Ivan III and his successors portrayed themselves as divinely favored, powerful rulers. This transformation of the warrior prince into a sovereign tsar required a commensurate elevation of his wife, the tsaritsa, and her daughters, the tsarevny. Isolde Thyrêt has argued that this was a process of status‑building in which the entire royal household participated. In court ceremonies and on icons and embroideries, the women of the royal family presented themselves as the blessed wives of their husbands and the mothers of their people. Tsaritsy prayed to God to bless their husbands, sons, and subjects. They made large, well‑publicized donations to the church and the poor. By the reign of Ivan IV, church fathers, drawing on earlier ideals, were also suggesting that the tsaritsa, being female and therefore more naturally humble, submissive, and devout than her manly husband, could tame his cruder impulses and nudge him toward peacemaking.16

Portraying the tsaritsy as exemplars of Muscovite femininity and consorts of powerful tsars did not increase the powers granted them by custom. Instead, the royal wives participated in politics in much the same ways as had the princesses of Kievan and Appanage Rus. They advised their husbands, mediated family disputes, arranged marriages, and advanced their sons’ interests. Thyrêt has shown that tsaritsy were more likely to become politically involved during periods of instability at court.17 Sophia Paleologus, second wife of Ivan III, lobbied successfully for her son Vasili to be named successor. The mother of Ivan IV, Elena Glinskaia, served as regent for her three‑year‑old son after the death of her husband, Vasili III.

The royal mothers lived with their daughters and young sons, ladies‑in‑waiting, administrative staff, and a host of servants in the Moscow Kremlin’s women’s palace, a household similar in its organization to those of other elite women, but much larger.18 The responsibilities of running this establishment were considerable, and some tsaritsy, given the opportunity, willingly applied the skills acquired there to the outside world. When plague struck Moscow in 1654–55 and Tsar Alexis was too far away to supervise the government response, Tsaritsa Maria took over, conducting her own correspondence with city officials. Her tone was that of a self‑confident woman accustomed to exercising authority.19

She did all this while hidden away from the view of the people over whom she ruled, for the elevation of the royal women did nothing to ease their seclusion. And no women were more walled in than the tsarevny, the daughters of the tsars, for they were prohibited from marrying on the grounds that no Russian was high‑ranking enough for them and no suitably prestigious royal foreigner professed the true faith, that is, Russian Orthodoxy. So the grandiose ambitions of the tsarevny’s fathers led to lifelong spinsterhood for them. We will return to this subject later, when we come to the time when one of those daughters rebelled.


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