Each of the conspirators could allege some excuse and provocation. Sweden’s Charles X had besieged Copenhagen and tried to conquer Denmark. He had invaded Poland and captured her capital; and Gustavus Adolphus had so strengthened Swedish power in Livonia and Ingria that he could defy Russia to launch a boat on the Baltic without Sweden’s consent. The imprisoned Russian bear gnawed its claws at the sight of all exits closed in the west, all outlets to the Black Sea shut off by the Crimean Tatars and the Turks. Only eastward could Russia move—into Siberia; and that seemed the way to hardships and barbarism. The comforts and graces of life beckoned Russia to the west, and the West was resolved to keep Russia Oriental.
When Alexis Mikhailovich Romanov became czar Russia was as yet overwhelmingly medieval. She had not known Roman law, or Renaissance humanism, or Reformation religious reform. Under Alexis Russian law received a new formulation (the Ulozhenie of 1649), but this merely codified existing laws based on absolutism and orthodoxy. So it remained a criminal offense to look at the new moon, or play chess, or neglect church attendance, in Lent. These and a hundred other crimes were punished by the knout. Alexis himself, though personally amiable and generous, was fanatically pious; often he spent five hours a day in church, making on one occasion fifteen hundred obeisances. 13 He delighted in feeding the beggars who gathered around his palace, but he punished severely all political or religious dissent, taxed his people heavily, and allowed exploitation of the peasantry and corruption in the government to go to such lengths that revolts broke out in Moscow, Novgorod, and Pskov, and, above all, among the Cossacks of the Don. One of these, Stenka Razin, formed a robber band, pillaged and killed the rich and made himself master of Astrakhan and Tsaritsyn (now Stalingrad). He set up a Cossack republic along the Volga, and at one time threatened to take Moscow. He was captured and was tortured till he died (1671), but his memory was cherished by the poor as a promise of revenge against the landlords and the government.
Even in this medieval milieu some modern influences appeared. The wars with Poland involved more frequent contacts with the West. Diplomats and merchants came in rising number from what the Russians called “Europe.” The River Dvina and the ports of Riga and Archangel saw increasing trade with Western states. Foreign technicians were called in to develop mines, organize industries, and manufacture armament. An entire colony of immigrants grew up, about 1650, in a quarter of Moscow; Germans and Poles brought a touch of Western literature and music to this settlement, and provided Latin tutors for rich Russian families. Alexis himself maintained a German orchestra. He allowed his minister Artamon Matveev to import Western furniture and French manners, even to the social mingling of women with men. When the Russian ambassador to the Grand Duke of Tuscany sent Alexis descriptions of Florentine dramas, operas, and ballets, Alexis allowed the building of a theater in Moscow and the presentation of plays, chiefly Biblical; one of these, Esther, preceded Racine’s play of that name by seventeen years. Feeling that he had sinned in attending these performances, Alexis mentioned them to his confessor, who permitted him the new pleasures. 14 Matveev married a Scottish lady of the famous Hamilton family; they adopted and brought up a Russian orphan, Natalia Naruishkina; Alexis took her as his second wife.
These Westernizing ventures aroused a patriotic reaction. Some Orthodox Russians condemned the study of Latin as an evil thing that might incline youth to un-Orthodox ideas. The older generation felt that any change in customs, faith, or ritual dislodged some stone in the social structure, loosened all, and might in time bring the whole precarious edifice down in ruins. Religion in Russia relied on liturgy as well as doctrine. Though the masses had as yet a very limited capacity to understand ideas, they could be trained in religious observances whose hypnotic repetition made for social and mental stability and peace. But the repetition had to be exact to produce the hypnotic effect; a change in the accustomed sequence would break the soothing charm; hence every detail of the ceremonial, every word of the prayers, had to remain as they had been for centuries. One of the bitterest disputes and divisions in Russian history came when Nikon, Patriarch of Moscow, introduced into the liturgy some reforms based upon a study of Byzantine practices and texts. Clerics who had learned Greek pointed out to the Patriarch many errors in the texts used by the Russian Orthodox Church. Nikon ordered a revision and correction of the texts and ritual: for example, Jesus was henceforth to be Jisus, not Isus; the sign of the cross was to be made with three fingers, not two; the number of genuflections during a certain prayer were to be reduced from twelve to four; icons showing Italian influence were to be destroyed and replaced by icons adhering to Byzantine patterns. In general, Russian ritual was to be brought into closer conformity with its Byzantine origins. Some Russian churchmen who refused to accept these changes were demoted or anathematized or sent to Siberia. Nikon’s dictatorial methods displeased the Czar, and in 1667 he was banished to a remote monastery. The Russian Church split into two factions; the official church, supported by Alexis, accepted the reforms; the dissenters (Raskolniki), or Old Believers (Staroviertsi), developed into a schismatic body, which the new orthodoxy persecuted with fire and sword. Their leader, Avvakum, was burned at the stake (1681) by order of Czar Feodor. Many Old Believers killed themselves rather than pay taxes to a government which they identified with Antichrist. This religious chaos was part of the inheritance of Peter the Great.
The death of Alexis (1676) prepared a violent conflict among his children. By his first wife, Maria Miloslavski, he left an ailing son, Feodor (born 1662), a lame, half-blind, and half-imbecile son, Ivan (born 1666), and six daughters, of whom the ablest and most ambitious was Sophia Alekseevna inborn 1657). By his second wife, Natalia Naruishkina, Alexis begot the famous Peter (born 1672). Feodor inherited the throne, but died in 1682. The boyars, judging Ivan helplessly incompetent, wished to make Peter czar, with his mother as regent. But Peter’s stepsisters hated Natalia, and feared to be neglected under her rule. Led by Sophia, they stirred up the Streltsi—soldiers of the Moscow garrison—to invade the Kremlin and insist upon the accession of Ivan. Matveev, Natalia’s foster father, pleaded with the soldiers to withdraw. They tore him from Peter’s grasp, killed him before the eyes of the ten-year-old boy, killed Natalia’s brothers and several of her supporters, and forced the boyars to accept Ivan as czar, with Peter as co-czar but subordinate, and with Sophia as regent. These barbarities may have shared in producing the convulsions that later disturbed Peter’s life; in any case they gave him unforgettable lessons in violence and brutality.
Natalia withdrew with Peter to Preobrazhensky, a suburb of Moscow. Sophia governed well. She repudiated the isolation of the terem, or women’s quarters; she appeared in public unveiled, and presided without a qualm over male assemblies where old heads shook at such insolence. She had received more education than most of the men around her; she was inclined to reform, and to Western ideas; and she chose as her chief minister, perhaps as her lover, a man much won to Western ways. Prince Vasili Golitsyn wrote Latin, admired France, adorned his palace with paintings and Gobelin tapestries, and had a large library of Latin, Polish, and German books. It was apparently due to his example and encouragement that three thousand stone dwellings were built in Moscow in the seven years of his regency, whereas, before, all houses had been of wood. He seems to have planned to free the serfs. 15 Under his rule enslavement for debt was abolished, murderers were no longer buried alive, and the death penalty for seditious utterances was abolished. His work as a reformer was ruined by his failure as a general. He reorganized the army and twice led it against the Turks; in both cases he mismanaged the provisioning of the troops; they returned defeated and rebellious, and their disaffection gave Peter his cue to capture power.