Continuing my review of Season 1 of the Russian miniseries “Boris Godunov”. As in any Shakespearean tragedy, the seeds of the hero’s downfall are planted well before his rise. And so it came to pass with Boris. Godunov was one of Russia’s most Enlightened monarchs, in a parallel universe he should have gone down in history as a great ruler who founded a great dynasty; and yet all the time he had this skeleton in his closet: The skeleton of little Dmitry Ivanovich, youngest child of Ivan Grozny.
Loyal readers may recall that I did a series on this topic back in November 2018, thus proving that I had a heightened interest in these characters well before I saw the miniseries (which was just last week!)
In my research for that earlier post, I came to the conclusion that Dmitry Ivanovich was an awful little brat who would have caused irreparable harm to Russia, had he ascended to the throne. Or maybe not. To be sure, I only had Giles Fletcher’s word for Dmitry’s psychopathology, and Englishmen always lie; and yet this rang true to me. Watching the miniseries, I was curious (and a little worried) how they would depict this little monster; knowing that the Russian Orthodox Church has canonized the boy, and that the current Russian government is fairly in cahoots with the Church; and since the government paid for this series to be produced… well, you get my drift….
There is a scene (this is near the beginning, when Ivan Grozny is still alive), when the Tsar informs his loyal vassal (Boris) that his wife, Maria Nagaya, just pushed out a son, Dmitry. Boris is (ironically) ecstatic about the news. “Oh, a hundred congratulations, Sire!” See, everybody is worried about the succession within the Rurik dynasty, especially after Ivan killed his only viable heir (Ivan Jr.) in a fit of rage, leaving only the Idiot Fyodor Ivanovich. (In the miniseries, by the way, Fyodor is not depicted as an Idiot, just a physically weak and indecisive man who is besotted with religion.) Boris is (ironically) hoping that the infant Dmitry will solve the problem of the Rurik succession, but then Ivan informs him that Dmitry is, technically, illegitimate. Oh, Ivan got married to Maria Nagaya, for sure, but the Orthodox Church does not recognize this (6th) marriage, since five is their quota.
Boris, ever loyal to the Ruriks, then devotes himself to helping the Idiot Fyodor as much as possible. After Ivan dies, Fyodor rules with a lot of help from Boris, and almost zero help from the other boyars. In his role as Regent, Boris learns all the tricks of the trade and starts to realize that he could actually do the job himself, no problem. Except for his lowly blood, which everyone keeps reminding him of, helpfully.
And even Tsar Fyodor, his brother-in-law, is not always as loyal to Boris as the latter is to him. See, you can never really trust an autocrat. One day, you’re the Favorite; tomorrow you’re toast. And sure enough, the Tsar starts cutting Boris off, won’t let him command the troops into battle against the Tatar horde; gives that job to (traitor and Polish hireling) Prince Mstislavsky instead. Boris has to resort to insubordination to use the cannons against the Horde, drive them away, and rescue his pal Fyodor Romanov from Tatar captivity.
But then the final stab in the back: Very worried about the succession because he himself cannot produce an heir (in those days, they mostly blamed the wives for their barreness, because they didn’t fully understand the biology involved) Fyodor orders Boris to make the pilgrimage to Uglich and bring back his step-brother, Dmitry, to Moscow. Fyodor senses his own death approaching and has decided to back his little brother from another mother.
Prior to this, in an earlier episode, we got one glimpse of Dmitry, a realistic (and sort of gross) depiction of the child in full epileptic fit. Frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog. In those days they called it the “falling sickess”. As savvy viewers know, the epilepsy will come into play later, during the investigation of the boy’s untimely death.
The Plot Is Conceived
A couple of episodes later, Boris, his wife Masha, and their little girl Xenia are arriving in Uglich to meet the Tsarevich. This is the Turning Point, what playwrights call “the crisis”. Again, I was curious, how will the patriotic writers depict this young Orthodox Saint when he isn’t busy frothing at the mouth?
To my pleasant surprise, the writers drew no halo around this head; on the contrary, they wasted no time in showing us what a horrendous brat we have here. The moment Boris approaches with a little bow to shake his hand, the smart-mouth whips off with: “So, you’re the vulgar vassal who works for the Tsar? You will bow low and kiss my hand!” Boris is annoyed, of course, but he puts on his professional face, bows a bit lower and brings the child’s hand to his lips. The kid rips it away: “Oi! You stink!” His mother and relatives laugh their heads off – Kids say the darndest things! The viewer, at that moment, wants to claw one’s way through the TV screen and slit the child’s throat on the spot. Unfortunately, that moment has to wait. Boris swallows his pride and enters the Nagie house. They sit in conference, with the 8-year-old attending, on his worst behavior. The clan refuse to return to Moscow with Boris, insisting that the Tsarevich must return in a grand procession with carriages, horses, a full military guard and so on, to claim his rightful throne. Boris snaps at them: “I came here in good faith.” He stalks away, fully annoyed.
In the courtyard, little Xenia is playing with a baby goat. Young Dmitry comes tearing through the garden. Having read Giles Fletcher’s account of Dmitry’s proclivities in torturing animals, I was worried that the writers would show him kicking the goat, or something like that. On American TV he would have stomped the goat to death. But no, that would have been too dark for Russian TV. Nor did they script a scene between the two children; that might have been interesting. Like Chekhov’s Rifle, a finger pointing at the future: “When I grow up to be a big Pretender, I will kill your mom and brother, and then rape you. Hahahaha!”
What we don’t see here, but can assume for later, is that Maria Godunova herself (who is present on this trip, at least in this TV version) conceives the idea, how to resolve this problem of the bratty heir. Recall that Maria Godunova née Skuratova-Belskaya, is the daughter of Ivan Grozny’s ruthless henchperson Maliuta Skuratov! And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say…
In short, the writers of this miniseries came up with a brand new theory of Dmitry’s death: that Masha dunnit…
[to be continued]