Biographies Russian Rulers Romanov Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich

Alexis Mikhailovich

Born: 1629, Moscow
Died: 1676, Moscow

Alexis Mikhailovich was the third child and eldest son of Michael Romanov and Eudoxia Streshneva. He was born in Moscow on 9 March 1629 and baptised by Patriarch Philaret. Until the age of five, he was brought up by various wet-nurses. The boy’s education was then entrusted to two boyars – Boris Morozov and Basil Streshnev. He also had a retinue of twenty stewards from distinguished Russian families.

Boris Morozov was influenced by Western ideas and Alexis developed an interest in European culture. The tsarevich was taught from primers and church books. He began writing at seven and, by the age of eleven, had his own small library of Russian and foreign literature, including grammar books, dictionaries and works on cosmography. His curriculum included music and the study of foreign maps and pictures. He grew up into a chubby, cheerful boy with red cheeks, a low forehead and twinkling eyes.

Alexis inherited the throne from his father at the age of sixteen and was crowned on 28 September 1645. The young tsar initially relied on the advice of others, particularly the cunning and ambitious Boris Morozov.

Alexis had a soft nature and a kind heart. Although he could be angry and strict, he was always fair, attempting to make peace with anyone who had aroused his wrath. He was deeply religious, observing all the Orthodox fasts and spending long hours in his private chapel. Although his subjects called him “Alexis the Most Meek”, he was no coward, often accompanying the army into battle. He had a dignified poise and truly regal manners.

Alexis enjoyed reading and had a large library. He composed poems and prose and collected art. The tsar built a magnificent palace (unsurviving) at Kolomenskoe near Moscow. A landscape park, including ponds, greenhouses, gardens and the first Russian zoo, was laid out in Izmailovo, another estate outside Moscow. The first theatre in Russia was opened at Preobrazhenskoe, where religious plays, comedies and ballets were staged.

Besides literature, landscape gardening and the theatre, Alexis also enjoyed chess and hunting, particularly falconry. He kept over three thousand falcons and a hundred thousand pigeon nests to provide them with fresh meat. The tsar did not only spend his time amusing himself, however. He coined the phrase “a time for work, an hour for play,” which is now a national saying.

In 1647, when he was eighteen, Alexis decided that the time had come to marry. He ordered two hundred of the most beautiful girls from leading Russian families to be assembled in Moscow. The tsar’s choice fell on a maiden called Euphemia, the daughter of Fyodor (Raf) Vsevolozhsky, a landlord from the Kasimovsky district.

As soon as Alexis’s choice became known, rivals began plotting against Euphemia. Boris Morozov spread rumours that she suffered from fainting spells and was unable to bear children. The girl and her father were subsequently sent to Siberia for daring to conceal such important information from the tsar.

Boris Morozov immediately offered Alexis his own alternative – Maria Miloslavskaya, daughter of the steward Ilya Miloslavsky. The tsar agreed with his choice and married Maria. Maria’s sister Anna married Boris Morozov, making the two men relatives. This factor helped to save Morozov from an unpleasant death in May 1648, when an angry mob invaded the Kremlin and demanded the execution of the hated boyars. Although the tsar gave the crowd two boyars – Plescheyev and Trakhanoiotov – he begged them to spare his brother-in-law, promising to remove him from all government posts. Boris was extremely unpopular in Moscow, where he was regarded as one of the main causes of national calamities. His house was ransacked during a second wave of disorders in 1662.

Alexis’s wife was extremely religious and they enjoyed a happy marriage. Maria bore him thirteen children before she died in 1669. Alexis was grief-stricken and made lavish gifts to the church in memory of her soul.

After just over a year had passed, Alexis decided to remarry. He assembled seventy brides and selected the nineteen-year-old Natalia Naryshkina, the handsome daughter of a nobleman from Ryazan, Kirill Naryshkin. This beautiful young wife seemed to have a beneficial effect on the tsar, who began to look much younger. They lived together for five years and had three children.

Alexis backed the reform of the Russian Orthodox Church implemented by Patriarch Nikon in 1652. The original reason was the need to correct a number of errors that had crept into church books during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Nikon decided to correct the mistakes by referring to the original Greek sources. As there were fundamental differences between the two churches, this led to important changes in the rites of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russians were now expected to cross themselves with three fingers, not two. Instead of bowing down to the ground, they were told to only genuflect as far as the waist.

Besides the mistakes in the church literature, Nikon also sought to correct many elements of Russian icon-painting. As all Russian icons depicted saints blessing with two fingers, many priests and members of the population regarded this as a direct attack on Orthodoxy. The Russian church divided into two irreconcilable groups – the supporters of Nikon and the Old Believers. Between 1654 and 1656, the opponents of Nikon’s reforms were exiled or defrocked. In 1666, the church council officially condemned the Old Believers, calling on the civil authorities to burn to death anyone “daring to revile the Lord God.”

One of the most outspoken opponents of Nikon’s reforms was an archpriest called Avvakum. When he was asked to cross himself with three fingers, “his heart froze and his legs shook.” Although Alexis personally sympathised with Avvakum, he was determined to overcome the Old Believers and banished the fiery priest to Tobolsk in 1653. Patriarch Nikon overreached himself, however, by openly encroaching upon the power of the tsar and he was defrocked in 1667.

After Nikon’s dismissal, Avvakum was returned to Moscow by the enemies of the deposed patriarch. Yet Avvakum had no intention of reconciling himself to the reforms. He created special congregations of Old Believers, wrote letters condemning Nikon’s supporters and demanded that the tsar repeal the reforms. Alexis regarded his actions as tantamount to treason and he was exiled to Pustozersk in 1664. After a period of imprisonment in an “earth dungeon”, he was burnt at the stake in 1681.

Avvakum was supported by Feodosia Morozova, the wife of a boyar called Morozov and a supporter of the old ways. Popularly known as “Boyarinya Morozova”, she corresponded with Avvakum and gave financial assistance to his family. She was arrested in 1671 and incarcerated in the St Paphnutius of Borovsk Monastery, where she died in 1675.

There was a whole host of less important events during the reign of Tsar Alexis. One was a decree requiring people to sign petitions to the tsar in the diminutive – “Ivashko” for Ivan or “Petrushko” for Peter. Another was the execution of the rebel Stenka Razin in Moscow in 1671.

Alexis once launched a campaign against swearing in Russia. He formed special detachments of Streltsy guards, who patrolled markets and other places where crowds gathered. Whenever they heard anyone swearing, they were ordered to beat the culprit with knouts and cudgels (themselves uttering even coarser oaths in the process).

Alexis died in Moscow on 29 January 1676 and was buried in the Archangel Cathedral.

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