I had no clue what to expect when I started watching the Russian TV miniseries about Boris Godunov. I feared it might be just another kreakle-fest. Like, maybe condemning Autocracy and Tyranny with ham-fisted metaphors. As mentioned, this is my favorite era in Russian history. I always felt that Boris was one of the “good guys”, hence I was a bit apprehensive the writers would portray him as a monster. See, poor old Boris got a bum rap from Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin. In his short play (which became the basis of Modest Mussorgsky’s great opera), Pushkin appears to take the side of those who believe that Boris ordered the murder of 8-year-old Tsarevich Dmitry Ivanovich. The greater the artist, the more influential their propaganda! Hence, Boris has “gone down in history” as a bad guy, a child murderer. Not unlike what Shakespeare did to the historical figure of King Richard III.
As a result, most people, even Russians, when they think of Boris Godunov, they think of the Pushkin-Mussorgsky character, cowering and guilt-wracked, as he lies dying, like that Mac-Scottish-Person, with ghosts of dead children flying about overhead and shaking their gory locks at him. They don’t think of Boris the Enlightened ruler who built mucho infrastructure and reformed Russia’s prison system.
Hence, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Rossiya-1 miniseries does not demonize Boris at all. In fact, he is the good guy in this saga. He is portrayed as highly intelligent, sober, honorable, loyal, firm but not ruthless, hard when he needs to be but never cruel; god-fearing, a helpful brother to his sister; a loving husband and father; a patriotic man who loves his country and wants to do the right thing. In short, the modern Russian ideal of what a man is supposed to be. I also got the impression (this could just be me) that the writers sort of based Godunov’s character and mannerisms on Russia’s current “enlightened” ruler, President Vladimir Putin. (Who possesses all of the above characteristics except for that bit about being a good husband.)
Which is also sort of surprising, since Putin (from what I know) regards himself as the spiritual descendant of the Romanovs. And in Russian teleological lore, the Romanovs are the ones who put an end to the “bardak” (=state of chaos) caused by Godunov with all his manipulations; and restored law and order to the Russian world.
In this new mythology, unless I am just reading this very tendentiously (which is probably the case), Ivan Grozny represents the cruel, semi-barbarous world of Communism. Boris Godunov is the product of that world, but strives to reform it and create a more Enlightened system; empties the prisons; launches projects for economic development; attempts to restore Russian greatness in the world. Just like Putin! Except, who does that make Boris Yeltsin? Vasily Shuisky?
Three Russian Musketeers
When the series begins, we meet “Boriska”, a young man from a family of no account, “bez rodu bez plemeni“, as the medieval Russians used to sneeringly say. Boriska’s deficit of aristocratic blood in his veins is the constant theme of the series: At every step, everything he does, Boris is dissed and mocked by those of nobler blood. Well, who got to decide who is better blood in Russia, in the first place? That’s a mystery in and of itself. It’s certainly not based on race or ethnicity, as there are Tatars and Caucasians of better blood, not to mention Poles, Livonians and others. Like the old saying goes,
When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
In any case, let’s just stipulate that Boris is of humble origins, and that this factor plays into every single thing that happens to him in his life. We know that Ivan Grozny tried to bust up (a little bit) the traditional Russian nobility and, sort of, put them in their place. But he never fully succeeded, and his successor, son Fyodor Ivanovich, is stuck still having to listen to these boyars drone on in his Council Chamber, and probably also his Privy Chamber.
But returning to our hero, Boriska. When we first meet him, he is signing up to join Ivan’s Oprichniki. These guys, in their beautiful red tunics and fur caps, are a combination of royal bodyguards, Commissars, Spetznaz, and Secret Police. The Oprichnina Corps was founded by Ivan Grozny. Oprichniki were known to gallop around the icy cities of Russia carrying a broom on their saddle, in case a curling game should break out somewhere. (That last bit a joke.) Oprichniki served under the most-feared and watchful eye of Maliuta Skuratov (portrayed by actor Viktor Sukhorukov). Boriska arrives at Skuratov’s dacha for the job interview. In between noisily slurping down shchi, Maliuta accepts Boriska into the Corps and orders him to freshen up and get into uniform.
Boris is immediately hazed by his two new companions, Vasily Shuisky (actor Andrey Merzlikin) and Fyodor Romanov (actor Alexander Ustiugov). They tell Boriska to take off his clothes and go into the second bathhouse on the left. Boris bursts into the sauna stark naked and is beset by screaming angry naked women. Before dashing out he gets a glimpse of a feisty naked redhead and falls instantly in love. She turns out to be Maliuta Skuratov’s youngest daughter Maria! (Actress Svetlana Khodchenkova.) Masha is out of his league, of course. Except that a sequence of events actually leads to their eventual marriage. (Much to Masha’s dismay, she was hoping for a better catch.) And this is Godunov’s first step on the ladder that leads him to the throne: Marrying the boss’s daughter. Step #2 happens a bit later, when Godunov’s sister, Irina (actress Anna Mikhalkova) catches the eye of the Tsar himself, Fyodor Ivanovich. So, Boris becomes the brother-in-law of the Tsar. And earns the infinite resentment of those of better blood. Men such as Vasily Shuisky.
But returning to happier days: The three companions enjoy their carefree yet busy lives as Oprichniki. They are sort of like the Three Musketeers. The Tsar sends them on a series of ripping adventures. For example, Fyodor Romanov is sent to the Far East, posing undercover as a merchant, in order to bust an English spy ring. The nefarious English, while prancing about in giant ruffs, lisping and speaking bad Russian, are plotting to seize Arkhangelsk. They want to set up a fur-export center where they don’t have to pay tariffs or taxes to the Russian Emperor. Boo hiss! Patriotic Fyodor foils their evil plot, while Boriska, back in Moscow, punishes the corrupt Boyars who have helped themselves to the royal treasury. Meanwhile Shuisky has a ripping adventure of his own, rescuing a kidnapped Russian princess from her handlers in a Polish castle. (She screws up, though, and ends up in Russian monastery, worse off than if she had just stayed in Livonia.)
Good times. Fun times. But a dark cloud on the horizon: In the distant and creepy town of Uglich, out there on the Volga River, Ivan the Terrible’s illegitimate son, Dmitry, is evolving into a young monster, under the loving and greedy eyes of the Nagie clan…
[to be continued]