The New Year is Russia’s most important holiday, and consequently Russians have the entirety of the first week of January off work. I took this opportunity to travel east from Moscow and visit Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan. I will endeavour to write a few posts about these travels in these coming weeks.
The main landmark of Nizhny Novgorod, situated 500km east of Moscow, is the imposing Kremlin situated in a hill overlooking the River Volga. Over the years Nizhny Novgorod developed as a centre of trade and became the home of many wealthy merchants. More than 400 years ago, at the foot of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, a local merchant made a call to arms that would liberate Russia from foreign subjugation.
For the past three centuries, the balance of power between Russia and Poland has been so heavily in Russia’s favour that it is difficult to imagine there being a time when Polish troops conquered and occupied Moscow. Nevertheless, this was the state of affairs in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 17th century.
In 1598, the main line of Rurikovich dynasty which had ruled over Russia and its predecessor states was extinguished following the death of the sickly Fyodor I, son of Ivan the Terrible. Over the subsequent fifteen years rival claimants attempted to seize the Muscovite throne, throwing Russia into a period of political turmoil known as the Time of Troubles.
The Poles and Swedes, traditional foes of Russia, took advantage of Russia’s weakened political position and invaded Russia in an attempt to expand eastwards. From 1605 onwards, the Poles invaded Russia and made use of a succession of pretenders who claimed to be Tsarevich Dmitry Ivanovich, Ivan the Terrible’s young son who was found dead in mysterious circumstances in 1591. The first of these actually occupied the throne for a year before his identity was exposed and an angry mob stormed the Kremlin, seized him and executed him.
Vasily Shuisky, one of the leading conspirators in the removal of False Dmitry, declared himself Tsar Vasily IV of Russia. However, he was recognised by few people and exerted little authority. In 1609 a Council of Boyars (leading nobles) decided to invite Polish Crown Prince Wladyslaw to become Tsar of Russia in an attempt to put an end to the Polish invasion of Russian lands. However, since King Wladyslaw III of Poland had designs on the Muscovite throne himself, the Crown Prince was prevented from travelling to Moscow to be crowned. Instead, Polish soldiers loyal to the King entered Moscow in 1611 and occupied the Kremlin.
Polish occupation of the Kremlin was uncomfortable for the Russian people, but they were in no condition to resist any further. Nevertheless, in 1611 the Russian clerics Patriarch Hermogenes of Moscow and Avraamy Palitsyn of the Trinity St Sergius Monastery issued proclamations to expel the foreign invader. The first man to take up the proclamation was Prokopy Lyapunov, who organised the First Volunteer Militia. Although Lyapunov successfully took Moscow, he was soon killed following internal intrigues. The Polish army returned to occupy Moscow.
Following the extinction of the First Volunteer Militia, the city of Nizhny Novgorod became the focus of Russian resistance against Polish occupation. A crowd of merchants and commonfolk to a church by the foot of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, where the well-regarded merchant Kuzma Minin advocated a renewed effort to resist the Poles, encouraging all those in attendance to donate their belongings to the cause of assembling a Second Volunteer Militia in order to retake Moscow. The crowd willingly answered Minin’s call to arms, donating everything they had to the cause of liberating Russia from the enemy.
Having raised the funds to gather the army, the city’s citizens invited Prince Dmitry Pozharsky to command the new army. Pozharsky had served in Lyapunov’s First Volunteer Militia and was wounded in the attempt to capture Moscow. Pozharsky accepted the command offered by the citizens of Nizhny Novgorod and invited Minin to serve alongside him as a fellow commander.
The Second Volunteer Army established a base in Yaroslavl by the end of 1811 before marching on to Moscow. Pozharsky was a cautious commander who made sure that his supply lines were secure before continuing his march. Over the course of the campaign the charismatic Minin also demonstrated his prowess as a military commander despite his humble background. By the summer of 1812 Minin and Pozharsky’s forces were approaching Moscow. A Polish force sent to relieve the garrison was defeated in August. The Poles were finally defeated after Prince Dmitry Trubetskoy managed to break their supply lines, and the garrison surrendered to Pozharsky in late October.
Following the liberation of Moscow from the army, an Assembly of the Land gathered in Moscow to anoint a new tsar. The choice finally fell upon the sixteen year old Mikhail Romanov, son of influential boyar Fyodor Nikitich Romanov, one of Ivan the Terrible’s leading advisors, who was then in Polish captivity. Mikhail Romanov thus became the founder of the Romanov dynasty, which would rule Russia for more than 300 years until 1917.
Minin and Pozharsky’s accomplishments won them wide renown throughout Russia, and they were granted epithets of ‘Saviour of the Fatherland’ and appointed to the Boyar Council. Minin, seemingly already an old man, died in 1616 and was buried in the Archangel Cathedral in the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, where his grave remains to this day. Pozharsky lived until 1642, serving in many campaigns although never as commander-in-chief due to limitations of birthright. He was buried at the Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery in his hometown of Suzdal.
More than four hundred years after their heroic exploits, Minin and Pozharsky remain familiar names in Russia. Their memory has been invoked both during the Napoleonic Wars in 1812 – exactly 200 years after Minin and Pozharsky drove the Poles from Moscow – as well as the Second World War. In 1818, following a resurgence of interest in the legacy of Minin and Pozharsky during the Napoleonic Wars, a statue of the two men was placed in Red Square outside St Basil’s Cathedral. A copy of the same monument was erected in Nizhny Novgorod in the place where Minin made his appeal. During the Soviet era Minin’s heroic status was further elevated on account of his humble background. The date of Minin and Pozharsky’s retaking of Moscow, November 4 in the Gregorian calendar, is now celebrated as the Day of National Unity in post-revolutionary Russia and is observed as a public holiday.