Russia’s Time of Troubles Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The death of Russian czar Ivan the Terrible ushered in a thirty-year period of dynastic confusion, foreign invasion, natural disasters, and social revolt that would end in 1613 with the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty.

Summary of Event

The death of Czar Ivan the Terrible in 1584 inaugurated a period in Russian history known to historians as the Time of Troubles. The troubles included dynastic confusion, with five major and with many minor pretenders contesting for the throne of Russia. During the period, the boyars (the old Russian aristocracy) attempted to force the various pretenders to return the property and political rights the boyars had surrendered during Ivan’s reign. The troubles of this period also included widespread famine and epidemic diseases, which together killed many hundreds of thousands of Russians. The hard times prodded many peasants and Cossacks to attempt to overthrow the oppressive social, political, and religious system established by previous Russian rulers. Attempting to take advantage of Russian weakness, moreover, the Polish and Swedish kings invaded the Russian empire during the period, further exacerbating the troubles and adding to the misery of the Russian people. The troubles finally abated with the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty in 1613. Time of Troubles (Russia) Ivan the Terrible Dmitry Ivanovich, Prince Fyodor I Godunov, Boris Shuysky, Vasily Romanov, Michael Otrepyev, Grigory Sigismund III Vasa Bolotnikov, Ivan Fyodor I Dmitry Ivanovich, Prince Godunov, Boris Fyodorovich Otrepyev, Grigory Sigismund III Vasa Vasily Shuysky Bolotnikov, Ivan Dmitry, Second False Romanov, Michael

Ivan the Terrible died in 1584, leaving two heirs, Fyodor and Dmitry. By most reports, Fyodor suffered from weak-mindedness, while Dmitry was only a child. The most powerful aristocrat in Russia, Boris Godunov, dominated the incompetent Fyodor and made him czar. Evidence suggests that Godunov was responsible for the murder of the younger Dmitry. Godunov arranged for his daughter to marry Fyodor, and he ruled Russia from behind the throne for the remainder of Fyodor’s life. Fyodor died childless in 1598, leaving Russia without a legitimate heir to the throne. The Rurik Dynasty Rurik Dynasty , which had ruled in Russia for more than seven hundred years, was over. Godunov arranged a convention of delegates from all regions of the empire and all social classes of Russian society, which elected him czar in 1598.

By most reports, Godunov reigned benignly and successfully for three years, despite the opposition of many of the boyars, who opposed him because he refused to restore the ancient privileges that Ivan the Terrible had taken from them. In 1601, the Russians experienced the first of three successive years of drought and famine, accompanied by a devastating disease (probably cholera) that decimated the population in both the cities and the countryside. More than 100,000 died in Moscow alone. Russians ate dogs, cats, tree bark, and grass (and, some reports say, each other) in their desperation. In the countryside, bands of brigands and robbers added to the plight of the people. The rumor spread—aided by the boyars—that God was punishing the Russian people with these calamities because they allowed a false czar to rule the country.

In 1604, an adventurer named Grigory Otrepyev began to gather a large following among the suffering Russian people by claiming that he was Ivan the Terrible’s son Dmitry and had escaped the attempt by Godunov to murder him. Many Boyars supported this first False Dmitry, hoping to depose Godunov and regain their lost privileges. The Russian people flocked to his banner, believing him to be the true czar who would remove God’s curse from them. King Sigismund III Vasa of Poland supported Otrepyev with money and troops, hoping thereby to profit territorially from the confusion in Russia. For the next year, civil war added to the woes of the Russian people.


Boris Godunov died in 1605, just as his forces seemed to be winning the civil war. The first False Dmitry, confirmed (apparently under duress) by the mother of the real Dmitry as her true son, became czar. He immediately married a Polish noblewoman and elevated many Catholic Poles to high positions in the Russian court, government, and army. The boyars rebelled against Otrepyev, and civil war once more tortured the land, this time with large contingents of Polish troops occupying much of western Russia and claiming it for Sigismund III Vasa.

Despite the Polish army, the boyars defeated Otrepyev’s forces and captured him in 1606. The boyars executed the pretender, burned his corpse, and shot his ashes toward Poland from a huge cannon as a warning to Sigismund. The boyars then elected one of their leaders, Vasily Shuysky, as the new czar. Shuysky signed a document prepared by the boyars restoring the privileges they had lost during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Shuysky and the boyars did nothing to alleviate the plight of the Russian people and soon faced a huge peasant rebellion led by a Don Cossack named Ivan Bolotnikov. Bolotnikov and his followers wanted to overthrow the entire Russian social system dominated by nobles and leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox Church, Russian

As Bolotnikov’s army approached Moscow, another adventurer appeared in Poland claiming to be Dmitry. The true identity of this second False Dmitry remains unknown, but Sigismund supported him with money and troops, and the real Dmitry’s mother and the Polish wife of Otrepyev, the first pretender, identified him as the legitimate czar. The second pretender failed to capture Moscow but set up a court in the nearby town of Tushino and proceeded to collect taxes and decree laws as though he were the czar. With his throne challenged from two directions, Shuysky concluded an agreement with the king of Sweden ceding much of northern Russia to the Swedes in return for their help against Bolotnikov, the second False Dmitry, and the Poles. Many of Shuysky’s boyar supporters abandoned him when he concluded the alliance with the Swedes. The boyars signed a pact with Sigismund whereby his son Władisław would become czar in place of Shuysky. In return for their support, the boyars gained Sigismund’s assurance that their privileges would be preserved and that Polish troops would aid in expelling the Swedes and suppressing the peasant rebellion.

In 1610, Russia had three major pretenders to the throne and a host of minor pretenders in the armies of Bolotnikov and other peasant and Cossack leaders. Civil war and anarchy raged throughout the empire, threatening everyone’s life and property. The Swedes occupied most of northwestern Russia, while the Poles held most of the west and southwest. The Time of Troubles seems an appropriate description of the agonies suffered by the Russian people.

In the summer of 1610, the nonaristocratic landowning gentry of Russia began raising a national army with the help of minor functionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church. Their goals included the restoration of order, the expulsion of foreign armies, and the establishment of a stable monarchy. The boyars aided the cause of these nationalists by forcing Shuysky to abdicate, thus removing one pretender to the throne. Władisław’s forces captured and executed Bolotnikov shortly thereafter, and the peasant-Cossack rebellion began to collapse. In December of 1610, one of the second False Dmitry’s followers murdered him, eliminating another obstacle to a unified crown. Over the next two years, the nationalist armies defeated the Poles and Swedes, whereupon the gentry convened a new national assembly, which chose Michael Romanov as the new czar, establishing a dynasty that lasted until 1917. With Czar Michael’s coronation on July 24, 1613, the Time of Troubles ended.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Avrich, Peter. Russian Rebels, 1600-1800. New York: Macmillan, 1972. Account of four major rebellions in Russia, including that of Bolotnikov. Avrich outlines the continuity of goals and heroes between Bolotnikov’s rebellion during the Time of Troubles and subsequent rebellions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunning, Chester S. L. Russia’s First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. Massive volume covering the Time of Troubles. Provides post-Marxist analysis of the civil uprisings, claiming that they were struggles between factions of equal rank, rather than initial attempts by serfs to win their freedom. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Pavlov, Andrei, and Maureen Perrie. Ivan the Terrible. London: Pearson/Longman, 2003. Major reassessment of Ivan’s reign seeks to do away with the stereotypes of Cold War-era historians and achieve a balanced and accurate appraisal of Ivan as neither an evil genius nor a wise and benevolent statesman. Argues that Ivan’s campaign of terror was motivated not merely by personal sadism but by a belief in the divine right of the monarch to punish treason on earth in a manner as extreme as the punishments of Hell. Includes maps, genealogical tables, bibliographic references, index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Payne, Robert, and Nikita Romanoff. Ivan the Terrible. New York: Caps, 1975. An account of the antecedents of the Time of Troubles written for a popular audience. Recounts Godunov’s rise to prominence and Ivan’s suppression of the boyars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perrie, Maureen. Pretenders and Popular Monarchism in Early Modern Russia: The False Tsars of the Time of Troubles. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Study of the claims of the imposters to the throne during the Time of Troubles, and the reactions of the populace to their claims. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Platonov, Sergei Feodorovich. Boris Godunov, Tsar of Russia. Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International Press, 1973. Sympathetic account of the life and times of Godunov written by Russia’s leading authority on the subject. Follows Godunov’s career from his elevation to aristocratic rank under Ivan the Terrible to his death in 1605.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Platonov, Sergei Feodorovich. The Time of Troubles: A Historical Study of the Internal Crisis and Social Struggle in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Muscovy. Translated by James Alexander. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1970. The first book-length treatment of the subject in English. Written for a scholarly audience, based almost entirely on primary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shulman, Sol. Kings of the Kremlin: Russia and Its Leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Boris Yeltsin. London: Brassey’, 2002. Ivan IV is the first of the major Russian leaders profiled in this history of the Kremlin. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vernadsky, G. The Tsardom of Moscow, 1547-1682. Vol. 5 in A History of Russia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959. General history of Russia from the beginning of Ivan IV’s reign to the death of Czar Alexis in 1683. Includes an excellent account of the Time of Troubles. Written for a scholarly audience.

After 1480: Ivan the Great Organizes the “Third Rome”

1499-c. 1600: Russo-Polish Wars

Jan. 16, 1547: Coronation of Ivan the Terrible

Summer, 1556: Ivan the Terrible Annexes Astrakhan

c. 1568-1571: Ottoman-Russian War

1581-1597: Cossacks Seize Sibir

1589: Russian Patriarchate Is Established

Categories: History