Dear Readers:

Welcome to Awful Avalanche, here is my blog concept and what I do [updated 6 January 2019]:

My blogposts are written in English.  I review content mostly from the Russian-language online press, in search of stories which interest me.  From time to time I venture out and review other things, for example, opera or movies!

My target audience:  Russophiles, or anybody else who is interested.

As my blog concept evolved, it contains content divided into the following categories:

  • Animal Rights
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I hope you read and enjoy my posts!

Sincerely yours,


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Godunov Continuation – Recap-ka of Monomakh! – Episode 5

Episode 5 Recap:

A grieving but determined Fyodor Borisovich Godunov ascends to the throne of his father.  The teenager looks out at the same sea of two-faced boyar faces.  Bishop Varlaam entreats him to be strong and depend on “these helpers” while Maria Godunova utters sarcastic comments under her breath.  Shuisky and Mstislavsky utter hypocritical best wishes while smirking under their moustaches.  An embittered Maria entreats her son to be cruel and harsh as a ruler.

No problem there:  the heretofore likable Fyodor is already, out of the gate, showing signs of harshness.  Xenia entreats her kid brother to release her boyfriend Ileika, who is still rotting in the dungeon despite Papa’s promise to free him (?)  But Fyodor mansplains to her that he will not release anybody until the Russian judicial system, such as it is, has either run its course, or they run out of whips to beat the prisoners with.  (But… but.. he is Tsar now, doesn’t he have the right to pardon unconditionally?)  Xenia and her mom get into a hair-pulling fight, and Fyodor yells at the women-folk to get back to their confinement room and out of his hair.  He’s trying to Tsar, sheesh…  Well, Fedya, enjoy your power while you have it, it won’t be all that long, snark snark…

Handsome Russian actor Ilya Ilyinykh as the kid Tsar

Meanwhile, back in the Pretender camp everybody is thrilled at the news of Boris Godunov’s death.  Grisha’s Jesuit confessor says this is proof that God is on their side.  (By that logic, God turns against everybody sooner or later.)  The Jesuit tries to convince the Pretender to publicly convert to Catholicism; but the latter refuses, knowing the Russian people are not quite ready to put a Catholic on the throne. Grisha still nurtures the coin that Xenia once tossed to him and promises her ominously: “Soon we shall meet again, Ksusheshka!  Very soon!”

Back in the women’s harem, Sofia bucks up a depressed Xenia:  “You are the strongest woman I know.”  Sofia reveals that she is pregnant, with Nechai’s baby.  Very soon her bump will start to show, and she needs to be out of the Kremlin before then, since people will think she is an unwed mother.  Hence, she will remove herself in search of Nechai.  Xenia is happy for her friend, but still can’t shake herself out of her depression. Sofia sternly reminds her that she is the daughter of Boris Godunov and the granddaughter of Maliuta Skuratov.  And they need to put the Scooby gang back together one last time, to rescue Ileika!

Tsar and Consigliere: Free now to take other acting jobs

Enter the German doctor.  He gets down and his knees and begs Xenia to free his wife and child, who (he thinks) are in the Kremlin dungeon.  What an opportunity:  Xenia and Sofia see a way to free Ileika as well.  Xenia sneaks into the torture chamber in disguise.  The dwarf tries to stop her, but is intimidated when he recognizes her.  Sofia and the German doctor follow her closely into the dungeon.  Xenia blackmails the dwarf, threatening to accuse him of touching her (an arrestable offense), unless he does exactly what she says.  He complies and opens the lock.  The trio search through the cells.  They don’t find the Doc’s family (so, Shuisky was bluffing after all!), but they do find Ileika.  Which was Xenia’s goal in the first place anyhow.  The girls rescue him and hustle him out.  A seriously damaged Ileika is put in a cart, and Sofia bribes a peasant to drive him away to safety.  As we learn later, the peasant takes him directly to the Rebel camp.

In the throne room, the new boy Tsar Fyodor gets word that the Pretender’s army is approaching the gates of Moscow.  Fyodor is dwelling in sort of a daze.  The boyars advise him to take his family away and hide; but he refuses: “No. I am the Russian Tsar. My place is in the Kremlin.”  “Well, at least send your mom sister away [you idiot]!”  Fyodor:  “You can ask them yourselves, but I already know the answer.  We are Godunovs.  We don’t run away.”  Okay, fine.  Get ready to die.

The Rebel army have reached as far as the Shuisky estate just outside of Moscow.  Standing up on his soap box, Ataman Nechai reads out the new decree issued by False Dmitry.  Dmitry greets the people as their Liberator and promises to bring them both Food and Freedom.  The crowd goes “Hurrah!”  In the crowd we see Nechai’s former Musketeer comrade, Pronka (the one who betrayed him and forced him to become a bandit), accompanied by his son.  Pronka is happy to see Nechai still alive.  (Nechai never found out that Pronka was the one who betrayed him.)  The crowd starts screaming against the Godunovs, and a riot erupts.  Musketeers still loyal to the Tsar attempt to break up the demonstration.  The crowd fights back.  Things get out of hand.

Pushkin warned about mob violence.

In this scene we see the true bloody nature of the “Russkiy bunt“, the “Russian revolt” as Pushkin described it, along with advice never to allow this sort of misbehavior again. The mob makes mincemeat of the musketeers, then tears through Vasily Shuisky’s estate, consuming everything like locusts.  Innocent children die in the crush, there is blood everywhere.  Pronka’s little boy is one of the casualties.  And, by the way (I will comment more on this later), this TV series is very cruel on children.  In every episode there are so many images of children suffering, crying, starving, tiny kids scared out of their wits, being crushed, being murdered, even having their eyes gouged out.  I personally think this series is okay for parents to watch with their kids, but they must be prepared to reassure the latter that all of this happened in the distant past; and, besides, these are just actors playing at make-believe.

In the melee, the German doctor finally finds his family.  Turns out they were living at the Shuisky estate, as hostages.  (So that Shuisky could blackmail the Doc into poisoning Boris.)  Unforunately, it is not a happy reunion.  Both wife and son are dead and lying in pools of their own blood.  Killed by the mob.  The Doc is heartbroken.  Pronka also vows vengeance when he recovers the body of his child:  “Nechai!  You killed my son!”  When he returns home carrying the body, his wife goes mad from grief.  There is a sort of karma, though:  Recall that Pronka’s wife was the village idiot who agitated some of this dissension locally, turning people against Tsar Boris and in favor of the Pretender.  Now she sows the harvest of Unintended Consequences.

Polish soldiers bring a fledgling Democracy to Russia.

The Deep State boyars are cut up when they learn about the mob destroying Shuisky’s estate.  Karma for them, too.  Class divisions in Russian society always have a way of breaking through, even when the elites think they are controlling the chaos.

Shuisky threatens to expose “Dmitry” as the fraud that he is.  “It’s a bit late for that,” the other boyars chide him.  The most important thing is to restore Law and Order, otherwise their property is in peril.  The Deep State makes the decision:  They will let this farce play itself out and actually put False Dmitry on the throne.  As for Fyodor Godunov and his family… [throat-cutting motion]

In the women’s quarters, a visibly upset Sofia tells Xenia about the horrible scene, and how the musketeers were butchered by the mob.  Somebody calls to her from outside, in the courtyard.  Sofia runs to the window.  It’s Nechai!  She lets him in, and the happy couple are reunited.  Sofia gives him the good news:  She is pregnant with his child!  But Xenia confronts Nechai:  “I heard that you are a Dmitry-supporter.  In which case, you are now our enemy.”

Nechai placates her by giving her more good news:  Ilya is alive and well … in the Rebel Encampment.  Awkward…  Xenia (disappointed):  “Then he is with you.”  Nechai [playing on the dual meaning of the preposition “with”]: “He is with us [physically], but I won’t say that he is with us…  He is still unconscious.”  Whew!

Actress Darya Ursulyak is Xenia Godunova

Xenia poses an awkward question to Nechai:  “You are commanding the Pretender’s army.  When he arrives at the Kremlin tomorrow and gives the order to murder us, what will you do?”  Nechai:  “I’ll think about it.”  An irritated Nechai orders his wife to pack her stuff and leave with him.  Sofia refuses.  She won’t go anywhere without Xenia.  Fine.  Xenia should pack her stuff and come with them.  He’s a big bogatyr of a man, he will protect her against the Rebs.  Xenia refuses.  Just like her brother said, she isn’t going anywhere.  Sofia makes her choice:  She will stay with Xenia.  She smacks Nechai a couple of times and orders him to leave.

The blonde boyar whose name I never could figure out, arrives in the Pretender’s camp with a treasure chest of gifts. False Dmitry picks out a ring for himself that he particularly likes, then appoints the boyar Moscow Governor.  He orders the Prince to “clean out the Kremlin” and kill all of the Godunovs, except for the girl, whom he is determined to have for his mistress.

As the assassins approach the Kremlin, Vasily Shuisky tries to stop them.  “Don’t kill anyone,” he implores.  But it’s too late for second thoughts.  “Don’t touch Maria,” Shuisky begs.  [Recall that way back at the beginning of Season #1, Shuisky was in love with Maria Skuratova and was actually planning to marry her, until Boris snapped her up.  Turns out he still has feelings for the old girl.]  Again, it’s too late, and he doesn’t get a vote any more.  Poor old Shuisky has become a Shakespearean character, a more sinister version of King Lear.  He set things in motion, and now has no control…

A Stain On Russian History

The Russian government and Church of the modern day weep copious tears over the death of the Romanov family at the hands of the Bolsheviks.  They even, hypocritically, turn Nicky Romanov and his brood into Church Saints to ensure that nobody is allowed to cast criticism on those parasites.  Well, they should spare their tears for the true Crime of the Millenium:  The murder of the Godunov family[End of rant.]

Tsar Fyodor walks out calmly onto Red Square to greet the rent-a-crowd, who bay for his blood. The mob is not impressed by his good posture and bearing.  Prince Mstislavsky, at first pretending to buck up Fyodor, suddenly rips off his mask and reveals himself as a Pretender support:  “Long live Tsar Dmitry!” he encourages the mob.  Maria hisses at him:  “You dog!”  The emboldened mob attacks, and the Godunovs retreat back into the inner chambers of their palace.  Mstislavsky announces that they are under arrest.

The Godunov sibs await their destiny calmly and heroically, hand in hand, and reminiscing about the past.  Maria cannot be calmed:  She sees everything clearly now, realizes how deep the plot went; that the boyars poisoned her husband.  The fatal moment arrives, this is one of the worst moments in Russian history.  The assassins enter the inner chambers. Young Fyodor attempts to defend his family, armed with a single knife. They coldly kill his mother first, and then the boy, stabbing him multiple times. Only Xenia is left alive to face the horror.  The image of Fyodor’s childhood rocking chair rocking emptily — very effective!

The murder of the Godunov family.

In the next scene we see the boyars burying the dead Godunovs and awaiting the arrival of the Pretender.  The blonde boyar (now Moscow Governor) lies to the people, telling them that Maria and Fyodor poisoned themselves.  (Hence, the closed coffins, to disguise the fact that they were stabbed multiple times.)  Bishop Varlaam enters the courtyard and objects to what they did, calling them Judases.  The mob pelts him with rocks and then stomps him to death.

Xenia is lying in the dungeon, probably in that very same cell where Ileika used to live.  The floor is wet and muddy, and all her fine clothes are ruined.  The bars of the cell are encrusted with cobwebs.

Sofia and her Papa are among the crowd awaiting the arrival of the Pretender.  Also lurking there is Grishka’s biological mom.  She mutters:  “People are saying that my son Yushenka is the Tsarevich?”  The village idiots chuckle at the addled old bird.

The Imposter prances into Red Square, accompanied by Nechai, Ileika, and the Polish mercenaries.  Grishka’s horse rears, and the Imposter almost takes a tumble, right in front of the crowd.  Embarrassing!  Righting himself pompously, Grishka addresses the crowd, while Shuisky watches bemusedly, stroking his beard.  Oddly enough, the crowd is not enthused and start to boo the Imposter.  [In Pushkin’s play, I believe this is the moment where Pushkin writes:  “The people are silent.”  But in this version, they boo.]

Grishka visits Xenia in her cobwebby cell.

We see a still very woozy Ileika, dressed in his foreign garb, riding alongside Nechai.  Nechai warns his friend not to speak Russian:  The deal is that Nechai passed him off to the Rebs as a Latin interpreter for the Poles.  If they knew who he really was, they would kill him.  As the Pretender is greeted by the Metropolitan, his biological mom bursts out of the crowd:  “Yushenka!”  This woman is like Banquo’s ghost, popping up everywhere and at highly inconvenient times!  As the Polish mercenaries march by in their back-feather gear, the Russian people maybe start to get an inkling that they are under foreign rule now.  Just like the 1990’s!

The Imposter greets the boyars in the throne room, naming each boyar by name; but quickly skipping over Shuisky and Mstislavsky.  Those two rogues murmur among themselves:  They know that he is Grisha Otrepiev, and he knows that they know.  Grishka takes up the rod and scepter. He is ready for his crowning, but “Where is the Patriarch?”  It is explained to him that the Patriarch was “driven away” by the mob.  A new Patriarch needs to be found.  Er…. all this time in my recaps, when I was calling Varlaam a Bishop, was he actually the Patriarch?  Church ranks are confusing to me, I apologize to my readers.

Bucking up his courage, Grishka finally addresses Shuisky:  “I see by your facial expression and body language that you don’t believe I am for real.  You, Shuisky, you are the man who swore under oath that I, as a child, cut my own throat with my own knife!”  Shuisky:  “Sire, I always believed in my heart that God had spared you.”  Grishka:  “Then go out to the people and tell them that you lied to them then.”  Shuisky:  “As you command, Sire.”

Actor Evgeny Tkachuk is perfect as the most famous imposter in Russian history

Hence, the new Tsar quickly issues orders: Vasily Shuisky, the man who originally investigated the Tsarevich’s demise and pronounced the verdict of “accidental death” is ordered to appear before the people and change his story. Henchpersons are to hurry off to Uglich and bring back his “mother”, Maria Nagaya. The Pretender will not sit on the throne until she recognizes him as her own son.  This scene shows the masterful acting style of Evgeny Tkachuk, who is absolutely perfect as the brazen Pretender.  In real life Tkachuk doesn’t have that big wart on his face either; it’s a paste-on.

On the way out of the throne room, Grisha sees Ilya lurking around and challenges him.  The tolmach (=interpreter) isn’t supposed to be there, he’s supposed to be at the Polish Embassy.  Nechai quickly hustles his friend away.  Ilya, it goes without saying, is trying to find out what happened to Xenia.

Speak of the devil:  False Dmitry comes to visit the Tsarevna in her dungeon cell.  “Do you recognize me?” he challenges her, tossing the coin back at her.  “You are Grigory Otrepiev, and you murdered my brother.”  Xenia rejects Grisha’s advances, and he brutally rapes her, right there on the floor of the dungeon.  This scene is hard to watch.  If you have kids, you shouldn’t let them watch this scene, that is my recommendation.

Meanwhile, Fyodor Romanov, in his monastery cell, gets word of the latest news from Moscow.  Apparently he has been appointed the new Moscow Bishop (or is that the Patriarch?)  He goes into the woods and consults with his hermit friend, the one with the bear.  What to do next?  The Pretender has promised to return his wife and son to him if he agrees to play along with this farce.  The Hermit advises him to pray for God’s guidance.  Fyodor Romanov has a difficult road ahead of him, navigating all these murky waters.

The final scene of this episode is horrendous and disturbing.  Recall how, in previous episode, Grishka ordered the Jesuit to “make it so the choirboy can’t see him.”  And here we see the result of that ominous hint:  The choirboy is limping along the road, singing and begging for alms; and as the camera pans up we see that both of his eyes have been gouged out.  Once again, this historical soap opera is very cruel on children.  But those were cruel times, indeed.  In the words of Pushkin, Pray god we never see such times again…

[to be continued]

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Godunov Continuation – Recap-ka of Monomakh! – Episode 4

Episode 4 Recap:

Poor Boris is having another bad nightmare.  In this one he re-encounters Ivan the Terrible in the hot tub.  But the bathhouse is all cob-webby and everything is falling apart.  Ivan looks like a zombie, with scabs all over his face.  The ghost of Grozny mocks Boris with the news that his fake son will soon overthrow him and ascend the throne.  Then Ivan offers him a horribly moldy and wormy apple to eat.  Ugh! Boris wakes up gasping for air.  Masha comforts the scared old ruler while simultaneously mocking him for his weakness.

The year is 1604, the narrator informs us.  Polish mercenaries have invaded Holy Rus to bring down the Russian government and acquire more lands. Polish cavalrymen wear racks upon their back, upon which are mounted tall feathery wings. God’s avenging angels!

The Pretender’s army inexorably approaches Moscow. False Dmitry is studying Polish in his spare time, and learns how to pronounce “Dzień dobry, Pano Marino” – “Good afternoon, Lady Marina!”  when Princess Marina arrives to visit with him in his tent.  She is impatient to reach Moscow and be crowned as Empress.  Grishka informs her that the Roman Pope has blessed their enterprise.  The fortresses are falling to his army one at a time, without a shot being fired.  She must be patient.  But she is impatient.

Maria Mniszech arrives in Russia.

When Marina turns to leave, Grishka grabs her, he reminds her that both Sigismund and her own father handed her over to him (=False Dmitry) as his prize for conquering Russia for them.  A Russian (e.g., himself) has to sit on the throne, but if she plays her cards right, she can sit beside him.  Marina disses him contemptuously:  “Everybody know that you are an Imposter.  But I can transform you into an actual King.”  After this verbal foreplay the wicked duo enjoy a bout of rough sex.

In the next scene, Ilya and the Danish convoy are fleeing from forest bandits.  The bandits are led by Nechai!  The bandits shoot a couple of musketeers and wound Ilya, knocking him off his horse.  It goes without saying that Nechai doesn’t know it’s Ilya, he would never hurt his chum (who was the best man at his secret wedding) if he knew it was him.

In the Kremlin apartment:  Fyodor Godunov comes to chat with his sister.  They have a serious conversation.  Xenia is depressed about everything that is going on.  She asks Fyodor why he wants to be the Tsar.  He says he loves Russia and its people, he wants to be a good ruler and help them thrive.  Fyodor mansplains to sis how she can do her part to save Russia.  She can marry a European prince to ensure a strong peace.  That’s all Xenia is now, just a Prize Uterus for sale.

Russian children play a game called “Kazaki-Razboiniki” – Cossacks and Robbers

In the bandit encampment, Ilya comes to.  The Clown rushes to inform Robber Ataman Nechai.  Ilya is not thrilled to see his friend living this criminal life style.  The two men engage in a spirited political debate.  Ilya is still loyal to Tsar Boris, whom Nechai despises.  Turns out, Nechai has drunk the Kool-Aid, he actually believes that False Dmitry is Real Dmitry, haha.  Ilya just shakes his head and rolls his eyes.  Nechai justifies his banditry on the grounds that (sort of like Robin Hood) they are raiding the big estates and giving out grain to the hungry.  Their longer goal is to meet up with Tsarevich Dmitry’s army and help him storm the Kremlin.  Nechai invites Ilya to join their crusade, but the latter refuses.  Nechai recommends that he (Ilya) return to Moscow on the sly and there await the arrival of the “legitimate” Tsar.  Once Dmitry ascends the throne, he (Nechai) will put in a good word for his friend Ilya.  He recommends that Ilya take good care of the Tsarevna Xenia.  “But if you see my wife, Sofia, please don’t tell her I am a forest bandit.  Just tell her I’m alive, and we’ll meet up soon.”

Okay, and here is an important plot point:  This entire conversation between Nechai and Ilya was witnessed by a local landowner whom the bandits have captured and tied up while robbing his estate.  When watching this scene, at first I thought this boyar was Vasily Shuisky, because their faces are somewhat similar and all the boyars have long shaggy hair and beards at this point (plus, my facial recognition skills are not among the best in the land).  But no, it’s just some other boyar, whose name I don’t know, in a non-speaking role.  Anyhow, remember this, because it comes into play later, and is also reminiscent of one of the main plot lines of Pushkin’s story “The Captain’s Daughter”; namely, that bit where the hero is falsely accused of consorting with bandits, on the eye-witness testimony of a captive who saw him conversing with some of Pugachev’s men.

Maria Nagaya was said to have been the most beautiful of Ivan’s 6 wives.

Meanwhile, back in the Kremlin: Tsar Boris greets a defiant Maria Nagaya.  The old man begs her to address the addled populace.  She needs to tell the Russian people in very clear language that her only child Dmitry is dead as a doornail.  Nagaya gives Boris the silent treatment. Maria Godunova enters the room, and a terrific catfight breaks out between the two Mashas. While Boris screams at the top of his voice “FOR THE THOUSANDTH TIME, I DID NOT KILL YOUR BOY!” Masha Godunova grabs a candlestick and threatens to burn Nagaya. This scene is more riveting and only slightly less violent than an episode of Desperate Housewives!

In the next scene, False Dmitry greets his new razboiniki recruits, led by Ataman Nechai.  “We came here from Moscow to serve you loyally, Your Highness.”  The Pretender jumps up onto his soap box and gives a little speech.  He accepts their fealty and promises the robbers, that whatever booty they might acquire in the course of battle, is theirs to keep. Hoorah!  The bandits are super-excited.

Sofia Fyodorovna is shopping in the local outdoor marketplace.  Suddenly Ilya appears right in front of her.  What with everything going on, he never returned to Denmark, like he was supposed to. Instead he snuck back to Moscow, knowing vaguely that he will be needed there to help protect Xenia during this Time of Troubles.  True to his promise to Nechai, he doesn’t tell her that her hubby is a forest bandit.  “Nechai is alive and well.  Well-fed and happy.”  “Happy?”  That doesn’t go down well.  “I meant to say, he is miserable without you.”  Sofia agrees to set up a rendezvous between Ilya and Xenia.  Slowly but surely, the Scooby gang is coming back together.

Ilya Framed For Treason

The Russian Deep State (Shuisky, Mstislavsky, and that other boyar who doesn’t have many lines) are plotting and scheming, as usual, while they await the arrival of the Pretender’s army.  The big question on their minds:  Whose side will Romanov take?  Shuisky assures them that Romanov will come over to their side, when the times comes.

Ilya appears before Tsar Boris, with his glib explanation why he never made it back to Denmark.  “We were attacked by forest robbers…  The robbers stole every damned thing we had.”  Boris, now with a palsied hand, accuses Ilya of treason and helping the Pretender.  Ilya denies that allegation:  “Sire, I am no traitor!”  But Boris has an eye witness on tap:  The local landowner who doesn’t have any lines and resembles Shuisky.  The man walks in, eyes Ilya, and nods his affirmation that, yes, this is the man who was seen consorting with the Pretender’s razboiniki.  “Why did he let you go?” Boris demands.  “I convinced him to let me go,” Ilya responds lamely.

“Boris, you are so evil!” “Please, my darling Masha, don’t flatter me.”

“And yet these bandits have murdered so many good peoples on the highways…  Why did he spare you?” Boris keeps drumming on.  With nothing left to lose, Ilya tells the truth:  That he and Nechai used to be comrades, that’s why he was spared.  That was the wrong thing to say, you should never utter the word “comrade” in front of the Tsar, it smacks too much of Bolshevism.  Boris screams in a rage:  “Take him away!”

The guards drag him away, and now it’s Ilya’s turn to be hideously tortured by Godunov’s henchpersons, including the sadistic dwarf.

Boris himself enters the torture chamber to confront his prisoner.  The Tsar is still just hissing on about “treason, traitors, treason, traitors…” and Ilya blurts out that he is in love with Xenia.  He loves her, and she loves him back.  Boris is not impressed.  Russia is still 200 years away from the “Romantic” age.

Next we are back in the men’s monastery with Fyodor Romanov.  Apparently he has passed his “Anger Management” course with flying colors, and the Bishop let him back in to his old room.  He even has a new monk name now:  Filaret.  A guest arrives:  his old Oprichnik comrade Vasily Shuisky.  Shuisky brings him a letter written by his boy, Misha (=the future Tsar), in block letters.  Romanov is touched by his child’s academic progress, but the conversation soon turns to politics.  Boris needs to be replaced.  By the Pretender.  Romanov/Filaret can’t believe that Shuisky actually kissed the cross for that rogue, False Dmitry.  With a strong right hook he punches Shuisky right in the face.  So much for that Anger Management certificate – tear it down from the wall!

Back in the Kremlin, Boris is a limping time bomb. The German Doctor delivers the bad news:  The Tsar’s health is in shambles; everything is failing: joints, liver, kidneys, he has Lou Gehrig’s Disease; the works. The slow poisoning engineered by the boyars is not helping either.

The Tsar’s Consigliere (whose name I just learned is “Stepan”, I probably should have known that before) reports that they have intercepted letters from the Pretender.  False Dmitry has the support of the boyars and the people.  It’s not too late for Boris to flee from Moscow.  Boris is a stubborn old fool and refuses to budge.  Masha Godunova catches up with Stepan in the corridor.  Then she starts coming on to him and stroking his face.  All these years he served the Tsar loyally, asking nothing in return.  He has no wife, no children of his own, she mocks him.  Masha’s behavior is very unprofessional and borders on sexual harassment of her employee.  Then she asks the befuddled Consigliere to undertake a secret-agent spy mission for her, to the Pretender’s camp.  He is to infiltrate the camp, posing as a blind beggar, and assassinate False Dmitry!

Back in the kitchen, Xenia and Sofia are brewing up some herbal medicines (that were given to them by the German doctor) for Papa.  Suddenly Sofia gets nauseous and rushes out to barf. The German doctor enters the kitchen and shares with Xenia what he overheard when treating her dad; namely about the recent prisoner named Ilya who confessed, under torture, that Xenia loved him.  Xenia rushes out of the kitchen, extremely upset.  Sofia re-enters and tells the doctor about her symptoms.  His diagnosis:  She is pregnant.  (Which is okay, because she was married in a church, albeit it was a secret wedding.)

In a rage, Boris almost kills his daughter.

Xenia angrily confronts Dad, pleading for her boyfriend’s life, now that she just found out he is downstairs in the Kremlin torture chamber.  “He’s a traitor,” Papa insists.  “No, he’s not!” she retorts.

Boris loses his temper and strikes out at his daughter. Xenia falls backward and almost hits her head, but Boris catches her and cradles her in his arms. This is a rather effective scene, in which the set designers deliberately imitated the famous Repin painting of Ivan the Terrible; except this time with his daughter instead of son; and this time he stopped short of killing her. Overcome with remorse that he came this close to killing his favorite child, not to mention morphing into Ivan Grozny, Boris agrees to release her boyfriend from the dungeon.  Supposedly.

In the next scene, Xenia visits Ilya in the dungeon, he is in pretty bad shape after all the whippings.  But suddenly he is free, they are back upstairs, all is well, they are kissing and smooching like crazy.  Oh no, that was just a fantasy sequence — he’s still in the dungeon, trembling from fever and pain.  But Xenia is with him, hugging him close, and this totally doesn’t make any sense, because didn’t Boris just promise his daughter he would let Ilya go (?)

Camp Followers

In False Dmitry’s camp, the Skomorokh is entertaining the mercenaries with his brilliant rooster imitation.  False Dmitry is very amused, until he suddenly spots a familiar face in the crowd:  It’s the Tsar’s Consigliere in disguise!  Nechai seizes the suspect and drags him into the Pretender’s tent.  Stepan the Congisliere pretends to be blind, but they soon catch him out on that ruse.  The two men recognize each other:  Grisha knows Stepan from the Kremlin; and Stepan knows Grisha as the guy who used to take minutes at the Council meetings.

Vasily Shuisky: No rogue like an old rogue.

Grisha orders Nechai to leave them alone; which is a mistake.  Stepan, even with his hands tied behind his back, sees his opportunity and ambushes Grisha, kicking him down and stomping on his neck.  Grisha fights back and stabs him numerous times with his knife.  The Consigliere falls down dead.  RIP.  The Pretender emerges from the tent, all shaken up.  He hears a child singing and recognizes the voice:  It’s the choirboy whom he used to tutor; and who sung at the funeral of Pronka’s baby.  Warning:  This is an extremely disturbing plot line.  False Dmitry realizes that this boy, now apparently resident in the Pretender camp, is still one more person from his past; who could recognize him and identify him as the former monk Grisha Otrepiev.  The Jesuit priest warns Grisha:  “This boy could recognize you.  He must not see you.”  Grisha:  “Then make it so he will not see me.”

Back in the Kremlin:  At the Tsar’s meeting with his Boyar Council, there is bad news after bad news: All the fortresses are falling, one by one, to the Pretender, without even a shot being fired.  Only Novgorod still stands, proud and tall.  [Maybe, just speculating here, ’cause Novgorod still remembers what Ivan Grozny did to it, and refuses to be enthralled by Ivan’s bratty Pretender-child.]  Sneaky Snake Mstislavsky delivers the final crushing blow:  The Tsar’s loyal Consigliere, Stepan, has crossed over to the side of the Pretender.  (That’s a blatant lie, but Boris believes it.)  Boris throws a fit and foams at the mouth.  Later his family gather at his bedside, along with the German doctor, and also Bishop Varlaam, probably to deliver last rites.

Novgorod defies the Pretender

The German doctor visits Shuisky’s at his greenhouse to stock up on more herbs. All these years Shuisky has been slowly poisoning the Tsar, but now it’s time to up his game with a faster poison.  Shuisky exerts mind-control over the Doc, tells him that his (the Doc’s) wife has been arrested as a witch and accused of poisoning the Tsar.  The Tsar personally ordered her to be tortured.  The only way to save her is to kill Boris!  With a little homemade herbal concoction, heh heh…  Take these grasses to the Kremlin, please…

In the next scene, Boris is gulping down his yummy goblet of poison medicine, as delivered to him by the German doctor, right to his bedside!  That’s concierge service for you.  A dying Boris blesses his beloved children.  He tells his wife how much he loves her.  He has always loved her since Day #1.  It’s a very sad scene.  Boris then gets up, gets dressed, and climbs the bell tower to pray one last time.  Before he even gets to the top, the poison starts working on him.  He claws his way to the top of the bell tower, prays to God to watch over his children, sets the bell ringing, and then keels over and drops dead.

And thus, with the series not even halfway done, we have lost our titular hero!

[to be continued]

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Godunov Continuation – Recap-ka of Monomakh! – Episode 3

Episode 3 Recap:

Dear Readers:  Where we left off, Xenia Godunova was supposed to get hitched to Prince Charming of Denmark, but then he keeled over unexpectedly and is in a coma.  But don’t throw those bridesmaid dresses away just yet! A different wedding: Nechai and Sofia tie the knot, with Ileika as the best man, Tsarevna Xenia as the maid of honor, and the Clown as the Ring-bearer.

In other news, I AM OFFICIALLY IN LOVE with actress Alexandra Nikiforova, who portrays Sofia. The sexiest of all the “Godunov girls”, Alex is super-gorgeous, and I found her bio, such as it is, on American imdb. She was born in Sebastopol, RUSSIA, in 1993.  Aside from her role in Godunov, in her filmography she has also portrayed a detective!

Crimean Cutie, Alexandra Nikiforova

But back to the show, and her wedding to Nechai, who is clearly not good enough for her, being on the run from the law and a murderer and bandit and all…   Still, he is a sort of a superhero, with super-human strength, and that always comes in handy during Times of Troubles.

It’s one of those “secret weddings”, like Romeo and Juliet.   Ilya and Xenia make eyes at each other, as if to say, “I hope we’re next.”  They all but catch the wedding bouquet.  Their love is doomed, of course.  Or is it?  After the ceremony Nechai and Sofia spend their wedding night and consummate their lust under a tree in the forest. They are interrupted by the Clown, who urges Nechai to flee:  The coppers are on their trail!

Back in the palace kitchen, Xenia and Ilya are sharing a moment, as he quotes to her from the latest Shakespeare play.  (Ilya knows English, as well as Russian and Danish.) Annoying Kid Brother Fyodor interrupts their flirting, but he approves that his sister is learning something about European Literature.  The sibs are summoned to the throne room to face Papa.  They learn the horrible news:  that the Great Dane Prince Charming has died of the plague.  Xenia is not quite as cut up about this, as she was expected to be.  Mom, as always hyper-critical of her daughter, notices that Xen has not dropped a single tear.  She suspects that her daughter loves somebody else [hint:  It’s Ileika!] and roughly interrogates Fyodor, but the lad won’t rat out his sister.  Boris orders his wife to let it drop.  It isn’t often that he puts the pants on in this family, but when he does, it’s all for the good.  Masha Skuratova can be a real harrigan, sometimes.

Subtitle:  The Estate of Prince Wiszniewietski

Grisha Otrepiev is coughing his lungs out [don’t worry, he’s only pretending to be sick] while crashing on the sofa of a Lithuanian Prince.  The resident Jesuit monk asks him if he would like to convert to the “true faith” (=Catholicism) on his deathbed.  Grisha “confesses” to the Priest that his true name is Dmitry Ivanovich, and that he is the Tsarevich.  As “proof”, he shows off the coin that Xenia once tossed to him, and which he still wears around his neck like a talisman.  The priest is revolted by him, but promises to go and tell Pan Wiszniewietski about his unusual claim.

Back at the men’s monastery, Fyodor Romanov is practicing his boxing and wrestling skills again, this time on his fellow monks.  The Director of the Monastery summons him into his office, to give him a lecture about violence in the workplace.  “Only a humbled soul can find peace,” he lectures this man, who clearly cannot control his violent temper.  As punishment for beating up the other monks, Romanov will be sent to live in the woods with a hermit and a bear.

Back in the Kremlin, Fyodor is taking fencing lessons from Ilya.  Careful, boys, you could take an eye out!  Next comes the Geography lesson.  Fyodor is a keen student, and is eager to open a Window to Europe.  Once again, one regrets, for the sake of Russian history, that he did not become the Tsar for more than, like, a couple of days…  Tsar Boris enters the chamber, and Fyodor shows off his new maps to Papa.  Just like in the Pushkin play.  Boris orders Ilya to return to Denmark and find another Prince Charming for Xenia.  Once he accomplishes this mission, Boris adds with a knowing glance, Ilya should stay in Denmark as the appointed Ambassador.  Check and Mate.  Boris hands Ilya a portrait of Xenia that he can peddle around the Danish capital.

As a loyal brother, Fyodor arranges one last tearful meeting between his sister and Ilya.  Their love is doomed, and everybody knows it.  They rendezvous in the kitchen.  Ilya informs Xenia that his job is to find her a Danish husband.  She would prefer a Danish pastry.  He sarcastically asks what is her preference, blonde or dark, etc?  They will never see each other again; or so they think.  They kiss passionately, then Xenia runs away, crying.

Fedya And the Bear

Fyodor Romanov is on his disciplinary walk-about through the Russian forest.  He meets the one-eyed hermit with the bear, but neither will speak a word to him.  Romanov sets his sleeping bag down.

We re-encounter Pronka and his large family.  One of the choir-boys who used to study under Kapellmeister Grisha Otrepiev, sings a sad dirge while the Pronka family bury still another bairn who died of hunger.  Take note of this singing boy, he will play a big role in a future (and extremely disturbing) scene in a later episode.  Mrs. Pronka gives the boy a coin for his song, but he would have preferred something to eat.

Pronka goes to the marketplace.  At the very same market, coincidentally, is Sofia, who thinks she sees Nechai.  (She didn’t.)  As she runs after him, Pronka hears some woman screaming “Nechai!” and his ears prick up.  Recall that it was Pronka, the rat-fink, who got Nechai into this whole mess from the beginning, by denouncing him to the cops.  Pronka’s conscience bothers him, as well it should.

Speak of the devil:  We encounter Nechai again, but not in the marketplace.  He and the Skomorokh are learning to survive in the woods.  With the Clown’s ability to quack like a duck, and Nechai’s skill in crafting a bow and arrow, they are able to bring down a succulent poultry for dinner.  With the duck on the spit they are happy campers.  But their meal is interrupted by a gang of Russian forest robbers carrying baseball bats:  Razboiniki!  Superhero Nechai engages the gang, who conveniently come at him one at a time, and he defeats them all.  After the fight, they all become friends and share the duck.

A political discussion ensues around the campfire.  Nechai shares that he used to serve the Tsar as a loyal Musketeer, but then turned against the Tyrant.  The Robber Chief shares that the “legitimate ruler” has appeared among them, none other than Tsarevich Dmitry, back from the dead.  Dmitry has put out the word that he is gathering troops to take the Kremlin.  (Soros is paying the bill, of course.)  All agree it might be a good way to earn some cash, if nothing else.

Treason Is Afoot!

Street performers “Testicle Riot” rouse the mob against the Tsar.

Moscow.  Prince Shuisky is sneakily meeting with his Polish guest, Prince Mniszek.  They gossip about Boris, his numerous ailments, he is not a well man.  The Pole is all crushed up about the fact that the Russian people are suffering from hunger.  Boo hoo!  Mniszek has been following the Russian political situation very closely.  He knows that the Russian people blame their woes on the Tsar, God’s punishment for their ruler’s sins, blah blah.  He slyly brings up the rumor he heard, namely that Tsarevich Dmitry is maybe still alive?  And wouldn’t you know it, Pan Wisniewietski is sheltering the young Imposter there, at his Livonian estate!  Or somebody claiming to be him…  The plot thickens.

Next we meet Mniszek’s beautiful but evil daughter, Princess Marina.  She is, in Shakespeare’s words, “A piece of work”.  As they travel to Wiszniewietski’s estate to meet up with “Dmitry Ivanovich”, Papa and daughter plot relentlessly, how to seize the Russian throne.  Papa tells Marina that she is to marry the Pretender.  Marina is not happy, she heard a (true) rumor that the Pretender is physically repulsive.

Speak of the devil:  Now we are in Grisha’s chamber as he tries on his fancy new Polish outfit and practices sitting on the throne.  With his knife he spears an apple and prepares to eat it.  Just then the servant bursts in and announces the arrival of Pani Marina.  Despite their mutual contempt, the two young folks soon hit it off and become friends.  They even find a sort of vulgar attraction in one another.

Marina heard a rumor that False Dmitry is exceptionally ugly.

In the throne room, the Consigliere delivers the bad news to Boris.  People are saying that King Sigismund of Poland has already recognized False Dmitry and appointed him Grand Prince of Muscovy.

Shuisky’s greenhouse.  While Marina was on her way to meet the Pretender, Papa Mniszek found his way to Shuisky’s estate, where they can continue conspiring incessantly.  The crafty Pole works on Shuisky’s sin of Pride:  See, Godunov’s family were merchant-class nobodies who used to sell furs, whereas Shuisky stems from the highest nobility ever.  “The time has come to introduce a new ruler,” Mniszek announces.  Having planted that treasonous seed, busy-bee Mniszek hustles off to the Kremlin to meet with Tsar Boris.

Speaking of whom, the Godunov household is under a lot of stress right now, and Boris has to restrain his wife from murdering the kitchen staff.  Masha is turning into Lady Mac-Scottish-Person before our very eyes, and just lashing out at everybody.  She is terrified that the boyars will murder her son, and her terror is making her go mad.  (Maybe also guilt, ’cause, remember, the writers of this series stipulated that she ordered child Dmitry’s death.)

The Mniszek pair, Papa and Daughter, ride in their pimped-up carriage, gloating over their successes in this glorious Russian adventure.  Soon they can return to Kraków and report to King Sigismund.  Who will organize a huge wedding for Marina right there in the Polish capital.  “No,” says Marina suddenly.  She doesn’t want to get married in Kraków. She wants her wedding to take place in Moscow! As properly becomes a Russian Tsaritsa.

Xenia Shestova-Romanova, mother of the future Tsar Michael

Back in the forest, the one-eyed hermit is taking a stroll with his bear behind, while Fyodor Romanov gathers sticks for the fire.  Unbeknownst to him, in the female monastery, wife Xenia Romanova is very ill (albeit still beautiful).  Turns out, she is living in the exact same convent as Maria Nagaya (mother of the real Tsarevich Dmitry Ivanovich).

In this TV series, the men age and their beards get long and grey, which is why I can’t even tell them apart any more; but the women stay youthful and fresh. Although they can also be hard to tell apart, because their hairdos are completely covered in medieval headgear. An embittered Maria Nagaya is jealous because Xenia’s son (Michael) is still alive, albeit in hiding; whereas her own son (Dmitry) is dead. Suddenly oprichniki burst into the convent unexpectedly and demand that Nagaya come with them back to Moscow. The former Tsaritsa threatens to burn them with a candle, until they share with her, that her son Dmitry has (allegedly) come back to life.  She faints and drops the candle.  They drag her out.  Xenia Romanova bribes one of the guards to tell her the truth:  Whether her husband and son are still alive?  The guard shares that her hubby is a monk now, is alive and well; and that her son is alive and being cared for by the Hegumen.  Whew!  What a relief for the suffering woman!

“And try to keep your anger in check…”

Fyodor Romanov brings his bundle of sticks to the Hermit’s hovel.  It is time for his first Anger Management Training Session, as mandated by the Bishop.  For the first time, the Hermit actually speaks to him.  Turns out, they have met before – what are the odds!  Turns out, they were past enemies during Maliuta Skuratov’s campaign against the city of Novgorod.  The Hermit mentions the town of Torzhok; that is, presumably, where he lost his eye in the battle.  After that horrible experience, for years he dreamed of vengeance; until he finally found closure and peace by accepting Christ as his savior and moving into the woods with his bear.  Quenchless anger and rage are an intolerable burden for any man to bear.  Or any bear to bear, for that matter.

The Hermit’s final advice to Fyodor Romanov: “Be grateful that God left you alive. Beg for forgiveness. Pray that God will show you the right path.  Be obedient to God’s will.”

Tsar Boris has an audience with Prince Mniszech.  Bishop Varlaam is present as well, to add his two cents that Grisha Otrepiev is no Tsarevich Dmitry.  Mniszek assures the Tsar that King Sigismund has nothing to do with this hideous Pretender and considers himself to be Godunov’s “partner” and kingly brother.  He would never dream of violating their peace treaty.  Yeah, right. Don’t worry, Mniszek assures the Tsar, they will apprend the Pretender and send him back to Moscow in chains. Haha – never trust a lying Pole!

After the two-faced liar leaves the room, Varlaam apologizes to Boris for having initially trained and curated Grishka:  “I couldn’t see him for what he was.  He had me fooled.”  Boris shrugs.  What can you do?

After this meeting, the Tsar makes his daily, painful, gouty climb up the Bell Tower.  He prays to God:  “Please don’t punish my people just because I am a bad person.  Don’t take it out on them, I implore you!”  God responds with silence, as per usual.

[to be continued]

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Godunov Continuation – Recap-ka of Monomakh! – Episode 2

Episode 2 Recap:

Famine.  The people of Moscow are dying like flies. Tsar Boris knows perfectly well that the boyars are hoarding grain.  A little Marxist education:  Medieval Russia was an oligarchy, in which the main landowners ran the government.  Technically the Tsar (who is the biggest landowner of all) is supposed to offset the power of the boyars by serving as a type of Ombudsman for the regular people.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the power to arrest the grain-hoarding aristocrats; just hisses and mutters ineffectual warnings and alludes to “God’s judgement” at some point in the future.  He points his finger at Romanov and Mstislavsky, hisses “You murdered these people.”  Meaning the ever piling-up corpses. Boris climbs to the top of the bell tower and prays to God for some relief from all these trials and tribulations.

Grisha: Always skulking around… and always up to no good…

A group of Danish tourists is travelling through the forest on their way to Moscow for the opening of the FIFA World Cup.  Oh wait, they’re not tourists, and football hasn’t been invented yet!

This is the delegation bringing Xenia’s bridegroom to Moscow.  Recall in the last ep how Mama Godunova took Xen to see the sorceress to divine her future hubby?  That was all just a sham, Xen’s parents already had her hubby lined up.  Along with Prince Charming we meet Ileika (Ilya), one of the leading characters in the series.  This young boyar has been away from Moscow for many years now, studying in Denmark.  Now fluent in both Russian and Danish, Ilya got himself a job as the Prince’s interpreter.  He tells the Prince how wonderful and beautiful Xenia is (he once caught a glimpse of her); the Prince smiles:  “You sound like you are in love with her yourself!”

Speak of the devil, through seamless editing, Xenia is busy praying in the church, when she unexpectedly runs into Grigory the monk, aka Grisha Otrepiev, the future Pretender.  Actually, Xenia is having a secret rendezvous with Sofia, that’s why the two girls are acting so sneaky.  Grisha is doing his choir practice thing again with the little boy sopranos, but when he spots Xenia he goes on the hunt.  Grisha hurls himself to the floor and grovels at the girl’s feet; but then starts to crawl towards her in a menacing fashion. Xenia is properly appalled by his ugliness and sexually harassing behavior. She tries to buy her way out of this awkward situation by tossing him a coin, like a bone to a dog. Grisha is offended, but still takes the coin. For the rest of the series he will wear it around his neck, like a talisman.

Vasily Shuisky: Always up to no good…

Next we are back in the Shuisky greenhouse.  Shuisky and Mstislavsky are tending to some interesting bonsai plants while uninterruptedly plotting against Tsar Boris.  Mstislavsky first raises the issue of the “Dmitry is still alive” meme, and all the rumors swirling around Moscow.  They both know this is B.S., but it sounds like a promising conspiracy to latch onto.

But first, in this deadly Game of Thrones, they must do away with competitor Fyodor Romanov.  Recall that, in Season 1, Romanov was finally able to marry his beloved Xenia (not to be confused with Godunov’s daughter Xenia), and is now the proud father of a boy who, by all indications, will grow up to become Michael Romanov, founder of the new dynasty.  When we first meet young Misha, he is playing “hide and seek” and waving a wooden sword, which he thrusts into his father’s groin. The first in a long line of frisky Romanov children!  With the child safely put to bed, Fyodor and Xenia finally have a chance at conjugal sex together.  The series writers pull out all stops to make this family adorable.  Well, they and their two-headed eagle are after all the “ideological predecessors” of the current Russian Government – LOL!

Another happily married couple:  Boris and Masha.  But not quite as lovey-dovey.  Masha, who is more in tune with the popular mood, has her own agenda:  She is still trying to warn Boris about the boyar plots, and to hopefully turn him against Romanov.  She has told him, numerous times, about Romanov’s supposed scheme (in reality he is being framed by Shuisky) to embezzle state-owned grain, hoard it in his own silos, and then give it out free to the hungry people.  Masha is ticked that, up until now, Boris won’t listen to her.  Boris and Romanov have been friends and comrades since their youth.  Up until now…

Mstislavsky: First got the idea of promoting the Pretender

But red-headed Masha finally gets her way. Tsar Boris, his patience at an end, organizes a confrontation with his old friend and comrade, Fyodor Romanov. Whom he accuses of betraying him; and of spreading pro-Dmitry propaganda among the addled masses. With the aid of Holy Fools, boyars and Street Performers, all playing from the Gene Sharp regime-change playbook, the masses are led to believe that the Tsarevich Dmitry is still alive, and will someday return to restore order. Not to mention, bring them FOOD. Boris accuses his old friend of seeking the crown. They get into a fight. Boris. who is rapidly becoming a caricature of Ivan Grozny, strikes Fyodor across the face with his staff. Fyodor parries with an upper-cut, then manages to get Boris into a half-nelson, Boris breaks free and manages a few blows with the staff, then Fyodor twists him into a full-Nelson; and then the court Musketeers intervene to break up the fight.

Fyodor Romanov, rightfully worried that the Tsar will get even with him by going after his boy, Misha, sends the lad away, far away, from Moscow.  He enlists the Moscow Patriarch Varlaam (who is also Grisha’s boss) to intercede on his behalf.  Varlaam comes to visit Boris, he implores him to do as Jesus says and “forgive thine enemies.” Boris agrees, but as soon as the Patriarch leaves, the Tsar whispers to his Consigliere: “As a man I must forgive. But as a ruler, I am obliged to punish.” The Consigliere smirks and slinks off. Message received.

Approximate image of Xenia’s fiance

Back in the monastery, Bishop Varlaam is grading Grisha’s term paper.  Turns out Grisha has been reading forbidden books in the course of his research.  When challenged, Grisha goes into full-on foaming anti-Boris rant.  Varlaam has had just about enough of this nonsense.  Monk security are brought in to arrest the troublemaker.  With superhuman strength Grishka beats them up and escapes out the window, just like in Pushkin’s play!  As he escapes, the future Pretender encounters his biological mom once again.  She is apparently stalking him.  “Yushenka!  Yushenka!”

Fyodor Romanov and his wife are summoned to the Kremlin to learn their fate.  There is good news and bad news.  The Consigliere delivers the good news:  The death penalty has been waived – yay!   The bad news:  Romanov has been convicted of “sorcery” and sentenced to a monastery.  He will “get the haircut” and become a monk.  So, they allow sorcerers to become monks now?  I thought you had to actually study for the order, silly me…  Meanwhile, Xenia, the wife, will also “get a haircut” and become a nun.  But at a different monastery.  (In Russia, they are still called monasteries, not convents.)  Romanov goes into a rage and beats up a couple of guards, but they subdue him before he can get them into half-nelsons.  They force him into the carriage while Xenia sobs like a banshee.  The Consigliere bullies a woman from Romanov’s household staff.  “Where is Mikhail Fyodorovich?” [the future Tsar].  “He vanished,” the woman replies dully.  It is fairly clear at this point that a murderous Tsar Boris would have little Misha disappeared, if he could.  But unbeknownst to him, he has bigger fish to fry…

The Black Death

Ivan Grozny’s Maliuta Skuratov is reborn in Godunov’s Consigliere!

The Danish convoy encounter carts full of dead, plaguey bodies.  Masked men are burning the bodies right out int he open.  They turn back hastily.  The Prince is appalled:  “What kind of people are these, who do not even bury their dead?”  A little girl is crying, begging for food.  Despite Ilya’s warning not to touch the ill child, Prince Hamlet climbs down from his horse and hands the kid a scrap of bread.  Their fingers touch. By thus doing, Hamlet inadvertently becomes infected by the plague. Remember, people: Proper hand-washing is the key to good hygiene!

Back in the dungeon, Nechai has been pasted back onto the wall for his routine Torture-Therapy Session.  Finally he is ready to confess and reveal where he has hidden the money that he (allegedly) stole from the Tsar’s treasury.  He offers to lead the Interrogator to that exact location.  The greedy Interrogator doesn’t want the other torturers, especially the dwarf, to get in on it.  He cuts Nechai lose, along with the Skomorokh.  Nechai leads them to a root cellar.  The Clown goes in first, to make sure it isn’t a trap.  When the guard isn’t watching, Nechai grabs his (=the guard’s) sword.  Nechai is like a superhero.  Tortured and weak as he is, he stabs the guard and strangles the Interrogator.  Then releases the Clown, and they go running off into the forest to join the circus become forest bandits.  In Russian the word for “forest bandits” is razboiniki, and they are very popular; you will encounter them in just about every Russian story, song, or poem.

Actor Kirill Zaitsev portrays Nechai, the Musketeer turned Forest Bandit

But before they even get a chance to become razboiniki, the escaped duo encounter the Danish convoy.  Ilya confronts them, then gives them a loaf of bread.

While relaxing at the river side, they chat.  Nechai shares that he recently arrived in the forest from Moscow.  Ilya shares that he is a native-born Russian, but recently resident in Denmark, hence the strange outfit.  He points out Prince Charming, who has been chosen to marry Xenia Borisovna.  At the name “Xenia” Nechai pricks up his ears.  He asks Ilya if the latter is going to meet with the Tsarevena.  Ilya replies in the affirmative.

Nechai shares that his girlfriend lives in the same dormitory with Xenia.  He begs Ilya to carry a message to Sofia Fyodorovna, daughter of the Chief Architect in Moscow.  The message:  “I am alive and I will find you.”

Speaking of the devil:  In the next scene we see Sofia crying in Xenia’s room as Xenia shares the news that Nechai has escaped.  I was kind of wondering about that.  When Boris and Masha threw the Musketeer under the bus, I wondered if Sofia would be arrested too, or at the very least expelled from the palace.  Since she is sort of … at the center of whatever plot the slanderers accused Nechai of…  But no… Sofia is still hanging out with the Tsar’s family.  Despite the fact that she (allegedly) fornicated with a Musketeer and helped him steal money from the Tsar’s treasury (?)

Annoying kid brother Fyodor enters the room with news that the Danish delegation has arrived in Moscow.  He is smugly proud that he was able to deliver the news of Xenia’s wedding ten seconds before their mom bursts in to announce it.  Xenia is happy… sort of…

Boris and his son arrive in the throne room, the boyars grovel and pretend to respect them.  A banquet table has been laid out with tons of delicious food.  There is also a balalaika band to entertain.  Ilya enters the room, escorting Prince Charming.  With Ilya providing the simultaneous translation, Boris greets the foreign dignitary, and the latter greets him back in fluent Danish.  Bishop Varlaam says grace, and they all chow down.

Actor Ivan Kolesnikov is Ilya

Upstairs in the women’s quarters, Masha entreats Xenia to peek down through the grate to get a look at her future hubby.

As the band plays on, Prince Hamlet lifts his goblet full of poison mead, and prepares a toast.  Through the grate Xenia can only see the back of his head, but he looks nice enough.  Mom:  “He looks too skinny, they are all like that, well never mind, we will feed him well.”

And then suddenly – YOWSA!  Xenia gets a glimpse of Ilya, the interpreter, standing near the door.  Kid Brother Fyodor engages the handsome stranger with his favorite topic:  Books and printing presses.  What a nerd!

Xenia asks about the interesting stranger.  She thinks he even looks familiar.  Sofia comes to take a look as well.  She recognizes her old childhood friend Ileika.  [I can’t remember now, but I think there was a scene in Season 1 when Sofia is just a little girl and she finds a chum, that might be Ileika.  Would have to go back and watch that ep again…]

Later that night:

Sofia rushes outside for a previously arranged rendezvous with her old chum, Ileika.  They hug ecstatically. Don’t worry, they are just platonic friends — Sofia still loves Nechai, and Ilya will go on to be Xenia’s beloved (SPOILER ALERT).  Lordy, Sofichka is a bold one:  She was already accused of fornicating with Nechai, and now she risks being spotted with another handsome muzhik.  Xenia watches jealously from the window, we can see that she is falling in love with Ilya.  To the point where she resents his platonic relationship with Sofia.

Sofia dashes back into the dormitory and tells Xenia the good news that Ilya brought her:  That Nechai is still alive.  From this moment on we see the formation of the incipient Scooby gang, of the two sets of teenaged lovers:  Xenia-Ilya and Sofia-Nechai.  Their chat is broken up when Kid Brother comes dashing into the room with very bad news:  Prince Charming has just keeled over and fallen into a coma.  The German doctor already delivered the diagnosis:  It’s the Black Death. The wedding is called off.

The episode ends with a final scene, in the forest, where Grisha is camping out with a group of superstitious peasants.  They are bitching about the hideous situation in the country, and dissing Tsar Boris.  Grishka shares with them the recent rumor that the “true Tsar”, Dmitry, is actually still alive.  And goes on to recount the fake-news story, how Boris sent evil-doers to Uglich to murder the Tsarevich; but he was miraculously saved and whisked away “by an honorable man”.  Grisha caps his story with the revelation that he himself is Dmitry!  The peasants, superstitious as they might be, don’t believe him, they beat him up and drive him away.

Moral of the story:  If Grisha is to sit on the throne, then he needs a more influential support base than just random peasants.

[to be continued]

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Godunov Continuation – Recap-ka of Monomakh! – Episode 1

Episode 1 Recap:

As the series opens, we meet an older, crueler, and greyer Boris Godunov. Gone is the idealistic Oprichnik of the first few episodes of Season 1.  Heavy lies the crown on the head that… etc. Nonetheless, as the Narrator reminds us, the first few years of Godunov’s reign were good: Like a proto-Peter the Great, he opened a window to Europe, sent the sons of noblemen to study in Europe, implemented economic reforms. The Russian state got wealthy raking in the tax revenues.

Boris likes to show off his rings.

And then Mother Nature ruined everything: With endless rains, then drought, poor harvests, and then a famine. The Tsar opens up the state granaries to feed the hungry; but the peasants are not impressed. A snow storm in the middle of May — something apparently never witnessed before in all the 1,000 year history of Russia! — gets the superstitious village idiots mumbling about “God’s punishment” upon Tsar Boriska. Incompetent Russian peasants, indeed, who are incapable of handling a few snowflakes without wailing in panic and crossing themselves a million times.  If you didn’t know better, you would think they were living in Atlanta, Georgia and not Moscovy!

Dream sequence:  Tsar Boris is walking barefoot and just wearing his nightie, through the snow.  A shrine falls down.  Spooky!  He looks down at his feet, there is blood.  Are we about to learn that, all this time, the Tsar has been a young tranny girl in disguise and now getting her first period?  Boris looks up to the heavens and screams a silent scream.  Then wakes up in his own bed – whew, it was just a scary nightmare!  His wife Masha comforts him and rubs ointment on his gouty disgusting feet as he tells her the content of his dream.  Then the conversation switches, and they talk about their daughter Xenia, how she has matured and ripened, and they need to find her a husband, preferably among the princely tribe of Western Europe.

Boris adores his wife, even though she is a pill.

Speaking of which… In the upstairs maidens quarters, Xenia and her close friend Sofia are playing the “divining game” whereby they hope to catch a glimpse (in a bowl of water) of Xenia’s future hubby.  (This gag is repeated in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in the scene where Natasha and Sonya try to see their future hubbies in a mirror.)  Sofia, if you recall, is the now fully-grown blonde child we met in Season 1, the daughter of the architect who was brought in to rebuild the Kremlin.  In her formative years Xenia has taken Sofia into the Tsar’s household as a chum and sort of lady-in-waiting, thus raising her social status.  This is an important plot point, as we shall see.

When she gazes long enough into the bowl, Xenia does indeed get a fleeting glimpse of her beloved:  We will meet him later, his name is Ileika (or Ilya).  Ilya is a Russian nobleman of good blood, but not quite up to the standards that Boris and Masha have set for their daughter.  Or even for the more plebeian Sofia, as we shall also see.

Xenia’s future boyfriend, Ileika

Sofia looks out the window and sees a stranger lurking there.  This is our first glimpse of the monk Grisha Otrepiev, the future Pretender.  Apparently Grisha has a thing for Xenia and has staked out her quarters.  A couple of musketeers spot the stalker in the courtyard and try to arrest him; but he runs away with great speed.  We are already learning something important about Grisha:  He is fast, and he is nimble!

In the next scene, we meet a troop of street performers.  In Russian they are called скоморохи (skomo-rokhi). The preferred etymology derives the word from the Greek σκῶμμα (skomma) meaning “joke”. The word actually goes back even farther, to ancient Indo-European *sko-mors-os, and is also seen, with some consonantal transposition, in the Italian scaramuccia, Freddie Mercury’s most-feared Scaramouche!  These Russian jokesters will do anything to entertain:  They sing, they dance, they perform magic tricks, they do stand-up comedy, tumbling and acobatics, they are like the Cirque du Soleil and also the medieval equivalent of Pussy Riot: They travel around the cities and countryside performing skits and making fun of the Tsar.  And, just like Pussy Riot, one of their skits lands them in trouble:  As they act out the murder and resurrection of Tsarevich Dmitry.

Vasnetsov’s 1882 painting of a Skomorokh

The Two Musketeers continue to chase Grisha, past the Skomorokh performance and through downtown Moscow; but the lad gets away from them.  Musketeer #1 is Nechai, and we will soon come to learn that he is Sofia’s boyfriend.  Which halfway explains his rage at seeing Grisha in the courtyard; he might have mistakenly thought that Grisha was stalking Sofia instead of Xenia.  Musketeer #2 is Nechai’s sidekick, Pronka, who also plays an important role in the plot development.

After escaping from the Musketeers, Grisha makes it back to his monastery where he is studying under his Thesis Advisor, Monk Pimen the Chronicler.  Grisha already has an idea for the topic of his dissertation…

In the next scene we meet Fyodor Romanov (again; he was also a main character in Season 1).  He meets with the Tsar in the throne room and tries to buck him up; because Boris is so depressed about the current situation in the kingdom.  All the other boyars are plotting against Boris; Romanov is the only one he trusts now.

The Skomorokhi again, acting out the murder and resurrection of Tsarevich Dmitry in their street performance.  The village idiots are lapping it up; one particularly idiotic woman starts intoning, “Tsar Dmitry … is still alive!”  In the field of “social engineering”, the ideological ground is being prepared for a series of shocks.  As the crowd starts to riot, the Musketeers intervene and arrest the likable young man who portrayed Dmitry in the skit.

The Treachery Of The Boyars

The Tsar has convened the Council to discuss the current crisis.  Everybody is there, all the Tsar’s enemies — Shuisky, Romanov, Mstislavsky — and even including Future Pretender Grisha Otrepiev, who takes the minutes, using quill-pen technology.

Romanov chides the other boyars for hoarding grain and predicts popular unrest (Smuta) unless something is done quickly.  Boris puts on his stern face and lectures the boyars, in his best Ivan Grozny imitation:  “There will be no mercy for any of youse…”

Out in the courtyard, Nechai and Pronka are drinking watered-down mead purchased from a local vendor.  Nechai shares that his girlfriend is Sofia (Xenia’s best friend).  They are childhood sweethearts and always were set to marry each other when they grew up.  Problem:  When Sofia was taken into the Tsar’s household as Xenia’s bestie, she became, sort of, unavailable to him.  They are turning this formerly plebeian girl into a fine lady, a doll in a doll’s house.  Pronka reminds his pal that he is a simple musketeer (strelets) and should not get notions above his head.

Actress Darya Ursulyak portrays the sweet-faced Xenia Godunova.

We learn that Pronka has ulterior motives.  As always, it’s all about Office Politics.  Nechai is set to be promoted to Decurion, but Pronka (more exactly, Pronka’s wife) wants the job for himself.

When we meet the Pronka’s wife and baby in their simple farmhouse in suburban Moscow, the wife turns out to be that same village idiot who has been sowing popular dissent about the snowflakes and going on about Tsarevich Dmitry.  She is Trouble, with a capital T.

Next, we meet the rest of the Tsar’s family, as they gather to marvel at the spectacle of a live parrot in a cage.  Xenia’s younger brother Fyodor is the rational member of the family, healthy in both mind and body: a fine strapping teenage boy who is interested in studying foreign languages and opening a window to Europe. Fyodor hopes to bring Russia out of the Dark Ages via Education and Enlightenment. Too bad he never became Tsar, he would have been a nicer and less neurotic version of Peter the Great.


Meanwhile, at the Shuisky Estate, we see a greenhouse full of bonsai plants and various other interesting botanicals.  Shuisky tends to his plants while he and Mstislavsky plot against Boris.  I never could figure out exactly what these scenes in the greenhouse are supposed to imply — that the boyars are poisoning Boris (?)

While this is going on, a different type of betrayal:  Sneaky Snake Pronka has penned a denouncement of his friend Nechai.  Accusing Nechai of a horrific crime:  Wooing the Tsarevna’s chambermaid in order to get close to the Tsar’s treasury.  Pronka’s hope, in ruining Nechai, is that he will get the Decurion job and thus bring home more money to his starving family.  The Tsar’s “Denunciation Mailbox” is an earlier and more mobile version of Ukraine’s current Mirotvorec website.  After just a moment’s hesitation, Pronka drops his denunciation into the box.

Nechai is back at the local market, buying a scarf for his beloved.  He encounters Pronka, who is about to steal an egg from a local farmer.  (People:  Always buy your produce local, whenever possible.)  Nechai tells Pronka the good news:  Sofia has agreed to marry him, and he wants Pronka to be his best man at the wedding.  Consumed with guilt (as well he should be), Pronka rushes off to retrieve his denunciation, but it’s too late:  The box has already been delivered up to the Tsar’s office in the Kremlin.

Actor Ilya Ilyinykh portrays Tsarevich Fyodor Borisovich

The Tsar’s Consigliere reads out the Daily Denunciations and legal complaints while the Tsar plays chess against himself.  [That’s how the Russian medieval judicial system actually worked:  People just wrote complaints about each other to the officials.  And if you were unlucky enough to be the object of a complaint, you’d probably be arrested and tortured while the investigation was still ongoing, and long before you ever got a chance to defend yourself in court.  Not unlike the current American legal system!]  When he gets to Pronka’s denunciation of Nechai, Boris is not all that impressed.  It’s just girly stuff, after all.  The conversation turns to a more serious matter:  The rumor that Tsarevich Dmitry is still alive.  Consigliere reports on the timely arrest of the treasonous Smomorokh who portrays Dmitry Ivanovich in a skit that is wowing the rubes.

Last item in the box:  A denunciation against Fyodor Romanov.  The father of the future Tsar is accused of plotting against the current Tsar, natch.  But Boris doesn’t want to believe that.  Yet.  He burns the anti-Romanov denunciation in his candle.

In the next scene we meet Sofia’s father again, the Kremlin architect.  He is admitting the per diem workers for their daily assignments.  Daughter Sofia shows up to plead her case:  Papa, please give your blessing and allow me to marry Nechai the Musketeer.  Papa agrees.  Nechai steps forward and is about to greet his future father-in-law, when catastrophe strikes:  Other Musketeers rush at him and arrest him, right there in front of Sofia.  They beat him up and take him away, while Sofia sobs helplessly in her father’s arms.

Nechai confronts Shuisky’s Holy Fool.

Nechai is unceremoniously tossed into the dungeon, and, as we see later, horribly tortured. For some reason this harsh treatment embitters him and eventually turns him against Tsar Boris, to whom he was previously a loyal subject.  See, folks, that’s what happens when you mistreat your employees.  We will see, in future episodes, that Nechai has the most complicated story arc of all the characters, excepting only Grisha Otrepiev.  He will be (SPOILER ALERT!) a Musketeer, a Forest Bandit, a Henchperson of False Dmitry, and eventually back to being a regular Russian soldier.  Not sure if he ever did get that Decurion job that he was bucking for.

In the next scene there is a nice brother and sister moment between Xenia and Fyodor.  A gender-based division of labor:  Xenia embroiders while Fyodor reads Giles Fletcher’s latest bestseller, about how evil the Russians are.  Fyodor is unhappy with all the propaganda and fake news.  He promises, that when he becomes Tsar, he will make sure that all books print only true facts.  Conspiracy theorists claim that is the reason (SPOILER ALERT!) why he was assassinated at such a young age.

Sofia comes dashing into the room with the horrible news that her boyfriend Nechai has been arrested.  Xenia promises to intervene on his behalf, and goes to talk to the Tsar.  She almost succeeds in buttering Papa up until Evil Mama Skuratova enters the room and shuts her up, even threatening to drag her daughter by the hair.

24 hours earlier:  Sofia is having a flashback about that day (yesterday) when she was smooching with Nechai in the woods.  He was bragging about his future promotion and said it was time to send the matchmaker.  That’s when she told him she would go to her father herself, like her own matchmaker.  Well, we all know how that turned out…  Xenia returns with the bad news that Papa won’t budge.

In the next scene, Nechai is being tortured in the dungeon.  They have him strung up on chains, and the dwarf is preparing the hot poker.  The Chief Interrogator picks his nose while reading out the charges, and manages to extract a particularly large booger.  He threatens to go after Sofia herself if Nechai won’t confess and tell them where they have (allegedly) hidden the treasure they stole from the Tsar’s family.  Sheesh, these charges and accusations are escalating every time…

Nechai is whipped like a dog and tossed in the same cell with the Skomorokh.  They become friends.

The Sorceress

Maria Godunova puts her daughter in the carriage and takes her to the local sorceress for another “divining” ceremony to get a vision of her future hubby.  Who will be a Danish Prince, of course.  Probably a chubby guy named Hamlet.  On the way the two women pass a “feeding station” where Fyodor Romanov’s people are giving out free grain and bread to the people.  Making sure to advertise how great Romanov is, and what a cheapskate Boris is.  Maria sees what game Romanov is playing; but the Consigliere tells her it’s hopeless to try to turn hubby against him.  Many have tried…

Boris takes off with a strong first episode.

In the cathedral, Grisha Otrepiev is giving singing lessons to the choirboys.  A mysterious old woman approaches, calling him “Yushenka”. Turns out, she is his biological mother.  Apparently he was “Yushenka” (the son of a simple Musketeer) before he became “Grisha” before he became “Dmitry”.  Grisha is rude to his mom and tells her to go stuff herself.

Maria and Xenia arrive at the cottage of the sorceress.  A scared Xenia goes in alone.  The sorceress makes her pick up, Kung Fu style, a hot ember from the fire.  The ember scorches her hand, but leaves a sooty image (supposedly of her fiancé) on her palm.  As the episode ends, the sorceress predicts a heavy road ahead for the frightened young girl.

Conclusion:  This first episode is rather good.  It introduces (or re-introduces) all the main characters; and it launches, with fairly seamless editing, most of the major plotlines and story arcs.

[to be continued]

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Godunov Continuation – Recap-ka of Monomakh! – Meet Filaret!

Dear Readers:

Before proceeding with the plot recaps, I just wanted to do a quick sidebar on the character of Fyodor Romanov, aka Bishop Filaret.  One of my personal complaints about Season 2 of Godunov is there was far too little Godunov and too much Romanov.  Too be sure, Romanov was an important historical figure.  And in the serial he was played, quite well by Russian actor Alexander Ustiugov, a talented artist who has many meaty roles under his belt.

Alexander Ustiugov

In fact, Alexander is not just an actor, he is also a theater director and a rock musician with his own band called Ekibastuz.  Named after the city in Kazakhstan wherein Alexander was born, in 1976.

Much as I like Ustiugov, I was personally discomfited with the ideological load his “Godunov” character is forced to bear.  The producers and writers did what I feared what would happen; in Season 2 they sort of went to town with the whole “Russia is Romanov” and “Russia is Church” thematic, as hammered in (sometimes not all that subtlety and often quite ham-fistedly) by the current government.  Which ideology, it goes without saying, excludes people like me.  Namely, non Christians!  But we are Russians, nonetheless, and we still love Russia, even if we wish Russia had remained a pagan land with gods prancing around bearing Aryan god-names like “Deivos” and “Stribog”; and even if don’t know how to cross ourselves properly to the Jewish Messiah.  Fyodor Romanov, on the other hand, is the perfect embodiment of the current “Ideological Combination” of modern Russian statehood.  He was (historically) not only a Bishop in the Orthodox Church, but also a landowning aristocrat, not to mention the father of the founder of the Romanov dynasty!  The Byzantine Russian Deep State at its finest. Fyodor Romanov could be considered the ideological ancestor of President Putin.

President Putin is the ideological descendant of Fyodor Romanov!

I say that half-facetiously, but if you think about it…  In Season 1 when we first met Romanov he was a young Oprichnik in the service of Ivan Grozny.  When we first met President Putin he was a young KGB officer in the service of Yury Andropov.  Fyodor Romanov was sent abroad to carry out secret-agent type missions for the Tsar.  Putin was sent to Germany to do secret-agent stuff…  and so on…

Fyodor Romanov, aka Bishop Filaret

Meanwhile, I found more explanatory information about this confusing character from this, from which I quote liberally:

Fyodor Romanov was born in Moscow in 1553. In his youth, he was regarded as the finest rider and one of the most handsome men in the whole of the city. Appointed a boyar in 1586, Fyodor held a series of important posts in the Russian government and army. He was related to Anastasia Zakharina-Yurieva, the first wife of Ivan the Terrible.

After the death of his cousin, Tsar Feodor I, Fyodor Romanov was regarded as the next in line of succession. Boris Godunov responded by incarcerating him in a monastery as the monk Philaret. Fyodor’s wife Xenia was forced to take the veil under the name of Martha, while their five-year-old son Michael was imprisoned along with his aunt, Fyodor’s sister Anastasia, at the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery of the Dormition.

When False Dmitry I captured the Russian throne, he promoted his “cousin” Fyodor to the rank of metropolitan of Rostov. Philaret preferred to side with the opposition, however, and played an active part in his overthrow. He was similarly unimpressed when False Dmitry II elected him patriarch of Russia. Philaret thought it better to politely decline such an offer, foreseeing the possible consequences of allying himself with a foreign usurper.

Baby King: Sigismund wanted to place his son Władysław on the Russian throne.

Philaret only accepted the post of patriarch after helping to overthrow Basil Shuisky in May 1610. In April 1611, he headed an embassy to King Sigismund of Poland, who wanted to place his own son Wladyslaw on the Russian throne. During the negotiations, the patriarch was imprisoned and spent eight years in a Polish dungeon.

While Philaret was in Poland, his son was elected tsar of Russia. On 21 February 1613, representatives of the different classes gathered at the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin to elect a new autocrat. They unanimously voted to offer the throne to Michael Romanov. The Romanov dynasty ruled Russia for over three hundred years, from the election of Tsar Michael in 1613 to the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917.

Okay, now it’s recap time.  With Stalin’s ghost breathing down my neck, I proceed with enthusiasm.

Here is the video link to Episode 1, the others follow from this. Be wary, you have to endure short ads intruding at random and usually inconvenient times.

Series is produced for TV Channel Rossiya-1. Production company is Moskino, with funding by BTR Bank, some others, and the Russian government. Director is Timur Alpatov.

[to be continued]

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Godunov Continuation – Recap-ka of Monomakh! – The Making Of…

Dear Readers:

The production of the Boris miniseries was a huge and expensive project.  Please to watch the 13-minute video in the link I just linked for some exciting trailers and historical analysis.  The subject matter:  The crucial period of Russian history following the death of Ivan Grozny and the abdication of Fyodor Ivanovich (which act ended the Rurik dynasty); the Time of Troubles in between; and climaxing with the ascendancy of the Romanov dynasty. In Season 1, which I reviewed in this previous 4-part series, we saw Boris climb to power, from a humble Oprichnik, and all the way to the throne of Russia.

In Season 2, Boris is a fully authorized and legitimate ruler of Russia. He would have founded his own dynasty, had it not been for the antics of the runaway priest, Grigory Otrepiev, posing as the lost son of Ivan the Terrible.

According to Pushkin, Boris was GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY!

Tsar Boris is a complex figure in Russian history. Even qualified historians cannot come to an agreement on his personality. For example, Professor Nikolai Borisov, who worked as a consultant on this project, maintains that historians divide neatly into two camps: Those who believe that the poet Pushkin gave a correct account of these events, namely that Boris did actually have Tsarevich Dmitry murdered; and another camp which believes that Boris was innocent of this horrific allegation. Neither one of these assertions is possible to prove, or disprove.

Prior to Godunov’s ascension, Russia had only ever enjoyed one dynasty, the Ruriks. When Ivan died without a legitimate heir, there were many pretenders to the throne, most of them more blue-blooded than Boris. However, technically Russia did not have a functioning process to deal with this type of situation. Not really knowing what else to do, the Boyars (=landed aristocracy) convened the “Zemsky Sobor” (National Gathering) in 1598. This was sort of like the French National Assembly, including even the Third Estate. The representatives consisted of the Boyars who usually sat on the Duma (the inner council of the Tsar), plus 83 representative of the clergy, 338 representatives of the Servile Class (those who served the Tsar), plus also some merchants, leaders of Musketeer units, and municipal leaders. Everybody had some representation, except for the peasantry.

This body elected Boris Tsar, possibly as a compromise candidate. But unfortunately for him, his enemies, already numerous, only multiplied from that point on. From Day #1 Boris was the subject of every possible calumny and slander. His enemies spread rumors that he had poisoned Ivan Grozny, had Tsarevich Dmitry murdered, and also done away with Ivan’s son Fyodor. What evil thing had Boris not done? Pro-Boris historians point out that Boris would not have obtained any advantage from murdering Dmitry, since that child had zero chance of ascending the throne.  Being technically “illegitimate”, the product of an (illegal) sixth marriage.

As the Russian “Caesar” or Tsar, Boris was one of the good ones. A hundred years before Peter the Great, Boris implemented enlightened reforms. He invited foreign specialists to Moscow, encouraged book publishing, fought against corruption, and tried to save the Russian forests from unrestricted cutting. He was able to return cities that had been lost in the Livonian war. Peacefully, as there was no war during his reign. And he built new cities, in part to defend Russia’s borders.

And yet his reign ended in catastrophe, as we have seen. The high-ranking boyars could not tolerate this interloper and schemed against him and his family. The moment an opportunity presented itself, in the form of False Dmitry, the Russian boyars all turned against Boris.

Boris had many medical issues and died, probably a natural death, in 1605. He was succeeded by his son, Fyodor Borisovich, who goes into the annals as an actual, and legitimate Tsar, albeit with the shortest reign in Russian history. And one of the darkest blots on Russian history was the cold-blooded murder of Fyodor and his mother, Maria Skuratova-Godunova, on the order of Tsar False Dmitry. Of the entire Godunov family, only daughter Xenia was left alive. False Dmitry made her into his “hostage” but eventually (after 5 months of captivity) released her to become a nun. This plot line is covered in the series, with painful detail paid to Xenia’s suffering.

The Producers

The scenario of the saga was written by Ilya Tilkin on the basis of documentary sources. A major advisor to the project was historian Nikolai Borisov. Season 1 was directed by Alexei Andrianov, and Season 2 by Timur Alpatov. The casting engaged a host of talented actors. Boris was portrayed by actor Sergei Bezrukov, who was not even the first choice for this role, but performed it brilliantly. His challenge was to portray Godunov at three separate stages of his life: first as a young Oprichnik, then a grown man on his climb to the throne, and then an old man, crushed by the responsibilities of being the Tsar. Everybody knew that Bezrukov could portray a youthful hero, but the producers were not sure how he would do full-grown old Tsar.  Hence, Bezrukov auditioned wearing the Tsar’s regalia, and the entire production crew broke out into applause!

For the role of Masha Godunova, wife of Boris, actress Svetlana Khodchenkova had to wear contact lenses to turn her blue eyes brown. (Unnecessary realism?)

For the role of False Dmitry I the Director picked Evgeny Tkachuk (my personal favorite character!), but they almost lost him when production was delayed, since he had other engagements. Fortunately it worked out in the end, and Tkachuk was able to put his irrepressible stamp on the role.

Costumes And Jewelry

Over 200 actors were hired for this saga, for roles both big and small. Each of these characters required a minimum of 3 costumes. All of the costumes, down to the footwear, had to be historically correct. The work of sewing them took up to 8 months. One burden, which most people don’t realize, is the weight of these garments. Medieval Russians were not able to just skip lightly through life; for example, just one outfit could weight from 6 to 9 kilograms! Some of the fabrics were purchased in Stambul, Turkey. Hand-made buttons were bought in India, and pearls (for the hand-sewn ornamentation) from China.

Jewelry was very important in this production. The scenario shows an initially poor Boris wearing just one simple silver ring with a sapphire. As he becomes powerful and wealthy, his fingers literally blossom with expensive rings and gemstones. The Tsaritsa Maria was also dressed fabulously with powerful colors and an oversized headgear.

Decorations and Locations

The city of Moscow of the 16th and 17th centuries was built on the lot of the “Glavkino” film studio. Famous sites such as Red Square were carefully constructed to be historically authentic. Cottages built from pine wood stood side by side with Tsarist and Boyar palaces. Over 250 people were hired to design and construct the sets. Among them were 12 architects, 26 painters and 60 set decorators. Set construction required 1.5 tons of nails!

The actors ate real, authentically Russian, food.

In addition to the constructed set, one day of shooting was done in the real Red Square. This was the scene where Boris climbs to the top of the bell tower and dies. This scene was shot on the exact same day when the Football World Championship (FIFA) games were opened in Moscow.

Other outdoor locations included the Suzdal Kremlin and the Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery which doubled for Uglich.

As for the set decorations, even the smallest objects are authentic copies. For example, the chess pieces were copied from historic Byzantine models. Some wooden pieces were brought in from the Chess Museum of Moscow. All the scenes in which the characters eat, the food is historically authentic and real; no plastic food!

Next: Before getting to the episode recaps, we just need a quick sidebar on the character of Filaret/Romanov.

[to be continued]

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