"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 20, 2020

The False Dmitris; or, When the Russians Call a Period in Their History the "Time of Troubles," You Know Things Were Really Bad

Ivan the Terrible may have been, well, terrible, but it was after he died in 1584 that the pure hell really began to break loose. Ivan left numerous children by various wives and mistresses, an uncertain succession, and a royal court containing more than the average number of psychopaths. It was easy to predict this would not end well.

Ivan was initially succeeded by his oldest son, the sickly, and probably half-witted, Feodor I. However, Russia’s de facto ruler, until Feodor’s death in 1598, was his brother-in-law Boris Godunov. Among Godunov’s potential rivals was Ivan’s youngest son, Dmitri, who was only a toddler when his father died. Godunov had the boy banished to the remote city of Uglich, where he lived in obscurity for the next seven years.

In 1591, it was announced that a terrible accident had occurred to Ivan’s son. While Dmitri was playing darts with a set of long knives, he fell into an epileptic fit and—darn the luck!—just happened to land on top of one of his toys, thus accidentally stabbing himself to death with his own knife.

From that day to this, everyone has responded to this story by saying, in so many words, “Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it.” However, the crux of the tale—that little Dmitri was now no more—went unquestioned.

Well, except by some people.

About two years after Godunov had established himself as Feodor’s successor, an educated, aristocratic young man suddenly appeared to challenge Godonov’s claim to the throne. He was, he declared, really Ivan’s son Dmitri. He had survived Godonov’s attempts to assassinate him, and had been lying low in Poland ever since.

False Dmitri I, via Wikipedia

This man may now be known to history as “False Dmitri I,” but at the time, he found many people willing to believe him—whether this was because he was an unusually convincing pretender, or simply because the new Tsar Boris was such an unattractive specimen, is hard to tell. “Dmitri” gained the support of a sizable number of the boyars (the Russian aristocracy,) and went to war with the current Tsar. Boris claimed his rival was merely a runaway monk named Grigory Otrepyev, but we have no evidence other than his obviously biased word to support this.

Boris died in 1605, leaving the throne to his son, Feodor II, and the Time of Troubles was well and truly under way. “Dmitri” and his allies managed to assassinate Feodor, and this Slavic Perkin Warbeck actually found himself Tsar.

For a while, at least. Less than a year later he himself was murdered by political enemies. Be careful what you wish for, etc. One of the boyars who led the coup against him, Prince Basil Shuisky, took the throne as Tsar Basil IV.

Russia, however, had yet to hear the last of Dmitri Ivanovich. In 1607, another man (whose real identity remains unknown,) sprang out of nowhere, asserting that he was the true Dmitri. He proved just as popular as the last one—evidently many Russians were willing to follow pretty much anyone claiming to be Ivan’s son—quickly amassing an army of some hundred thousand men. He even married the former Tsarina Marina, widow of False Dmitri I.

False Dmitri II, via Wikipedia

He may well have been as successful as the previous Dmitri if he had not gotten drunk one night in 1610 and set himself up for one of his enemies—a Tatar Prince he had flogged—to murder him.

No matter how often Dmitri was killed off, he always sprang up anew, like dandelions, or Freddy Kruger, or a character in a particularly bloody soap opera (which actually isn’t a bad description of most of Russian history.) Meet “False Dmitri III.”

This last Dmitri—whoever he may have been--was unquestionably the poorest specimen of the lot. Although he did get support among the Cossacks—who pronounced him Tsar in 1612—he was quickly captured, brought to Moscow, and executed.

After this last death, Russia’s supply of False Dmitris was at last exhausted. It took a long time for his countrymen to let go of the memory of the legendary Ivan’s son, however. To this day, in a few history books, there can be seen one or two wistful hints that, well, who knows, one of those Dmitris may have been the real deal.

And who can say for certain they are wrong?


  1. The False Dmitris (which would be a great name for a band) and Perkin Warbeck (the figurehead for a rebellion against Henry VII of England) demonstrate the mystique of royalty. It wasn’t enough for a monarch to be hated or for his opponents to have the means to raise an army. The idea that the monarch was appointed by God, or was at least something essentially different from the rest of society, was so widely accepted that any rebel movement had to be led by a legitimate claimant to the throne or had to manufacture one if none were available. The “divine right of kings” may be the most successful con of all time.

  2. Poor Russia: pretty much any ten year-period in its history can be called a 'time of troubles'...

  3. "The False Dmitris (which would be a great name for a band)" LOL


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