This edited article about Russia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.
Michael Romanov was only 16 when he was elected tsar of Russia in the year 1613 a.d., and he was not strong enough in either health or character to measure up to the job.
So – why was he chosen? Because the men of power in Russia were up to their old tricks again, distracting attention with a figurehead while they steered the ship.
This was the way things were for the first six years of Michael’s reign. Then his patriotic father, whose enemies had banished him to Poland, was permitted to return, and it was he that now became the man at the wheel, directing Russia’s course until his death in 1633.
By the middle of the 17th century Russia had increased greatly in size and population, which now stood at around 10 million, and Moscow had become as fine a city as any of the capitals of Europe. But the country was still mainly agricultural, still backward compared with most of her neighbours.
Michael died in 1645 and was succeeded by another 16-year-old, Alexis, who again was no more than a figurehead. The control of the ship of state now rested in the hands of his tutor, Morozov, a man from the rich landowning class. It is a measure of how mediaeval Russia still was that at the height of his power Morozov owned over 30,000 serfs, which is merely another word for slaves.
But Morozov went too far. His rule became so harsh that in the year 1648 the people of Moscow rose against him and he had to take refuge in a monastery.
Moscow was a troubled city at this time. In the mid-1650s it suffered a crisis of a different kind when it was ravaged by an epidemic of smallpox. A few years later, in 1662, a mob of some thousands protesting against injustices besieged the tsar’s palace.
Alexis promptly called upon his courtiers and guards to protect him. The result was indiscriminate slaughter of the populace by a spate of executions and the permanent exile of whole families to Siberia.
Throughout all this confusion one thing remained constant, and that was the basic cause of it, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. The great families of the land were granted more and more rights and privileges while those of the poor people were steadily reduced.
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