Michael Romanov

Born: 1596, Moscow
Died: 1645, Moscow

On 21 February 1613, representatives of the different classes gathered at the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin to elect a new autocrat. They unanimously voted to offer the throne to Michael Romanov, son of Patriarch Philaret.

The Land Assembly dispatched a large delegation of clergymen, boyars and public officials to Michael. The only problem was that no one in Moscow knew exactly where he was. The delegates were commanded to “travel to His Majesty, Tsar and Grand Prince Michael Fyodorovich of All the Russias, in Yaroslavl or wherever he might be.” Armed with this order, the deputation set off to find their new sovereign.

The Polish forces still occupying Russia also set out to find and kill the new tsar. They had more information than the Russians on the whereabouts of Michael and his mother, whom they knew to be in the village of Domino, fifty miles from Kostroma.

Although one of the Polish detachments came close to Domino, the village was in an inaccessible place and the Poles did not know how to get there. They ordered the head of the neighbouring village of Derevnische, Ivan Susanin, to take them to Domino under pain of death. Pretending to take the Polish forces on a short cut, Susanin deliberately got them all lost them in the forest.

Although he was murdered by the angry Poles, Tsar Michael was saved. Ivan Susanin’s heroic deed was immortalised in Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar, which was premiered at the Bolshoi (Stone) Theatre in St Petersburg on 27 November 1836. To this day, it is still performed in Russian opera houses.

Michael and his mother took refuge in the Ipatiev Monastery near Kostroma, where they were found by the delegates of the Land Assembly on 14 March 1613. When they asked Michael to accept the throne, his mother reminded the delegation that the Russian people had been disloyal to their rulers in times of trouble, saying that she would not let her son become tsar. After the envoys prayed, argued and finally threatened her, she conceded and gave her blessing. Michael then returned to Moscow with the delegation.

Alexei Tolstoy described the country inherited by Tsar Michael: “Three hundred years ago, the winds blew through the forests and steppe, across the enormous cemetery called Russia. Burnt city walls, towns and villages reduced to ashes, crosses and bones lining roads overgrown with grass, flocks of ravens and wolves howling in the night. The last bands of robbers stumbled along the forest paths, having long since drunk away ten years of pillage – boyars’ furs, precious goblets and pearled icon settings. The country had been plundered and stripped bare.

“Russia was ravaged and ruined. The Crimean Tatars stopped their incursions across the wild steppes, for there was nothing left to steal. For the past ten years, pretenders, thieves and Polish horsemen had passed this way with sabre and fire, from one end of Russia to the other. There was famine and plague; people ate horse manure and human salt-meat. Those who survived made their way north, towards the White Sea, the Urals and Siberia.

“On these difficult days, a boy was brought on a sledge across the dirty March roads to the charred walls of Moscow – a plundered and ravaged heap of ashes, only freed at great cost from the Polish occupants. A frightened boy elected tsar of Muscovy, at the advice of the patriarch, by impoverished boyars, empty-handed merchants and hard men from the north and the Volga. The boy prayed and wept, looking out of the window of his coach in fear and dejection at the ragged, frenzied crowds who had come to greet him at the gates of Moscow. The Russian people had little faith in the new tsar, but life had to go on…”

Michael Romanov was crowned tsar of Russia by Metropolitan Ephremus of Kazan on 11 July 1613. The tsar’s uncle, Ivan Romanov, held the cap of Monomachus, Prince Troubetzkoy bore the sceptre and Prince Pozharsky held the orb. During the coronation celebrations, the new sovereign rewarded those who had helped him to ascend the throne. Prince Pozharsky was made a boyar, while Kuzma Minin was elevated from blacksmith to a member of the duma council, where he sat alongside the country’s leading dignitaries. Ivan Susanin’s daughter Antonida and her husband Bogdan Sabinin were awarded half the village of Derevnische and all their descendants were freed from paying taxes.

Michael Romanov was not particularly intelligent, strong or healthy. He was short-sighted and suffered from a weakness of the legs. He had a soft nature and was easily influenced by others. The new tsar was initially guided by his mother and her relatives, the Saltykov family, and then by his father, who returned from Poland in 1619.

When Michael was twenty-eight, his mother sought a prospective bride for him and found Princess Maria Dolgorukova, daughter of Prince Vladimir Dolgorukov. Although Michael did not like his mother’s choice, he dared not refuse her and the couple were married on 19 September 1624. Maria fell ill during the wedding celebrations and died four months later.

Michael’s mother instantly began looking for a new bride. This time, her choice fell on Eudoxia Streshneva, who came from a family of nobles in Mozhaisk. This union was more successful. Michael and Eudoxia were married on 5 February 1626 and had ten children.

Michael’s reign witnessed several other events, perhaps not so important, yet nonetheless interesting. They include the public execution of Maryna Mniszech in Moscow, the construction of the Prison Yard in Moscow (1636), the capture by Cossacks of the Turkish fortress of Azov (1637) and the unsuccessful attempt to marry the tsar’s eldest daughter, Irina, to Prince Valdemar of Denmark (1644).

In spring 1645, Tsar Michael contracted an illness of the stomach and kidneys and died at the age of forty-nine on the night of 12/13 June 1645. He was buried in the Archangel Cathedral.

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