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"May God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us!"
—The Rabbi, Fiddler on the Roof
Aka the Russian Empire and before that, Czarist Russia ("Czar" or "Tsar" being a Slavic form of "Caesar", this title also existed in medieval Bulgaria and Serbia, but was most historically important in Russia). Massive in size (sometimes bigger than even the USSR was) and lasted for about 400 years. The Muscovite Tsardom began under the 15th-century grand prince Ivan III "The Great" (who used the tsar title only occasionally) and was established fully under his grandson, Ivan IV "The Terrible", who was crowned as a Tsar from the very beginning. It was a convoluted, very conservative realm that considered itself a successor state to the Byzantine Empire.
Then there was the Time of Troubles — a Succession Crisis-cum-civil war. Not only Ivan the Terrible killed his son and crown prince in a fit of a blind rage, but his second son, the weak and simpleminded Feodor Ivanovich, was more interested in religion than in ruling the realm, and was childless to boot. The original Rurikid dynasty fell, and the Godunovs (relatives of Feodor's wife) took the throne. They didn't make it, and after an interregnum and a war with Poland, Romanovs (relatives of one of Ivan the Terrible's wives) became the tsars. In an interesting aside, during the Muscovite era, Russia was ruled by a double-decker aristocracy that consisted of two classes: the Boyars, who were the feudal rulers and councilors of the Tsar, and the Dvoryans, who served as military officers and civil servants, somewhat similar to the Japanese system where also existed two separate nobilities, based on the court aristocracy and the military class.
The 17th century was an age of riots and turmoil, and is still known to Russian historians as the Buntashny vek (The Age of Rebellions). The most notable rebellion of this century was one of Stepan Razin, an adventurous Cossack Pirate who tried to topple the throne of the tsars. The early 18th century was the time of the tsar Peter the Great, who was obsessed with transforming Russia into an European power and later replaced the "tsar" title with "Emperor" (but the word "tsar" remained in unofficial usage). Russia was westernized, Western customs and noble titles were introduced. Peter the Great dismissed the Boyar class and made the Dvoryans into the only nobles of the realm, introducing the Table of Ranks, a legal mechanism that allowed lower-class people to achieve nobility by military or civil service. Since then, the word "Dvoryanin" was the only word for "noble" in Russia.
After Peter's death, the Age of Palace Revolutions came into being. The succession law introduced by Peter was vague and left enough room for adventurous princes and (especially) princesses to seize the throne by force. Most of the rulers of Russia after Peter during the 18th century were women, culminating with Catherine the Great, who wasn't even Romanov by birth (she was a German princess and a Romanov by marriage — though, ironically, she was a Rurikid by a direct male succession). The Catherinian age was the golden age of Imperial Russia. After Catherine, her son Paul I introduced a new succession law that was very strict (perhaps to avoid the same fate as his father's. He didn't), ending the Palace Revolutions age.
During the 19th century, the Russian Empire was relatively stable and growing, but the old feudal traditions impeded its progress, much like Peter the Great felt the old Orthodox Church traditions impeded progress in the late 17th century. During the early part of his reign, Alexander I and his chief minister Speransky flirted with liberal reforms, but the massive trauma of the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 undermined these efforts, and the liberal Speransky was dismissed and replaced by the reactionary Arakcheyev.
The death (or a secret abdication — there was a persistent rumor at the time that Alexander I faked his own death and entered a monastery, and later the famous monk Feodor was said to be the abdicated Emperor) of Alexander I far from the capital engendered a coup attempt by liberal army officers known as the Decembrists who tried to put in place a democratic constitution — though it would probably strike the modern reader as rather stretching this definition. Nicholas I crushed the revolt and became a hated reactionary, and lost the Crimean War. Under Alexander II, many important reforms were implemented and the last vestiges of feudalism were removed, but a lot of these reforms were of the "too little too late" mold, and made it difficult for the country to adapt well to capitalism.
To add the insult to the injury, the later emperors Alexander III (a very conservative giant of a man, a reactionary and a roaring drunk, though a shrewd and cautious ruler and a good diplomat) and his son Nicholas II — a weak and indecisive ruler, who constantly varied his policy and was basically a Tsar Focus Group — reversed many of these reforms. This resulted in an impoverished country. Well, the economy was booming, but the political climate was stifling, the wealth distribution unbelievably skewed and the intellectual classes widely believed the country to be a basket case (sounds familiar?) — which caused them to adopt a "the worse the better" attitude, and dive into the revolutionary ideas.
It was an absolute monarchy (between the 17th century and 1905), ruled by a Tsar or a Tsarina until the Russian Empire and an Emperor after that, but the latter was still usually called the Tsar.
Some notable Tsars:
- Ivan IV, better known as Ivan The Terrible. He was a cruel tyrant and Axe Crazy, who never knew the meaning of moderation; he drank too much, laughed too loudly and hated or loved too fiercely. And he never forgot anything. Ivan was definitely smart and, despite his senseless brutality, his reign is a great one in Russian history books. Ivan was called Grozny, which has always been translated to "the Terrible", but actually means "the Awesome" (as in, worthy of awe).
- Boris Godunov. The man who tried to found a new dynasty but failed. He was a good, shrewd ruler, and a kind one compared to Ivan the Terrible, but his reputation of a Manipulative Bastard didn't make the people like him, and famines of the worst kind happened during his reign.
- Lzhedmitri (Pseudo-Demetrius) I. An adventurer of unknown identity (thought to be Grigori Otrepiev, an ex-monk) who pretended to be the tsarevich Dmitri, the last heir of the Rurikid dynasty, who mysteriously died some time before. Backed by the Poles, he led a successful revolution against Boris Godunov's son and heir Feodor II and became tsar. His fondness for all things Polish, though, led to his popularity quickly dropping down and eventual exposure as a fraud. He was executed, cremated, and his ashes shot from a cannon pointed westward, to Poland. Later, another Pseudo-Demetrius appeared, claiming to be both the real thing and the first Pseudo-Demetrius, and finally, to get rid of the frauds, the real tsarevich was canonized as a saint (so anyone pretending to be him could be proclaimed a heretic).
- Peter (Pyotr) I, also known as Peter the Great. Most notable for making Russia a great power, partly via creating its modern navy. He also defeated the Swedish Empire in a long and hard war in order to seize the eastern Baltic coast and thereafter had the new capital of Saint Petersburg built almost from scratch on the formerly Swedish town Nyenskans. Accordingly, a Kirov-class heavy battlecruiser (Pyotr Velikiy) is named after him. A giant of a man at 6'7, he had an interest in science and engineering and an adventurous streak that saw him travel around Europe to learn about that stuff, and later had him fighting on the front lines as a soldier in his own wars. He was also a sociopath who forced his cronies into drinking contests and once tortured his own son to death for suspected treason. Had an extremely traumatic childhood which basically involved treasonous royal guards storming the palace and hacking their way through his family before putting him and his brother on the throne as puppets, forcing them to promise not to take revenge (they were a very poorly educated bunch).
- Catherine (Yekaterina) II, Catherine the Great. She was a German, Lutheran Princess who converted to the Orthodox Church and learned the Russian language upon her marriage to the future Peter III. She took the throne after the assassination of her husband and a successful coup d'état staged with the help of the Imperial Guard. Oft-described as "an enlightened despot", she massively expanded the Russian Empire, massively promoted Russian culture but squashed dissent. Rumors about her sex life persist as Urban Legends.
- Paul (Pavel) I. The son of Catherine the Great. He meant well, but because he refused to listen to advice, he managed to piss off every social group in Russia. He built a European-style castle that was supposed to keep him safe from assassins. Didn't work out that way: he was assassinated by members of his inner circle. He established a strict male-line descent law, and since then there were no women on the Russian throne.
- Alexander I, also known as Alexander the Blessed. Son and successor of Paul. Was probably not involved in the latter's murder. Alexander began his reign with plans for liberalizing Russia and granting her a constitution. Unfortunately, the Napoleonic Wars got in the way, but Alexander did display resolve in refusing to surrender to Napoleon and leading his nation to victory. Russia became probably the most powerful European country after peace was concluded. Alexander I. is featured in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace and in most movies about the Napoleonic era.
- Alexander II, known as Alexander the Liberator. A failed reformer. He freed the serfs (see below) established trial by jury, created elected local government bodies, granted universities (limited) freedom of the press and, during the last year of his life, contemplated turning Russia into constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately, the anarchists thought he didn't go far enough and tried to kill him. They eventually succeeded, and Alexander II's heir, Alexander III, would up reversing or scaling down most of the policies his father put in place.
- Nicholas II (Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov), aka Nicholas The Martyr, Bloody Nicholas, Saint Nicholas The Passion Bearer and the cousin of George V. Last Emperor of Russia. Presided over Romanovs and Revolutions, was shot (along with his family) and was later made a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, after the Soviet days were safely past. He continued the trend of Alexander III of reversing Alexander II's liberal reforms, and was first humiliated by Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. However, his execution by revolutionaries has most colored his legacy, especially when compared to the Soviet rule. Though he is often compared favorably in the West to the Soviets, his rule was definitely not free of oppression and it saw some of the worst pogroms (race riots) in Russian history. Arguably the personification of "Well Done, Son" Guy, having been given very little preparation for ruling the country and always cowed by his much stronger father.
Russia was an autocratic state, which wasn't a nice thing if you disagreed with the government. They had a Secret Police (the Okhranka) and the Orthodox Church chipped in with the help that most peasants were illiterate, which brings us onto...
Tell the teacher we're Serfing:
Serfs, not just found in Russia but also in, for example, Prussia and Denmark, were bonded farm labourers, with little or no economic freedom. Originally, in the Muscovite period, it was not quite slavery but close, serfs did have their own land and housing, but usually had to give the best of their crop to their lord. Serfdom was abolished in most of Europe during the Renaissance, but it remained in Russia for much longer. It's worth noting that in the Muscovite period, Russia had BOTH slavery and serfdom. The slaves in Russia were legally converted into serfs by Peter the Great in 1723, but the only thing caused by this humane reform was serfdom becoming essentially slavery.
Serfdom's descent to slavery began during the Muscovite period, when the St.George's Day custom, that allowed serfs to leave their masters that day, was banned. Hence the Russian expression "'Vot tebe, babushka, i Yuriev den'" (That's all of St.George's day for you, grandma), used in a situation of plans suddenly changing or things becoming worse. During the heyday of the serfdom, in the early 19th century, it became slavery in anything but name; the serfs didn't own land, didn't have any rights (even the right to choose a spouse) and could be sold and bought freely. Alexander II, seeing that the system was extremely backwards (and wishing to prevent possible peasant uprisings), ended it in Russia in 1861. Peacefully, unlike they did in a certain other country that decade. Russia was an empire, not a democracy, so Russian serf-owning aristocrats didn't even think about opposing that decision (especially after seeing what happened to the Decembrists). Unfortunately, emancipation left many former serfs without land or means to support themselves, as well as being burdened by the introduction of sharecropping and "redemption payments", and ended up contributing to a major revolution anyway.
Tsarist Russia and the Romanov dynasty in fiction:
- Most works of classic Russian literature, like Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment and Nikolay Gogol's Dead Souls.
- As the quote suggests, Fiddler on the Roof.
- Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace is a particularly good example of Imperial Russia, because in takes place from about 1804-1821, during the monarchy's glory days. The reader experiences the glamor and beauty of imperial balls and palaces.
- Assassin's Creed: The Fall is set during this time in the historical portion.
- Shadow Hearts 2
- Nicholas and Alexandra
- The Erast Fandorin series of novels.
- The short story "New Archangel" by Desmond Warzel, set in Alaska, takes place partly during this period of Russian history and its rule over that territory.
- Premier Romanov from the Red Alert series is meant to be Alexander II.'s son.
- Jules Verne's Michel Strogoff.
- Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov.