Yesterday, I wrote about Peter the Great and his efforts to drag his country out of its dark medieval past and into renaissance Europe. Today, I am still in Russia, with the story of another Tsar that illustrates just how dark and wild that past was. On this day in 1605, seventy-seven years before Peter was born, a person, who became known as False Dmitry I, arrived in Moscow and was made Tsar.
The story of False Dmitry isn’t exactly uplifting, but it is a good one. It reads like a bit like a Grimm’s fairytale but without the upbeat ending. To explain what happened, I need to go back a bit and begin with Ivan the Terrible. Ivan had a son, also called Ivan, who was heir to his throne. But, in 1581, they fell out and the Tsar accidentally killed his son by hitting him over the head with his sceptre. When Tsar Ivan died in 1584, he was survived by two sons, Feodor and Dmitry.
Feodor, the elder of the two, was made Tsar but wasn’t really cut out for the job. He is described variously as very religious or a bit simple. Whatever it was, the real power behind the throne lay with his father-in-law Boris Godunov. He had Dmitry and his mother sent into exile. It is possible that Godunov saw young Dmitry as a threat to his power but Dmitry wasn’t really in line for the throne. The Russian Orthodox church only allowed three marriages and Ivan had been married either seven or eight times. I wish I could tell you that his ex-wives lived long and happy lives, free from a husband whose second name was ‘the Terrible’, but, for the most part, they didn’t. Dmitry was the son of his last wife and would have been considered illegitimate.
Then, in 1591, there was a terrible tragedy, or murder, we don’t know which. Nine-year-old Dmitry was somehow stabbed in the throat and died. According to his mother, Godunov had him killed. According to Gudunov, the boy stabbed himself, after suffering an epileptic seizure whilst playing with a knife. But there was a third possibility, that Godunov’s assassins got hold of the wrong person and Dmitry escaped.
In 1598 Feodor died, childless, and Boris began to rule in his own right. Things went pretty well for Boris at first but, in 1601, there was a terrible drought and all the crops failed. This was followed by the drought of 1602 and in 1603, unfortunately, a drought. It was a terrible time for the Russian people, around a third of the population starved to death and those who survived were feeling pretty unhappy. Boris died in 1605 and was succeeded by his son who was also, confusingly, called Feodor.
Meanwhile, a man claiming to be Dmitry turned up in Poland. He claimed that he had not died at all but had been spirited away and sent to a monastery. He gathered an army, killed the remaining Godunovs and took the throne. His mother recognised him immediately as her long lost son. But we must take into account that she had been stuck in a convent for years, so a new life as mother of the Tsar must have been quite appealing. The reign of False Dmitry I was pretty short, less than a year. He married a Polish woman called Marina Mniszech who failed to convert to the Russian Orthodox religion. Rumours spread that he was about to form an alliance with Poland, which was not a good thing, and, even worse, that he planned to reunite the Orthodox Church with the Catholic faith. Then another rumour grew, probably fuelled by the Russian Orthodox Church, that Dmitry was about to gather together all his Polish friends, lock the gates of the city of Moscow and slay every Russian inside. That obviously fuelled a lot of unrest and, on 17 May 1606, loads of people stormed the Kremlin. The Tsar tried to escape by leaping from a window. The painting above illustrates the last moments of his life. He is the one in yellow. Dmitry, or whoever he really was, broke his leg in the fall and was killed by his enemies. His body was put on display before being burnt. Then his ashes were then put into a cannon and fired towards the Polish border. His wife escaped and returned to her home country.
If you’re wondering why he is called False Dmitry I, it’s because at least another two False Dmitrys appeared after that. False Dmitry II was also found in Poland, in 1607. Interestingly by the Father-in Law of False Dmitry I. When he introduced this Dmitry to his daughter, she immediately recognised her lost husband. And why wouldn’t she? False Dmitry II was killed in 1610. But then, in 1611, yet another death-cheating Dmitry popped up. If this was a fairytale, the third Dmitry would have turned out to be the real one and everyone would have lived happily ever after. But it isn’t and False Dmitry III was executed in 1612. The period of history between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in 1613 is referred to as ‘the Time of Troubles’.