The period between 1598 and 1613 is commonly referred to in Russian history as the Time of Troubles. The sickly Tsar Fyodor I (1584-1598) had died childless and the main line of the House of Rurik (which traced its ancestry to the Viking chieftain Rurik) became extinct. There ensued a bitter struggle for the throne involving the leading nobles of the day. Boris Godunov (1598-1605) and Vasily Shuisky (1606-1610) managed to secure the throne for short periods of time, but faced challenges against their rule from home and abroad. At least three pretenders claimed to be Tsarevich Dmitry of Uglich, Ivan the Terrible’s son who was found dead in mysterious circumstances in 1591. The first even ruled Russia for almost a year.
While the nobles were busy fighting each other, Polish and Swedish armies took advantage of Russian weakness to occupy Russian territory. For two years Polish soldiers occupied Moscow. The prospect of the destruction of Russia caused much anxiety among Russians of all backgrounds. A national uprising led by the noble Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and the peasant Kuzma Minin won a large following and on 22 October 1612 their armies took control of Moscow. The ‘national liberators’ (whose statue now stands in front of St Basil’s Cathedral) decided that the Russian people should choose their new tsar via the Zemsky Sobor.
Mikhail Scotti. Minin and Pozharsky (1850) / Nizhny Novgorod State Art Museum
The Zemsky Sobor may be considered a Russian Estates-General. It included representatives from the three major social classes in Russia: The nobility, the clergy, and townsmen and peasants. The assembly therefore gave a voice to Russians from all social backgrounds. Among the candidates for the throne were men of distinguished lineage who could trace their ancestry to kings and princes. After much discussion, on 21 February 1613 the council chose a rather obscure sixteen year old boy named Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov.
Why a Romanov?
The assembly elected Mikhail Romanov for two main reasons. In contrast to many other contenders for the throne, the Romanov family had only recently risen from relative obscurity to attain boyar status. It was for this very reason that a Romanov was chosen to become tsar – as a compromise candidate between rival Rurikid princes. With Mikhail being only sixteen years old, the assembly believed that his power was dependent on their support. In this way, the tsar would be prevented from being a tyrant and the nobles would be especially powerful as the tsar’s advisors. The great Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky encapsulated the boyars’ expectations: “Mikhail Romanov is still young, his mind is not mature, and he will do our bidding.”
Nevertheless, the Romanov family did enjoy some prestige and therein lies the second reason behind the decision to elect Mikhail. Mikhail’s father Filaret (though in Polish captivity) was the Patriarch of Moscow and had previously served as a key advisor to Ivan the Terrible. Mikhail’s grandfather’s sister was Tsarina Anastasia, Ivan the Terrible’s first wife and the mother of Tsar Fyodor. Therefore, Mikhail was sufficiently closely related to the House of Rurik to be considered a legitimate ruler.
The Reluctant Tsar
A delegation sent from Moscow arrived at the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma, where the young Mikhail was living at the time, in order to announce his election as the new tsar and bring him back to Moscow. Mikhail’s mother refused, stating that he was too young for the responsibility. The delegation replied in terms that persuaded the young Mikhail to accept the obligation that had been placed on him: “If you do not take the throne, you will be responsible to God and the people for the destruction of Russia.” The new tsar duly travelled to Moscow to be crowned on 22 July, 1613.
Grigory Ugryumov. The Vocation of Mikhail Romanov to the Russian throne on March 14, 1613 (c. 1800.) / The State Tretyakov Gallery
The nobles’ expectations in Mikhail I of Russia were not misplaced. By most accounts he was a cautious and conservative ruler and in the early years of his reign he frequently consulted with the Zemsky Sobor. Yet within Mikhail’s reign lies the seeds of both the centralisation of political power in Russia. Little would the members of the Zemsky Sobor have imagined that Mikhail’s descendants would continue to rule Russia for three centuries. Through the actions of the Romanov tsars, Russian territory expanded to cover one sixth of the earth’s land surface, in the process establishing herself as a global power.
The text by Jimmy Chen