originally published November 25, 2013
It takes a curious glimmer of morning sun to inspire me to bitch-slap my daily tithe with the walloping sting of some Russian history. But a wonky story is a wonky story, and one of the most bat-crappingly wonktastic periods in the crazy history of the Russian Empire is the Time of Troubles, a story worth telling.
The problems (or ‘Troubles’, if we want to stay consistent) came from the antiquated and retrospectively moronic tradition of passing leadership of a nation or empire from father to son. Apart from the obvious bias that would be shown to the family in power and their buddies who make it over for weekly grog-snarfing parties, you also face the quagmire of logistics when no obvious heir is waiting in the wings for the seat of power.
Russia didn’t learn from the Time of Troubles – at least they didn’t learn that hereditary oomph might not be the best upholstery for their seat of power. But even if no great lessons would shape the future from this period, it still makes for a good story.
Meet Feodor I, son of Ivan the Terrible and known throughout the land as Feodor the Bellringer, literally because he liked to travel the countryside and ring church bells. Feodor was by all accounts a simple man, to the point of being mentally disabled, or whatever the polite 16th century way of saying that might have been. When he died in 1598 with no heir, it was believed that the 700+ year Rurik Dynasty had come to a close. His brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, took over, just in time for the country to collapse.
The Russian famine of 1601-1603 was not, strictly speaking, Boris Godunov’s fault. He couldn’t be blamed for freezing nighttime temperatures in the summer and three years of horrendous crop yields. The Huaynaputina volcano in Peru had erupted, and it’s now believed that this phenomenon actually caused the climatic sugar in the global environmental gas tank. But Boris was in command and the Russian nobles weren’t happy.
Gangs of plundering brigands were swarming around the country, picking at the bones of what remained of the Russian populace as over two million people – a third of the Russian population – died off. People pointed at Boris and called him a usurper, unworthy of the shiny tsar crown (assuming tsars wore crowns – I really don’t know). Then the rumors began. There was talk that Ivan the Terrible’s younger son, which would be the late tsar’s little brother and rightful heir to the seat of power, was still alive.
This was huge. Dmitri Ivanovich was believed to have been assassinated back in 1591 when he was nine, so for him to still be lurking somewhere in the shadows, that would be a game-changer. Then in 1603 he showed up.
The Russian citizens were happy. The Polish Commonwealth and the Roman Catholic Papal States were elated. Here was a guy that they could work with, help guide to his rightful rule, while hopefully keeping their hand in his back pocket, influencing the Russian state from the outside. The Polish Commonwealth never declared war on Russia, but they did march 4000 troops over the border with the aim of eventually securing Dmitri’s place in the capital.
There was, of course, a problem. This guy was not Dmitri Ivanovich. He was an imposter, just out to see if he could cash in on a pissed-off Russian populace. Sure enough, Boris Godunov died of a stroke in 1605 and Dmitri took the wheel.
The first order of business was to have the Godunov family executed, except for Princess Xenia Godunova, whom Dmitri thought would be a fantastically rape-worthy concubine. This is how power shuffled from one ruler to another in those days. The man who would later be known as the first (yes, the first) False Dmitri had a run of about ten months in power. That’s when another crazed nobleman, a Rurikid prince named Vasily Shuisky, organized a following and murdered Dmitri, taking the tsarship for himself.
I would think the desire to be tsar to be somewhat insane back then. As soon as anyone took command, a conspiracy fleet would unite, aiming to murder, depose and replace the guy. The food at the tsarist palace must have been pretty damn good.
Vasily had a few months in charge before another man emerged, claiming to be the real Dmitri Ivanovich. Once again the Polish contingent rallied around him and gave their support. This time it was full-on war, thanks to Vasily’s regime having penned an alliance with Sweden. The war got hot, and Vasily was forced to abdicate his throne. It looked as though Dmitri #2 might get a shot at running the store. But the Poles pulled a fast one and offered their king’s son, Wladislaw, as the guy who should take over.
Now Polish forces were running the Kremlin. The nobles allowed it, in exchange for some grade-A favors, and the second Dmitri (who was also an imposter – surprise!) stepped aside. But all was not groovy in the Polish Commonwealth; King Sigismund III didn’t want his son in charge of Russia – he wanted the job for himself. This enraged the Swedes, and they declared war on Russia, touting their own candidate to rule the country.
You guessed it, another guy who claimed to be Dmitri Ivanovich, the rightful heir.
So nobody was running the show in Russia. The nobility class was fighting amongst themselves in search of a leader, and the peasants out in the fields were still poor as shit and dreaming of a day when Cossacks would quit feeling so damn murdery. Between the battles, the riots, and the generally crappy conditions under which most Russians were forced to live, it’s a wonder the country survived. Moscow burned. Other cities were hacked apart, or in some cases, completely destroyed, its populace executed. False Dmitri III was murdered.
And out of the rubble a couple of heroes emerged. Kuzma Minin, a merchant from Nizhny Novgorod, and Prince Dmitry (no relation) Pozharsky became the non-royal, regular-schmo folk heroes who helped to battle back Polish forces. The country needed someone to believe in, and for now they were it. On November 4, 1612, the Polish army retreated and the Russians celebrated independence.
Michael Romanov, connected to the former dynasty via marriage, was elected by the nobility to be the new tsar. Not wanting to take any chances, the new tsar ordered the three-year-old son of False Dmitri #2 (the only heir of any of the bogus Dmitris) to be hanged. By 1619 there was peace, and the foundation for the Russian Empire to follow had been laid.
And all it took was a trio of power-hungry imposters to make it all happen.