Aristocrats and Servitors: The Boyar Elite in Russia, 1613-1689

Aristocrats and Servitors: The Boyar Elite in Russia, 1613-1689

by Robert O. Crummey


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Robert O. Crummey uses the methods of collective biography to provide the first modern study of the elite group that dominated Russian government and society in the seventeenth century--the members of the Boyar Duma or royal council between 1613 and 1689. This book examines their careers in governmental service, their position in networks of family relationships and factional groupings, their values and attitudes, and their economic activities.

Originally published in 1983.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691613185
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #866
Pages: 340
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Aristocrats and Servitors

The Boyar Elite in Russia, 1613-1689

By Robert O. Crummey


Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05389-9


The Boyar Elite

The rank of boyar has an ancient history in Russia. Beginning with the late tenth century, chronicles used the word along with several others when referring to the leading counselors of the ruling princes. What the word "boyar" originally meant, however, is not entirely clear. Philologically, it may mean a warrior or one who takes responsibility for something. The ambiguity is fortuitous, for, in later times, the boyars were a warrior elite who assisted the prince in governing his realm.

By the seventeenth century, the boyars stood at the top of a complex hierarchy of ranks and institutions. The council of royal advisers, known to historians as the Boyar Duma, consisted of the holders of four ranks — boiarin, okol'nichii, dumnyi dvorianin, and dumnyi d'iak. The rank and function of okol'nichii existed from the thirteenth century. At first the okol'nichie were servitors who accompanied the prince on his travels and saw to his needs. By the sixteenth century, however, the term simply designated members of the Boyar Duma slightly less distinguished than the boyars proper. In the course of that century, the government created two new ranks as a way of bringing social upstarts into the inner circles of the administration and giving them appropriate recognition. Early sixteenth-century sources describe the dumnye dvoriane precisely as "lesser nobles (deti hoiarskie) who serve in the Duma." The dumnye d'iaki were the most important officials in the rudimentary but remarkably efficient Muscovite bureaucracy. In reality, they played leading roles in the governing of the realm from the late fifteenth century if not earlier. The rank of dumnyi d'iak which formalized their status emerged, however, only in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

The boyars of the seventeenth century had a social as well as a juridical history. The families whose members tended to dominate the ranks of boyar and okol'nichii in our period gradually came together at the court of the rulers of Moscow over the course of three centuries. As a social group, the boyars and okol'nichie consisted of two elements. First came the princes, the descendants of the numerous branches of the Russian ruling house, the Riurikovichi, and the Lithuanian dynasty of Gedimin. All bore the title of prince which all sons inherited from their father, and all had once ruled their own small principalities somewhere in the plains and forests of northeastern Europe. The second element in the boyar group was made up of the so-called non-titled families who had achieved power and social prominence by serving the princes of Moscow for several generations. Their masters rewarded their efforts with positions of authority and, in many cases, rank. The rulers of Muscovy, however, did not grant patents of nobility or hereditary titles in the western European sense. Either a man was born a prince or he was not. The non-titled became nobles through ownership of land and informal social concensus.

In strictly chronological terms, the group of non-titled servitors coalesced first. A number of leading families of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries occupied prominent positions at the court of the princes of Moscow in the fourteenth century. In the next two centuries, the ranks of non-titled boyars continued to grow; new men whose talent and loyalty made them invaluable to the ruler joined the evolving core of distinguished families at court. By contrast, the princes came to Moscow relatively late. Many of the leading princely houses of later centuries jumped on the Muscovite bandwagon in the latter half of the fifteenth and first decades of the sixteenth centuries when the princes of Moscow clearly won the struggle for hegemony in northeastern Europe. Ivan III and his successors welcomed the princes into their service with honors appropriate to their distinguished ancestry. At the same time, their new masters watched them carefully and kept them from positions of real power until they had proved their trustworthiness. Like the non-titled boyars, the princes as a group continued to evolve, adding new recruits to their number, including a small number of immigrants from the north Caucasus as well as native Russians.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the distinctions between the princes and non-titled boyars were clear and important. A hundred years later, I am convinced, most of the differences between them, apart from the title of prince itself, had disappeared. As we shall see, the careers of princes and non-titled boyars followed the same patterns: they owned and managed land in the same way, and, if marriage alliances are any indication, they regarded one another as social equals. For these reasons, this study will make no systematic distinction between the princely and non-titled families among the boyars of the seventeenth century.

Before proceeding, we must deal with certain problems of terminology. First, by the phrase "boyar elite" I mean all of the individuals who served in the Boyar Duma in any of its four ranks. Secondly, I will use the word "boyar" in two meanings, both current in the seventeenth century itself. In the narrow sense, a boyar was a man who held the highest rank in the Duma. In passages in which precise distinctions must be made, I will use the word in this technical meaning. In popular usage, however, the word "boyar" could denote any high noble or person in power. On occasion, when the context permits, I will use "boyar" in this broader sense for reasons of style.

To the consternation of some of my colleagues, I will also use the terms "aristocracy" or "aristocratic element" when discussing the families which dominated the top two ranks of the Duma. The terms come, of course, from western European historical vocabulary and do not fit Russian reality precisely. When I use them to describe the Muscovite high nobility, I am not suggesting that the "Russian aristocracy" enjoyed great political and economic power in their regions of origin and thus remained largely independent of the authority of the ruler, as was the case with their western and central European counterparts in earlier times. As we shall see, quite the contrary was true.

By the Russian aristocracy, I mean those families which served in high office and enjoyed material comfort and an exalted social standing over the course of several generations. In that sense, many of the boyars of the seventeenth century were aristocrats, for, throughout that period, a central core of distinguished old families within the boyar elite was remarkably successful in maintaining its claim on high rank and office, its wealth, and its standing at the pinnacle of the social hierarchy.

Seventeenth-century boyars lived in tumultous times. Nothing that they experienced between 1613 and 1689, however, compared with the chaos and bloodshed of the preceding decades. To begin with, after a period of military triumph abroad and gradual reform at home, Ivan IV launched the oprichnina in 1565.11 Dividing Muscovy in two and creating his own private security force and administration, the tsar lashed out at his enemies, real and imagined. Between 1565 and 1572, several waves of terror claimed thousands of victims from all walks of life. Many members of Duma families died at the hands of Ivan's executioners. Whether the oprichnina was a systematic attack on all or on parts of the aristocracy or represented Ivan's revenge on individuals whom he distrusted, it cost Muscovite society dearly. So far no historian has successfully added up the exact price that the boyars paid for Ivan's experiment. Clearly, some lost friends and relatives, others their careers or their estates, and all of them their self-confidence. The plight of the peasants is not in dispute. The government's exactions in order to win the war for Livonia and the excesses of the oprichnina made life unbearable for many of them. By the thousands, they fled from their homes to the frontiers of Muscovy and beyond, thereby setting off an economic depression and social crisis of enormous proportions.

For three decades after his death in 1584, Ivan's legacy haunted Russia. The government of his son, Fedor, under the leadership of Boris Godunov, made limited but sensible attempts to cope with the social, economic, and diplomatic problems that Ivan left behind and succeeded at least in giving the country a few years' respite. When Fedor, the last of the Riurikovich dynasty, died in 1598, Muscovy slid slowly but inexorably into chaos.

With good reason, Russians remember the years between 1598 and 1613 as the Time of Troubles. A myriad of problems undercut the effectiveness of the government and destroyed the social fabric of the country. First came the problem of political legitimacy. After Fedor, Boris Godunov, his chief minister and brother-in-law, ascended the throne but was unable to convince his restless subjects of his right to rule. Moreover, his government faced problems that would probably have overwhelmed any seventeenth-century administration. Two consecutive years of crop failure in 1601 and 1602 produced widespread famine and social unrest. Once again peasants fled from their homes in a desperate bid for survival. In this emergency, doubts about Godunov's right to rule proved fatal to his regime. An adventurer claiming to be Dmitrii, the youngest son of Ivan IV, appeared in Poland and quickly won support among the discontented elements in Muscovy — nobles, Cossacks, and peasants alike. With Polish backing, he invaded Russia, gathered his forces, and, after initial setbacks, overthrew Godunov's regime and took power in 1605.

With his accession, Russia's plight grew worse. The False Dmitrii did nothing to fill the vacuum on the throne. As was well known, the real Dmitrii had died as a child in 1592. Before long, a group of boyars, playing on doubts about the pretender's legitimacy and the Polish flavor of his court, overthrew him and installed their leader, Vasilii Shuiskii, as tsar. Shuiskii sat on the throne for four years, from 1606 to 1610, but, for much of his reign, ruled little more than the city of Moscow. Indeed, for many months, his government faced the direct challenge of another false Dmitrii, who set up a competing regime in Tushino, just outside the capital. Meanwhile social discontent burst forth in a series of massive rebellions. In desperation, Shuiskii added the final ingredient to the crisis: to shore up his tottering throne, he invited the Swedish government to send troops to support him. Once on Russian soil, the Swedish forces settled in and stayed long after Shuiskii had disappeared from the scene. Moreover, their presence prompted King Sigismund III of Poland, who was already fishing in Muscovy's troubled waters, to launch a campaign of open intervention. At one and the same time, Polish troops invaded the country, and their king began negotiations with some of the boyars in hopes of securing the throne of Russia for his son, Wladyslaw.

In this moment of chaos and national humiliation, leaders appeared to rally the remaining forces of Russia. With the encouragement of Patriarch Germogen, the nobles of eastern and southeastern Muscovy formed a coalition with the townsmen of east and north for the purpose of expelling the foreigner and restoring the fortunes of Orthodox Russia. The national coalition brought together a strange conglomeration of elements, including large numbers of Cossacks who had thrived on the chaotic conditions of recent years. From the beginning, the movement for national revival suffered from acute internal divisions, and its first attempt to capture Moscow from a Polish garrison failed. At the end of 1612, however, Prince D. M. Pozharskii and Kuz'ma Minin led a second attempt that ended successfully.

As the leaders of the national revival realized, their first task was to elect a tsar whose administration could establish its right to govern. With this in mind, they called a meeting of the zemskii sobor (national estates) which, in 1613, chose Mikhail Romanov, a young member of a distinguished non-titled family related by marriage to the old dynasty. Mikhail's coronation gave Russia a new ruling house. It also served as a first step in the campaign to rid the country of the disastrous consequences of the Troubles, a campaign that, in a broad sense, lasted most of the seventeenth century.

In the years between Mikhail's accession and 1689, the Russian government faced many problems. As elsewhere in Europe, the most urgent issue was mobilizing the country for war. For most of the century, Russia faced two principal enemies — Poland to the west and the Ottoman Empire and the Crimea to the south. At first Poland was the primary target. Although the Truce of Deulino in 1618 finally put an end to Poland's part in the Time of Troubles, the agreement only gave the parties time to rest until the next round of fighting. That took place in 1632-1634, when Russia, taking advantage of the disruption of the Thirty Years' War in central Europe, tried unsuccessfully to recapture Smolensk, lost during the Troubles. In the reign of Mikhail's successor, Aleksei Mikhailovich (1645-1676), the two powers clashed again, this time over control of the Ukraine, which, under Khmel'nitskii's leadership, revolted against Polish control and accepted Russian protection. In the first three years of the war, 1654-1657, the Russian army marched relentlessly westward, aided by the fact that, at the same time, the Swedish army invaded and devastated the heartland of Poland. After Sweden left the war, however, the Poles staged a remarkable recovery and recaptured a good deal of lost territory before the Truce of Andrusovo ended the conflict in 1667.

In the seventeenth century, the security of the southern frontier remained a major concern of the Russian government. For centuries, warlords from the neighboring Turkic societies had raided the southern borderlands of Muscovy and occasionally penetrated the heart of the country, looting and carrying off prisoners for sale as slaves. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Muscovite government took systematic measures to meet the danger of invasion. These included maintaining an army on the southern frontier throughout the year, constructing a series of fortified defense lines, and developing an elaborate system of reconnaissance and warning signals. After the Time of Troubles, the new government of the Romanovs faced the same Tatar threat and responded in the same way. Particularly in the late 1630s and 1640s, when the western frontier was quiet, the government made a major effort to repair the existing defense perimeter and to construct the new Belgorod line farther south in the steppe. In the long run, the campaign paid off handsomely: in the middle and later decades of the century, Crimean raids no longer threatened the heartland of European Russia, and the rich "black soil" belt to the south of the capital was secure for settlement as never before.

The successes of Russian arms brought enormous gains of territory. The wars with Poland extended Moscow's rule to the eastern or "left bank" Ukraine, with its distinct local political and cultural traditions. During the seventeenth century, moreover, Russia extended her borders eastward across Siberia to the shores of the Pacific and established a common border with China.

Expansion brought new entanglements. The southward extension of Russia's borders led to a bloody but inconclusive war with the Ottoman Empire between 1676 and 1681. Then the regency of Princess Sophia and Prince V. V. Golitsyn, which ruled from 1682 to 1689, joined the general European coalition against the Turks and, as its contribution, made two disastrous attempts to conquer the Crimea and to put an end to border raids once and for all.

Like other governments in seventeenth-century Europe, the new regime in Russia had to pay dearly in order to wage war almost continuously. First, even before the debacle at Smolensk, its leaders realized that they had to rebuild the Russian army along modern European lines. First, as elsewhere in Europe, the total size of the army grew rapidly, particularly in the 1650s and 1660s. Second and more importantly, the government created new units of infantry and cavalry trained to use the latest firearms and maneuvers in the field. After initial failures, these new-style units took hold and, by the height of the war with Poland in the mid-1660s, made up the great majority of the whole army. Military reform had momentous consequences. At the same time, we should not forget that the traditional units of noble cavalry which the boyars often commanded continued to exist until the end of the century.

As elsewhere, the new style of warfare strained the government's financial resources. In addition to the costs of the old-fashioned units, the Russian administration had to buy weapons for the new cavalry and infantry and find the cash for the salaries on which they lived. According to one estimate, the cost of the army rose two-and-a-half times over the course of the century. As a result, the Russian government struggled desperately throughout the period to increase its income from taxes and other sources.


Excerpted from Aristocrats and Servitors by Robert O. Crummey. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. ix
  • TABLES AND DIAGRAM, pg. xiii
  • CHAPTER I. The Boyar Elite, pg. 12
  • CHAPTER II. Servitors, pg. 34
  • CHAPTER III. Family and Marriage, pg. 65
  • CHAPTER IV. Politics, Parties, and Patronage, pg. 82
  • CHAPTER V. Landlords, pg. 107
  • CHAPTER VI. Courtiers and Christians, pg. 135
  • APPENDIX A. The Membership of the Boyar Duma* 1613 -1690, pg. 175
  • APPENDIX B. The Members of the Boyar Duma, 1613-1713, pg. 178
  • APPENDIX C. The Boyar Duma in the Seventeenth Century: Controversies, pg. 215
  • NOTES, pg. 221
  • BIBLIOGRAPHY, pg. 261
  • INDEX, pg. 287

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