and 1682. Her youngest son, Piotr, was to become Peter the Great.

 

 

 

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