Не приведи Бог видеть русский бунт, бессмысленный и беспощадный! (Alexander Pushkin, “The Captain’s Daughter”)
Welcome back to my review of this piece, along with related material from the Russian wiki. Yesterday we dived in medias res, to the actual murder (or was it an accident? or possibly a suicide?) of eight-year-old Dmitry Ivanovich.
The famous quote, above, by Pushkin, translates as “May God preserve us from ever seeing a Russian riot, thoughtless and pitiless!” The Russian word бунт (“bunt”, a borrowing from the German “Bund”) denotes a politicized mob action that arises spontaneously and develops in an unorganized fashion, with or without leadership. It is directed against authority and hence can also be translated as “mutiny”. In the context, Pushkin was talking about the violent predations of the Don Cossack rebel Yemelyan Pugachev, who ravaged the countryside during the reign of Catherine the Great. In his spare time Pugachev pretended to be Peter III. Thus also continuing the noble old Russian tradition of the само-званец, literally the “self-called one”, the “Pretender”, sometimes also translated as “Imposter”. And poor Old Tsar Vasily IV (Shuisky) could tell us a thing or two about Pretenders: During his brief reign there was such a glut of самозванцы running around that an honest murderer could not stand on Red Square and swing a dead cat , without hitting one of them.
What started this unfortunate plague of False Dmitries? Yesterday we saw how the Russian town of Uglich was infected by the spirit of mutiny on that fateful day 15 May 1591. When the good townsfolk disobeyed the explicit orders of the Tsar’s appointed Governor Mikhail Bityagovsky, who ordered them to (1) stop ringing the church bell, (2) stop pelting him with rocks, and (3) stop ripping him apart limb from limb.
As with all Russian riots/mutinies, whenever they try to buck Authority, Authority always win. With a heavy price to pay in terms of retributions and punishments. But, again like always with Russian bunts, there is a type of karma at the end of the day. The powerful boyar who was sent to punish the people (and the Bell), Vasily Shuisky, ended his life as a prisoner of the Poles and died near Warsaw in 1612. That was his karmic punishment for lashing the Uglich Bell and ripping out its clapper!
To be sure, Shuisky claimed, at the time, to have conducted a fair and impartial investigation of the Uglich riot and the unfortunate event that preceded it. That event being the death of a sweet young child. Shuisky’s expert forensic assessment was that Dmitry, allegedly an epileptic, had accidentally stabbed himself in the throat with his own knife (which was never found!) Dmitry’s Idiot older brother Fedor Ivanovich was still Tsar in Moscow, but the real power behind the throne, as everybody knew, was Boris Godunov, Fedor’s brother-in-law.
In 1605 Boris decided “the heck with it, I’m tired of being the puppet-master,” and he ascended the throne, rudely pushing his brother-in-law aside. Upon which a horrified Shuisky (“That was never supposed to happen!”) recanted his own deeds and statements of 14 years earlier. By now the sweet and frail Tsarevich Dmitry had time to grow into a strapping 22- or 23-year old Pretender. Shuisky changed his tune and went over to the Pretender’s side. He recanted his earlier sworn testimony: See, turns out that Dmitry Ivanovich had somehow miraculously escaped from those nasty assassins sent by Bityagovsky, he had gone into hiding and now was all grown up into this handsome young buck, here he is in the flesh, standing right in front of you, the good people of Rus!
Boris Godunov was actually a competent Tsar, but he didn’t last long on the throne. Tormented by remorse (if one is to believe Pushkin), he slowly died, accompanied by the dramatic harmonies of Mussorgsky’s orchestra. Feigning grief, Shuisky enters the throne room, preparing to take the Golden Orb and Scepter. But wait! At that moment somebody suddenly notices that Idiot Fedor Ivanovich is still alive! See, the ex-Tsar had just been lurking around somewhere, hiding behind the curtains like “I Claudius”, or something like that. So the devious and murderous Shuisky decides to kill Fedor too. In for a penny, in for a pound! As the body count piles up, Shuisky once again reaches for the Golden Orb…
But wait (again)! Shuisky’s own creature, Pseudo-Dmitry is in the way! The Pretender takes the Orb and Scepter. But don’t count Shuisky out, he has a Plan B. Quoting from the bio I linked above (from the Encyclopedia Britannica):
Shortly after Dmitry had been crowned, Shuysky reversed his position again and, accusing the new tsar of being an impostor, engaged in a plot to overthrow him. After a brief period of banishment, he organized a group of boyars opposed to the pretender, provoked a popular riot, and assassinated Dmitry. On May 29 (May 19, old style), 1606, Shuysky was named tsar of Russia.
Whew! After so many murders and so many lies — Shuisky finally ascends the throne — he makes that Mac-Scottish-person look like a candy-ass wimp! But, like I said, karma can be a bitch. Barely has he seized the Golden Bat and Ball, when Tsar Basil IV strikes out again: He finds himself tormented by a new series of False Dmitries, of which one of them (=Grisha Otrepiev) turns out to be the most successful literary hero of all time, actually winning both Girl and Kremlin in one fell swoop. Then a bunch of stuff happened, and Shuisky ended his life as a prisoner of the Poles, who forced him to enter a monastery. Where, one hopes, he was psychologically tormented, day in and day out, by the rhythmic clangings of the monastic bell!
[to be continued]