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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 491-513

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Terror in the Time of Troubles

Chester S. L. Dunning

Russia's nightmarish Time of Troubles (1598-1613) produced, in addition to war and famine, numerous terrifying examples of political violence, atrocities, mass killings, and grotesque public displays of torture and execution that managed to surpass even the high level of violence associated with the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547-84). Therefore, the Troubles ought to be a prime candidate for scrutiny by students of political violence in Russian history. Unfortunately, interested readers will encounter many misleading descriptions of "revolutionary violence" and "cossack terror" in the Time of Troubles that are inaccurate byproducts of a long-held view of the period as one of social revolution. 1 Recent scholarship has decisively overturned the traditional class war interpretation of the Troubles; 2 nonetheless, it continues to haunt historical literature, source criticism, and studies of revolutionary violence in Russian history. The purpose of this article is to start moving beyond outdated Marxist explanations of the use of [End Page 491] terror in early modern Russia by separating the study of political violence during the Time of Troubles from erroneous assumptions about the period found in traditional scholarship. Several examples of the unintended consequences of the use of terror will be discussed, and it will be demonstrated that rebel violence away from the battlefield, including Cossack terror, cannot be understood without simultaneously studying the state-sponsored atrocities that often provoked it. This article concludes with a tentative assessment of the impact on Russian society and political culture of the high level of terror associated with the Time of Troubles.

Instead of class war, Russia at the dawn of the 17th century endured and barely survived its first civil war—an extremely complex and violent conflict that divided Russian society vertically, not horizontally. 3 Russia's first civil war occurred in two phases: the first in 1604-5 and the second in the period 1606-12. During the first phase, a young man claiming to be Ivan the Terrible's youngest son, Dmitrii, launched an invasion of Russia that triggered popular uprisings and brought him to the throne. In spite of centuries of vilification as an odious impostor, recent scholarship has shown that the pretender really did believe that he was Dmitrii Ivanovich; and his campaign for the throne united diverse elements of Russian society. Contrary to the traditional interpretation of the Troubles, there is no evidence that any rebels supporting Dmitrii fought against serfdom, and the abolition of serfdom was never proclaimed as a rebel goal. In fact, it turns out that serfs did not actively participate in the civil war, and peasants—with the exception of relatively wealthy ones from the province of Severia—were only marginally involved. The bulk of the rebels supporting Dmitrii were cossacks, petty gentry, lower status military servicemen, military slaves, and townsmen. Even though the largest and most active rebel group, the cossacks, were mostly of peasant origin, they did not—as long believed—think or act like peasants and were not at all interested in championing the cause of the lower classes. Slaves participating in the civil war were not, as Soviet scholars contended, radicalized menials, but were instead elite military slaves with no interest in social revolution. Rebels in the Time of Troubles were also not, as long believed, motivated by "social-utopian" legends about Dmitrii as the "returning deliverer" of the masses from serfdom. Instead, they were primarily devout Orthodox Christian subjects whose religious beliefs helped push them to risk challenging a ruler they regarded as illegitimate in the name of the "true tsar" Dmitrii.

Once in power, Tsar Dmitrii quickly restored Russia's internal peace and ruled for about a year. In spite of many scandalous tales and long-held prejudices against him, Tsar Dmitrii proved to be a socially conservative and surprisingly [End Page 492] popular ruler. In the spring of 1606, the new tsar was assassinated by a small group of conspirators, and Prince Vasilii...


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