Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

A Riot and a Regent

The three ministers of Alexis especially distinguished themselves: the first was his brother-in-law, whose influence was narrow and exclusive. The second was the son of a gentleman of Pskof. He was "the first great European that Russia had produced;" he reformed the army, he tried to make Moscow the centre of the trade between East and West, he built the first Russian ship on the Oka, he was the founder of the Russian press. In his old age, wearied by the hatred which his foreign notions brought upon him, he became a monk and was succeeded by a boyar who likewise had strong leanings toward European habits. Alexis used frequently to visit his house. Matveef's wife was a Scotch Hamilton, and, contrary to the Russian custom of the time, dressed in foreign clothes, appeared at table and joined in the conversation when guests were present. Shortly after the death of his wife and his eldest son, Alexis was dining with Matveef and was struck by the comeliness and grace of a young damsel who served the refreshments. He learned that she was Natalia, the daughter of a country nobleman, and was getting her education at Moscow under the charge of Matveef's wife. The Tsar on going away told his minister that he would find a bridegroom for his pretty ward.

Alexis was in the prime of life; his son Theodore was sickly; his son Ivan was almost an imbecile. The order had already been issued for the gathering of the maidens from whose number the Tsar would select his bride. Natalia was bidden to appear with the rest, and was immediately announced as the chosen of the Tsar. Matveef was accused of using magic herbs to win the Tsar's favor; the wedding was postponed until an investigation was made, but finally, in spite of the jealous intrigues of the Miloslavskis, and of the Tsar's six daughters, some of whom were older than Natalia, it was celebrated with great pomp. Five years later the Tsar Alexis died suddenly, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Theodore. The Miloslavski family came into power again; Matveef, at whose house an algebra was found, accused of using black arts, was banished. Natalia with her two children was sent away to the villa of the Transfiguration.

The reign of the sickly Theodore was chiefly marked by court intrigues and by one great reform, the burning of the "books of rank," in which for many hundred years the services in camp and court of every member of all the noble families had been kept. No Russian nobleman was willing to take a place in the service lower than his ancestors had taken. Theodore called an assembly of the higher clergy and of the boyars to legislate upon this question of precedence. The Patriarch declared that "henceforth all ranks should be without precedence, because formerly in many military exploits and embassies and affairs of all kinds, much harm, disorganization, ruin, and advantage to the enemy had been wrought by this." Then the Tsar solemnly burned the books of rank.

Four months after the accomplishment of this reform Theodore died, leaving no children. There were now two candidates for the throne: Theodore's own brother Ivan, who was blind, lame, dull of speech, and half idiotic; and his half-brother Peter, who was strong, healthy, and gifted with keen intellect. The question was carried to the people, and decided in favor of Natalia's son. Natalia again took up her abode in the Kreml, recalled her foster-father Matveef, and put her own relatives in the chief offices. The Miloslavskis were in despair. Sophia, the best-educated and most energetic of the daughters of Alexis, revolting at the thought of the cloister to which she and her sisters were condemned by Russian etiquette, determined to create a party in her own behalf. With all cunning and patience she kept herself and her grievances before the people; she appeared at Theodore's funeral, complaining loudly that her brother had been poisoned; she worked upon the excitable feelings of the "Archers," causing it to be whispered through Moscow that Natalia's relatives had uttered threats against them, and were plotting to destroy the royal family.

At last it was openly announced that Natalia's brother Ivan had seized the throne. With the cry, "To arms! punish the traitors! save the Tsar!" the Archers hastened to the Kreml, fifteen thousand strong. Natalia, with her son, Peter, and the half-wined Ivan, stood on the Red Staircase before the Archers, who saw that they had been misled. Their favorite commander, the old Matveef, came down among them, talked calmly, and told them that there was no cause for alarm about the young princes; the mob began to waver. Matveef left them for a moment, and Prince Michael Dalgortiki, the second in command, took the occasion to order the men to go home, and mind their own affairs. The good effect of Matveef's sensible words was lost in a moment. Prince Michael was flung down into the square and cut to pieces. At the sight of blood their fury awoke; they rushed into the presence of Natalia, dragged Matveef to, the Red Staircase and flung him on to the pikes below. Then they ransacked the palace, killing all whom they met.

For three days the riot continued; the Archers wreaked their vengeance on all who had roused their suspicion or their hatred. Their violence came to an end with the murder of Natalia's brother Ivan and the German physician, Daniel von Gaden, who was charged with poisoning Theodore. Natalia's father, her three younger brothers, and the young Matveef, who escaped with their lives, were exiled at the petition of the Archers. They also proposed to make Ivan share the throne with Peter, under the regency of Sophia. The majority of the boyars were opposed to this division of power, but the examples found in sacred and profane writings and the threats of the Archers proved to be strong enough arguments. The two princes were crowned with great solemnity in the Cathedral of the Assumption; the silver-gilt throne with a double seat for the two boy Tsars is still shown in Moscow.

Sophia took control of the government. Her first act was to deal with the dissenters. During her father's reign the learned Patriarch Nikon undertook to correct the Sacred Books. The copyists, by accident or design, had allowed many strange errors to creep into their manuscripts. The common people and most of the clergy looked upon the text of the Scriptures as divinely perfect; therefore it seemed to them a mortal sin to shave the beard or to read Christ's name, Iisus  for Isus. The number of bars on the cross, the number of fingers used in making the sign of the cross, the number of wafers employed in the liturgy, were matters of life and death. Rather than submit to these reforms men were willing to die; for this the monks of the White Lake monasteries underwent a siege for eight years and were finally captured and hung.

The "Old Believers," as the party was called which refused to accept the reforms, felt that the triumph of the Archers ought to insure the triumph of pure orthodox faith. Many of the Archers were Old Believers, and their new chief, Prince Khovanski, read the old books and signed himself with two fingers and not three. The dissenters demanded a public discussion with the Patriarch. The discussion took place, but ended in a riot. Sophia, who was present, together with Natalia, caused the ringleaders to be arrested and imprisoned. One of them who had insulted the Patriarch was beheaded. Sophia now felt that it was necessary to rid herself of Prince Khovanski, whose sympathy and influence with the riotous Archers made his power to be feared. He prided himself on his descent from the ancient kings of Lithuania; it was reported that he was anxious to marry his eldest son to one of Sophia's sisters. Accordingly, the regent took refuge in the fortified monastery of the Trinity with Natalia and the two Tsars, and surrounded herself with her men-at-arms. Khovanski and his son Andrew were arrested and put to death without any form of trial. His younger son, Ivan, begged the Archers to destroy the murderers of their beloved commander, but when they learned that a hundred thousand men were in arms to defend Sophia they saw that their day had passed. They immediately sent a deputation to the Trinity Monastery offering their submission. The Patriarch pleaded for them; Sophia had their ringleaders executed and pardoned the rest.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


She was now mistress of the situation. Her reign of seven years was on the whole advantageous to Russia; she had the support of Prince Basil Galitsin, her Minister of Foreign Affairs. Prince Basil was a man of good education: he spoke Latin fluently, was fond of foreigners, and was by far the ablest and most liberal-minded Russian of his time. It was said of him that "he wished to people the waste places, to enrich the destitute, of savages to make men, of cowards to make heroes, and to transform cottages into marble palaces." He planned to develop trade in Siberia, to reform the army and the administration, even to emancipate the serfs. His tastes were magnificent; his house was filled with costly furniture and tapestries, carvings in wood and ivory, paintings and statuary, plate, jewels, and crystals; his equipages and silver-mounted harnesses were marvels of richness. Unfortunately he was a greater statesman than general.

Russia, in return for the city of Kief, had agreed to assist the Poles in their war with the Turks. Prince Basil, much against his will, was sent against the Crimea with one hundred thousand Russians and fifty thousand Kazaks. A fire swept the grassy plains and destroyed the forage; the army, fearfully reduced by starvation, returned from the campaign without even seeing the enemy.

In order to shield Prince Basil Sophia laid the blame on the hetman of the Kazaks. He was sent without trial to Siberia, where he died, and his place was filled by the famous Mazeppa. The army was rewarded with gold medals; money and estates were given to the officers.

Two years later a second expedition was as fruitless as the first. Prince Basil managed to reach the fort of Perekop, and demanded the Kan's surrender. There was no water, grass, or wood in the parched steppe; the Kan refused to accept the terms offered, and the Russians were forced to retreat, losing thirty-five thousand men and seventy cannon. The failure of this campaign was the ruin of Sophia and Prince Basil. The false report that one hundred and fifty thousand Tartars had been beaten, the distribution of rewards and decorations, the triumphal entry into Moscow, could not blind the enemies of the regent and her lover.