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Boris Godunov

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Boris Godunov
Regent of Russia (de facto)
Tsar of All Russia
Regent Tsardom of Russia(de facto)
Reignc. 1585-1598
Successorhimself as Tsar of All Russia
Tsar of Russia
Reign21 February 1598 - 23 April [O.S. 13 April] 1605
Coronation1 September 1598
PredecessorFeodor I
SuccessorFeodor II
Bornc. 1551
Died23 April [O.S. 13 April] 1605
(aged 54)
Godunov Mausoleum in front of the Cathedral of the Assumption at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius
ConsortMaria Grigorievna Skuratova-Belskaya
IssueFeodor II of Russia
Xenia Godunova
Full name
Boris Feodorovich Godunov
FatherFeodor Ivanovich Godunov
MotherStepanida Ivanovna
ReligionEastern Orthodox

Boris Fyodorovich Godunov (Russian: Бори́с Фёдорович Годуно́в, c. 1551 – 23 April [O.S. 13 April] 1605) was a famous tsar (emperor) of Russia. He ruled as a regent from about 1585 to 1598 and then as tsar from 1598 to 1605. In many ways he was a good tsar, but he had not inherited the throne. He became more and more anxious that a pretender would come who would claim to be Dmitri, the son of the previous tsar, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) and try to get the throne. Dmitri had actually been murdered. The story of Boris Godunov is told in Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov and in Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, but the story told by Pushkin and Mussorgsky is probably not exactly how it really happened. Both Pushkin and Mussorgsky had read a book on Russian history written by the court historian Karamzin, written in 1803. Karamzin describes Godunov as a powerful tsar who was also a weak human being, but he changed some historical facts to fit in with this theory.[1]

From childhood to Tsardom[change | change source]

Boris came from a boyar family (i.e. they belonged to the nobility). His parents were dead and he was brought up at the court of the Tsar in Moscow. The Tsar who ruled was Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible who really was a very cruel ruler. He ruled for more than 50 years. Boris was very close to the royal family. One of the Tsar’s sons, Fyodor, who was not very intelligent. He married Irina, the sister of Boris. The Tsar killed his eldest son. When the Tsar died he had a son Dmitry who was only two years old. Dmitri was not allowed to become tsar, because he was the son of Ivan’s 7th marriage, and the rules of the Russian Orthodox Church were that no one should be allowed to marry more than three times (of course, no one had dared to try to stop Ivan from all those marriages). So Fyodor became Tsar Fyodor I. He was not bright enough to rule himself. We would probably say that he was mentally disabled, or that he had “learning difficulties”. Boris therefore became regent: he ruled for him. Some boyars were against Boris, but Boris somehow managed to silence them. In some ways Boris did a good job. He made Russia a safer place, fighting back the Tatars in the south and making strong contacts with Europe. He built towns and fortresses, made sure that Western Siberia was firmly under Moscow’s control, and made the head of the Muscovite Church a patriarch. In 1598 Fyodor died and Irina should have become Tsarina, but she refused and went to live in a convent. The boyars voted for Boris to become Tsar.

Boris as Tsar[change | change source]

At first everything went well, but in 1601-1603 the harvest was bad and many poor people starved. The people became angry with the Tsar, because he had made very strict rules which took away the rights of the serfs (most of the poor people were serfs). There were still several royal families in Russia. They started to plot against Boris because they saw him as a threat to themselves. Boris got lots of spies to watch these families. He accused the families of treason and sent some of them to Siberia or to monasteries in the north or Russia. One of these families were the Romanovs who were later to produce a long line of tsars.

While this crisis was happening a young man called Grigory Otrepev arrived. He was a pretender. He said that he was Dmitry, Ivan’s youngest son who had been murdered in 1591. At the time people had said that it was an accident, caused by the boy’s epilepsy. But some people thought that Boris had murdered him (or ordered him to be murdered) so that he himself could become Tsar. The pretender said that he had actually escaped from the people who were trying to murder him. The pretender got lots of people on his side, including Poles and Cossacks. He marched towards Moscow. Boris’s armies tried to stop them, but then Boris died suddenly. Dmitri (as he called himself) was able to march into Moscow and (falsely) claim the throne.

A period of chaos followed in Russia with many deaths and changes of rulers. This lasted until Micael Romanov was chosen as Tsar in 1613.

What may have happened to the Tsarevich in 1591[change | change source]

It is now thought that the Romanov family made up evidence to make things looks as if Boris Godunov had been guilty of the murder of Ivan’s son. Karamzin, who later wrote a history of Russia, made it look as if it were true that Boris had murdered him. When Pushkin wrote his play Boris Godunov he followed Karamzin’s version of the story and this is also the story as told in Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov.

References[change | change source]

  1. Orlando Figes: “Natasha’s Dance - A Cultural History of Russia” ISBN 0-713-99517-3, London 2002; p.183

Background references[change | change source]

  • The Encyclopædia Britannica; 15th edition,1986, vol 5 p. 326
  • Orlando Figes: “Natasha’s Dance - A Cultural History of Russia - ISBN 0-713-99517-3