Russian aristocrat Vasily Vasilyevich Golitsyn (1643–1714) attained a position of enormous influence in the 1670s and '80s. Closely allied with Tsar Fyodor III and Fyodor's sister Tsarevna Sophia Alekseyevna, Golitsyn plotted a short-lived but ambitious program of reform that was extinguished by the Tsarevna's conservative foes in the Muscovite kingdom just before the reign of Peter the Great.
Ascion of one of Imperial Russia's greatest princely dynasties, Vasily Vasilyevich Golitsyn served as chief minister to and foreign envoy for Tsarevna Sophia Alekseyevna during a six-year period during the 1680s when she wielded power as one of imperial Russia's rare female regents. Although multiple historical sources claimed that Golitsyn was also the secret paramour of the tsarevna, more recent scholars tend to refute that charge. In any event, both he and Sophia ultimately shared ignominious internal exile after Peter the Great made his bold move to seize power in 1689. As Tsar Peter I, that willful leader is largely credited with working to transform medieval Russia into a modern imperial European power. In fact, Peter's far-reaching reforms echoed earlier efforts attempted by Golitsyn.
Golitsyn was born in Russia in 1643, the 30th year of the reign of the first Romanov tsar, Michael I. There were close ties between the Golitsyn and Romanov clans: Golitsyn's father Vasily had spent several years as a prisoner in Poland along with Michael's father, Fyodor Nikitich Romanov, who later became Patriarch Filaret of Moscow. As the Romanov family patriarch, he established the oppressive policy of serfdom employed in Russian lands well into the 19th century.
Three decades before Golitsyn's birth, his father served with Filaret as soldier-diplomats were sent west to resolve a succession crisis involving a pretender to the throne in Moscow. Their detention in Poland during the 1610s was part of a larger regional conflict related to the Polish-Muscovite War of 1605–18. This conflict with Poland also involved the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Golitsyn line had blood ties to the Lithuanian royal dynasty. Three centuries earlier, Lithuanian Duke Gediminas ruled as one of the last Europeans to relinquish millennia-old pagan beliefs in favor of Christianity. His successors did adopt the new faith, however, and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania eventually became linked by a series of marriages and treaties to the Christian Jagiellonian dynasty that ruled Poland.
Narimantas, the son of Gediminas, died in 1348 after enlarging his territory to include Novgorod, an ancient center of Slavic power. That expansion brought the Lithuanian Golitsyns closer to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy and its capital in Moscow. A half-century later, around 1408, two Golitsyns (believed to have been grandsons of Narimantas) arrived in Moscow and one of them, George, remained at the court of Vasily I and married the grand duke's sister. Their descendants became prominent figures among Moscow's aristocratic coterie of princes and nobles as the Muscovite duchy evolved into the tsardom of Russia in the 1500s.
Golitsyn's mother, Tatiana Ivanovna Romodanovskaya, descended from another noble family. Also known as the Starodubskys, this family traced its lineage back to the Rurikid princes who ruled the kingdom of Kievan Rus after 860. The strong dynastic connections on both his father and mother's sides enabled Golitsyn to rise at court even as a teenager in the mid-1650s. His formal education included Greek, the language linking the powerful Russian Orthodox Church to its roots in ancient Byzantium, and he also mastered Latin, which was the language of scholarship and diplomacy in western Europe. After Golitsyn's father died in the early 1650s, uncles entrusted with his guardianship ensured his rise to a position of increasing power at court.
In 1658, the 15-year-old Golitsyn received his first official appointment, as cup-bearer to Tsar Alexis I. In 1663 he wed Evdokiia Ivanovna Streshneva, with whom he would have four children. Three years later he advanced to the role of coach attendant to Alexis, who ruled as tsar from 1645 until his death in 1676. The successor to Alexis, Tsar Fyodor III, elevated Golitsyn to the status of boyar, a noble class that played an active role in government affairs in imperial Russia. The boyars ranked themselves according to a rigid system of protocol at court, and their position above or below other elite families was also considered when promoting military officers, regardless of their war service or conduct in uniform.
In the mid-1670s, Golitsyn took part in two separate military campaigns in neighboring Ukraine that were part of a larger Russo-Turkish War waged from 1676 to 1681. His service in the imperial army was an unpleasant and problematic time for him, and he reluctantly acquiesced to Tsar Fyodor's request that he become commandant of the Southern Army in the early 1680s. In his new position, Golitsyn urged the tsar to implement much-needed officer and regimental reforms inside the army. Amenable to the idea, Fyodor appointed Golitsyn as chair of a commission that drew up new rules regarding officers' rankings and the system of promotion. Against great opposition, the tsar agreed to abolish the old rules of preferential treatment according to boyar rank. This decree went into effect in 1682 and Golitsyn's role earned him a legion of clandestine enemies in Moscow.
After Fyodor died unexpectedly that same year, in 1682, a minor succession crisis loomed. Following unrest in Moscow and various machinations at court, an arrangement was agreed upon by the princely families and leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church: Fyodor's sister Sophia Alekseyevna would become interim regent until two direct male heirs reached the age of majority. One of those heirs, Sophia Alekseyevna's brother Ivan, was a sickly youth of 15 who was not considered mentally capable for the rigors of the job. For this reason, he was co-crowned with his half-brother, Peter, a robust boy of nine who was the product of Tsar Alexis I's second marriage.
Sophia had been tutored alongside Tsar Fyodor and her brothers and demonstrated an unusually high degree of ambition, having first forged an alliance with the streltsy (royal palace guards) to quash the Moscow uprising that occurred after Fyodor's death. Golitsyn's support as a prominent military expert also aided Sophia, and she bestowed several important offices and titles on him. He served as her minister of state and minister of foreign affairs during her six-year regency, and in 1683 he was made Keeper of the Royal Seal.
Among Golitsyn's achievements as foreign minister was the successful renewal in 1684 of the Treaty of Cardis, an arrangement first inked with the kingdom of Sweden in 1661 to maintain peace between these two powerful northeastern European empires. He was also instrumental in drafting the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which delineated Russia's border with eastern neighbor China and extended Russian lands to the Pacific Rim. Negotiated in 1689, this was the first formal treaty ever signed between diplomats representing the Russian and Chinese empires.
In between those two missions, in 1686, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Perpetual Peace, which demanded a high degree of diplomatic skill in negotiating with two emissaries from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as well as acceding to requests from their powerful allies. It was this treaty that yoked Russia to the Holy Roman Empire and Rome's long-running mission to eliminate the threat of the powerful Ottoman Turkish empire. Christendom in the West had clashed with Islam in the Middle East for hundreds of years, ever since the first Crusades to retake the Holy Land in 1095. Formidable rivals to popes, kings, and tsars alike by the late 17th century, the Ottoman sultans controlled a wide swath across the Middle East as well as sections of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, and they had made threatening inroads into Greek and Balkan turf in southern Europe.
In negotiating the Treaty of Perpetual Peace, Golitsyn struck an ill-fated deal with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to halt and reverse Islamic encroachment into European lands. In return for restoring parts of Ukraine to Russian control, the treaty committed Russia to ousting a vassal state of the Ottomans, the Crimean Khanate, from Ukraine's Black Sea coastline. Like the holy city of Jerusalem, which was claimed by three major religions, this tiny Crimean peninsula then became one of the most contested pieces of land in world history, remaining so into the 21st century.
To make good on his promise, in 1687, Golitsyn led the first of two unsuccessful campaigns southward through Ukraine to retake the Crimean peninsula. Russian forces were turned back, however, when the Tatar chiefs who controlled access routes across the Ukrainian steppes literally set fire to the plains, leaving hundreds of miles of parched lands with no provisions for either man or horse. Two years later, after installing what he hoped would be a more amenable hetman or military commander in Ukraine, Golitsyn led another force south toward the Crimean Khanate, but it too was routed. It would be another 90-plus years before Russia finally managed to annex Crimea by force.
A contemporary English-language account of these events was penned by Patrick Gordon, a Scot who rose to the position of general in the Imperial Russian army and was trusted by a line of tsars stretching from Alexis I to Peter I. A credible source, Gordon took part in both campaigns to seize Crimea in the late 1680s. Another contemporary account of this tumultuous period was penned by Foy de la Neuville, a diplomat assigned to Moscow about whom little is known. De la Neuville wrote disparagingly of Sophia and claimed that she and Golitsyn were lovers, and this charge was incorporated by subsequent historians in their writings.
Golitsyn was a married father of four when he was ousted from power. His status as boyar was now formally revoked and his estates confiscated, among them a magnificent 53-room palace adjacent to the Kremlin in Moscow. The catalog of items removed from this palace after his downfall offers a valuable glimpse into the life of a courtier with extensive ties to trade representatives and emissaries from Western Europe. Golitsyn was a collector of clocks and decorative mirrors—both of which were status symbols among European aesthetes and technophiles—amassed a portrait gallery of prominent figures, and welcomed esteemed guests in a reception room whose ceiling was elaborately painted with images of the sun, the planets, and even symbols of the zodiac.
Banished from court, Golitsyn and his family were ordered into internal exile, a measure that guaranteed maximum social humiliation and financial penury. They lived first in Kargopol in Arkhangelsk Oblast, then moved to the nearby town of Mezen before arriving in remote Kholmogory, where he died on April 21, 1714. Chroniclers of pre-Petrist Russian history and the regency of Tsarevna Sophia Alekseyevna often reference Golitsyn's close ties to her, but “this version of events with its admixture of sexual and political intrigue is the stuff on which historical novelists thrive,” according to British historian Lindsey Hughes in her Sophia: Regent of Russia 1657–1704. “It perpetuates one of the common notions about female rule, namely that few women are willing or able to wield power without a man to support and inspire them.”
Hughes, Lindsey, Sophia, Regent of Russia: 1657–1704, Yale University Press, 1990.
Kollmann, Nancy Shields, By Honor Bound: State and Society in Early Modern Russia, Cornell University Press, 2016.
Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Volume 19, 1995, Abby Smith, “The Brilliant Career of Prince Golitsyn,” pp. 639–645.□