29 March 2017

A Janus-faced monarch

Tsar Alexis the Quiet is a somewhat underrated Russian tsar – though for reasons which are historically understandable. His reign saw major turmoil in the form of several wars, the uprising of Stenka Razin and the Raskol (the separation from the Orthodox Church of the starovertsy, the Old Believers). The reign of Alexis also saw the rise of great cultural and civilisational tensions which would later be expressed in the Slavophil and Westernising tendencies, and Alexis himself seems to have charted a careful course between the two. And his reign happened to fall between the formative reign of his father Michael Romanov, the first of the Muscovite Tsars of the Romanov line, and his son: the divisive but undeniably charismatic and strong-willed Peter. That only further guaranteed he would be overlooked as something of a transitional figure.

As such, his reputation – one which is not wholly deserved – is as something of an indecisive compromiser; depending on the historian, he either did not have the stomach for the painful-but-necessary reforms his son spearheaded, or else he went too far in that direction and nearly split the country with his legal and cultural reforms. He was known by the cognomen ‘Tishaishiy’ (‘the Quiet’), and gained a reputation for his meek and gentle disposition. But Alexis was also a monarch of conscience, one who expressed his faith with sincerity, one who placed the welfare of his country before his own desires, one who sought to protect the peasantry from the abuses to which they were subject by both their temporal and their ecclesiastical lords, and one who – though genuinely devoted to the traditions of his faith and country – nevertheless embarked Russia on a course of cautious reform from which, unfortunately, his son and the Romanov monarchs following him would often swerve erratically.

Tsar Alexis’s legacy is indeed mixed, which is part of the reason he receives such a lukewarm treatment. His lenient treatment of the boyars and his convocation of the zemsky sobor did place certain ‘democratic’ limits on the Muscovite autocracy; but at the same time, political powers became more centralised in Moscow as the reign of Alexis went on. Also, on one hand, he law code for which he convoked the sobor (the Sobornoe Ulozhenie) solidified and strengthened the institutions of serfdom, and tied many peasants irrevocably to the land; on the other hand, that same legal turn abolished the degrading institution of kholopry and did give some basic dignities to the erstwhile kholops, who until that point had no rights even to life or family under the law. Tsar Alexis was the author both of serfdom’s entrenchment, and also of the quasi-official status of the obshchina (the peasant commune) which would provide the intellectual impetus for serfdom’s abolition. Tsar Alexis could be brutal (as when the Salt Riot was suppressed), but he also had a keen sense of responsibility: in several cases he defended the interests of peasants against abuse by boyars and clerics alike. He had a deep respect for Russia’s history and traditions, yet he ended up introducing into the noble class many of the Western fashions and tastes that would end up severing them from those same traditions under his son Peter. He was not a fan of the growing urban merchant class, yet he did end up protecting and expanding merchant influence. An early reign marked by wars, religious schism, conflagrations of civic violence, wound up ironically stabilising and strengthening the Russian state.

The life of Tsar Alexis was paradoxical in several other ways. The uprisings of Alexis’s early reign (the Salt Riot foremostly) which seemed to him to presage another Time of Troubles, gave way to a mostly-peaceful later reign which saw him undertake great public-works projects. Alexis’s early devotions to the austerities and rigors of Orthodox asceticism would give way in his later life to a love of all things Baroque – including orchestral music, secular theatre, Western-style painting and the desegregation of the sexes; the stern zeal of his youth gave way in his age to a more lenient and latitudinarian Orthodoxy, which the literary historian DP Mirsky describes as ‘an optimistic Christian faith, in a profound, but unfanatical, attachment to the traditions and ritual of the Church, in a desire to see everyone round him happy and at peace, and in a highly developed capacity to extract a quiet and mellow enjoyment from all things’. His belief had great effect on him. He referred to himself as ‘the perishable Tsar’, with a view to his own mortality and judgement. As he himself said: ‘By the Grace of God I am called the true Christian Tsar, though because of my own evil, worldly actions I am not worthy to be called a dog… yet though sinful I regard myself as the slave of that luminary by which I was created.

Tsar Alexis – in the end a Janus-faced monarch – did look westward and outward for inspiration, but he was keenly aware of Russia’s place between cultures, between geographies and between religious expressions, and in many ways, seeking to place himself and his administration firmly upon that bridge, he reflected the westward- and eastward-facing soul of his country.


  1. Thank you for this very interesting article! I found it a geat read and I learned a lot! Which biographies or articles about Tsar Alexis can you recommend ?

  2. Hello IronTsar1994!

    Dukes' history of Russian Absolutism, for starters; there are also good articles on Russian Life magazine. I made heavy use of Botticelli's article from Loyola University here, particularly for some of the quotes: http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1987-8/botticelli.htm

    Hope this helps!


  3. Thank you very much for this information!