Tsar (1547–1721)

A title used to designate certain European Slavic monarchs or supreme rulers

Reception of the Tsar of Russia in the Moscow Kremlin.
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As a system of government in the Tsardom of Russia and Russian Empire, it is known as Tsarist autocracy, or Tsarism.

The term is derived from the Latin word Caesar, which was intended to mean «Emperor» in the European medieval sense of the term—a ruler with the same rank as a Roman emperor, holding it by the approval of another emperor or a supreme ecclesiastical official (the Pope or the Ecumenical Patriarch)—but was usually considered by western Europeans to be equivalent to king, or to be somewhat in between a royal and imperial rank.

Kievan Rus'

«Tsar» was used once by Church officials of Kievan Rus' in the naming of Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev. This may be connected to Yaroslav's war against Byzantium and to his efforts to distance himself from Constantinople.

However, other princes of Kievan Rus' never styled themselves as «czars». After the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders and the Mongol invasion of Rus' (1237–1240), the term «tsar» was applied by some people of Kievan Rus' to the Mongol (Tatar) overlords of the Rus' principalities.

Russia

The first Russian ruler to openly break with the khan of the Golden Horde, Mikhail of Tver, assumed the title of «Basileus of Rus» and «czar».

Edict of the Patriarch of Constantinople Iosaf II and the Orthodox Eastern Church Сonvocationon of the approval of the royal title to Ivan IV. Constantinople, December 1560. Parchment, lead, ink.
pinterest button Edict of the Patriarch of Constantinople Iosaf II and the Orthodox Eastern Church Сonvocationon of the approval of the royal title to Ivan IV. Constantinople, December 1560. Parchment, lead, ink.   Shakko, CC BY-SA 4.0

Following his assertion of independence from the khan and perhaps also his marriage to an heiress of the Byzantine Empire, «Veliki Kniaz» Ivan III of Muscovy started to use the title of tsar regularly in diplomatic relations with the West.

From about 1480, he is designated as «imperator» in his Latin correspondence, as «keyser» in his correspondence with the Swedish regent, as «kejser» in his correspondence with the Danish king, Teutonic Knights, and the Hanseatic League.

Ivan's son Vasily III continued using these titles, as his Latin letters to Clement VII testify: «Magnus Dux Basilius, Dei gratia Imperator et Dominator totius Russiae, nec non Magnus Dux Woldomeriae», etc. (In the Russian version of the letter, «imperator» corresponds to «tsar»).

Herberstein correctly observed that the titles of «kaiser» and «imperator» were attempts to render the Russian term «tsar» into German and Latin, respectively.

Tsar Ivan The Terrible. By Viktor Vasnetsov,1897
pinterest button Tsar Ivan The Terrible. By Viktor Vasnetsov,1897 Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926), Public Domain

This was related to Russia's growing ambitions to become an Orthodox «Third Rome», after Constantinople had fallen. The Muscovite ruler was recognized as an emperor by Maximilian I, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1514.

However, the first Russian ruler to be formally crowned as «tsar of all Russia» was Ivan IV, until then known as Grand Prince of all Russia (1547). Some foreign ambassadors — namely, Herberstein (in 1516 and 1525), Daniel Printz a Buchau (in 1576 and 1578) and Just Juel (in 1709) — indicated that the word «tsar» should not be translated as «emperor», because it is applied by Russians to David, Solomon and other Biblical kings, which are simple «reges». On the other hand, Jacques Margeret, a bodyguard of False Demetrius I, argues that the title of «tsar» is more honorable for Muscovites than «kaiser» or «king» exactly because it was God and not some earthly potentate who ordained to apply it to David, Solomon, and other kings of Israel. Samuel Collins, a court physician to Tsar Alexis in 1659-66, styled the latter «Great Emperour», commenting that «as for the word Czar, it has so near relation to Cesar... that it may well be granted to signifie Emperour. The Russians would have it to be an higher Title than King, and yet they call David Czar, and our kings, Kirrols, probably from Carolus Quintus, whose history they have among them».

In 1610 Sigismund III of Poland manipulated his son's (Władysław IV) election as tsar of Russia while Polish forces held Moscow during the Time of Troubles following the death of Boris Godunov. His election, which never resulted in his assumption of the Muscovite throne, was part of an unsuccessful plan by Sigismund to conquer all of Russia and convert the population to Catholicism. As a young man Władysław showed ability as a military leader in operations against Muscovy (1617–18) and the Ottoman Empire (1621).

In short, the Westerners were at a loss as to how the term «tsar» should be translated properly. In 1670, Pope Clement X expressed doubts that it would be appropriate for him to address Alexis as «tsar», because the word is «barbarian» and because it stands for an «emperor», whereas there is only one emperor in the Christian world and he does not reside in Moscow. Reviewing the matter, abbot Scarlati opined that the term is not translatable and therefore may be used by the Pope without any harm. Paul Menesius, the Russian envoy in Vatican, seconded Scarlati's opinion by saying that there is no adequate Latin translation for «tsar», as there is no translation for «shah» or «sultan». In order to avoid such difficulties of translation and to assert his imperial ambitions more clearly, an edict of Peter I the Great raised Russia to an empire and decreed that the Latin-based title imperator should be used instead of «tsar» (1721).

The last Russian tsar Peter I the Great
pinterest button The last Russian tsar Peter I the Great Paul Delaroche (1797–1856), Public Domain

The title tsar remained in common usage, and also officially as the designator of various titles signifying rule over various states absorbed by the Muscovite monarchy (such as the former Tatar khanates and the Georgian Orthodox kingdom). In the 18th century, it was increasingly viewed as inferior to «emperor» or highlighting the oriental side of the term.

Upon annexing Crimea in 1783, Catherine the Great adopted the hellenicized title of «Tsaritsa of Tauric Chersonesos», rather than «Tsaritsa of the Crimea», as should have been expected.

By 1815, when a large part of Poland was annexed, the title had clearly come to be interpreted in Russia as the equivalent of Polish Król «king», and the Russian emperor assumed the title «tsar of Poland», (and the puppet Kingdom of Poland was officially called Królestwo Polskie in Polish and Царство Польское — Tsardom of Poland — in Russian) (see also Full style of Russian Sovereigns below).

Since the word «tsar» remained the popular designation of the Russian ruler despite the official change of style, its transliteration of this title in foreign languages such as English is commonly used also, in fact chiefly, for the Russian Emperors up to 1917.

From: 1547

To: 1721

Period 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, Tsardom (1547-1721)

Useful Information

Tsar
Old Church Slavonic: ц︢рь (usually written thus with a tilde) or цар, цaрь
also Czar or Tzar in Latin alphabet languages

Full style of Russian Sovereigns

The full title of Russian emperors started with By the Grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias (Божию Милостию, Император и Самодержец Всероссийский ) and went further to list all ruled territories. For example, according to the article 59 of the Russian Constitution of 23 April 1906, "the full title of His Imperial Majesty is as follows:

We, ------ by the Grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias, of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Tsar of Kazan, Tsar of Astrakhan, Tsar of Poland, Tsar of Siberia, Tsar of Tauric Chersonesos, Tsar of Georgia, Lord of Pskov, and Grand Duke of Smolensk, Lithuania, Volhynia, Podolia, and Finland, Prince of Estonia, Livonia, Courland and Semigalia, Samogitia, Belostok, Karelia, Tver, Yugra, Perm, Vyatka, Bulgaria and other territories; Lord and Grand Duke of Nizhni Novgorod, Sovereign of Chernigov, Ryazan, Polotsk, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Beloozero, Udoria, Obdoria, Kondia, Vitebsk, Mstislavl, and all northern territories; Sovereign of Iberia, Kartalinia, and the Kabardinian lands and Armenian territories - hereditary Lord and Ruler of the Circassians and Mountain Princes and others; Lord of Turkestan, Heir of Norway, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, Stormarn, Dithmarschen, Oldenburg, and so forth, and so forth, and so forth."

  • The subsidiary title of Tsar of Kazan proclaimed the chief Orthodox dynasty as successor in law to the mighty Islamic khanate of Kazan, not maintaining its "heathen" (khan) title (as the Ottoman Great Sultans did in several cases), but christening it. It should also be noted that Khans of Kazan were mentioned in Russian chronicles such as Kazan Chronicle as Tsars of Kazan.
  • The subsidiary title of Tsar of Siberia refers to the Tatar Khanate of Siberia, easily subdued in the early stages of the exploration and annexation of the larger eponymous region, most of it before inhabited by nomadic tribal people without a state in the European sense.
  • The subsidiary title of Tsar in chief of Transcaucasian Georgia is the continuation of a royal style of a native dynasty, that had as such been recognized by Russia.
  • The subsidiary title of Tsar of Poland demonstrates the Russian emperors' rule over the legally separate (but actually subordinate) Polish Kingdom, nominally in personal union with Russia, established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (hence also called "Congress Poland"), in a sense reviving the royal style of the pre-existent national kingdom of Poland. Internationally and in Poland, the tsars were referred to as Kings (królowie) of Poland.

In some cases, defined by the Code of Laws, the Abbreviated Imperial Title was used:

"We, ------ by the grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias, of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Tsar of Kazan, Tsar of Astrakhan, Tsar of Poland, Tsar of Siberia, Tsar of Tauric Chersonesos, Tsar of Georgia, Lord of Pskov, and Grand Duke of Smolensk, Lithuania, Volhynia, Podolia, and Finland, and so forth, and so forth, and so forth."

In other cases, also defined by the Code of Laws, the Short Imperial Title was used:

"We, ------ by the grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias, Tsar of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, and so forth, and so forth, and so forth."

Titles in the Russian Royal/Imperial family

Tsaritsa (царица) is the term used for a Queen, though in English contexts this seems invariably to be altered to tsarina (since 1717, from Italian czarina, from German Zarin). In Imperial Russia, the official title was Empress (Императрица). Tsaritsa (Empress) could be either the ruler herself or the wife (Empress consort) of the tsar. The title of tsaritsa is used in the same way in Bulgaria and Serbia.

Tsesarevich (Цесаревич) is the term for a male heir apparent, the full title was Heir Tsesarevich ("Naslednik Tsesarevich", Наследник Цесаревич), informally abbreviated in Russia to The Heir ("Naslednik") (capitalized).

Tsarevich (царевич) was the term for the younger sons and grandsons of a Tsar or Tsaritsa prior to 1721. In older times the term was used in place of "Tsesarevich" (Цесаревич). After 1721 a son who was not an heir was formally called Velikii Kniaz (Великий Князь) (Grand Duke or Grand Prince). The latter title was also used for grandsons (through male lines).

Tsarevna (царевна) was the term for a daughter and a granddaughter of a Tsar or Tsaritsa prior to 1721. After 1721, the official title was Velikaya Kniaginya (Великая Княгиня), translated as Grand Duchess or Grand Princess.

See also Grand Duchess for more details on the Velikaya Kniaginya title.

Tsesarevna (Цесаревна) was the wife of the Tsesarevich.