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The Great Bummer of Russia and the Reign of False Dmitry the First

By Wojtek Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | March 13, 2012 | Comments ()


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Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

A short linguistic note: for some reason, Polish historians refer to this event by its antiquated Russian name -- Wielka Smuta -- which sounds hilarious in Polish and can essentially be translated as "The Great Bummer." I've no idea why it is so, but I sense petty bitchiness, and wholeheartedly applaud.

So without further ado: The Great Bummer of Russia!

Russia is bloody hardcore. I don't mean expletive bloody, I mean bits and chunks, rivers and sluices. The Russian state seems like a gruesome nesting doll/Alien hybrid, with the inner doll gradually growing in bulk, until it is so bloated that it bursts out of the outer shell in an explosion of guts and feces. There were three major nesting doll incidents in Russian history: in the 16th century, when the Muscovite Prince Ivan the Terrible united several Princedoms, becoming the first Tsar of All-Russia, and promptly reforming his new state. 150 years later, when Tsar Peter the Great reoriented his country towards the West and moved its capital to Saint Petersburg - a rather badass urban planning decision, since it was sort of foreign territory at the time. Once again, this shift was accompanied some reforms. Finally, in the 20th century, there was Stalin. And his reforms.

By now you've probably realized that "reforms" is code for wholesale slaughter of (mostly) Russians. Great Russian rulers firmly believed that you can't make an omelet without carpet-bombing Chicken Valhalla, so every significant reorganization of their state resulted in a genocide. For once, this not a hyperbole - in Stalin's case we're talking 60 million people (Solzhenitsyn's estimate), i.e. more than the total sum of civilian casualties of World War II. And percentage-wise, both Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great mowed down comparable portions of the Russian population.

But that's all pretty depressing, so instead we'll focus on a time when the Nesting Doll of Doom grew hideously turgid, but no brilliant psychopath was around to give it that final nudge. So it just sort of collapsed and laid there, rotting, with the neighbors chasing each other around the carcass Benny Hill style, while a third of all Russians died. You know: good times!

The abovementioned Ivan the Terrible died in 1584, and was succeeded by his son Fyodor - though the actual reins of power rested in the hands of Boris Godunov, the new Tsar's brother-in-law. Fyodor's reign is pretty uneventful, save for one... well... event. Seven years in, his 9-year-old brother Dmitry is found dead in the courtyard of the palace in Uglich. Godunov orders an investigation, which finds that the young Dmitry had an epileptic seizure and fell onto his dagger. The boy's mother, however, claims that he was murdered, and to this day historians have no idea what actually happened.

Sad as a child's death is, it doesn't seem that fateful, until Tsar Fyodor dies childless seven years later, leaving the throne vacant. For the first time in history, Russians have to elect a new monarch, and they don't really know how to go about it, so the boyars (Russian nobility) simply offer the crown to the widowed Tsarina Maria. In a display of uncanny prescience, Maria excuses herself for a moment, gathers her skirts, and launches into a breathless sprint towards the nearest convent. The boyar delegates are somewhat perplexed, though not nearly as much as they would be a moment later, when Boris Godunov, the Tsarina's brother and de facto ruler of the country, does the exact same thing.

The boyars try to find a suitable alternative, but unfortunately they have to do it American Idol style - Muscovites are getting restless, and stand in the Red Square day and night, so all potential candidates need to be run by the uncouth masses first. And the masses seem to want Godunov. Having run out of options, the boyars finally call a general assembly that unanimously elects Boris Godunov, who finally accepts the crown, swearing that there won't be a single pauper or orphan in his Tsardom, for he will share his last shirt with his people.

The Fates do a spit-take.

The first years of Godunov's reign are pretty quiet, but in 1601 there is a massive drought, followed by a drought in 1602. And then in 1603, a drought hits.

Things are horrible all over the board - general unrest, uprisings, and hunger so rampant that Moscow street vendors sell pierogis stuffed with human flesh (for real). Amidst all that mayhem, a certain story starts circulating. You see, the child that died in Uglich almost 20 years ago - that wasn't young Tsarevich Dmitry. It was just some random punk! Ivan the Terrible's youngest son was actually in hiding all this time, and he's come back to save us all! Now pass me that imaginary sausage!

Cut to Poland, where a young man arrives at the court of Voivode Mniszech, claiming to be Dmitry. He's smart, sort of educated, and actually fits the part, more or less (to this day no one knows who he actually was, in his Boris Godunov Pushkin went with the theory that it was a monk). He also seems to be taken with the magnate's daughter Marina. Mniszech thinks to himself: "You know who could really use an usurper right now? Russia!". He hosts him graciously, hoping to cash in on some further mayhem, like neighbors do. Dmitry is promptly converted to Catholicism, so he is more palatable to Polish decision-makers, and then shipped off to the capital for an audience with the King. King Sigismund grants his handlers the Royal Seal of Seriously Whatever, allowing them to pursue this pet project on their own time.

And so, they knock together a several-hundred-strong private army and enter Russia with Dmitry. The border provinces greet them with open arms - cities open their gates, fortresses surrender without a fight, women throw human-stuffed pierogis at their feet. The Pretender's host grows, until finally in 1605 the boyar Vasily Shuysky gathers an army and defeats him, forcing him to retreat south. Russia is spared further chaos, and Boris Godunov's throne is saved.

So he dies. Just like that.

The Tsar's death causes provincial governors to switch to Dmitry's side wholesale, until suddenly he is able to march on Moscow. Faced with this development, Vasily Shuysky does the logical thing, proclaiming: "...yeah! So, this guy's totally legit!" The angry, hunger-crazed mob agrees and storms the Kremlin, capturing Godunov's widow and daughters (they are murdered several days later), and making way for Dmitry. On 20th June the new Tsar triumphantly enters Moscow. History will remember him as False Dmitry the First - yes, the numerical is warranted, and yes, now would be a good time to strap in.

The boyars decide to go all out - they fetch Ivan the Terrible's widow, the old dowager Tsarina, from her nunnery (the customary Russian storage space for discarded royal females - unless they've been torn to pieces by an angry mob, that is), dust her off and organize a reunion with her "long-lost son". She's a crafty old broad, so naturally she plays along, happy to trade the cloister cell for a repeat stint as the Mother Royal. It's all very touching. They embrace, tears are shed. The show goes on.

And of course things quickly take a turn for the worse. When you ride onto a throne on a wave of national delirium, chances are your reign won't be a stable one. Dmitry doesn't have the support of the boyars (they mostly just wanted Godunov gone, the zombie monarch was a byproduct), and the common people quickly fall out of love with him on account of his huge foreign retinue and Polish customs. When in 1606 Voivode Mniszech arrives in Moscow, and Dmitry marries his daughter Marina (as per previous agreement), anti-Polish sentiments go through the roof. The boyars see it as their opportunity to get rid of Dmitry and call on Muscovites to rise up against the Poles, while they themselves go for the Tsar himself. Before the rampage is over, around 2000 foreigners lie dead - though Mniszech and his daughter are not among them. Wary of provoking a war with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the boyars protect them. The usurper, however is cornered by them in his chambers and jumps out of the window - only to be literally torn to pieces in the courtyard. The vacant throne is taken by Vasily Shuysky. The dowager Tsarina is trotted out again, but this time to say that never mind, her son actually did die all those years ago. Thus, the office of the press secretary is born.

Now, Boris Godunov was elected by the general assembly of boyars. False Dmitry was the long-gone "rightful" heir to the throne. Vasily Shuysky simply organized a coup - his situation was so precarious, that he really didn't need another usurper to make it worse. Which is why he got dozens.

Suddenly, Dmitrys start popping up all around the country - except now they can even pick their origin story: either they are the little Tsarevich from 20 years ago, or the Tsar, miraculously saved from the recent massacre in Moscow. Basically, anyone who wanted to stir up some shit, brandished a Dmitry and went to town. The competitive usurping event was won hands down by a band of Cossacks who found themselves a carpenter's apprentice who had once visited to Moscow, figured that was good enough, claimed he was Tsar Fyodor's* son Peter, all grown up, and went on a looting rampage. What's that? Fyodor never even had a son? I'm sorry, did you want me to re-rape your livestock?

The most notable of all the new Dmitrys surfaced in Lithuania and got immediately plucked by group of Commonwealth magnates. For the record: this one picked the "narrowly escaped death in Moscow" persona. In 1607, he entered Russia leading a force of Cossacks and deserters from the Polish army, set up camp in Tushino, just outside the capital, and started generating his own alternate reality. Tushino became Bizarro Moscow - a haven for tens of thousands of Polish soldiers, Russian peasants, Cossacks, etc. They had their own royal court, ruled by False Dmitry the Second (historians only count the major ones), an alternate diet, and even their own Orthodox Patriarch. Dmitry II's forces fanned out from Bizarro Moscow in raids, imposing his authority over the surrounding areas, and effectively cutting Proper Moscow off from the rest of the country.

Eventually, False Dmitry II gets a visit from Voivode Mniszech and his daughter, and Marina declares that he indeed is her supposedly late husband. Then she promptly gets pregnant with him, proving she's a method actress. For Vasily Shuysky, that's just too much dog shit on his croissant - in February of 1609, he finally cracks and obtains 15 000 Swedish troops to help him get rid of this pocket universe.

Quick geopolitical interlude: at that time, North-Eastern Europe was a game of three players: Orthodox Russia, Catholic Poland-Lithuania, and (mostly) Protestant Sweden, who spent their time slapping each other around in various configurations over a strip of the Baltic coast called Livonia. Then the Polish Diet elected the Swedish King as their own, but the Swedes were like nuh-uh and several years later their Diet dethroned him, and then things spiraled into yo momma territory... I don't have time to get into all that, so just know that in the early 1600s, by the time you finished saying "Sweden" into the bathroom mirror for the third time, Poland-Lithuania was already drop-kicking your chihuahua into your flatscreen.

The moment the Swedes intervene, Poland-Lithuania declares war on Russia and lays siege to Smolensk. At the same time, the Commonwealth command calls on the Polish deserters and Cossacks from Bizarro Moscow to join the advancing army. False Dmitry II's camp starts dissolving, so he moves south to Kaluga, and essentially ceases to be a factor (he is murdered towards the end of 1610).

The grand battle between Polish and Russian forces takes place on the 4th of July 1610 at Klushino. The Russian army is obliterated, Vasily Shuysky is dethroned, and the boyars agree to make the Polish Crown Prince Ladislaus the new Tsar, on the condition that he maintains Orthodoxy's supremacy in Russia. Poles enter Moscow...

...and handle things with all the finesse of a tire iron's slower cousin. The Polish King Sigismund actually wants Russia for himself, so he doesn't allow his son to convert to Orthodoxy. Plus he's still besieging Smolensk, and he wants it to capitulate before any decisions are made. Then there are the Swedes, who obviously don't like the idea of a Polish-controlled Russia, promptly switch from helpful auxiliaries to invading force, and start grabbing swathes of Russian land for themselves. The war wages on, but no one is sure why or who's fighting whom. At this point, any Russians who haven't already died of hunger, are rocking back and forth in the streets, sobbing uncontrollably and mashing the "CHANGE CHANNEL" button on their remote controls. Alas, to no avail, for it is the 17th century.

Then the Poles starve the Orthodox Patriarch to death. And then someone remembers that they haven't had a new Dmitry for at least 3 hours, so a bunch of people hail Marina Mniszech and her newborn child as the rightful heirs. For those of you who have lost count - Marina is the wife of the first False Dmitry, but she had a kid with the second False Dmitry, who she claimed the first one...

Yeah, Russia exploded too. Serf and boyar, Cossack and Tartar, everyone took up arms, and with a mighty roar ejected the foreigners from the Kremlin in October of 1612. A year later, they elected their new Tsar, Mikhail Romanov (though frankly, at this point they would have probably even gone with Billy the Turnip). This one they all but staple-gunned to the throne - the Romanov dynasty would go on to rule Russia until the abolishment of monarchy in 1917.

As for the war, it continued to drag on for several more years, but was mostly limited to various bands roaming around in a daze, trying to remember what this whole mess was about in the first place, and longing for a time when children had the good sense to stay dead.

Wojtek doesn't actually find the death of children funny. It's one of his many winning features.

* the one whose heirless death started the whole clustercoitus



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