The 'Time of Troubles': The Last of the Rurik Rulers, Civil War, and the Beginnings of the Romanov Dynasty

Upon the death of Ivan IV, his son Fedor took the throne. Fedor ruled from the years 1584-1598 although it must be said that Fedor did not truly weld the power behind the throne... even if he was sitting in it. And upon his death, Russia was to have about 15 years of dynastic strife as well as social and national struggles. This period of time is known to historians by the name 'The Time of Troubles'. This paper will attempt to discuss three particular subjects. What was the 'Time of Troubles' and its significance. What were the particular struggles of the time- dynastically, socially, and nationally... and how did these struggles overlap or remain separate from each other? Lastly, what part did the Cossacks play in all of these struggles, what role did they have in Russian history, and what eventually brought the country of Russia into national chaos during this time.

While the 'Times of Troubles' didn't officially begin until the year of 1598, it's path was born in the last years of the reign of Ivan IV. The last years of his reign were filled with the consequences of his grief, paranoia, his temper and mental illness. During that time frame, Russia began to have many difficulties. The Livonian War had depleted the state of many resources, both financial and human. Ivan's oprichnina, while attempting to snuff out treason, succeeded in terrorizing the country and killing thousands of innocent people of all classes. Both the war and the 'terror squad' helped to spread destabilization and impoverishment around the country and the rising demands on the peasant class caused many peasants to flee from the oppressive demands placed against them by migrating south. Ivan, in a fit of temper killed his principle heir to the throne and then, in his own grief, died soon after. This left the throne to the next oldest son Fedor- who has been described by many sources as unfit, weak-witted, etc... Another legacy from Ivan IV to his son was the threat to Russian security by the Crimean Tartars, Poland, and Sweden.

Fedor Ivanovich was born in Moscow on May 31, 1557 to Ivan IV and Anastasia Romanovna. He was often referred to as Fedor 'the Bell-ringer' because of his frequent attendance at church services, his strong faith and his inclination to travel throughout the land and ring the bells in the churches. He was married to Irina (Alexandra) Feodorovna Godunova in 1580 and on May 31, 1584, (after the death of his father) Fedor was crowned Tzar and Autocrat of all Russia at Assumption Cathedral. Ivan IV, knowing that Fedor did have 'problems' such as mental retardation arraigned in his will for Fedor to have two guardians to act as regents for him. These two guardians became the real power behind the throne and one of them was Boris Godunov. Boris Godunov was the brother of Fedor's wife and had found great favor with Fedor's father. Czar Fedor spent much of his waking hours in monotonous prayer far removed from the understanding of the Russian state reality. During his reign, the Church of Muscovy gained a special status of Patriarchate of Moscow- a title that gave the assumption of imperial status to the church and brought the religious rule and political rule of Russia even closer. So, as the power behind the throne, Boris Godunov 'ruled' until the 1598.

In 1598 Fedor died without an obvious heir, ending the Rubik Dynasty. He was buried at the Archangel Cathedral in Kremlin. During his reign, he did not produce an heir (and did not appoint one) and Ivan's last son Dmitry had been murdered/killed- either his throat was slit or he was stabbed in the throat. (It must be noted that some suspicion was placed on Boris Godunov in this death... even though the official investigators appointed by Godunov reported that Dmitri had been playing with a knife when he had suffered an epileptic seizure and then died.) After the death of Feodor, Boris was formally 'elected' to the position of Tzar on February 17, 1598 by a council of about 600 deputies drawn from the roles of upper clergy, the boyar duma, and representatives of the service nobility. Some comments from England's ambassador who was sent to the Court of Fedor show some of the cynicism and trouble of the time. Sir Giles Fletcher is quoted as saying: “The state and form of government is plain tyrannical... You shall seldom see a Ruse a traveler, except he be with some Ambassador... They are kept from traveling, so they may learn nothing nor see the fashions of other countries...It may be doubted whither is greater- the cruelty or the intemperancy that is used in this country.” Boris was to rule/reign as Tzar until his death after a lengthy illness and/or stroke in April 1605.

The easiest way to describe what the Cossacks were is to describe them as groups of lawless frontiersman or 'migrant workers'. The ranks of these groups were filled with peasants, runaway slaves, criminals, Tartars, and sometimes even a nobleman who was embittered towards the Autocrat and/or the establishment. The Cossacks survived mostly by hunting, fishing, farming... and or course piracy/brigandage. The Cossacks were also independent of loyalties to others other than themselves and were a very democratic institution; they elected their own leaders by popular vote- called hetmans or atamans. These groups had started to develop around the time of Ivan IV in the lands that had recently been conquered back from the Tartar-Mongols. (There is some thought/ sources that suggest groups of cossacks existed earlier than this time frame.) These groups gained some power and influence (or at the least were certainly not persecuted) under the reign of Ivan IV and both the czar and the these groups sometimes worked together for their common good... with Ivan using the cossacks sometimes as auxiliaries to his army, sometimes as paid members of the oprichnina, etc... Ivan IV was also quoted in 1549 in a response to a request of the Turkish Sultan to control the cossacks- 'The Cossacks of the Don are not my subjects, and they go to war or live in peace without my knowledge.' It must be stressed however, that while in some instances the Cossacks were quite willing to have an amiable relationship with the government or the czar, in others they were more than happy to defy the laws/czar- they had no loyalty or ties to anyone but to their own group members. The cossacks were known for their horsemanship and they managed to keep most of their autonomy until Russia expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The role that the Cossacks played in the development of the history of Russia was varied. One group of Cossacks that were previously mentioned (the Don Cossacks) allied themselves with the Tsars and together systematically conquered and colonized lands to secure the borders of the Volga and all of Siberia. In one example, the Cossacks who lived in the southern frontier took advantage of a foreign war between Turkey and Persia and seized the fortress of Azov in 1637- when they were unable to defend it over a long period of time, communication was made with the Tzar and the fort was abandoned on the tzar’s instructions. In some areas, the differing groups of cossacks created a buffer from invasion from other countries along the Russian borders. Members of Cossack groups also served as guides for many expeditions that were arraigned by civil or government/military groups such as surveyors, traders, explorers, etc... Cossack groups also were involved in political uprisings in Russia and were military supporters of different pretenders to the Russian throne during the Time of Troubles- in fact, the main force supporting one pretender (Pseudo Dmitri I) was the Cossacks.

In 1598, Boris Godunov was elected czar and the 'Time of Troubles' officially began. For the next eight years, there was a dynastic struggle. During this time frame, the country had widespread discontent, invasions from two different countries and various tzars of dubious validity. Boris Godunov was elected Tsar by the Assembly of the Land, but Boris had troubles from the beginning with the boyar class- many refused to grant him unlimited authority because Godunov had no hereditary claim to the throne. However, none of the boyar class could unite with each other around an alternative candidate. After Godunov was crowned, he immediately set out to make sure he didn't have problems with popular rivals; Romanov relatives were banished or sent to monasteries and other boyars were simply purged. During the first few years of his reign, Boris Godunov was quite popular and he did his best to bring about educational and social reforms, including importing foreign teachers, sending young Russians abroad to be educated and even allowed for the building of some protestant churches. However, his reign and the years after his death were filled with power struggles. Godunov was quite paranoid over his position of power and assumed (quite rightly) that others would try to take it from him. He found that his reign was marked not only by national disasters such as severe famine that killed as much as 1/3 of the population, but also invasions from both Sweden and Poland. Rumors began to circulate that the late prince Dmitri was not actually dead and the final years of Godunov's reign were spent fighting not only the other social problems of plague and famine, but the pretender Pseudo Dmitri. After the death of Boris Godunov in April 1605, the dynastic chaos and civil war began in earnest. Feodor II (the son of Boris Godunov was crowned Tsar... and murdered three weeks later. The next in charge was False Dmitri I was then crowned, but reigned only a year before conspiracies against him by a rurikid prince Vasily Shuisky who then murdered the False Dmitri and seized power. Soon after this power grab, a new conspiracy grew up around another imposter calling himself 'Dmitri' entered the fray... and False Dmitri II was born. At this time a second occupation from Poland-Lithuania began after an invasion. And, another pretender Tsarevich Peter, arrived on the scene and had to be dealt with as well. All of the above mentioned pretenders had large armies-either from foreign forces who were willing to help, Cossacks, disgruntled boyars... and some mixtures of all of the above. In all, about twelve pretenders vied for the Russian throne and brought the chaos of civil war with them during their struggle as well as the forces of foreign powers.

The struggles for independence from foreign occupation and the long civil war brought about national chaos to Russia. No area of Russia was unmolested by occupying forces or civil war, natural disasters such as plague and famine, and the struggles of the nearly dozen different pretenders to the throne were felt across all areas of Russia. When Tsar Vasily was forced to abdicate his throne by Filaret Romanov, Russia was ruled by a council of seven boyars for three years until the year 1613 when the council selected Mikhail Romanov as Tsar. This was possible because the boyar finally were able to work together for compromise, the Cossacks supported the candidate, and Mikhail Romanov was not seen as 'power grabbing' like some of the other candidates were. He ruled from February 1613 to 1645, bringing the country of Russia back to stability- expelling the Poles/Swedes from Moscow and the country, bringing Russia back to economic recovery/stability and the beginning of three centuries of Romanov rule.


  1. Great article Sonia. You should write history books.

  2. Maybe someday I will! I do love history. :)