The turbulent period in the Russian history, known as the Time of Troubles (1584-1613), that shook the very foundations of the Russian state, continues to provide rich material not only for scholars but also for politicians. In his comparative analysis of the two studies of this period—Sergey Platonov’s Time of Troubles and Maksim Zarezin’s V puchine Russkoi Smuty—historian Dmitry Shlapentokh* draws parallels with contemporary Russia and highlights the key ideas borrowed by the Putin regime to justify its policies.

 

 In the Time of Troubles (V Smutnoye Vremya) by Sergei Ivanov (1908). Depicted in the center is False Dmitry I.

 

The Time of Troubles, the chaotic years 1584-1613 that saw the demise of the Rurikid dynasty and the enthronement of the Romanovs, is considered one of the major periods in Russian history, and its historiography is massive. Sergei Platonov’s Time of Troubles (1899) remains the classic study of the turbulent events of the late 16th to early 17th centuries. Platonov, the prominent historian of late imperial Russia, created a work of enduring legacy, and it has been republished many times for more than a century. In it, the author addresses the ideological needs of the tsars and emphasizes the importance of “strong power” as the country’s only defense against the anarchical populace and treacherous elites. 

Platonov is fascinated with the idea of the “power vertical” and rejects the corrupt, pro-Western elites that, in his view, keep ruling Russia at the expense of the masses, often gullible and predisposed to illusions of an ideal society. He highlights the notion of an “eternal Russia” as the basic cultural and socio-economic structure, which must be preserved in the face of external transformations or superficial adjustments of the country’s “façade.”

This philosophical approach appeals greatly to the current regime created by Vladimir Putin, for it implies that authoritarian ideas are, in fact, inherent to Russia’s cultural core. The inception in 2004 of Russia’s new national holiday—Unity Day—on November 4 is by no means accidental. November 4 marks the end of the Time of Troubles and was envisioned by the Russian government to replace the “politically incorrect” November 7 holiday that marked the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Following Platonov’s interpretation of the Time of Troubles, Putin could thus be seen as an equivalent to the first Romanov and Putin’s rule as an end to the latter-day Time of Troubles—the “wild 1990s.” 

However, there are other interpretations of the Time of Troubles. For example, Maksim Zarezin’s 2007 book, entitled “V puchine Russkoi Smuty” (In the Abyss of the Russian Time of Troubles),  paints a different picture of the period as a turbulent period triggered by Ivan the Terrible, which never ended, but simply took another form and continues well into the present day. This period has been fraught with regular outbursts in the forms of acute crises, with two recent examples being the disastrous events of 1917 (the Bolshevik Revolution) and 1991 (the collapse of the Soviet Union). Maksim Zarezin (b. 1964) is a well-known conservative journalist and writer. He is a member of the conservative party Pravoe Delo (Right Deed), and his books are published by the nationalist publishing house Veche. His views are important, for they reflect those of a considerable segment of the Russian intelligentsia.

Zarezin does not share Platonov’s fascination with the “power vertical,” nor does he view the enthronement of the Romanovs as a break with the past, but a continuation of a time marked by rampant corruption, cynicism, and Russophobia. His reading of Russian history is dark, and he sees no future for the country. He foresees that political instability and related corruption at the very top will lead to Russia’s disintegration and absorption by foreign powers, as could have happened in the early 17th century.

 

Praise for the “power vertical”

Looking back at the rule of Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584), Platonov suggests that his oprichnina—a policy of mass repressions against the Russian boyars(nobility)—was not a manifestation of the tsar’s paranoia but, in a way, a legitimate action. Ivan was driven by a rational desire to strengthen the state and his own power, which he perceived had been threatened by the rise of the aristocratic elite. Platonov justifies oprichninaas a rationalized policy that suffered from poor implementation: had the purge been conducted in an orderly way, the negative side effects of these repressions could have been avoided. In implementing his policy, the tsar knew he had the support of the “inert” masses who hated the “wicked boyars” and were unphased by the terror, “look[ing] on calmly as [Ivan] cut off hundreds of heads.” While oprichnina was “directed against the aristocracy, it weighed upon the entire population,” writes Platonov, pointing out that Ivan catered to the masses (“the mob”) and thus introduced them into politics. 

The political style created by Ivan the Terrible was replicated under Boris Godunov (1584-1605), a Moscow aristocrat who took over as de factoregent for Tsar Feodor and later, after Fyodor’s death in 1598, as the first non-Rurikid tsar in Russian history. Godunov resorted to similar purges of the elites but, like Ivan, failed to solve the increasingly acute serfdom problem. “The principle of serfdom served as the main cause of sharp social conflict between the landholding gentry class of the army and its lower classes, which represented the organized oppositional mass of the population,” writes Platonov. While similar to Ivan the Terrible in his miscalculations, Godunov did not enjoy the former’s legitimacy, which complicated Godunov’s relationship with the populace. By continuing Ivan’s policies, Godunov accelerated the crisis and pushed the country into real chaos—the Time of Troubles. 

During those turbulent years, Russia witnessed a full-fledged succession crisis, which evolved from the emergence of the first pretender-tsar, False Dmitry I (the alleged youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, who was rumored to have escaped an assassination attempt in 1591), backed by the Poles and supported, albeit for a short while, by the masses (1605-1606). It also saw the election of Prince Vasili Shuyskiy, a member of the Moscow aristocracy and the last Rurikid tsar in Russia (1606-1610), the election of the Polish tsar Wladyslaw IV by the Seven Boyars, the Moscow aristocracy council, to the Russian throne in 1610, and a popular uprising that fought off Polish occupation, preventing Wladyslaw from assuming the throne and culminating in the election, by the Assembly of the Land (Zemsky Sobor), of Mikhail I as the first tsar of the Romanov dynasty, in 1613.

One of the issues that carried over from one ruler to another during the Time of Troubles was the ruler’s relationship with the aristocracy and with the masses. For example, as Platonov notes, while Shuyskiy’s regime was “oligarchical” (rule by the Moscow aristocracy), the mob felt “class animosity toward … the oppressors of the deprived laboring masses.” Following Ivan’s and Godunov’s pattern, Shuyskiy tried to use ordinary folk in dealing with political opposition by “calling upon the square” and to listen to what “some trading muzhiks” had to say about the state policies. The result of pleasing the mob this way was disastrous: eventually, Shuyskiy lost control of it. 

Without the state’s stern supervision, the populace entertained two models of behavior—criminal outbursts and calls for the resurrection of the old political system, albeit in a way that would put the peasantry in charge, as masters. Criminal behavior prevailed, as showcased by the Bolotnikov revolt (1606-1607). “The rebels ‘ordered the slaves of boyars to slay their own masters, and promised them the masters’ wives, patrimonies, and pomeshchic estates,’” writes Platonov (pomeshchiki is the term that refers to landowners in Russia). In addition, he notes, the populace had no patriotic feelings and were ready to collaborate with foreign invaders. 

Thus, weak rulers, social antagonism, and an anarchical populace brought the country to the brink of destruction. Still, there were forces inside Russia that were concerned about the country’s fate, including, most famously, Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and Nizhny Novgorod merchant Kuzma Minin, who formed a volunteer militia against the Polish occupation. In Platonov’s words, “With astonishing rapidity the movement begun in the city of Nizhny Novgorod expanded into the surrounding region and became a national movement, encompassing the entire northern half of the state.” As the “…entire country arose against Wladyslaw and [and his father] Sigismund, the Boyar Duma in Moscow lost all significance and ceased to be a serfdom government.” In this manner, Platonov concludes, the movement ended traditional aristocratic rule and eliminated the pressing social antagonism that had existed in Russia prior to the Time of Troubles.

Though Platonov produced a historical treatise, not a political pamphlet, its ideological messages were clear. One is that the hoi polloiis an unruly beast that can destroy both itself and the country. Two is that the country needs to be controlled by an autocrat who wields absolute power in order to rein in the mobs and restrain the oligarchs. And three, luckily for Russia, there are strong and wise leaders in the country who are fit for the job.

It is understandable why Platonov’s work, conceived and written during the reign of the conservative Russian tsar Alexander III, were later appreciated by Stalin, who adopted the historian’s major ideas into his National Bolshevik ideology in the late 1930s—a fact that did not, however, save Platonov and his family from their tragic fate in the Stalinist purges. It is also understandable why Platonov’s reading of history and the Time of Troubles would appeal so to the Putin regime as it seeks to justify its authoritarian policies for its own short-term political gains. 

 

Time of Troubles as continuous process

Whereas Platonov’s ideas were appropriated by Russia’s authoritarian leaders (including, as mentioned above, Stalin and also Putin), Zarezin’s book represents a modern version of the Russian nationalist (Slavophile) view of history, one that is very different from the official narrative praising the “strong hand” and portraying the president as the savior of the nation.

According to Zarezin, before the Time of Troubles, Russia was a harmonious society, in which the tsar, aristocracy, and the ordinary people all coexisted peacefully. It was Ivan the Terrible who undermined the “traditional way” by introducing a tyrannical rule. He alienated the elite, whom he saw as inherently treacherous, and disregarded the peasants’ interests. He treated Russians as a conquered people and attacked institutions, such as private property, family, and the church. In his attempts to strengthen the “power vertical” and increase stability, Ivan surrounded himself with amoral individuals whose only redeeming quality was their absolute loyalty to the tsar. The results of Ivan’s rule were horrible: oprichnina was a disaster in itself, but beyond that, the policy of mass repressions showed that one can rule and grow rich by robbing and killing fellow citizens with impunity. Following Ivan, Godunov adopted the same approach. Aware of his illegitimacy as tsar, Godunov engaged in endless intrigue and ignored traditional aristocratic order. As a result, he grew increasingly hated by the boyars, who eventually undermined Godunov’s rule by supporting False Dmitry.

Similar to Platonov, Zarezin also saw the Time of Troubles as a period highlighting the dangers of the unhinged populace, with the Cossacks as its worst representatives—bandits who looted and slaughtered people. But despite these dangers, it was only in this chaos that some Russians (mostly, middle class, or posadskie) realized that the people’s desire for change was nothing but a destructive anarchy, and that it was up to them to save themselves and the country—without any external help. While, as a nationalist, Zarezin resents the Russian elite’s fascination with foreigners and its attempts to imitate them, he does not blame foreigners (the Poles) for Russia’s misfortunes in the Time of Troubles, nor does he view them as evil. The problem, to Zarezin, is with the Russians themselves—their loss of moral principles, their shifting allegiances and servility. 

In stark contrast to Platonov, Zarezin does not see the Russians’ victory over the Poles and the election of Mikhail Romanov as the new tsar as a “happy end.” Zarezin argues that while the first Romanovs promulgated the theory of “national reconciliation,” they failed to differentiate between the heroes and traitors of the Time of Troubles. The court of the first Romanovs was full of intrigue-makers (they coined the term sil’nyi, or “strong man”), who were largely ignorant, corrupt, and utterly cynical.

Zarezin also posits that the 17th-century Russian elite grew to despise everything Russian and to love everything Western, while marginalizing true patriots. Zarezin paints a picture of a corrupt, pro-Western elite influencing the government and robbing the Russian populace, who loathed such state of affairs. This deep rift between the elite and the populace, in Zarezin’s view, was created by Ivan the Terrible and carried over into the Romanov era.

Additionally, Zarezin shows no sympathy for the Russian populace, whom he sees as irrationally trusting in the divine ability of the rulers to change things for the better overnight and incapable of understanding the limits of any government, which is why they would easily lose heart if change was not forthcoming. This populace was, however, capable of overthrowing the government in search of alternatives, as would happen in 1917 and 1991, but with the consequences of anarchy threatening the very existence of the Russian state.

Writing his book during Putin’s second term as Russia’s president, Zarezin argues that the Time of Troubles has never ended and the country’s problems have never been healed. Thus, he sees no potential for propagandist equivalency between Mikhail Romanov and Putin—whose rule supposedly put an end to the turbulent times and threats of anarchy and foreign invasion. Zarezin’s projection of Russia’s path going forward is dark: he does not see any future for the country, which could well disintegrate.

 

*** 

What these two books show is that the historical symbolism of the Time of Troubles continues to play a significant role in Russia’s political culture and to be reinterpreted by its leadership to justify its policies. They also show that some of the major factors in the country’s politics—the cynical elite and gullible populace—alongside the ideological split between Westernizers and Slavophiles (and whatever propagandist mixture of the two is offered by the current regime), continue to obstruct the path to an imagined ideal society able to exist in peace and prosperity.

  

References

  1. Sergei Platonov, The Time of Troubles: A Historical Study of the Internal Crisis and Social Struggle in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Muscovy, University of Kazan Press, 1970.
  2. Zarezin, M. V puchine Russkoi Smuty. Nevyuchennye uroki istorii, Moscow Veche, 2007.

 

* Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor at Indiana University South Bend.

 

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