Dear Readers: I have timed my episode recaps to conclude today, July 22, the 406th Anniversary of the coronation of Tsar Mikhail Romanov. Which event officially put an end to the Time of Troubles. Tsar Michael went on to rule wisely and well, extending Russia’s borders all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Which only goes to show that, for any great civilization, a Time of Troubles can also be a Time of Opportunities! It’s like they say: When History hands you a lemon, then try to make some lemonade.
But back to our show: The Deep State boyars (Shuisky, Mstislavsky and the blonde boyar) along with Patriarch Hermogenes await, as an historically authentic stagecoach arrives in Red Square. Out steps Fyodor Romanov, father of the future Tsar, carrying his shepherd’s crook. He faces St. Basil’s Cathedral and crosses himself. Ah! so good to be home!
The throne room. Tsar Vasily Shuisky occupies the throne upon which formerly sat, in all his splendor, Grishka Otrepiev. The other boyars exchange meaningful glances. Romanov/Filaret must account for his actions. If he is unable to spin a good tale, then he probably will not leave this room alive.
Shuisky: “So, what I hear you saying, is that you left the Polish camp and came all the way back here to Moscow to beg my forgiveness?” The other boyars heckle Romanov.
Romanov (defending himself vigorously): “I wasn’t the one who brought the Polacks and the Swedes here, onto Russian soil.” [good point] “What about you!” [to Shuisky] “The longer you sit on the Russian throne, the worse things get around here.” [also good point – zing!] “Shut up!” [to the heckling boyars], “you know I’m speaking the truth! You guys are responsible for all our problems. During the time of famine you hoarded grain. You licked the boots of the Pretender. You ran from Tsar to Tsar, changing your loyalties.”
“Shut up!” Hermogenes supports his fellow Patriarch, silencing the heckling boyars. Shuisky attempts to regain control by telling Hermo he should leave now, he doesn’t belong in the boyars council. Separation of Church and State and all that. And yet, in this Game of Thrones, a new and unexpected alliance is quickly forming before our very eyes: Hermo and Filaret. Both claiming to be Patriarch of All Rus. Filaret whispers to Hermo how Troitse cannot be allowed to fall. If Troitse and Smolensk should fall to the Polacks, then nothing shall remain of Russian statehood.
Eine kleine Historie of the city of Smolensk, which features so prominently as an unseen actor in this series. Most of this from wiki: Smolensk is among the oldest of all the Russian cities. But after the disintegration of Kievan Rus it passed back and forth between Russia and Lithuania, decisively incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1408. Tsar Vasily III re-took the city for Russia in 1514. Tsar Boris Godunov heavily fortified Smolensk to keep the Liths out. Recall that, under Boris, Russia was not at war even once, and made good use of the peace to avert future wars. During the Time of Troubles, after a 20-month siege, the Lithuanians retook the city in 1611. This long siege is the topic of many of the conversations among the heroes of this epic.
In Troitse: Things are quieter now, they got a break from the fighting when the Polish cavalry abandoned Tushino and moved the bulk of their forces to assist the Smolensk siege. Xenia is reading the letter from Filaret, which Nechai smuggled to her in his tunic. The gist of it is: “You are the legitimate Tsarevna. You need to return to Moscow and meet up with Patriarch Hermogenes. Raise up the Russian people against these hellish invaders. The people remember you. They love you and respect you. Put yourself in the service of Hermogenes, and of the Russian land.”
Cut to Ilya, now wearing the wedding ring that Xenia slipped on his finger when he was unconscious. Ilya is better now, but is in Physical Therapy and has to walk with a cane. He watches intently as Prince X interrogates Nechai. Recall that the two men did not part on good terms: Nechai had Ilya sent to Smolensk in chains.
Prince X is aware of Nechai’s checkered past: Initially this ex-Musketeer served Boris Godunov. Then he served the Pretender. Then he killed the Pretender. Then he was hanging around with the enemy in Tushino. How can they possibly trust such a person? [Good question.] But Nechai swears he can defeat the Poles, and Ilya vouches for his frienemy. Nechai divulges some info he overheard in the Polish camp; namely that they are going to send sappers to mine the walls of the Lavra. Put him in charge of some men, he demands, and they can get to work digging tunnels. Prince X reluctantly agrees and promotes Nechai to Decurion, but he assigns a guy to spy on Nechai, just in case.
In the Kremlin: The Deep State are in confab. The Deep State now consists of: Mstislavsky, Blondie, Filaret and Hermogenes. Filaret suggests they betray Shuisky and send envoys to Sigismund. They need to buy time for Smolensk. They can trick Sigismund by promising to put his (Siggie’s) son on the Russian throne. Under the condition that the Polish boy convert to the Orthodox faith. See, Russians never had a problem bringing in foreign rulers, they just always insisted that those rulers had to convert to Orthodoxy. Above all (not unlike England), Russia would never tolerate a Catholic on the throne.
Mstislavsly agrees that this is the only way out of this pickle they are in. With a single nod of his White Cowl, Patriarch Hermogenes gives his okay to their cunning plan.
Back in Troitse: Ileika and Nechai are limping around, catching up on the latest news. They heard a rumor that King Sigismund has ordered all Polish forces to convene on Smolensk. But they are not out of the woods yet: Troitse blocks the way to Moscow, and the Poles will surely return to finish the job.
As Nechai chatters on, Ilya goes “uh huh, uh huh” a couple of times, and then asks him directly, what was in the letter that he smuggled to Xenia? Is it true that Filaret wrote her a letter? Nechai nods. “Well, what was in it?” Ilya persists. “Ask her yourself,” Nechai snaps. Ilya slinks off as Sofia and the baby approach. Nechai caresses his family while his minder watches on.
Ileika confronts Xenia. “Nu!” [he literally says Nu], “So, what did the Patriarch [Filaret] write to you?” he demands rudely.
“What he wrote is what I have been thinking in my own heart,” Xenia replies sweetly. “He reminded me who I am. Who my father was. He wants me to go to Moscow and meet up with the Most Holy Patriarch Hermogenes. Ilyusha, he is trying to save Rus!”
Ilya: “You shouldn’t trust him, he’s a traitor. They might be setting a trap for you. Or they might torture you and find the letter.”
They talk about their relationship. They wonder if there is any future for them, as a couple. Xenia is convinced that she is a sinner, because she committed the sin of being raped and held hostage. Ilya believes that God forgave her for that, and he wonders if they can start over again and just live as ordinary people. But the patriotic-minded Xenia seems to have made up her mind to do as Filaret requested of her. “So,” Ilya concludes. “You want to be Tsarevna again…. And maybe, even, the Tsaritsa,” he taunts her. Xenia: “That’s not what I meant!” He leaves in a huff, slamming the door behind him, except it doesn’t slam very well, being one of those heavy medieval doors. Poor Ilya, he just can’t win, and by the end of this episode he is going to be dead… EGADS! did I just give that away?
Moscow: Filaret’s carriage is waiting for him. With Tsar Shuisky glaring balefully on, Patriarch Hermogenes gives Filaret his final briefing. Romanov’s mission, should he choose to accept it, is to negotiate with King Sigismund and save Russia from complete destruction. No pressure, though…
The pompous narrator informs us that this was “the last meeting of the two Patriarchs”, the Acting Patriarch (Hermo) and the Excommunicated one (Fil). Patriarch Hermogenes went on to become a “glorified” martyr in the Chuch. The TV series doesn’t show this, but when the Poles captured the Kremlin, Hermo refused to sign the paperwork allowing Sigismund’s son Władysław to be crowned Tsar. In addition, he wrote patriotic pamphlets, inciting the people of Russia against their Polish overlords. The Poles arrested him and threw him in a dungeon. After Hermo blessed the volunteer army of Minin-Pozharsky, his Polish captors saw to it that he starved to death. He died in the year 1612.
Troitse: Prince Mniszek is back, storming the Lavra again. The Skomorokh is learning how to load and fire a rifle. He has never used a weapon before in his life, other than the sharp blade of his Performance Art.
Xenia enters the Abbot’s prayer-room and requests permission to travel to Moscow, in line with Filaret’s cunning plan. The Abbot gives her his blessing. (Literally.)
Back in the Nechai household, hubby informs Sofia he has to leave her again, he’s off to battle. But first he tells a bedtime story and kisses his adorable sleeping baby goodbye. When Sofia isn’t looking, he grabs his pistols and sneaks out. Nechai and Ilya study blueprints of the Lavra. Ilya pounds a hole in the wall, discovering a secret tunnel.
Efrosinya climbs up to the wall of the fortress to see her Skomorokh boyfriend, who is standing guard. He asks her to marry him. To his surprise, she says YES! And she even knows his name: It turns out to be Yasha! As they embrace joyfully, she suddenly notices Polish soldiers approaching in the mist. They are rolling either kegs of beer or barrels of dynamite. Uh oh, it turns out to be dynamite! Yasha rushes off to warn Nechai: “Ataman! The Poles are bringing gunpowder!” No shit, Sherlock. Prince X rushes off with his musketeers. BOOM! The cannons roar and the attack is on!
Ilya volunteers for a suicide mission: He will intercept the Polish sappers in the tunnel and blow them up. Nechai tries to stop him, he wants to do the job himself, but Ilya is determined. “You have a wife and son,” Ilya reminds him. Ilya takes one of Nechai’s pistols and climbs into the tunnel. For this plan to work, the medieval pistol has to fire accurately and reliably. Realistically, Ilya should have taken both pistols.
The Abbot leads the defenders in prayer. Xenia and Sofia stand side by side, praying. The one good thing (from Ilya’s point of view) about the Polish attack is that it stopped Xenia from going to Moscow. Now she has other things to worry about. A cannon ball pierces through the wall of the chapel and rolls across the floor. The terrified people cross themselves a million times.
Ileika Gives His Life For Russia
The Polish sappers are rolling their barrels through the fortress foundations, while Ilya lies in wait. Nechai stops the defending musketeers from rushing into the tunnel; they must wait for Ilya to do his thing. Stealth and the element of surprise are crucial: It is very important that everybody stay quiet as mice. Except for Ilya, who sings a little song to himself while lurking in the tunnel.
The Polacks approach cautiously in the dark. “Hey,” one of them says, “There’s somebody here!” Ilya stands up straight and points his pistol at them. With hard eyes he shoots into the barrel of dynamite, blowing up both Polish occupiers, and himself. Thank goodness his pistol didn’t misfire.
When she hears the explosion, Sofia just assumes that Nechai had something to do with this. She hands her baby to Xenia to watch, and rushes out to look. At this point Xenia has one job and one job only: To watch the baby.
Sofia stumbles across the battlefield that is the Lavra courtyard, screaming “Nechai! Nechai!” Cannonballs are flying everywhere. She desperately pushes her way through the soldiers….
In the chapel, Xenia is busy praying and crossing herself a million times. She looks away for one second … and the baby is gone!
The toddler wanders outside onto the battlefield, alone and scared. (You producers: I’m warning you, don’t you dare kill or maim another child in this series!) All around him people are being blow up. Xenia is running around looking for the kid and calling out his name: “Vanyusha! Vanya!”
The one good thing, from Sofia’s point of view, is that she never lived to know how her son got lost and frightened, or how much her best friend Xenia screwed up. Sofia looks up into the sky … and a cannonball comes down directly onto her. A direct hit, and she is simply ripped apart. It’s not a good way to go, but at least it’s a fast way to go. This scene is very upsetting: We have grown, over the episodes, to love Sofia and her cheekbones. She stands there just staring up in a trance as the cannonball completes its parabola and heads directly for her. People, here is my advice: If ever in a situation like this, don’t freeze and just stare up. Try to engage your brain to calculate velocity, distance, and arc. Believe it or not, the human brain can do calculus on the fly! Wait until the last second, and then dodge, if necessary.
Xenia witnesses Sofia’s death and sheds a tear. And suddenly Nechai notices his baby out there amidst the carnage, screaming in distress. Another cannonball heads to Earth, making a beeline for the toddler. Nechai sees what is about to happen, but can’t get to the kid in time. But guess who suddenly shows up unexpectedly? The Holy Fool, Pronka! Pronka sees the child in distress, he probably remembers his own little son and how he died, and the unbearable grief that followed. Now it’s time for Redemption with a capital “R”: Pronka grabs the boy and wrests him out of danger, just in the nick of time, giving his own life in return. Unlike Sofia, Pronka’s brain was able to calculate the exact parabola; well, they say that men are better at math. Even a mentally ill man like Pronka. Thanks to his quick reflexes, Nechai and his son are reunited, and the kid is gonna be okay!
In the Polish camp, a frustrated Prince Mniszek issues the order: To serve up one final volley, fart in the general direction of the defenders, and then pull back from “this cursed place”. The narrator informs us that the siege of the Troitsa monastery lasted one year and a half. Of the original 2,000 defenders, fewer than 200 came out alive. Neither the bombardments and stormings, neither the cold nor hunger were able to break the resistance of the heroic defenders. Their feats and sacrifices became a symbol of Russian resistance and victory in the Time of Troubles. And this, in turn, became the template for future Russian victories over invaders. (Swell of patriotic and religious music.)
Prince X is the first to notice that the Poles have left. There is nobody out there any more beyond the walls, the Lyakhi are truly gone and didn’t even leave a wooden horse behind. “Brothers they are truly gone!” he gloats. The defenders rejoice: “The Lyakhi are gone! Yay!” Taking stock: Of our main characters who are still alive: Xenia, Nechai, Baby Vanya, Clown Yasha and his fiancée Efrosinya. And Fyodor Romanov, of course. Also Fyodor’s wife Xenia/Martha who barely had two lines to speak in this whole epic, and yet is still given her own credit in the opening titles.
Filaret In The Pokey
The narrator informs us that Filaret had gone off to Smolensk as consul to negotiate with the Poles. Fil would accept the idea of a Pole on the Russian throne, but only if the latter converted to Orthodoxy. The Poles didn’t like what he was saying, and threw him in the slammer. His imprisonment lasted for 8 long years.
In his prison cell, Filaret is visited by Prince Mniszek. Mniszek lies his guts out, bragging about Polish victories and omitting unpleasant truths about what is really going on. Then complains about the behavior of Patriarch Hermogenes. Hermo has been smuggling letters out of his prison cell and become something of a popular samizdat author among the Russian people. Hermo is calling upon all Russians to rise up against their Polish overlords. The Russian people respond enthusiastically to this appeal. In Novgorod, the merchant Kuzma Minin reads Hermo’s epistles out loud to the crowd and raises a volunteer army, soon to be joined by Prince Pozharsky’s forces. If something isn’t done soon, then rivers of blood will flow, Mniszek warns.
Given these new developments, the Prince offers Filaret a lot of money if he were to take Hermo’s place as the Patriarch and throw his support to the Polish occupiers. Together they will put Władysław on the throne and bring an end to the Smuta. Granted that Wład would be a step up from the pig-riding False Dmitry, but Filaret still refuses the offer. In fact, he is totally thrilled and bucked up to hear the news about Minin and Pozharsky: “A peasant led the Prince!” he declaims defiantly, in his dementia spouting inappropriate Soviet propaganda for just one second. Rattling his chains, Filaret goes in for a big rousing finish: “The Russian people will rid themselves of the likes of you!” Filaret mocks the angry Polack. “Run away, before it’s too late!”
Mniszek laughs, but it isn’t a happy laugh. Filaret/Romanov laughs his head off like a crazy man. Mniszek leaves his cell, in a huff. And by the way, I am angry at the producers that they were so busy showing people crossing themselves in the monastery, that they omitted my favorite scene of the whole era: Namely, Susasin’s feat. Since they didn’t, I will tell the story myself:
So, these Polish soldiers are on the prowl to capture the escaped teenager Michael Romanov. It is the middle of a very cold and snowy Moscow winter. The soldiers quarter in the cottage of Ivan Susanin, a simple farmer. They hear a rumor that the farmer knows where Michael Romanov is hanging out. After threats and bullying, Susanin agrees to show the soldiers to the future Tsar’s hiding place. But he tricks them: With only one day’s supply of food, he leads the patrol deep into the forest, so deep that they will never get out before starving and/or freezing to death. Once the Poles realize how they have been tricked, they murder Susanin quite brutally. But they die too, and the Tsar is saved. This story was turned into a major opera by genius Russian composer Mikhail Glinka.
Back to the recap: In the final couple of scenes of the series, we are back in the monastery, where a saddened Nechai, Xenia and baby Vanyusha are burying their respective mom and friends. Nechai announces that he is returning to Moscow. One wonders whose side he is going to fight for now. Probably Prince Pozharsky, I am guessing. The narrator informs us that Xenia remained a nun by the name of Olga, and died in 1622. So, nothing ever came of the plan to marry her to a future Tsar. She was buried right there in the Troitsa-Sergiev Monastery, in the family plot belonging to the Godunov family.
In 1613, the narrator goes on, the Zemsky Sobor announced the selection of Mikhail Romanov as Russian Tsar, thus formally bringing an end to the Time of Troubles. Mikhail was born on July 22, 1596, and his coronation, coincidentally, took place on his 17th birthday! Quite a nice birthday present for the teenager, what with the orb, the scepter, and the throne. I wonder if he also got a scooter? In the final scene we see the amiable young man delivering to his mom (Xenia Shestova, aka Martha the nun) the good news that Papa is returning! And sure enough, a haggard Romanov/Filaret arrives home on his white horse. One is happy to see this nice family reunited, but one cannot help but wonder how awkward it will be, when Pops has to get down on his knees and bow to Tsar Sonny.
All of this while Russian church music is droning continuously in the background. Hammering in the point that the two major pillars of Russian society, and the two main defenders against any future foreign invasion, are the Monarchy and the Church!
The final subtitle, wise words from Yaroslav the Wise teaches people that “If you live with love amongst you, then God will be with you. He will destroy all your enemies and you will live in peace.”