You Gotta Know These Russian Tsars
- Ivan IV (1530–1584; ruled 1533–1584): Ivan IV is known in the West as “Ivan the Terrible,” but his Russian nickname, Groznyi, would be more accurately translated as “awe-inspiring” or “menacing” (the original meaning of the English word “terrible”). Ivan was proclaimed Grand Prince of Muscovy in 1533 and tsar in 1547. Scholars differ on whether Ivan was literate and on how auspiciously his reign began. Early in his reign, he pushed through a series of well-received reforms and called a zemskii sobor (assembly of the land), but Ivan had an amazingly cruel streak and eventually became unstable: he temporarily abdicated in 1564, killed his favorite son, created a state-within-the-state called the oprichnina to wage war on the boyars, and participated in the torture of his enemies. Ivan combined the absolutist tendencies of his predecessors with his own violent personality, helping to plunge the country into the subsequent period of civil strife known as the “Time of Troubles.”
- Boris Godunov (ca. 1551–1605; ruled 1598–1605): Boris Godunov began his career as a boyar in Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina, and eventually became tsar himself. Boris first cemented his influence by marrying a daughter of one of Ivan’s court favorites and arranging his sister Irina’s marriage to Ivan’s son Fyodor; then he became regent under Fyodor, and was elected tsar when Fyodor died in 1598. But Boris was rumored to have arranged the murder of Fyodor’s brother Dmitrii, and the first of several “False Dmitris” launched a revolt against him. Boris died in the midst of growing unrest and is now best known as the subject of a Pushkin play and a Mussorgsky opera.
- Michael (1597–1645; ruled 1613–1645): In 1613, near the end of the Time of Troubles, a zemskii sobor elected the 16-year-old Michael Romanov as the new tsar. Michael was a grandnephew of Ivan the Terrible’s “good” wife Anastasia and the son of a powerful churchman named Filaret (who soon became patriarch); as tsar, he has usually been seen as a nonentity dominated by Filaret and other relatives. Nevertheless, his election marked the return of relative stability and the succession of the Romanov dynasty.
- Peter I (1672–1725; ruled 1682–1725): Peter the Great is famous both for his push for Westernization and for his boisterous personality. His Grand Embassy to Europe enabled him to learn about Western life (and even to work in a Dutch shipyard); he later invited Western artisans to come to Russia, required the boyars (aristocrats) to shave their beards and wear Western clothing, and even founded a new capital, St. Petersburg — his “window on the West.” He also led his country in the Great Northern War (in which Charles XII of Sweden was defeated at Poltava), created a Table of Ranks for the nobility, and reformed the bureaucracy and army. But Peter could also be violent and cruel: he personally participated in the torture of the streltsy, or musketeers, who rebelled against him, and had his own son executed.
- Catherine II (1729–1796; ruled 1762–1796): Catherine the Great wasn’t really a Russian at all: she was born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst (a minor German principality) and was chosen as the bride of the future Peter III. She had thoroughly Russianized herself by the time Peter became tsar, and soon had him deposed; she then dispatched several claimants to the throne and crushed a peasant uprising led by Emilian Pugachev. She also corresponded with Enlightenment philosophes, granted charters of rights and obligations to the nobility and the towns, oversaw the partition of Poland, and expanded the empire. Catherine is well known for her extravagant love life: her 21 acknowledged lovers included Grigorii Potemkin (who constructed the famous Potemkin village on an imperial inspection tour).
- Alexander I (1777–1825; ruled 1801–1825): Alexander I took the throne in 1801 when his repressive father Paul was assassinated and immediately set out on a more liberal course, but he left his strongest supporters disappointed. He is best known for his wars with Napoleon (first as an ally and then as an enemy), and for seeking to establish a Holy Alliance in the years that followed. Alexander was an eccentric and a religious mystic. Some even say that he didn’t really die in 1825: instead, they argue, he faked his own death, became a hermit, and died in a monastery in 1864.
- Nicholas I (1796–1855; ruled 1825–1855): Nicholas I, who ruled Russia from the failure of the Decembrist Uprising to the middle of the Crimean War, has traditionally been portrayed as the embodiment of the Russian autocracy. His government pursued a policy of Official Nationality, defending a holy trinity of “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality,” and established a repressive secret police force known as the Third Section. Contemporaries referred to him as the “Gendarme of Europe” after he helped the Habsburgs squelch the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.
- Alexander II (1818–1881; ruled 1855–1881): Alexander II embarked on a program of Great Reforms soon after taking the throne near the end of the Crimean War. The most famous part of his program was the serf emancipation of 1861 — a reform which occurred almost simultaneously with the end of American slavery (and whose gradual nature disappointed liberals), But he also introduced a system of local governing bodies called zemstvos, tried to increase the rule of law in the court system, eased censorship, and reorganized the army. Alexander became more reactionary after an attempted assassination in 1866, and was successfully assassinated in 1881.
- Alexander III (1845–1894; ruled 1881–1894): Those who hoped that the assassination of Alexander II would lead to liberalization saw the error of their ways when the new tsar, Alexander III, launched his program of “counter-reforms.” Under him, the state enacted a series of Temporary Regulations (giving it the power to crack down on terrorism), increased censorship, tightened controls on Russia’s universities, created a position of “land captain” to exert state control in the countryside, and either encouraged or ignored the first anti-Jewish pogroms.
- Nicholas II (1868–1918; ruled 1894–1917): Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs, ruled until his overthrow in the February Revolution of 1917. He is usually seen as both a kind man who loved his family and an incapable monarch who helped bring about the end of the tsarist state; he led his country through two disastrous wars, the Russo-Japanese War (which helped spark the Revolution of 1905), and World War I (which helped cause the 1917 revolutions), He is best known for his loving marriage to Alexandra and for allowing the crazed monk Grigorii Rasputin to influence court politics while treating the hemophilia of Alexei, the heir to the throne. Nicholas abdicated in 1917 and was shot in 1918.
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer Edward Cohn.