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Prominent Russians: Aleksey Mikhailovich Romanov

March 9, 1629 – January 29, 1676
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Aleksey Mikhailovich Romanov was the second Russian tsar (1645–1676) of the house of Romanov. Up to the age of five, according to tradition, Aleksey was surrounded by servants and nurses. He then came under the charge of a tutor, a boyar named Boris Ivanovich Morozov, who exerted great influence over his pupil for the next 30 years. At age five he learned to read, and at age seven he knew how to write. Contrary to his father, Mikhail Fyodorovich, who died when Aleksey was 16, he was quick-witted.

According to reports by his contemporaries, he was complacent, affable and simultaneously grand and serious, with kindness shining in his blue eyes. He received some formal education, but it was limited to practical subjects needed to conduct the affairs of the state. He was taught history, geography, mathematics and natural sciences, as well as military and foreign affairs.

Aleksey Mikhailovich was also encouraged to read a wide range of books, including classical works by Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras, medical books, and works on astrology and occult arts. He even tried to write verses and left notes about the Polish War. He liked to philosophize and was a passionate hunter. He was especially fond of falconry in which he was an expert. Despite his evidently good nature, he was quick-tempered and frequently came to blows. At one session of the Duma he drove his father-in-law, Miloslavsky, from the room by beating and kicking him. However he was quick to calm down and was far from vindictive.

In general, Aleksey Mikhailovich possessed a broad, relatively liberal background that allowed him to assess political issues quickly and accurately. However, he always had difficulty grasping abstract principles, which caused him to be swayed more by good rhetoric than by sound arguments. The impulsiveness of Aleksey Mikhailovich's mind resulted in his many dramatic shifts of opinion over the years. No doubt these qualities made autocratic rule more complicated and unpredictable. On the other hand, Aleksey Mikhailovich was free to use his imagination and ingenuity to reform and invigorate the languid Muscovite bureaucracy. It is the merit of Aleksey that he discovered so many great men (like Nikon, Orduin-Naschokin, Matvyeev) and suitably employed them.

Morozov was a shrewd and sensible guardian, sufficiently enlightened to recognize the needs of his country, and by no means resistant to Western ideas. On 17 January 1648 he procured the marriage of the tsar to Maria Ilyinichna Miloslavskaya, himself marrying her sister, Anna, 10 days later, thus became the tsar's brother-in-law. Both brides were daughters of Ilya Danilovich Miloslavsky (1594 - 1668). When Aleksey married into the Miloslavsky family, they secured the most influential positions, according to well-established custom.

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The tsar’s union with Maria Miloslavskaya (16 January 1648) was a success and she bore him 13 children during 21 years of marriage: five sons and eight daughters. She died in her fourteenth childbirth. Four sons survived her (Aleksey, Fyodor, Simeon, and Ivan) but within six months of her death, two of them died, including Aleksey, the 16-year-old heir to the throne. Aleksey Mikhailovich remarried on 1 February 1671 to Natalya Kyrillovna Naryshkina (1 September 1651 – 4 February 1694). The most famous of their children was Peter (the first Russian emperor-to-be; 1672-1725).

The following title was given to Aleksey Mikhailovich after coronation (September 28, 1646): “Great Tsar and Grand Duke of the whole of Russia, the Tsar of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, the Tsar of Kazan, Astrakhan, Siberia, Pskov, Tver, Yugra, Perm, Vyatka, Bulgaria, etc., the Tsar and Grand Duke of Novgorod lowlands, Chernigov, Ryazan, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Beloozero, Udor and other northern lands, the Tsar of Tver grounds, Kartalina and Georgian king’s and Kabardian lands, Cherkass and highland prince’s and many other eastern, western and northern states and the grounds from time of many ancestors and the successor to the throne, sovereign and owner”. A well-known German scholar of the time, Adam Oleary (1599 - 1671) described it this way: "Lands, provinces and cities provided an annual income of several million to the treasury. The main trade city of Arkhangel earned an incredible amount of money, namely 300 thousand rubles, equal to six tons of gold, in one year alone. Inns and pubs, taverns or "mug yards" of which the Grand Duke is sole owner, bring in staggering amounts of money. In each city there is a special house where one receives vodka, other alcoholic drinks and beer with the money being transferred to the tsar's treasury.

“He also has a large court; his own magnificent table, in the Kremlin or outside, feeds up to one thousand people daily… When lunchtime comes, they do not trumpet to table as at other courts, but a special person runs to the kitchen and cellar, and shouts, ‘Food to Sovereign!’ Food immediately appears. The Tsar sits down to table separately from the others. There are up to 50 (and even more) different dishes on the table, but not all of them are given to the Tsar; servants raise them a little and the main table servant points; only the Tsar’s favorite dishes appear on his table."

From his contemporaries he received the nickname “the Quietest” in spite of the fact that during his reign there was not a year without social distempers and wars. 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 officials, rendered the burden of taxation so unbearable that several revolts broke out. Probably the most striking and brutal experience of the tsar’s youth was the Salt Rebellion of May 1648 when the increase in salt tax resulted in an uprising in Moscow. Aleksey was compelled to dismiss and exile Morozov to a northern monastery and three notoriously corrupt officials were murdered during the riot. The success of the Moscow riots spurred disquieting disturbances all over the land, culminating in dangerous rebellions at Pskov and Great Novgorod, with which the government was unable to cope, helplessly surrendering and practically granting the malcontents their own terms.

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In 1653 the weakness and disorder of Poland, which had just emerged from the savage Cossack war, encouraged Aleksey to attempt to recover the ancient Russian lands. On 1 October 1653 a national assembly met in Moscow to sanction the war and in April 1654 the army was blessed by Patriarch Nikon. That same year, the Cossacks of Ukraine, led in revolt against Poland by Bogdan Chmielnicki, voted for the union of Ukraine with Russia. The campaign of 1654 was a triumph and scores of towns, including the important fortress of Smolensk, fell into the hands of the Muscovites. Aleksey Mikhailovich tried to maintain strict discipline prompting one Polish governor to observe: "Moscow makes war in quite a new way and conquers the people by the clemency and good-nature of the tsar." The towns of White Russia opened their gates to his army and Smolensk surrendered after a five-weeks siege.

In January 1655 the rout of Ochmatov arrested their progress; but in the summer of the same year, the sudden invasion by Charles X of Sweden for the moment swept the Polish state out of existence; the Muscovites, unopposed, quickly appropriated nearly everything that was not already occupied by the Swedes. Fortunately for Poland, the Tsar and the king of Sweden quarreled over the apportionment of the spoils and at the end of May 1656 Aleksey declared war on Sweden.

Great things were expected of the Swedish War but little came of it. Dorpat (Tartu) was captured, but countless multitudes were lost in vain before Riga. In the meantime Poland had recovered, becomng a much more dangerous foe than Sweden, and, as it was impossible to wage war with both simultaneously, the Tsar resolved to rid himself of the Swedes first. The war lasted from 1656 to 1661 and ended with the Peace of Cardis (July 1661), whereby neither country gained any advantage. The Poles, seeing the danger they had incurred, rallied and once again war broke out with Russia. It lasted for six years until both countries were exhausted.

With the truce of Andrusovo (11 February 1667), concluded nominally for 13 years, Vitebsk, Polotsk and Polish Livonia were restored to Poland but the infinitely more important Smolensk and Kiev remained in the hands of Russia together with the whole eastern bank of the Dnieper River. The truce was the achievement of Athanasy Orduin-Nashchokin, the first Russian chancellor and diplomat in the modern sense who, after Patriarch Nikon's deposition (1666), became the Tsar's first minister until 1670 when he was superseded by the equally able Artamon Matvyeev, whose influence prevailed to the end of Aleksey's reign.

An invaluable tool in the tsar's drive for centralized authority was the Private Office. Like the CPSU Politburo three centuries later, the Private Office was an exclusive, well-informed and highly efficient body able to dominate the lower orders of government. It enabled the tsar to undermine the influence of the boyar Duma by excluding it from important government decisions. Aleksey Mikhailovich understood the danger of havoc lurking among aristocrats (boyars); like Ivan IV, he wanted to render them as helpless as possible. Thus, over the course of his reign the aristocratic share of the Duma dropped from 70 percent to 25 percent. Instead of the boyars, Aleksey Mikhailovich cultivated the gentry as a base of support, which, incidentally, contributed to the growth of Russian military power.

On 25 October 1653 Aleksey Mikhailovich adopted the Trade Statute (also known as the Customs Statute). This law brought order to the highly complicated customs system of Russia that included some 70 different internal customs duties and transportation costs and created many opportunities for corruption and cheating. The Statute was adopted in direct response to an August 1653 petition by leading Russian merchants against transit duties and for a unified rate of customs tariffs. The code combined a uniform internal rate with an overall increase in imposts. It further adopted uniform measures of weight and length throughout the country. A basic 5 percent impost was levied on sold goods, with the exception of salt (double rate), furs, fish, and horses (old duties applied). A special duty of 2.5 percent was applied to goods offered exclusively in border towns for export. In a mercantilist move, foreign merchants were required to pay a 6 percent duty in the Russian interior in addition to a 2 percent transit duty. However, exports from Arkhangel were taxed at only 2 percent.

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Another important economic novelty was the monetary reform started in1654 with the aim of solving the financial problems of the Treasury by replacing part of the silver coins in circulation with copper money. The success of the initiative led to a bold decision to issue copper money exclusively, in lieu of silver coins. The expected profit was explicit and prodigious, since the prices on metals differed approximately 60 times. However, the obvious (but unexpected by the reformers) result was hyperinflation. For instance, in 1653 a pail (12,3 liters) of vodka cost 75-90 kopecks, in March 1660 the price was raised to 1.5 rubles, in October 1660 it became 3 rubles and in September 1662 the price reached five rubles. The prices of rye and oats also rose many times by 1662 - 1663. Exorbitant prices led to the stagnation and naturalization of trade. The growing discontent, which had generated a flood of petitions to the tsar, burst into the Copper Riot in Moscow on 25 July 1662. Alexey Mikhailovich ordered a merciless suppression of the unrest. As a result, up to 1,000 men were killed, hanged, or drowned in the Moscow River while several thousand were arrested and later exiled after a brutal investigation. However, the Copper Riot caused perplexity and fear among top government officials and all copper money was withdrawn from circulation in 1663. Eventually, the reform had to be totally abandoned and a retreat made to the silver kopecks which could hardly be called coins, as in fact they were flattened pieces of wire weighing about half a gram each. The archaic monetary system remained in place for another 30 years.

A new code of laws (Ulozhenie) was adopted in 1649 and remained in effect (with some alterations) until the early 18th century; it favored landowners but extended serfdom of Russian peasants, increasing the number of refugee serfs, many of whom fled to the Cossack settlements along the lower Volga, Dnieper, and Don rivers. In 1670, under the leadership of Don Cossack Stepan (Stenka) Razin, a great agrarian revolt began in southeastern Russia; it was quelled with great difficulty by the tsar’s troops a year later.

The overall reputation of Aleksey Mikhailovich also suffered from growing distrust and opposition throughout the country caused by church reforms, which were implemented along side monetary reforms. The church reforms were induced by similar reasons – the growth of the state and the necessity to unify religious traditions and translations of the Scriptures, especially in the newly acquired Ukrainian lands. Under the leadership of Patriarch Nikon (1605–81) authorities started to “rectify scriptures” and improve rituals according to Greek models (but foreign iconographic styles were banned). Many priests and congregations perceived this innovation as a change of religion and betrayal of Orthodoxy and saw the church reforms as the days of Last Judgment. Acts of disobedience, accompanied by self-burning and reprisals, took place all over the country. Some monasteries near Arkhangel rebelled and troops were sent against them; but it was eight months before the sturdy monks capitulated. At a church council in 1667 the traditionalist dissenters, or Raskolniki, were declared schismatics and suffered persecution.

The gentle nature of Aleksey Mikhailovich did not prevent him from dealing harshly with the Old Believers. In 1671 Feodosia Morozova (known also as Boyarina Morozova), a devoted Old Believer, was arrested, interrogated and thrown into a Kremlin dungeon. Aleksey Mikhailovich sent a letter politely asking her to do him the honor and accept the Nikonian reforms. After her refusal the tsar compromised further offering to release her if she agreed not to proselytize and promised to use the three-fingered cross. At the same time he threatened to confiscate her family's estates if she continued to resist. When Morozova persisted (she even made the two fingered cross in the tsar's presence), Aleksey Mikhailovich began to wonder whether she had a special calling to martyrdom. Thus, when the Patriarch requested her release, the tsar refused in order to keep her out of sight. Soon after, she was tortured and then placed in a convent. Rumors of her mental illness were circulated, and after two years, she was put on an extreme regimen in which most of her clothing and food were taken away. She died in 1675.

Aleksey Mikhailovich was enchanted with the idea of making Moscow the acknowledged center of the Orthodox world, with himself as the great restorer of Byzantine power and tradition. So the tsar, in a move reminiscent of Ivan IV, ordered innumerable relics of saints to be brought to the Kremlin, thereby enhancing the divine authority of the Patriarch and himself.

However, in spite of all the financial, political and social troubles, by the end of Aleksey Mikhailovich's reign, the economic landscape of Russia was quite different than at the beginning. By 1676, there were roughly three times as many “gosti” (important merchants) in Moscow than in 1645 and the promotion of commerce had resulted in an "all-Russian market" stretching from Ukraine to Arkhangel and Siberia. This was facilitated by greatly improved communications between Moscow and all the provinces. Under Aleksey Mikhailovich, regular postal service was first introduced in Russia. In addition, the tsar pushed for the expansion of agricultural production, partly by recruiting foreign horticulture experts.

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Aleksey Mikhailovich also sponsored many expeditions to the East in search of riches. He hoped to find a northeast or southeast naval passage to the Orient, which would enable Russia to compete with the Dutch and English trading companies. However, neither the Caspian nor the White seas offered much advantage to Russian merchants. Nonetheless, explorers managed to reach the extremities of Siberia with the help of (from the 1660s onwards) astronomical navigation. These expeditions produced better maps, which made travel through Siberia much easier. As a result, by 1667, trade contacts with China were initiated.

Aleksey continued his father's efforts to reestablish intercourse with Western Europe. But the West was still recovering from the terrible Thirty Years' War and showed little interest. Russia, meanwhile, was advancing to the status of a European power and in urban centers influences from western Europe were at last penetrating the isolation, largely remnant since the Mongol yoke.

Aleksey Mikhailovich, like Peter the Great later, seemed to believe that the traditional Russian military, led by corrupt and disorderly gunmen (“streltsy”), was hopeless, and he undertook a broad military reform, establishing Western-style regiments which consisted of two-thirds infantry and one-third cavalry. Large numbers of foreign officers and troops were also recruited in addition to Russian soldiers. Most importantly, the tsar intervened personally in battles to keep rival commanders from wasting his better regiments and he maintained a close, tireless watch over virtually every aspect of military administration.

Aleksey Mikhailovich died at age 47. One of the reasons for his early senility is thought to be excessive (even by Moscow standards) obesity. He was succeeded by his eldest son Feodor while his younger son by a second marriage, later became Peter I (Peter the Great).

Written by Anna Yudina, RT

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