Alexei Mikhailovich

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(16291676), the second Romanov tsar (r. 16451676) and the most significant figure in Russian history between the period of anarchy known as the "Time of Troubles" (smutnoye vremya ) and the accession of his son, Peter I (the Great).

The reign of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich was notable for a codification of Russian law that was to remain the standard until the nineteenth century, for the acquisition of Kiev and eastern Ukraine from Poland-Lithuania, and for church reforms. Alexei also laid the foundations for the modernization of the army, introduced elements of Western culture to the court, and, despite a series of wars and rebellions, strengthened the autocracy and the authority of central government. He anticipated directions his son Peter would take: He substituted ability and service for hereditary and precedent as qualifications for appointments and promotions; engaged Dutch shipwrights to lay down the first Russian flotilla (for service in the Caspian); and introduced other forms of Western technology and engaged many military and civil experts from the West. Not all of his initiatives succeeded, however. His attempt to seize the Baltic port of Riga was thwarted by the Swedes, and his flotilla based at Astrakhan was burned by rebels. Nevertheless Russia emerged as a great European power in his reign.

reputation and its origins

Despite his importance, Alexei's reputation stands low in the estimation of historians. Earlier works, by Slavophiles, religious traditionalists, and those nostalgic for the old Russian values, depict him as pious, caring, ceremonious, occasionally angry, yet essentially spiritual, distracted from politics and policy-making. Vladimir Soloviev concluded that he was indecisive, afraid of confrontation, even sly. Vasily Klyuchevsky, Sergei Platonov, and most later historians, Russian and Western, also conclude that he was weak, dominated by favorites. This erroneous view derives from several sources: from the Petrine legend created by Peter's acolytes and successors; from his soubriquet tishaysheyshy, the diplomatic title Serenissimus (Most Serene Highness), which was taken out of context to mean "quietest," "gentlest," and, metaphorically, even "most underhanded"; from the fact that the surviving papers from Alexei's Private Office papers were not published until the first decades of the twentieth century (even though registered in the

early eighteenth century by order of Peter himself) and were ignored by most historians thereafter.

education and formation

Alexei was brought up as a prince and educated as a future ruler. In 1633 an experienced minister, Boris Ivanovich Morozov, soon to be promoted to the highest rank (boyar), and to membership of the tsar's Council (duma), was given charge of the boy. He chose the tsarevich's tutors, provided an entourage for him of about twenty boys of good family who were to wait on and play with him. The brightest of these, including Artamon Matveyev, who was to serve him as a minister, were also to share his lessons. Miniature weapons and a model ship figured prominently among his toys. Leisure included tobogganing and fencing, backgammon and chess.

The tsarevich's formal lessons began at the age of five with reading. Writing was introduced at seven, and music (church cantillation) at eight. Alexei also memorized prayers, learned Psalms and the Acts of the Apostles, and read Bible stories (chiefly Old Testament). Exemplary models were commended to him: the learned St. Abraham, the Patriotic St. Sergius, St. Alexis, who was credited with bringing stability to the Russian land, and the young Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible), conqueror of the Tatar khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia.

At nine his education became more secular and practical, as his tutors were seconded from government offices rather than the clergy. Morozov himself could explain the governmental machine, finance, and elements of statecraft. Books on mathematics, hydraulics, gunnery, foreign affairs, cosmography, and geography were borrowed from government departments. From the age of ten, Alexei was an unseen witness of the reception of ambassadors from east and west. At thirteen he made his first public appearance, sitting on an ivory throne beside his father at a formal reception; and thereafter he played a very visible role. This familiarized him with some of his future duties; it also reinforced his right to rule. The Romanov dynasty was new. Alexei would be the first to succeed. Hence the urgency, when his ailing father died in July 1645, with which oaths of loyalty were extracted from every courtier, bureaucrat, and soldier. Even so, the reign was to be difficult.

first years as tsar

Morozov headed the new government, taking personal charge of key departments; the coronation was fixed for November 1645 (late September O.S.), and a new program was drawn up, including army modernization and financial, administrative, and legal reform. The young tsar's chief interest, however, was church reform. There were three reasons for giving this priority:

  1. In Russia, as in the later Roman Empire, church and state were mutually supportive. The church acted as the ideological arm of the state, proclaimed its orders, helped administer rural areas, and provided prisons, welfare services, and resources when the state called for them.
  2. Since Russia was the richest, most powerful state in the Orthodox communion, large Orthodox populations in neighboring Poland, which was Catholic, looked to it for support, and many churchmen in the Ottoman sphere, including the Balkans, came to Moscow for financial support and were therefore receptive to Moscow's political influence. This gave the church some clout in foreign affairs. However, since Russian liturgical practice differed from that of other communities, Alexei thought it important to reform the liturgy to conform to the best Greek practice. (In doing so he was to take erroneous advice, but this was discovered too late.)
  3. The rapid exploitation of Siberia had made up most of the economic damage of the Time of Troubles, but the legacy of social and moral dislocation was still evident. A program similar to that which the Hapsburg rulers had mounted in Central Europe to combat Protestantism and other forms of dissent had to be implemented if the increasingly militant Catholicism of Poland was to be countered, and pagan practices, still rife in Russia's countryside, stamped out.

The Moscow riots of 1648 underscored the urgency. The trigger was a tax on salt that, ironically, had only recently been rescinded, but as the movement grew, demands broadened. Alexei confronted the crowd twice, promising redress and pleading for Morozov's life. Morozov was spirited away to the safety of a distant monastery, but the mob lynched two senior officials, looted many houses, and started fires. Some of the musketeer guards (streltsy ) sympathized with the crowd, and seditious rumors spread to the effect that the tsar was merely a creature of his advisers. Alexei had to undertake to redress grievances and call an Assembly of the Land (zemskii sobor ) before order could be restored (and the Musketeer Corps purged).

The outcome was a law code (Ulozhenie ) in 1649, which updated and consolidated the laws of Russia, recorded common law practices, and included elements of Roman Law and the Lithuanian Statute as well as Russian secular and canon law. Alexei was patently acquainted with its content, and he would subsequently refer to its principles, such as justice (the administration of the law) being "equal for all."

patriarch nikon andthe russian church

In April 1652 when the Russian primate, Patriarch Joseph, died, Alexei had already decided on his successor. He had met Nikon, now in his early fifties and an impressive six feet, five inches tall, seven years before. He had since installed him as abbot of a Moscow monastery in his gift and thereafter met him regularly. He had subsequently proposed him to the metropolitan see of Novgorod, the second most senior position in the Russian church. However, Nikon insisted on conditions for accepting nomination as patriarch. His demand that the tsar obey him in all matters relating to the church's spiritual authority was not as unacceptable as might appear. Nikon had to impose discipline on laity and clergy alike, and the tsar felt a duty to give a lead, to demonstrate that patriarch and tsar were working in symphony. But Nikon's second demand was more difficult.

One way to improve observance and conformity was to create new saints and transfer their remains to Moscow in gripping public ceremonies. The new saints included two patriarchs who had suffered during the Polish intervention: Job, who had been imprisoned by the False Dmitry, and Hermogen, who had been starved to death by the Poles in 1612. But Nikon also insisted that the former metropolitan Philip, strangled on Tsar Ivan's orders, be canonized and that Alexei express contrition in public for Ivan's sin. Though Ivan was patently unbalanced in his later years, he was a model for Alexei, who set out to pursue Ivan's strategic objectives.

The "Prayer Letter" Alexei eventually gave Nikon to read aloud over Philip's grave at Solovka was cleverly ambivalent. Often interpreted as a submission by the tsar to the church, it asserts that the acknowledgement of Ivan's sin has earned him forgiveness, and is, in effect, a rehabilitation of Ivan. Nikon was duly installed as patriarch. The reforms went ahead.

war with poland-lithuania

When the war over Ukraine began in 1654, Alexei joined his troops on campaign, leaving Nikon to act as regent in Moscow in his absence. The city of Smolensk was retaken, and Khmelnytsky, leader of the Ukrainian Cossack insurgents, whom Moscow had been supplying for some time, made formal submission to the tsar's representative. Glittering success also attended the 1655 campaign. Operations were unaffected by an outbreak of bubonic plague in Moscow, with which Nikon coped efficiently. Most of Lithuania, including its capital Vilnius, fell to Russian troops that summer. This opened the road to the Baltic, and in 1656 the army moved on to besiege the Swedish port of Riga. But Riga held out, there was a Polish resurgence, and part of the Ukrainian elite abandoned their allegiance to the tsar. The war was to drag on for another decade, bringing chaos to Ukraine and mounting costs to Moscow. It also occasioned the breach with Nikon.

To consolidate his rule of Ukrainian and Belarus territory, formerly under Poland, Alexei urgently needed to fill the vacant metropolitan see of Kiev. The last incumbent had died in 1657 (the same year as Khmelnytsky) but Nikon refused to sanction the appointment, arguing that Kiev came under the jurisdiction of the superior see of Constantinople. The tsar made his disapproval public. Nikon relinquished his duties but refused to resign, and the matter remained unresolved until 1666 when Nikon was impeached by a synod attended by the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, the tsar acting as prosecutor. The synod found against Nikon and deposed him, but endorsed his liturgical reforms, which were unpopular with Avvakum and other Old Believers. However, Nikon had been set up as a scapegoat for the unpopular measures against Old Belief. Although Alexei failed to persuade Avvakum to conform, he retained the rebellious archpriest's respect. The church was to remain at an uneasy peace for the remainder of the reign.

Reforms occasioned by the demands of war included three significant developments.

  1. The formation of the tsar's Private Office. Staffed by able young bureaucrats, it kept the tsar closely and confidentially informed, intervened at the tsar's behest in both government and church affairs, and supervised the conduct of the war, when necessary overriding generals, ministers, and provincial governors. Those who served in the Office often went on to occupy the highest posts; several entered the Duma. The Private Office became an effective instrument for personal, autocratic rule.
  2. It hastened military modernization. The tsar regularly engaged foreign officers to drill Russian servicemen in the latest Western methods. Weaponry and artillery were improved and their production expanded. By the end of the reign, except for the traditional cavalry (still useful for steppe warfare), the army had been transformed. Aside from the crack musketeer guards, commanded by Artamon Matveyev, the musketeer corps was sidelined, and "regiments of new formation" became the core of the army.
  3. Though the war provided economic stimulus, especially to mining, metallurgy, and textiles, it also occasioned insoluble financial problems. With expenditure soaring above income, and being short of specie, Alexei sanctioned the issue of copper coins instead of silver. Ukrainian servicemen, finding their pay would not buy them necessities of life, became rebellious; and, as inflation increased, dismay and anger infected the cities. A crowd from Moscow reached the tsar at his summer palace at Kolomenskoye. The rising was ruthlessly suppressed, but in 1663 the copper coinage was withdrawn, though other financial demands were to be made of the people.

economic policy

Alexei was never to solve the fiscal problem, although he did adopt some positive economic policies. He improved productivity on his own estates; encouraged peasants to take profitable initiatives; sponsored trading expeditions to farthest Siberia, China, and India; protected the profitable trade with Persia; established a glass factory, encouraged prospectors, and brought in Western manufacturers as well as experts in military technology; and in 1667 introduced a new trade statute designed to protect Russian merchants from foreign competitors and from intrusive officialdom. Yet he also encouraged transit trade within Russia, helping develop a common Russian market.

The year 1667, which saw the condemnation of Nikon, also saw the conclusion, at Andrusovo, of the long war with Poland. Under its terms Russia kept all Ukraine east of the Dnieper River and temporary control of Kiev (which soon became permanent). This was a huge accretion of territory, providing a launching pad for future expansion both westward and to the south. The cost had been heavy, but Poland had suffered more. Broken as a great power, it ceased to be a threat to Russia. Alexei had ensured that neither the hereditary nobility nor the church would impede the free exercise of autocratic, centralizing power.

Both strategic policy and church reform directed Moscow's attention westward. Alexei became interested in acquiring the crown of Catholic Poland and his eldest surviving son, Tsarevich Alexei, was taught Polish and Latin. The boy's tutor, Simeon Polotsky, who was also the court poet, had been brought to Moscow with other bearers of Western learning and culture from occupied Belarus and Ukraine. Insulated from the mass of Russians, their influence was confined to court. Similarly, foreign servicemen and experts were confined to Moscow's Foreign Suburb when off duty.

Nevertheless they were the basis of Russia's Westernization; and the tsar chose his second wife, Natalia Naryshkina, from the suburb. Their child, Peter, was to be reviled as the son of Nikon. But as Wuchter's portrait of Alexei demonstrates, he was clearly Peter's father, and in spirit as well as genetically.

Through his policies of modernization, his church reforms, his introduction of Ukrainian learning (and hence elements of Catholic learning), Alexei had, wittingly and unwittingly, pierced Russia's isolationism. But he was not to see all the fruits of this work. Worn down by three decades of political and military crises for which as autocrat he bore sole responsibility, Alexei died of renal and heart disease on January 29, 1676.

See also: ivan iv; law code of 1649; military, imperial era; morozov, boris ivanonvich; nikon, patriarch; peter i; romanov dynasty; russian orthodox church; thirteen years' war; time of troubles


Longworth, Philip. (1984). Alexis, Tsar of All the Russias. New York: Franklin Watts.

Longworth, Philip. (1990). "The Emergence of Absolutism in Russia." In Absolutism in Seventeenth Century Europe, ed. John Miller. London: Macmillan.

Palmer, W. (18711876). The Patriarch and the Tsar, 6 vols. London: Trubner.

Philip Longworth

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Alexei Mikhailovich

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