Time of Troubles

The Time of Troubles (Russian: Смутное время, Smutnoe vremya) was a period of Russian history during the interregnum in the Tsardom of Russia between the death of Feodor I in 1598 to the accession of Michael I in 1613.

Feodor was a weak, and possibly intellectually disabled ruler.[1][2] His death in 1598 without an heir for the title of Tsar of Russia ended the Rurik dynasty, causing a violent succession crisis with numerous usurpers and imposters claiming the throne. Russia suffered the famine of 1601–03 that killed two million people, one-third of the population, and was occupied by the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Polish–Muscovite War (known as the Dimitriads) until 1612 when they were expelled. The Time of Troubles ended upon the election of Michael Romanov as Tsar by the Zemsky Sobor in 1613, establishing the Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia until the February Revolution in 1917.


Tsar Feodor I was the second son of Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia who had founded the Tsardom of Russia in 1547 from the Grand Duchy of Moscow. His elder brother, Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich, had been groomed as the heir apparent since a young age and Feodor was never considered a serious candidate for the Russian throne. On 19 November 1581, Tsarevich Ivan was accidentally killed by their father during a fit of rage, making Feodor the heir apparent, and after Tsar Ivan's death on 28 March 1584 he was crowned as the Tsar of Russia on 31 May. Feodor was pious and took little interest in politics, instead ruling through Boris Godunov, the brother of his wife Irina Godunova, his closest advisor, and a boyar. Feodor only produced one child, a daughter named Feodosia who died at the age of two, and when he died in January 1598, the Rurikid dynasty that had ruled Russia since the 800s AD became extinct. Godunov, who had already acted as a de facto regent for Feodor, was elected his successor by a Zemsky Sobor.

Russia experienced a major famine from 1601 to 1603 after extremely poor harvests were encountered, with night time temperatures in all summer months often below freezing, wrecking crops.[3] The famine is believed to be caused by a global trend in climate change, known as the General Crisis, with one probable cause of climatic changes was the eruption of Huaynaputina volcano in Peru in 1600.[4][5][6] Widespread hunger led to the mass starvation of about two million Russians, a third of the population. The government distributed money and food for poor people in Moscow, leading to refugees flocking to the capital and increasing the economic disorganization. Rural districts were desolated by famine and plague.

Godunov's reign was not as successful as his administration under the Tsar, and the general discontent was expressed as hostility towards him as a usurper. The oligarchical faction of the Russian nobility headed by the Romanovs, who had unsuccessfully opposed the election of Godunov, considered it a disgrace to obey a boyar. Large bands of armed brigands roamed the country committing all manner of atrocities, and the Don Cossacks on the frontier were restless, demonstrating that the central government could not keep order.

Polish-Muscovite War

False Dmitri I

Conspiracies were frequent after Tsar Feodor's death and rumours circulated that his younger brother, Dmitri, was still alive and in hiding despite officially thought to have been stabbed to death at an early age either by accident or by Godunov's order. The political instability in Russia was exploited by several usurpers known as False Dmitris who claimed to be Tsarevich Dmitri and sought to claim as heir to the Tsardom. In 1603, False Dmitri I — first of the so-called False Dmitris — appeared in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth professing to be the rightful heir to the Russian throne. The mysterious False Dmitri I attracted support both in Russia by those discontented with Godunov and outside its borders, particularly in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Papal States. Factions within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth saw him as a tool to extend their influence over Russia, or at least gain wealth in return for their support. The Papacy saw it as an opportunity to increase the hold of Roman Catholicism over the predominantly Eastern Orthodox Russians. A few months later in 1603, Polish forces crossed the frontier with a small force of 4,000 Poles, Lithuanians, Russian exiles, German mercenaries and Cossacks from the Dnieper and the Don, in what marked the beginning of the Polish–Muscovite War. King Sigismund III Vasa did not officially declare war, but quietly supported the intervention as the Polish were too preoccupied with conflicts with Sweden and the Ottoman Empire to start another war with Russia. Instead, some powerful magnates from the szlachta decided to support False Dmitri I with their own forces and money, in the expectation of rich rewards afterward. Immediately after Godunov's death in 1605, False Dmitri I made his triumphal entry into Moscow and was crowned Tsar on 21 July, moving to consolidate his power by visiting the tomb of Tsar Ivan, and the convent of his widow Maria Nagaya, who accepted him as her son Dmitri and "confirmed" his story. False Dimitri I was married per procura to Marina Mniszech on 8 May 1606, in exchange for promises of vast grants of land and wealth, converted to Catholicism and relied upon Polish Jesuits and Polish nobles that played a prominent role at his court, as well as on Mniszech's private armies.[7]

Vasili IV Shuisky

False Dmitri I became unpopular very quickly into his reign, as many in Russia saw him as a tool of the Poles. On 17 May 1606, ten days after his marriage, Dmitri was killed by armed mobs during an uprising in Moscow after being ousted from the Kremlin, and many of his Polish advisors were also killed or imprisoned during the rebellion.[7][8] Vasili IV Shuysky, a member of the House of Shuysky and relative of the Rurikids, seized power and was elected Tsar by an assembly composed of his supporters. Shuysky's rule was weak as he did not satisfy the Russian boyars, Commonwealth magnates, Cossacks, or the German mercenaries that held power in Russia's conflicts. Soon a new impostor, False Dmitry II, came forward as the rightful heir, and like his predecessor enjoyed the support of King Sigismund and the Polish–Lithuanian magnates.

On 28 February 1609, Shuysky signed the Treaty of Vyborg with King Charles IX of Sweden, establishing a military alliance with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's main rival. Russia agreed to cede Korela Fortress and Kexholm County to Sweden in exchange of military assistance in fighting False Dmitry II and the Polish. The Swedish launched the De la Gardie Campaign commanded by Jacob De la Gardie and Evert Horn, consisting of a 5,000 man force to assist the Russians under Mikhail Skopin-Shuisky. In response, King Sigismund formally declared war on Russia, hoping to gain territorial concessions and to weaken an ally of Sweden, and Polish troops crossed the Russian borders to siege the fortress of Smolensk. The Swedish-Russian alliance achieved a number of victories over Dmitry, but their failure against the Polish saw their defeat at the Battle of Klushino on 4 July 1610, ending the campaign.

Second Polish occupation and anarchy

Shuysky was forced to abdicate by the Seven Boyars after the Battle of Klushino, but before False Dmitri II could gain the throne, the Polish commander Stanisław Żółkiewski put forward a rival candidate: Sigismund's son, Prince Władysław, who was popular with the pro-Polish faction of the Russian boyars. Some people in Moscow swore allegiance to him on condition of maintaining Orthodoxy and granting certain privileges to them. On this compromise, the Muscovites allowed Polish troops to enter the city and occupy the Kremlin, and the Seven Boyars accepted Władysław as the Tsar of Russia in September 1610. False Dmitry II had been abandoned by most of his Polish supporters, and his campaign ended when he was killed on 11 December 1610.

Władysław's reign was quickly interrupted when Sigismund opposed the compromise, deciding to take the throne for himself and to convert Russia to Roman Catholicism. Sigismund's actions aroused anti-Catholic and anti-Polish feelings in Russia, and infuriated the pro-Polish boyars that supported him. Sweden strongly disapproved of the move as they were fighting the Polish–Swedish wars on the Baltic Coast, ending their military alliance and declaring war on Russia. The Swedes started the Ingrian War and began supporting a False Dmitri of their choice, False Dmitry III in Ivangorod. By this time Russia was effectively a failed state: the throne was vacant, the nobility quarrelled among themselves, the Orthodox Patriarch Hermogenes was imprisoned, Catholic Poles occupied the Moscow Kremlin, Smolensk was still being besieged, and the Protestant Swedes occupied Novgorod. Tens of thousands died in battles and riots as enormous bands of brigands swarmed everywhere, and continuing Tatar raids left the southern borderlands of Russia completely depopulated and devastated.[9]

Struggle for independence

By early 1611, public discontent with Russia's situation had grown strong and many sought to end the Polish occupation. On 17 to 19 March 1611, the Polish and German mercenaries in Moscow suppressed riots, massacring 7,000 Muscovites and setting the city on fire.[10] The Polish garrison in Kremlin was besieged by the First Volunteer Army led by Prokopy Lyapunov, the governor of Ryazan, but the poorly armed militia failed to take the fortress. The militia soon fell into disorder and Cossack leader Ivan Zarutsky murdered Lyapunov. Kuzma Minin, a respected merchant from Nizhny Novgorod, oversaw the handling of funds donated by the city's merchants' guild to form the Second Volunteer Army (Russian: Второе народное ополчение) to oppose the Polish occupiers. Minin recruited Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, a high-ranking boyar close to the Russian throne, to lead the army.

Battle of Moscow

In January 1612, part of the Polish army mutinied due to unpaid wages and retreated from Russia towards the Commonwealth. The Second Volunteer Army joined the other anti-Polish Russian forces in Moscow by besieging the remaining Polish garrison in the Kremlin. Well armed and organized, the Second Volunteer Army took Yaroslavl in March 1612 and set up a provisional government of Russia, getting support and provisions from many cities. Minin and Pozharsky entered Moscow in August 1612 upon learning that a 9,000-strong Polish army under hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz was on the way to lift the siege. On 1 September, the Battle of Moscow began when Chodkiewicz's forces reached the city, using cavalry attacks in the open field and exercising tactics that were new to them such as escorting a mobile tabor fortress through the city. After early Polish successes, they were dispersed by Russian-aligned Don Cossack reinforcements, and Chodkiewicz's forces retreated from Moscow. On 3 September, Chodkiewicz launched another attack that managed to reach the walls of the Kremlin, but the narrow streets halted the movement of his troops and after a Russian counter-attack he ordered them to retreat from Moscow.[10][11] On 22 September 1612, the Poles and Lithuanians exterminated the population and clergy of Vologda, with many other cities also devastated or weakened.[10] Russian victory in the Battle of Moscow secured the city but the Polish garrison in the Kremlin remained until capitulating on November 7 after running out of supplies, and news of the capitulation reached Sigismund on December 8 at Volokolamsk, less than 30 kilometers away. Upon finding out about this, Sigismund, who was on his way to help the garrison, decided to halt the march and head back to Poland.

Michael Romanov and aftermath

On 21 February 1613, a Zemsky Sobor elected Michael Romanov, the 16-year-old son of Patriarch Filaret of Moscow, as the Tsar of Russia, generally considered the end of the Time of Troubles. Romanov was connected by marriage with the Rurikids and, according to the legend, had been saved from the enemies by a heroic peasant Ivan Susanin. After taking power, Romanov ordered the 3-year-old son of False Dmitri II to be hanged, and reportedly had Marina Mniszech strangled to death in prison.

The Ingrian War against Sweden lasted until the Treaty of Stolbovo in 1617, and the Polish-Muscovite War against the Commonwealth continued until the Peace of Deulino in 1619. While gaining peace through the treaties and preserving its independence, Russia was forced by both Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to make great territorial concessions, though the majority was recovered over the coming centuries. Ingria was ceded to the Swedes who established Swedish Ingria, while Severia and the city of Smolensk were retained by the Polish. Most importantly, the Time of Troubles was instrumental in unifying all social classes of the Russian society around the Romanov tsars and established foundations for the powerful Russian Empire in 1722.

Cultural allusions

National Unity Day was held annually on November 4 to commemorate the capitulation of the Polish garrison in the Moscow Kremlin until the rise of the Soviet Union, when it was replaced by celebrations of the October Revolution. National Unity Day was reinstated by President Vladimir Putin in 2005.[12]

This period of the "Time of Troubles" has inspired many artists and playwrights in Russia and beyond. The three most popular topics are the Pozharsky/Minin liberation of Moscow, the struggle between Boris Godunov and False Dmitry, and the story of Ivan Susanin, a peasant who was said to sacrifice himself to lead Poles away from Mikhail Romanov.

Russian and Polish artists have painted numerous works based on these events.

Numerous histories have been written, as well. In 2001, Chester Dunning, a specialist in Russian history at Texas A&M University published the nearly 700-page Russia's First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty. Twelve years in the research and writing, his work was a History Book Club selection published by the Pennsylvania State University Press. Dunning's thesis is that modern Russia begins in 1613 with the founding of the Romanov dynasty. He covers the Time of Troubles and their contribution to the founding.[13]

See also


  1. Graham, Hugh F (1980-01-01). "R. G. Skrynnikov. Boris Godunov. Moscow: Izdatel'sto Nauka, 1978. 192 pp. 70 kopecks". Canadian-American Slavic Studies. 14 (1): 107–109. doi:10.1163/221023980X00580. ISSN 2210-2396.
  2. Григорьевна, Точеная Наталья; Степанович, Точеный Дмитрий (2010). "Царствование Федора Ивановича (1584–1598 гг.)". Вестник Волжского университета им. В.Н. Татищева (74). ISSN 2076-7919.
  3. Borisenkov E, Pasetski V. The Thousand-Year Annals of the Extreme Meteorological Phenomena. ISBN 5-244-00212-0, p. 190.
  4. "1600 Eruption Caused Global Disruption" Archived 2011-02-15 at the Wayback Machine, Geology Times, 25 Apr 2008, accessed 13 Nov 2010
  5. Andrea Thompson, "Volcano in 1600 caused global disruption", NBC News, 5 May 2008, accessed 13 Nov 2010
  6. "The 1600 eruption of Huaynaputina in Peru caused global disruption". Science Centric. Archived from the original on 28 April 2010.
  7. Daniel Z. Stone. The Polish-Lithuanian State, 1386-1795. University of Washington Press, 2014. P. 140
  8. M. S. Anderson. The Origins of the Modern European State System, 1494-1618. Routledge, 2014. P. 274
  9. The Tatar Khanate of Crimea, allempires.net
  10. Sergey Solovyov, History of Russia from the Earliest Times, Vol. 8.
  11. Nikolay Kostomarov, Russian History in Biographies of its main figures, Chap. 30.
  12. "The Moscow Times".
  13. Russia's First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty. Pennsylvania State University Press. 2001. ISBN 0-271-02074-1. Retrieved October 16, 2010.


Phillips, Walter Alison (1911). "Russia" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 896–897.

Further reading

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