As we learned a few weeks ago, immediately after founding a major empire it’s generally not a good idea to kill the heir apparent, because his younger brother is likely to be a total dumbass. You’d think after a few centuries people would figure this out. You’d be incorrect.
So today History Wednesday visits the happiest place on earth, 16th Century Russia. In 1533 a three-year-old became Grand Prince of Moscow as Ivan IV. As Ivan approached adulthood he had himself crowned with a new title: Tsar of all the Russias. Eventually he became known as Ivan the Terrible.
Pictured: Autocrat of all the Metalheads.
Over the next 27 years Ivan’s rule produced mixed results. He added some mad acreage to the Russian Empire, conquering Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia, the latter providing him and his successors a convenient place to exile undesirables. However, prolonged war, oppressive domestic policy, periodic famine and proto-Yakov Smirnoff jokes dogged the tsar throughout his reign.
“In Rurik Muscovy, Cossack horse rides you!”
Image credit: Buchoamerica/en.wikipedia
In spite of it all, Russia transformed itself from a minor feudal state to an emerging regional power in eastern Europe. Still, whoever succeeded Ivan the Terrible faced many daunting military and political realities.
Ivan had two major problems with providing an heir to the throne. The first was of his eight kids, only two survived childhood. The other was his unpredictable temper, resulting in the accidental death of his chosen heir Ivan Ivanovich in 1581. By 1583 his only surviving children were an infant named Dmitry and Ivan Ivanovich’s younger brother Feodor. The Russian Orthodox Church did not recognize Ivan’s marriage to Dmitry’s mother, officially rendering the boy illegitimate and ineligible for succession. Ivan had no choice but to name Feodor as his heir apparent.
I think you see where this is going.
This may have been all fine and good, but Feodor was in poor health, possibly mentally disabled and completely uninterested in politics, exactly what Russia didn’t need in a ruler. Recognizing this, Ivan appointed a group of advisers led by Feodor’s brother-in-law, a boyar named Boris Godunov, to assist Feodor once he became tsar.
Sure enough, after Ivan’s death in 1584, as tsar Feodor proved to be about as qualified as drunk, one-armed neurosurgeon. Instead of addressing the increasingly unstable situation in Russia and abroad, Feodor busied himself doing such things as visiting various churches in his realm to ring the bells. Meanwhile, Russia was fighting tooth and nail with several of its neighbors, notably the Poles and the Swedes.
Those aren’t IKEA representatives, y’all.
So while the extremely religious Feodor spent his days ringing bells and praying, the task of actual governing fell to Godunov, who unsurprisingly took full advantage of the situation.
In 1591 Feodor’s ten-year-old half-brother Dmitry died under questionable circumstances, possibly on Godunov’s orders. Meanwhile in one of the great dick moves of the early modern period, Godunov issued the decree which effectively solidified Russia’s brutal policy of serfdom for the next 250 years.
With Dmitry gone and Feodor unable to produce an heir to the throne, the 700-year-old Rurik Dynasty came to an end upon Feodor’s death in 1598. This allowed Godunov, who by that time had already run the country for around 15 years anyway, to take the throne for his own damn self. Although Godunov managed to keep a lid on simmering tensions until he died in 1605, a quick succession of weak tsars who followed him – including some random dude who actually managed to rule the country for nearly a year posing as the dead Dmitry – threw the country into a state of chaos known as the Time of Troubles. The situation would not stabilize until 1613, when the Romanov Dynasty under Michael I came to power. Thanks to the Romanovs, Russia would never have a problem with its leadership ever again.
Image credit: Kremlin.ru