Fifteen years of anarchy left Russia in disorder. The boyards had done as they pleased since there was no one to control them. The peasants who asked for nothing but a simple existence, had seen their crops trampled under foot, and their homes laid in ruins. It needed a strong hand to restore order; more than could be expected from a fifteen-year-old boy, who had neither the iron will of Ivan the Terrible, nor the advantage of having grown up with the conviction that he was the Master. Besides, although his election had been regular, the Don Cossacks and others refused to recognize him as the czar. On the other hand, the patriots stood by him. But the conditions were such that a foreigner in Moscow wrote at the time: "Oh that God would open the eyes of the czar as He opened those of Ivan, otherwise Muscovy is lost!"
There was no money in the treasury, and the men-at-arms demanded pay because they received no revenues from their ruined estates. The czar and the clergy wrote to the Russian towns begging them for money and for troops to help the government, and a generous response was made. The people of the provinces, anxious to see law and order restored, rose in favor of the czar, and Astrakhan sent a rebel chief to prison. He was shortly afterwards tried and executed.
While the people were thus aiding the government, no time was lost in dealing with the foreign enemy. In 1614, Michael sent envoys to Holland to request help in men and money. The Dutch gave a small sum, regretting that they could do no more as they had just ended a war that had lasted forty-one years (1568–1609); they promised that they would persuade Sweden to come to an understanding with Russia. Another embassy went to James I of England, who was told that the Poles had murdered British merchants and plundered their warehouses. This was a falsehood, because the envoys knew that the outrage had been committed by Cossacks and a Russian mob, but they hoped that the king would not know it. James did not, and advanced 20,000 rubles. After this British merchants demanded concessions and privileges in Russia, but as they asked too much, they received nothing. Sweden, urged by England and Holland, concluded with Russia the Peace of Stolbovo in 1617. Sweden received an indemnity of 20,000 rubles, and surrendered Novgorod and other towns.
The war with Poland was then continued more vigorously, and in 1618 a truce of fourteen years and six months was arranged. It was understood that this was temporary, because the King of Poland still claimed the throne of Russia, and refused to recognize Michael. But the prisoners were released and Philarete, the czar's father, returned to Moscow, where his presence was soon felt by the nobles. The most independent were arrested and sent into exile. So long as Philarete assisted his son, there was no disorder.
In 1618, the great struggle between Protestant and Roman Catholic Europe began and Sweden, which was to take such a glorious part in it, sought Russia's aid. Gustavus wrote to Michael telling him that if the Catholic league should prevail, the Greek Church would be in danger. "When your neighbor's house is on fire," he wrote, "you must bring water and try to extinguish it, to guarantee your own safety. May your Czarian Majesty help your neighbors to protect yourself." Sound as the advice was, Russia had enough to do at home. Sultan Osman of Turkey offered an alliance against Poland, when Michael convoked the Estates. The deputies "beat their foreheads," and implored the czar "to hold himself firm for the holy churches of God, for his czarian honor, and for their own country against the enemy. The men-at-arms were ready to fight, and the merchants to give money." The war was postponed when news arrived that the Turks had been defeated.
Sigismund of Poland died in 1632, and his son Vladislas was elected. The following year Philarete died, and the nobles, released from his stern supervision, resumed their former behavior. The war between the two neighbors recommenced, but did not last long. When a new truce was concluded Michael's title as czar was recognized by Vladislas.
It was entirely the fault of the Polish nobles that Poland lost Lithuania or White Russia. The only excuse that can be offered, is the spirit of religious persecution which was rampant all over Europe in the seventeenth century. It was the ceaseless effort of the Poles to force the Lithuanians from the Greek into the Roman Church that drove them into the arms of Russia; but it was not until after the death of Michael, in 1645, that the consequences of this short-sighted policy were to show.
Michael was succeeded by his son, who ascended the throne as Alexis Michaelovitch. He was better educated than his father had been and resembled him in good nature. He had been taught by a tutor named Morozof, who during thirty years exerted a great influence over his pupil. When Alexis married into the Miloslavski family, its members secured the most influential positions, according to well-established custom. Morozof did not oppose them; instead he courted and married the czarina's sister, and thus became the czar's brother-in-law.
The wars in which Russia was engaged and the necessity of maintaining a large and well-equipped army, together with the increasing expenses of the Court, and above all, the dishonest practices of the officials rendered the burden of taxation so unbearable, that several revolts broke out. In 1648, the people of Moscow rose and demanded the surrender of a judge and another officer, both of whom were notoriously corrupt; the two men were promptly murdered. Then the popular fury turned upon Morozof, who would have suffered the same fate, had not the czar helped him to escape. The government was helpless. In some places, such as Pskof, Novgorod, and elsewhere, the streltsi joined the people, and Russia was for some time at the mercy of an enemy.
It was fortunate for Russia that just at that time, Poland had serious trouble at home. A Cossack, owner of a large estate, educated and brave, was ill-treated and imprisoned by a Polish landowner; and his little son was publicly whipped. He went to Warsaw and laid his complaint before the king. Vladislas told him plainly that the nobles were beyond his control; then, pointing to his sword, he asked if the Cossack could not help himself. The Cossack took the hint, went home, and when the Polish landowners tried to arrest him, he fled to the Khan of the Crimea, interested him in his cause and returned at the head of a Mussulman army. Lithuania rose in rebellion against Poland; the governors and nobles, and especially the priests of the Catholic Church, were hunted down, and those of the Greek Church took revenge for recent injuries and insults.
Vladislas died, and the Diet elected his brother John Casimir. He tried to reduce the very serious rebellion by promises, but there was too deep a hatred between the two churches. Meanwhile order had been restored in Russia, when the people of Lithuania wrote to the czar begging him to take them under his protection. Alexis convoked the Estates, told them that he had been insulted by Poland, and that the Poles were persecuting the members of the Greek Church. They declared in favor of war, and a boyard was sent to Kief to receive the oath of allegiance. The people were willing provided their liberties would be respected. This the czar promised. He declared that the privileges of the Assembly and of the towns would be maintained, that only natives would be employed in the administration and in taxation.
Poland was now sorely pressed. Charles X of Sweden invaded the kingdom and took two of its capitals. The Cossack and Lithuanians entered it from the south, and the Czar Alexis at the head of his own army attacked it on the east. He maintained strict discipline so that the Polish Governors said, "Moscow makes war in quite a new way, and conquers the people by the clemency and good-nature of the czar. The towns of White Russia opened their gates to his army, and Smolensk surrendered after a five weeks' siege. The Swedes captured Warsaw, the last capital of the misruled kingdom.
It was the jealousy of its enemies that saved Poland this time. Alexis entered into a truce and attacked Sweden. This war was carried on from 1656 until 1661, and ended by the peace of Cardis whereby neither country gained any advantage. The Poles, seeing the danger they had incurred, rallied, and once again war broke out with Russia. It was carried on with various success until both countries were exhausted. In 1661, a thirteen years' truce was concluded, whereby Russia restored Lithuania, but kept Little Russia on the left bank of the Dnieper, together with Kief and Smolensk.
In 1668, a revolt was organized by the Metropolitan of Kief, who preferred the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople to that of Moscow. As a result, Little Russia was subject to all the horrors of war, but the Russian power prevailed in the end. Then the Cossacks of the Don broke out, and until 1671 the territory between that river and the Volga suffered terribly.
Alexis' reign was remarkable for the introduction of so-called "reforms" in the Church, which were confined wholly to ceremonies and externals. The czar supported the "reformer" Nicon, and those who did not agree with him were called religious madmen and suffered persecution. The monasteries near Archangel rebelled and troops were sent against them; but it was eight months before the sturdy monks capitulated.
Alexis continued his father's efforts to reestablish intercourse with Western Europe. But the West was only recovering from the terrible Thirty Years' War, so that little interest was shown.
Alexis had married twice. From the first marriage he had two sons Feodor and Ivan, and six daughters; by his second wife he had one son, Peter, and two daughters. When he died, in 1676, he was succeeded by his eldest son Feodor.
Feodor Alexievitch, the third czar of the Romanof family, reigned only six years, from 1676 to 1682. It was under his reign that a truce for twenty years with Turkey, restored peace to White Russia.
Hitherto Russia had suffered from the rivalry resulting from disputes caused by precedence of birth; generals had lost battles, because they refused to serve under men whom they looked upon as inferiors. At an assembly of the higher clergy, it was resolved to burn the Book of Rank, and the czar made a law that any one disputing about his rank, should lose it as well as his property.
To protect the Greek Church from dividing into sects, an academy was founded at Moscow where the Slav, Latin, and Greek languages were taught.