This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

The momentous reign of Tsar Boris Godunov, a tragic operatic hero

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Saturday, 31 December 2011

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about Russia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Russian serfs and landowners, picture, image, illustration

Russian landowners were attacked by their oppressed and angry serfs, by Richard Hook

Ivan the Terrible was dead. The pall of fear he had cast over the land lifted slowly.

But still the Russian people could not look ahead with any confidence.

Ivan was succeeded by his son Fyodor, who occupied the Russian throne for 14 years, from 1584 to 1598, but he was tsar in name only. He had neither the intelligence nor the desire to rule, and during this period the reins of government were in the hands of Boris Godunov, a rich landowner who had risen to prominence during the latter part of Ivan the Terrible’s reign.

Boris Godunov was an able and extremely ambitious man. On Fyodor’s death he got himself elected tsar by the Zemsky Sobor, the Russian parliament of the day. But he was an unpopular ruler, chiefly because of the way he had come to power.

His enemies maintained that he had only won the election to the throne by “packing” parliament with men he could rely on to vote for him. A more serious charge, however, was that he had murdered Fyodor’s young half-brother, the rightful heir, to clear the way to the throne for himself. The charge was never proved, but it served to blacken Boris’s name.

Boris Godunov’s unpopularity was unfortunate: he did a great deal for his country, and he was the best ruler Russia had had for a long time. In particular, he had a very clear understanding of what the country needed. Very conscious that Russia was in many ways backward compared with her neighbours, he did everything he could to close the gap.

Young Russians were sent abroad to study, and in reverse foreign doctors and technical advisers were brought into the country. He also hired a small unit of German mercenaries to teach the Russians modern methods of warfare.

Boris Godunov maintained advantageous diplomatic relations with other countries. He strengthened his country’s defences by building fortresses at strategic points, and her agriculture and industry by establishing new towns at similarly suitable places. Cleverly, he also made sure of the support of the powerful Russian church simply by putting one of his own followers at its head.

But, as so often in Russian history, there were storm clouds on the horizon. During the second half of the 16th century, living conditions had been getting worse and worse for the great majority of the Russian people. Heavier and heavier taxes were levied upon the peasant population, with the result that they became poorer and poorer, while their lords and masters grew richer.

In the end, many who lived and worked on the big landowners’ estates were reduced to a level of existence little better than slavery.

It was a dreadful life, and some sought an answer by deserting their old masters and trekking out to seek their fortunes in the new lands which had recently been opened up to the south and east. Unfortunately, that only made a bad situation worse by creating a labour shortage.

The country suffered another grievous blow between 1601 and 1603 when it was devastated by famine. The hungry became hungrier still, and tens of thousands died. Whole villages were wiped out, and, in a crazy reversal of their previous policy, the landowners now turned loose large numbers of their serfs simply to avoid having to feed them.

The outcome was chaos and widespread lawlessness. Bands of peasants, desperate for something to put in their bellies, roamed the countryside attacking trading caravans and villages, even towns.

When an animal lies hurt and helpless, the beasts of prey soon become aware of the fact. Russia was like some great, wounded bear, and in the year 1604 an adventurer claiming to be a Russian of royal blood, “Prince Dimitry”, crossed the border from Poland. He advanced on Moscow, gathering together an army of mutinous Cossacks and runaway peasants on the way.

Dimitry’s campaign was aided by the death of Boris Godunov a few months later. Shortly after that the pretender prince, or “false Dimitry”, as he was known, entered Moscow, where he was accepted as tsar by the big landowners, who were hoping for some kind of pay-off in return.

They did not get it, and that did not please them. In fact, they were so far from pleased that they had Prince Dimitry murdered and acclaimed as tsar in his place one of their own number.

But that too failed to work. With too many people wanting a say in government, and no one really in control, things in Russia went from bad to worse. The country was in a state of revolt, and history repeated itself when a second “false Dimitry” came riding in from Poland.

Invasion from Poland was becoming fashionable. In the year 1609 the Polish king Sigismund invaded Russia. He made his presence felt to the extent that the landowners negotiated with him with a view to his son Ladislas becoming tsar.

It never happened. The landowners deposed their new leader, and the Poles entered Moscow, but the Russian people had had enough. A Patriotic movement swept the country and the Polish invaders were quickly driven out.

Once again, Russia was in a depressingly familiar situation: she still had to find a tsar.

This time the Zemsky Sobor chose a 16-year-old, Michael Romanov, who belonged to a popular landowning family. The Romanovs had had very little to do with the troubles and intrigues of the past few decades and also had connections with the previous royal family.

Michael Romanov was crowned tsar in Moscow in 1613. The Romanovs were destined to rule Russia for 300 years.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.