Under the Romanovs


n the early years of the seventeenth century Russia experienced a period which historians call the "Time of Troubles," an interregnum marking the end of the Rurik Dynasty and the ascension of the House of Romanov. Russia's enemies took advantage of the internal strife which weakened the country, and Russia was obliged to honour the harsh demands imposed by Sweden in the Treaty of Stolbov. The Treaty dictated that Russia pay reparations to Sweden in the amount of twenty thousand roubles; surrender the forts of Ivangorod, Kanzi and Oreshek; and honour Sweden's monopolistic rights to trade in the Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea became virtually Swedish territory.

The British and Dutch, who also took advantage of Russia's weakness in the early 1600's, rapidly increased their fur trading in the White Sea. The growing number of ships, both foreign and Russian, that began appearing along the Mangazeya sea route alarmed Russia's merchants and boyars, who believed that these incursions by unauthorized ships threatened their own right to fur-rich Mangazeya. Therefore, in 1616, the first Romanov tsar, Mikhail Fyodorovich, imposed the death penalty upon any seafarers apprehended along the Mangazeya sea route. Russia, however, continued to be a country with little interest in maritime matters.

It was the war-like Cossacks from the region of the Dnieper and Don Rivers who most closely adhered to and continued the traditions of Ancient Rus. From 1575-1632 the Cossacks made seven voyages into the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, where they fought against the Ottoman Turks and Crimean Tatars.

An approaching fleet of Cossack ships, called chaikas, inspired dread among coastal inhabitants. A Cossack chaika, meaning sea-gull, differed only slightly from the lodya of Kievan Rus. The upper part of the hull was bordered with twisted cane, a reinforcement which improved buoyancy and helped protect the crew from enemy fire. As many as seventy Cossacks could sail in a single chaika.

Under Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich construction of the first three-masted ship, actually built within Russia, was completed in 1636. It was built by Danish shipbuilders from Holstein according to European design and was christened the Frederick. During its maiden voyage on the Caspian Sea the Frederick unfortunately sailed into a heavy storm and was lost at sea.

In 1656 Russian forces seized the Swedish fortresses of Dinaburg and Kokengausen on the Zapadnaya Dvina and the latter was renamed Tsarevich-Dmitriev. A boyar named Afanasy Ordin-Nashchyokin founded a shipyard at Tsarevich-Dmitriev fortress and began constructing vessels to sail in the Baltic Sea. In 1661, however, Russia was once again forced to abide by the harsh terms of a treaty, this time the Peace of Cardis. Russia agreed to surrender to Sweden all captured territories, and all vessels constructed at Tsarevich-Dmitriev were ordered destroyed. Boyar Ordin-Nashchyokin, not grieving long over defeat, turned his attention to the Volga River and Caspian Sea. With the Tsar's approval, the boyar brought Dutch shipbuilding experts to the town of Dedinovo near the confluence of the Oka and Volga Rivers. Shipbuilding commenced in the winter of 1667. Within two years, four vessels had been completed: one 22-gun galley, christened the Oryol [Eagle], and three smaller ships. The ill-fated Frederick had been a Holstein vessel; the Oryol became Russia's first own three-masted, European-designed sailing ship but met with a similarly unfortunate end. The ship was captured in Astrakhan by rebellious Cossacks led by Stepan Razin. The Cossacks ransacked the Oryol and abandoned it, half-submerged, in an estuary of the Volga.

During much of the seventeenth century Russian merchants and Cossacks sailed across the White Sea, exploring the Rivers Lena, Kolyma and Indigirka, and founding settlements in the region of the upper Amur. Unquestionably the most celebrated Russian explorer was Semyon Dezhnev, who, in 1648, sailed the entire length of present-day Russia by way of the Arctic Ocean. Rounding the Chukotsk Peninsula, Dezhnev passed through the Bering Sea and sailed into the Pacific Ocean.

In 1682, at the age of ten, Peter Alekseevich became Tsar Peter I. Throughout his childhood, Peter I was fascinated by ships, shipbuilding and navigation. At Lake Pleshcheyevo, one hundred fifty kilometres northeast of Moscow, a recreational area was set aside for the young Tsar and his childhood friends. A miniature shipyard was created and in it were built replicas of Western sailing vessels. This preserve, named the "amusement flotilla," played an important part in Peter's naval education; he and his young friends spent all their waking hours sailing about the lake in their small ships, engaging one another in mock battles.

Peter arrived at Arkhangelsk on the White Sea in 1693, ordered the creation of a state shipyard in Arkhangelsk, and sailed for the first time in a genuine ship on a real sea. A year later the ships Svyatoye Prorochestvo [Holy Prophesy], Apostol Pavel [Apostle Paul] and the yacht Svyatoy Pyotr [Saint Peter] were sailing in the White Sea. Tsar Peter understood, however, that Arkhangelsk was extremely limited as a port. Because of its severe arctic climate and remoteness from the centre of Russia, Arkhangelsk could never be the country's main port. Tsar Peter insisted that Russia must have direct access to the Baltic and Black Seas.