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.
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 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!
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]