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A Short History of Russia's First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty / Edition 1

A Short History of Russia's First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty / Edition 1

by Chester S. L. Dunning
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Upon publication in 2001, Russia’s First Civil War by Chester Dunning was greeted by scholars as a “historical tour de force,” the first major post-Marxist reassessment of the Time of Troubles. Now available in an abridged paperback, A Short History of Russia’s First Civil War is ideally suited for classroom use.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780271024653
Publisher: Penn State University Press
Publication date: 05/18/2004
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 825,720
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

Chester S. L. Dunning is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University. He is editor and translator of The Russian Empire and Grand Duchy of Muscovy by Jacques Margeret (1983).

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The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty
By Chester S. L. Dunning

The Pennsylvania State University Press

Copyright © 2004 The Pennsylvania State University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-271-02465-8

Chapter One

A Comparative Approach to the Problem of Origins of the Civil War

Russia's first civil war (1604-5, 1606-12) was in many ways similar to other civil wars of the early modern period. Of all the forms of early modern collective violence, civil wars were notable for plunging states into the lengthiest and most severe conflicts, for splitting the traditional political order most deeply, and for producing rebel forces capable of defying or defeating temporarily even the most powerful monarchies. Social participation in them was very broad, involving to some extent all social strata and at least enough elite participation to signify serious defection from the regime. Goals and targets of the insurrectionists often revealed a massive societal reaction to the growth of state power and the burdens it imposed on its subjects. Early modern civil wars generally produced broad movements creating well-developed ideologies and political and military organizations to facilitate resistance. They were long-lasting primarily because of the participation of a significant percentage of the elite, who provided essential political and social leadership capable of legitimizing revolt and drawing the masses into rebellion against royal authority. In fact, the strength of early modern civil wars was significantly enhanced by the absence of radical demands for alteration of the social structure or for significant redistribution of power and wealth. Early modern civil wars often included strong elements of both agrarian and urban rebellion, which were usually characterized by cooperation among social groups against an unpopular regime rather than by class antagonism and were provoked by conjunctures of circumstances rather than simply by social inequality. Early modern civil wars also often included, grew out of, and were profoundly affected by provincial rebellions-uprisings in newly acquired territories not yet fully integrated into the state structure. Provincial rebellions themselves were usually characterized by broad social participation, including local elites in leadership roles, and by fierce resistance to the growth and intrusion of state power in the region that violated traditional liberties and customary lifestyles.

Equally complex were the causes of early modern civil wars. Comparative study of those popular upheavals quickly yields the insight that no monocausal explanation is satisfactory and that it may be impossible to develop a general causal theory for such complex phenomena in which so many major and minor variables are at work. Instead, a multicausal explanation is called for. Several different factors operated simultaneously and sometimes synergistically to increase the likelihood of revolt or revolution.

It turns out that many of the tasks and dilemmas facing post-Marxist historians of the Time of Troubles are, not surprisingly, the same as those facing revisionist scholars studying early modern Western revolutions. There is currently a certain degree of disarray in the historiography of the French and English Revolutions produced by the decline of traditional interpretations that focused on long-term social, economic, and structural processes and that emphasized the primacy of "absolutism," capitalism, and class conflict as explanatory factors. Revisionist scholars studying those early modern revolutions now emphasize such things as short-term causes, historical contingencies, ideas, belief systems, and other unique social, cultural, and institutional characteristics of each country. Similar approaches can help us understand some of the causes of Russia's first civil war. For example, historians have long focused on the dynastic crisis produced by the death of Tsar Fedor in 1598 as a principal cause of the Time of Troubles. That crisis sharpened the split within the ruling elite and contributed to the pretender Dmitrii's success in 1605. The terrible famine of 1601-3 was also a contributing factor to the civil war, sharpening Russia's already developing social crisis and contributing to the delegitimization of Tasr Boris Godunov. The existence and activities of the pretender Dmitrii were obviously of great significance, as was his assassination in 1606.

What about long-term causes or preconditions? Perhaps trying to avoid the pitfalls of developing comprehensive interpretive theories to replace the Marxist paradigm, some revisionist scholars of early modern Western revolutions have gone so far as to argue against searching for any long-term causes. That strikes me as too extreme, as an unfortunate and unsatisfactory leap from sociological determinism to what might be called the "contingent and unforeseen" school of history. As will be demonstrated in later chapters, there is certainly much to be gained by a focus on short-term causes or immediate triggers, but exploring long-term causes or preconditions can also be valid and useful.

Although there is no longer a consensus that the Time of Troubles was caused primarily by serfdom, there is still general agreement that a principal contributing factor was the catastrophic decline of the Russian economy by the 1570s, which led to massive flight of peasants and urban taxpayers, many of whom sold themselves as slaves, became bandits, or ran away to the southern frontier. The result was a huge loss of state revenue and a steep decline in the gentry's peasant labor force. Eventually, the Russian government (dominated by Boris Godunov) was forced to take drastic steps to shore up the declining militia and to rebuild the tax base. In the 1590s the peasants were enserfed, townspeople were bound to their taxpaying communities, and short-term contract slavery changed to real slavery. All these harsh measures failed to solve the problems of the government and the gentry, but they did help turn Russia into a rigidly stratified, caste-like society and contributed to the outbreak of civil war. A number of scholars believed that Boris Godunov was able to straighten out state finances and that Russia underwent a period of "recovery" in the 1590s. In fact, Russia did not emerge from the crisis that actually deepened in the 1590s, leading to even more empty villages and vacant land in much of central Russia. Although some peripheral areas showed signs of increased activity, continued depopulation and decline of the agricultural economy kept Russia in crisis at the end of the sixteenth century. Some so-called signs of recovery, such as a decline in grain prices, were actually because of a decline in demand and a reversion to a natural economy. That in turn proved disastrous for many already depopulated and hard-pressed towns that lost rural markets at the same time that urban taxes were rising and the taxpaying population was shrinking. Many Russian towns actually became ghost towns in the 1590s. At the same time, a sharp increase in labor demands on some serfs, the growth of land-based taxes, and the lack of innovation in agriculture acted as a brake on any possible recovery of the agricultural economy. Many more peasants fled from the tax rolls, and huge amounts of land continued to fall out of production, devastating an already failing agricultural economy. Among other things, that meant the government faced an increasingly critical shortage of land with peasants to distribute to already hard-pressed, land-hungry gentry and their sons. That in turn deepened a developing crisis of the gentry militia service system-one of the main preconditions of Russia's first civil war. The continuing economic crisis also sharply reduced state income, and the fiscal crisis lasted right into the Time of Troubles.

What caused the catastrophic decline of the Russian economy in the late sixteenth century that provoked such a severe crisis? It was due to many factors, some unique to Russia. For example, the constant threat of Tatar attacks and slave raids contributed to the militarization of Russian society and an increase in social stratification by the end of the sixteenth century. Unique characteristics of Russian autocracy and Russian Orthodox culture produced a service state that greatly imposed on its subjects and that exacerbated most of the problems common to early modern agrarian absolute monarchies. Russian autocracy certainly facilitated the culturally driven imperialism of Ivan IV, Boris Godunov, and others. That in turn produced the staggering expansion of Russia, which tripled in size during the sixteenth century. Such expansion far outstripped the country's resources and greatly overburdened its people and economy along the way. It is also well known that Ivan IV's costly and disastrous Livonian War (1558-83) contributed to the catastrophic decline of the economy and the destabilization of Russian society. Tsar Ivan's dreaded oprichnina (a state within the state, under the tsar's personal control) and the devastation associated with it also contributed to the crisis. On the other hand, too much focus on Ivan IV's personality and policies can lead to a gross underestimation of the impact on Russia of forces not unique to that society such as weather-related crop failures, famines, and terrible epidemics. It is worth noting, for example, that remarkably similar problems developed at the same time in neighboring Lithuania. Even though a case can be made for blaming Tsar Ivan for actions that helped precipitate serfdom and a severe state crisis, it is important to remember that the development of serfdom throughout Eastern Europe was due at least in part to the same destabilizing factors that were operating inside Russia: population increases, price inflation, famines and epidemics, and primitive agricultural technology and low grain yields in an era of increasingly unreliable weather. As it turns out, a number of important causes or preconditions contributing to Russia's severe crisis may be detected by comparative study of early modern Eurasian societies.

Historians have long been puzzled by the waves of revolutions, rebellions, and civil wars observable across Eurasia in the early modern period. Comparative study of those crises reveals common patterns that cannot be explained away simply as coincidences. The existence of those common patterns led in the 1950s to the development of the very popular theory of a "general crisis" of the seventeenth century. Unfortunately, proponents of the general crisis theory have been better at identifying the existence of crises than at explaining them. Nonetheless, scholarship on this topic has produced some interesting ideas about the basic and deep-seated destabilizing influences that were at work on all Eurasian societies in the early modern period. Among those influences were a doubling of the overall population of Eurasia during the sixteenth century and a correspondingly severe period of price inflation-often called a "price revolution." Some crisis theory proponents focused on the significance of a sharp increase in wars and the growth of armies and war-related taxation in a era of price inflation. Others focused on the growth of state power and the unprecedented increase in fiscal demands placed on populations, demands that could and sometimes did precipitate revolts. Still other crisis theory proponents have focused on the general cooling of the global climate in the early modern period (the "little ice age"), relating it to a widespread subsistence crisis marked by famines, mass migrations, and peasant revolts.

In Roland Mousnier's comparative study of early modern Eurasian revolts, he focused on Russia's Time of Troubles using an essentially Marxist framework and the traditional social revolutionary interpretation of the period. Nonetheless, he offered useful comments. In Mousnier's view, revolts in the Time of Troubles were directly related to the growth of state power and military expenses beyond the resources of Russian society. A later study by Peter B. Brown also emphasized the likelihood of crisis growing out of the Russian ruling elite's military ambition and the consequent growth of state power, taxes, and a royal bureaucracy. That is a good beginning, but we need to take a closer look at the issues raised by crisis theory proponents and other recent scholarship in comparative history in order to gain a better understanding of the origins of the Time of Troubles.

Michael Roberts developed the idea of a "military revolution" of the early modern period-a revolution in military technology, tactics and strategy, the size of armies, and the cost of war-that resulted in greatly increased burdens on governments and taxpayers. Subsequent scholarship on this topic has focused on its profound, even "revolutionary" impact on governments and societies. War was the single greatest expense of the early modern state and forced rulers and bureaucrats to seek revenues with zeal. It helped increase the power of central state authority and could, on occasion, trigger crises or rebellions. Acknowledging the importance of the military revolution but dubious of how its impact has been incorporated into studies of the vague concept of "absolutism," John Brewer and Nicholas Henshall have identified the growth of a "fiscal-military state" geared to war and survival. Development of such a state meant imposition and collection of more taxes, government interference in the economy in an effort to increase revenues, and the creation and development of bureaucracies independent of existing elites. The result was the same whether ruling groups wished to expand their state or were forced to build up their military forces because of international competition and the aggression of neighboring states. In either case, excessive military spending could trigger a fiscal crisis. Brian Downing developed similar ideas about military modernization and the mobilization of domestic resources leading to the emergence of what he referred to as "military-bureaucratic absolutism," a highly bureaucratized and militarized central state that in effect subjugated even the elites and pushed royal power far beyond its customary limitations.

A good case can be made that the unified Russian state that emerged in the early sixteenth century was a somewhat primitive but highly effective version of the fiscal-military state geared to war and survival. It is well known that early modern Russia was a service state in which the performance of duties that directly or indirectly bolstered the country's security were required from virtually everyone. Nowhere else in Europe was the principle of service to the state pressed so far as in Russia. In addition, the tsar's bureaucrats were free to extract domestic revenues with no concern about or understanding of the impact of their actions on the economy. Among other things, they imposed taxes with zeal, which the lords then ruthlessly collected. For many Russians taxes rose six hundred percent (adjusted for inflation) over the course of the sixteenth century, almost all due to increases in military-related expenses.


Excerpted from A SHORT HISTORY OF RUSSIA'S FIRST CIVIL WAR by Chester S. L. Dunning Copyright © 2004 by The Pennsylvania State University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations and Maps


1. A Comparative Approach to the Problem of Origins of the Civil War

2. Long-Term Origins: The Growth of Autocracy and Imperialism

3. Ivan the Terrible and Russia’s Slide into Crisis

4. The Rise of Boris Godunov, the Uglich Tragedy, and Enserfment

5. The Southern Frontier and the Cossacks

6. The Beginning of the Time of Troubles and the Great Famine

7. What Triggered the civil War?

8. The Pretender Dmitrii Ivanovich

9. Dmitrii’s Invasion and the Beginning of the Civil War

10. Tsar Boris Strikes Back and the Civil War Widens

11. The Death of Tsar Boris and Dmitrii’s Triumph

12. The Short Reign of Tsar Dmitrii

13. Assassination of the Tsar

14. Vasilii Shuiskii Seizes Power and Rekindles the Civil War

15. The Beginning of the “Bolotnikov Rebellion”

16. The Civil War Widens and the Rebels Advance to Moscow

17. The Siege of Moscow

18. Retreat from Moscow, the Siege of Kaluga, and the Rise of Tsarevich Petr

19. Collapse of the Siege of Kaluga and the Beginning of Tsar Vasilii’s Offensive

20 The Siege of Tula and the Resurrection of “Tsar Dmitrii”

21. Tsar Vasilii’s Struggle Against the Tushino Impostor

22. Foreign Intervention and the Formation of the National Liberation Movement

23. The End of the Civil War and the Election of Mikhail Romanov

24. Tsar Mikhail and the End of the Time of Troubles

25. Disturbing Legacy


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