Feodor I

Born: 1557, Moscow
Died: 1598, Moscow

Feodor I was the second child and second son of Ivan the Terrible and Anastasia Zakharina-Yurieva. He was born in Moscow on 31 May 1557.

A contemporary described Feodor as “short, squat and fattish, with a weak constitution inclined to dropsy. He has a hooked nose and unsteady gait resulting from a weakness of the limbs. He is overweight and inactive, but always smiles, almost laughing ... Although simple and weak-minded, he is always kind and pleasant in conversation, quiet and gracious. Not aggressive or a plotter, he is extremely superstitious.”

Feodor was crowned tsar on 31 May 1584. The coronation ceremony was performed by Metropolitan Dionysius, who dressed him in the royal regalia and handed him the sceptre with the words: “Treasure the gonfalons of great Russia.” Everyone in the cathedral, however, knew that Feodor was incapable of ruling on his own. A fierce battle soon broke out among the boyars for influence over the new tsar.

A council of regents was created, consisting of Bogdan Belsky, Nikita Yuriev and Prince Ivan Mstislavsky. Each member had his own personal interests and influenced government policy in his own way. Bogdan Belsky was the nephew of Malyuta Skuratov, the former right-hand man of Ivan the Terrible. Belsky attempted to capture power for himself and restore the oprichina system. In 1584, a popular uprising broke out in Moscow against Belsky, banishing this energetic and ambitious man from the capital.

The power struggle was won by Boris Godunov, a former member of the oprichniki. Descended from an old family of boyars, he was the son-in-law of Malyuta Skuratov and the brother-in-law of the tsar. Godunov gradually ousted all his rivals – Prince Ivan Mstislavsky was forced into a monastery, Nikita Yuriev died and Prince Ivan Shuisky fell into disfavour and was killed.

This left Godunov as the de facto ruler of Russia. The word “ruler” was included in his boyar title and he entered into personal correspondence with foreign kings and queens, who referred to him as “prince” or “lord protector.”

Boris Godunov proved to be an energetic, ambitious and talented statesmen. He expanded Russian trade with Great Britain, Holland and the rest of Western Europe through the northern port of Arkhangelsk. Foreign experts were invited to work and teach in Russia, while young Russian noblemen were sent abroad to study foreign languages. In 1586, the king of Kakheti (now part of eastern Georgia) appealed to Russia for protection, but the country was still not strong enough to offer any real help.

Godunov continued the policies of Ivan the Terrible, expanding Russian control over Siberia and the Caucasus. A series of fortifications were built in the south of Russia to defend the country against the attacks of Khan Kaza-Girei and the Crimean Tatars. The peace treaty with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was renewed in 1587. After a war with Sweden (1590–93), lands lost by Ivan the Terrible were returned to Russia under the terms of the Treaty of Täyssinä (1595).

Feodor led a modest and moderate lifestyle, faithfully attending church services, visiting monasteries and holding long conversations with artisans and icon-painters. He watched with interest bear fights and fist fights, although he did not receive any great pleasure from them. Mundane affairs were of little interest to the tsar, whose thoughts were concentrated on higher things.

The tsar was married to Boris’s sister, Irina Godunova. In 1592, they had a daughter called Feodosia, who died a year later. There was a rumour that Irina had given birth to a son, whom her brother substituted for a girl, to ensure that there were no heirs to the throne.

All these and other events took place during the reign of the “good fool in God,” as Feodor I was known by his subjects. The tsar’s personality evoked the interest of both contemporaries and future generations. In 1868, Alexei Tolstoy published his tragedy Tsar Feodor Ioannovich, which is still widely performed to this day in Russia. The writer described the concept of the play to theatrical directors: “Not departing from the traditional story, merely filling in the gaps, I have allowed myself to depict Feodor not simply as a weak-willed and meek ascetic, but someone naturally endowed with great mental qualities, despite a certain dullness of mind and the complete absence of any will. His innate inability to act was increased by his father’s oppression and the constant fear in which he lived until the age of twenty-seven, when Tsar Ivan died.

“Feodor’s kindness exceeded all normal boundaries. It was so great that it could sometimes reach the point when feelings and thoughts, constituting separate attributes on the lower levels, come together and mix in an indissoluble knowledge of the truth. Notwithstanding his mental limitations, Feodor was therefore often capable of holding views no less wise than those of Boris Godunov. In the scene of the report on the boyars who have fled to Lithuania, both come to the same conclusion – Godunov through the mind and Feodor through the heart. Feodor was not always capable, however, of replacing the mind with the heart. In normal circumstances, this talent was eclipsed by certain shortcomings, closely linked to his weakness of character. He did not like, for example, to confess to others or to himself that he was weak. This often led to inappropriate – though generally short-lived – stubbornness. He sometimes wanted to show that he was independent and nothing flattered him more than accusations of inflexibility or severity.

“He was a great busybody in everything that did not concern affairs of state. In his opinion, no one knew the human heart better than he did. The reconciliation of enemies was not only a duty, but a great delight. Although piety was part and parcel of his natural disposition, it verged on asceticism, as a result of his early protest against the depravity and harshness of his father. Asceticism subsequently became a habit, though he was never a pedant. He did not regard secular festivities as a sin; he enjoyed bear baiting and did not regard mummer shows as serving the devil. Like all timid people, he had great admiration for courage. The heroic character of Prince Shuisky and the daring of the merchant Krasilnikov tugged at his heart strings.

“Feodor’s magnanimity knew no bounds. Personal insults could not touch him, though any insult to someone else was capable of making him forget his usual meekness. If the insult concerned someone he especially liked, his indignation made him lose his self-control. He shouted and fumed, seeing nothing but the delivered injustice. In doing so, he hastened to make good use of this mood. Knowing that he did not have long to live, he was quick to issue strict orders – justified in his mind, yet not in keeping with his character.

“When Feodor succeeded to the throne, he was in no doubt about his own inability and gave Godunov carte blanche, not intending to interfere in anything himself. But Godunov did not count on initially taking full responsibility. He found it useful to hide behind the authority of Feodor. He maintained the external show of an unlimited sovereign, reporting everything to Feodor and asking his advice on all his decisions. Feodor gradually, with the assistance of the inevitable court flatterers, convinced himself that he was not as incapable as he had thought. Tragedy, however, overtook him. His natural laziness and dislike for governing continued to distance him from affairs of state, yet he was already accustomed to thinking that Godunov was acting in accordance with his own instructions. Only during major crises, when Godunov’s will directly contradicted Feodor’s clemency, like when Godunov threatened to abandon him if he did not give up Basil Shuisky, did Feodor’s self-delusions vanish. He understood Godunov’s independent power and, incapable of opposing him as tsar, reproached him as a human being and a Christian.”

Feodor I died in Moscow on 7 January 1598. He was remembered chiefly for his piety and politeness. After his death, Irina Godunova was offered the throne, but she refused. On the ninth day after her husband’s death, she entered a convent as Sister Alexandra. The only other lawful claimant to the throne was Martha (Maria), daughter of Ivan the Terrible’s cousin, Prince Vladimir of Staritsa, and the widow of King Magnus of Livonia. When she returned to Russia, she was forced to enter a nunnery. Her daughter Eudoxia died in suspicious circumstances, thus ending the Rurikid dynasty.

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