These practices continued during the reign of Ivan IV Vasilyevich, also known as Ivan the Terrible, who became grand prince of Muscovy in 1533. Ivan conquered and absorbed the Tatar khanates of Kazan’ and Astrakhan’ in the 1550s. During his reign Russia also began the conquest of Siberia, originally conducted by Yermak, a Cossack adventurer. Russia also established commercial contacts with England through the perilous White Sea trade route. Ivan IV imported foreign technical and professional experts, a practice continued by subsequent Russian monarchs. However, the tsar’s attempt to seize Livonia and establish Russian control over part of the Baltic coastline failed in the face of Polish and Swedish resistance, and also seriously overstrained Russian resources. Furthermore, Ivan IV became mentally unstable; his increasingly maniacal domestic policies resulted in the murder of part of the aristocratic elite and the devastation of a number of regions. During Ivan’s reign the Crimean Tatars began to make destructive raids into Russian territory in search of slaves, for whom there was an insatiable market in the Middle East. All of these factors worsened the acute economic crisis that Ivan IV bequeathed to his heirs upon his death in 1584.
Ivan’s son, Fyodor I, was sickly and feeble-minded, and his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, dominated the court during Fyodor’s reign. Fyodor died without an heir in 1598, and the Assembly of the Land (zemsky sobor)—a council that represented the aristocracy, chief towns, and the church—met to choose his successor. The assembly settled on Boris Godunov.
Boris Godunov never firmly established his legitimate hold on power, partly because he was suspected of murdering Dmitry Ivanovich, Fyodor’s younger brother and last male blood relative. Furthermore, Boris was unpopular among the members of the aristocracy, who resented his power, and among the peasantry, who were heavily taxed and whose mobility he had severely restricted.
The institution of serfdom (a system in which an agricultural worker is bound to the land and the landowner) had gradually begun to take hold in Russia during the 16th century. For some time the impoverished conditions of the peasants had induced many to seek refuge in the vast steppes to the south. Independent communities of people who became known as Cossacks developed and grew near the major rivers of the steppes. Some of the Cossacks were farmers, but many were also warriors. Discontent increased as a result of a severe famine that began in 1601. In 1604 False Dmitry, a pretender claiming to be Ivan IV’s son and the rightful heir to the throne, invaded Russia with Polish troops. False Dmitry’s advance on Moscow received the overwhelming support of the peasants and Cossacks in the western provinces. Boris died unexpectedly in April 1605, and in June False Dmitry took Moscow. He was a conscientious and able ruler, but he displeased the boyars, who had hoped for a revival of their power. They revolted, murdered False Dmitry, and elevated the boyar Vasily Shuysky to the throne. This move was opposed by the Cossacks and rebellious peasants, who chafed under oppressive serf laws and feared the severity of boyar rule. They rose in southern Russia and joined another pretender, the second False Dmitry, who was already advancing on Moscow. At the same time, Zygmunt III, king of Poland, invaded from the west. After a long period of fighting and intrigue, Vasily was deposed in 1610, and the throne was left vacant.
Some boyars advanced the candidacy of W?adys?aw, the son of Zygmunt, and a Polish army entered Moscow. The entire country then fell into a state of anarchy. In 1612 an army raised by Kuzma Minin and led by Prince Dmitry Mikhailovich Pozharsky drove out the Poles. The Time of Troubles, as this turbulent period became known, was subsequently seen as proof of Russia’s need for a powerful monarchy whose legitimacy and authority were accepted by all the Russian people. In the absence of an autocratic tsar, Russia appeared doomed to anarchy and to dismemberment by powerful neighbors. "Russia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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