Tyrants of the world: False Dmitri I of Russia

Pretending to be the heir of a powerful deceased monarch is a dangerous game. This was a lesson that three men, now known to history as False Dmitris I, II, and III, learned the hard way.

Following the death in 1584 of the long-reigning and widely feared Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible one), Russia fell into a period known as the Time of Troubles.  One can say much about Ivan’s severe mental instability and his undeniable quality as a tyrant, but Moscow increased greatly in power and was established as the center of the Tsardom of Russia under his leadership.  None of the rulers immediately following Ivan were up to the task of maintaining that power. Ivan’s heir Feodor was mentally disabled and controlled by the influential nobleman Boris Godunov, and Ivan’s more capable younger son Dmitri died under mysterious circumstances in 1591.  Although his death was officially reported as a suicide, it was widely suspected that Godunov had gotten rid of him in order to cement his own power.

Feodor soon died as well, and Godunov then decided that now would be a good time to take the title of Tsar for himself. Tsar Boris had many detractors, however. Rumors arose that Dmitri, son of the late Ivan IV, had not really died, and in 1604 a man claiming to be the returned Dmitri Ivanovich invaded Russia with the provisional support of the King of Poland and a small army.  If this mysterious figure claiming the throne had any support from the people of Russia, it was likely because Boris Godunov had suffered terribly in the polls following widespread famine shortly after his official reign began.  Contemporary reports state that many Russians had been driven to grass-eating and cannibalism and that many thousands died in Moscow and the surrounding cities and countryside.

Moscow in the first decade of the 1600s pretty much sucked as a place to live due to famine and rebellion. Also because it was the early 17th century, and there was no sanitation or modern medicine.

Despite being an unpopular monarch with a very shaky claim to the throne, Boris managed to last long enough on the throne to die a natural death in 1605. This allowed “Dmitri”, whose true name is popularly supposed to have been Grigori Ostropov, to enter Moscow and crown himself Tsar of All the Russias.  This was lucky for Dmitri/Grigori, as his army wasn’t that large and probably could not successfully have brought an attack against Moscow if it had been defended.  Also luckily for Dmitri, his “mother”, Maria Nagaya, endorsed him as her son, strengthening his claim to the Monomakh’s Cap.

The glorious reign of Tsar Dmitri Ivanovich would last for only ten months. Dmitri’s closeness to the Roman Catholic Church and his support from the Jesuit order of priests caused great controversy in Russia, and Dmitri’s policies as Tsar (for example, allowing his Catholic and Protestant soldiers to enter and pray in Orthodox churches) did nothing to help his case.  He even married his new wife, the young Polish noblewoman Maria Mniszech, without requiring her to convert from Catholicism to Orthodoxy as was the standard practice.  Playing upon the fears of a Catholic takeover, Prince Vasily Shuisky, member of a prominent Muscovite noble family, convinced many of his fellow noblemen that Dmitri was planning to instigate a general massacre of Moscow’s residents.  The noblemen gathered popular support, and on May 17, 1606, a large crowd bent on destruction descended upon the Kremlin, where Dmitri had taken up residence.

The Last Minutes of False Dmitry by Carl Wenig (1879).

Tsar Dmitri was alerted to his impending doom and decided that his only chance of escape was through an upper story window.  During his escape attempt, he slipped and fell to the ground below, where the mob quickly finished him off.  Despite his death, however, the people of Moscow weren’t through with the imposter. They cremated his body, poured the ashes into a cannon, and fired the cannon in the direction of Poland, back to the land he had come from with his army. Contemporary chronicler Avraamy Palitsyn writes that a violent purge of Dmitri’s party in the city followed.

The reign of False Dmitri I makes for a bizarre tale.  The fact that a man claiming to be the supposedly dead son of a former monarch was accepted as such by said son’s own mother is exceedingly strange, and the fact that a second and a third “Dmitri” would emerge in the following years to lead unsuccessful revolts is even more amazing.  However, the religious element of the story is perhaps the strangest one to many modern readers, especially those living in secular states.  Why should the Russians have cared that Dmitri got married to an unrepentant Catholic and allowed his soldiers to practice their religion freely?

As Moscow increased in importance as a center of power, its citizens began to think of it as the “third Rome.”  The Church had originally started in Rome (well, it really started in the Roman province of Judaea if we want to be technical, but that’s neither here nor there.)  After the schism between East and West, the true center of the Church in the eyes of Orthodox Christians shifted to Constantinople.  Russia became the third home of the Church after Greek Orthodoxy was established as the state religion in Kiev in the 10th century.  As Moscow rose to prominence, it also became the center of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The false Dmitri’s seeming acceptance of Catholic rites and practices would have been seen as heresy by many Russians at the time, and for the Tsar himself to accept Catholicism was unthinkable.  The religious element of Dmitri’s approach is expressed well by Palitsyn, who specifically reports the spilling of “heretical blood” after the killing of the imposter tsar.

There’s also a political element to this story – Dmitri’s backing by Poland and the highly political Catholic Church suggested that Russia might become a satellite of Poland and of Rome as a result, and this was almost certainly the reason that King Sigismund III Vasa backed him as the son and legitimate of Tsar Ivan.  Dmitri sought alliances with Sigismund and Pope Paul V during his tenure as tsar, so these fears may have been warranted.

Four centuries later, Moscow is still the center of the Russian Orthodox Church. (Source: “Christ the Savior Cathedral Moscow” by Elijah.B. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.)

In the end, Dmitri’s short reign had no effect on history aside from getting the Russians pissed off at the Poles and providing material for some pretty good 19th century operas (such as Boris Godunov, written by the great composer Modest Mussorgsky.)  Vasily Shuisky, who had led the revolt against the false tsar, immediately took the throne as Tsar Vasily IV.  The new tsar declared that the true Dmitri Ivanovich had been murdered by Tsar Boris, and the son of Ivan the Terrible was canonized by the Church as a martyr.  Unfortunately for Russia, however, Vasily had little claim to the throne himself and struggled to enforce his power even in the city of Moscow, and his four years as tsar were marked by continued instability.  The Time of Troubles would only officially end with the rise of Mikhail, the first Romanov tsar, to power in 1613.

Dmitri is demonized in old Russian histories and later dramatizations.  Nothing in the histories suggests that he was an obviously horrible person.  However, he did commit the cardinal sin of either misreading or ignoring the public mood, and perhaps that is enough to give this royal imposter a permanent place in the Hall of Shame of lousy monarchs.

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