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This revisionist history of succession to the throne in early modern Russia, from the Moscow princes of the fifteenth century to Peter the Great, argues that legal primogeniture never existed: the monarch designated an heir that was usually the eldest son only by custom, not by law. Overturning generations of scholarship, Paul Bushkovitch persuasively demonstrates the many paths to succession to the throne, where designation of the heir and occasional elections were part of the relations of the monarch with the ruling elite, and to some extent the larger population. Exploring how the forms of designation evolved over the centuries as Russian culture changed, and in the later seventeenth century made use of Western practices, this study shows how, when Peter the Great finally formalized the custom in 1722 by enshrining the power of the tsar to designate in law, this was not a radical innovation but was in fact consistent with the experience of the previous centuries.
Tsar Aleksei came to power on his father’s death without controversy. His first marriage, to Mariia Miloslavskaia, produced several sons, the first being Tsarevich Aleksei. His father designated him as his heir in a new public ceremony in the Kremlin in 1667, complete with brief speeches. The new ceremony was part of the new culture of the court, poetry and declamations authored by the Kiev-educated monk Simeon Polotkii. The model was the Baroque court culture of Poland and Central Europe. The death of tsarevich Aleksei and his mother led Tsar Aleksei to remarry in 1671. The second wife was Natal’ia Naryshkina, whose first son was the later Peter the Great. Tsar Aleksei designated as his heir Mariia’s second son Fyodor, who succeeded in 1676. His own two marriages produced no heirs. On his death the boyar elite and the church proclaimed the boy Peter as tsar, but the musketeers preferred Aleksei’s third son, the incapable Ivan Alekseevich. The result was two boy co-tsars under the regency of their older sister Sofiia. Peter overthrew her and her favorites in 1689, ruling in name with his brother.
Peter the Great’s son Aleksei, born 1690, was given a European education. With no brothers, he was the heir, though Peter sent his mother to a convent. From 1707 Aleksei participated in court events and in the administration of the state. Foreign courts and Peter sought a bride, and he married Charlotte of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel in 1711. Their first son, Peter, was born in 1715. The same year Peter’s second wife, Ekaterina, bore a son, also named Peter. Aleksei was the hope of oppositional elements among the elite, and his conflicts with his father led to his flight to the Habsburgs in 1716. Returned to Russia, the heir was tried and condemned, but died in prison in 1718. Tsar Peter proclaimed his son Peter as the heir, but he died in 1719. Peter and his half-brother Ivan V had both produced many daughters, and the heir was not obvious. Peter’s grandson by Aleksei, Petr Alekseevich, was alive and healthy.
Succession in Russia was a matter of paternal designation, a practice not a written law, until 1722. The 1722 law had no relationship to “absolutism,” but it did frame succession in a Western context. Succession was in actuality contentious throughout the eighteenth century, until Tsar Paul proclaimed primogeniture as the law in 1797.
After a fourteen-year boyar regency, Ivan the Terrible was crowned tsar and married to Anastasiia Romanova. In 1553 the tsar’s illness led to a succession crisis: some boyars hesitated to swear loyalty to his infant son. The birth of two more sons, Ivan and Fyodor, guaranteed an heir. As the oldest boy grew up, Tsar Ivan brought him to meetings with boyars and ambassadors, took him along for military campaigns, and had him married. The son’s untimely death left his younger brother the heir. Tsar Fyodor was incapable of effective rule and did not produce a son, leading to the election of his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, as his heir.
Tsar Boris Godunov had a designated heir but was overthrown by the First False Dmitrii, and his son perished in the Time of Troubles. The false Dmitrii claimed to be the son of Ivan the Terrible and the true heir. After the people of Moscow had overthrown and killed Dmitrii, the boyar elite elected as tsar Vasilii Shuiskii. After further disorder, the Polish king Zygmunt III imposed his son Władysław on the Russian throne by a forced election, but the militia under Prince D. M. Pozharskii and the merchant Kuzma Minin defeated the Polish forces. In 1613 an Assembly of the Land elected Michael Romanov as tsar. Tsar Michael did not marry until his father, Filaret, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, returned to Russia in 1619. After Michael’s marriage to Evdokiia Streshneva in 1626, he fathered many children, including his heir Aleksei. Michael followed the older procedures, requiring oaths to the whole family and demonstrating his choice of heir by giving his oldest son a role in court ceremonies. At no point did the Russians suggest that election was in any way inferior to heredity in succession to the throne.
The problem of succession to the throne in Russia. Historians have assumed primogeniture, but that was not the case. The practice was rather paternal designation. Succession also involved marriage politics and the education of the heir. That education evolved along with Russian culture, from traditionally Orthodox to entirely Western after 1700.
In the medieval and early modern West succession to the throne of monarchs proceeded by primogeniture, with some explicit legal basis. In medieval Russia political theory as such did not exist. Monarchy was understood in the context of Orthodoxy. The main form of discussion was in texts that provided images of good and bad monarchs, primarily chronicles, world histories, and the lives of saintly princes. In Russia succession was frequently collateral, a system that caused many disputes until the middle of the fifteenth century.
The Moscow principality was the scene of an intense battle over succession in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. After its end Prince Vasilii II designated his son Ivan as his successor. Ivan III’s two marriages created a problem. Ivan Ivanovich, his son by the first wife, died, leaving a son Dmitrii as a possible heir. Ivan III’s second wife, Sophia Palaiologina, had a son, Vasilii. In 1497 Ivan chose Dmitrii as his heir, but soon changed his mind. The designated heir was his son Vasilii. Vasilii in turn had no children by his first wife, Solomoniia Saburova, so he sent her to a convent and married the Lithuanian princess Elena Glinskaia. During this time the ceremonial oaths of loyalty came to include not just the Grand Prince but his wife and family.
Peter’s solution to succession was the 1722 law that established the right of the monarch to choose his own successor. Bishop Feofan Prokopovich defended the law in a tract mistakenly called “absolutist” by modern historians. Feofan actually defended Peter’s law by using the notion of state sovereignty formulated by Hugo Grotius. Peter did not formally designate an heir, but he had his wife Ekaterina crowned Empress in 1724. Peter’s grandson Petr Alekseevich, his daughters, and his nieces were all part of the ruling family and were all celebrated at court. Peter married some of the women to European princes. On his death Ekaterina ascended the throne.
Russia is not an idea. It is a specific country, with a particular place on the globe, a majority language and culture, and a very concrete history. Yet for most of the twentieth century, outside of its boundaries, it has been an idea, not a place – an idea about socialism. Tremendous debates have raged over its politics, economics, and culture, most of them conducted by and for people who did not know the language, never went there, and knew very little about the country and its history. Even the better informed wrote and spoke starting from presuppositions about the desirability or undesirability of a socialist order. Some were crude propagandists, but even the more conscientious, those who learned the language and tried to understand the country, began by posing questions that came from their assumptions about socialism. The result was a narrow agenda of debate: was a planned economy effective or not? How many political prisoners were there? How could the Soviets put a man in space? Should the system be called socialism, communism, or totalitarianism? Was “communism” a result of Russian history? Did the Russian intelligentsia prepare the way for communism, unintentionally or not? Did the gradual modernization of Russia make 1917 inevitable? In all these debates the history of Russia up to the moment of the revolution was just a preface.
In Russia the collapse of the Soviet Union brought to light a flood of historical publications. These publications include numerous monographs on a great variety of topics, many biographies, and a massive quantity of publications of the various records of the Soviet regime, including the deliberations of its leaders. The aim of these publications was to illuminate the areas previously closed to investigation, and naturally the first post-Soviet writings were devoted to the most controversial or mysterious issues. Books on the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939, collectivization, and famine; publications of Stalin’s private correspondence; and other issues were first on the agenda. Western historians participated in these publications, which gave a whole new understanding of the contentious issues of Soviet history. Yet the result is far from perfect. As the document publications and monographs continue to pour out in Russia and abroad, they pose more and more questions that historians used to the politicized debates of the Cold War era never thought about. Paradoxically, it seems harder rather than easier to understand the story of the Soviet era of Russian history. The present work reflects this difficulty, and the reader will find many questions left unresolved.