Boris Godunov – Legend and Fact

Boris Godunov, Bolshoi Theatre

Ivan the Terrible’s successor was an elected tsar who history has charged with the murder of Tsarevich Dmitry.

Was Boris Godunov one of Russia’s best rulers, or was he a criminal, as legend seems to indicate?

Boris Godunov was Russia’s first elected tsar. Legend has made him a criminal, but Russian history tells of his strong leadership abilities as well as his innovative, and sometimes progressive, governing tactics.

An orphan of a boyar (a citizen whose rank was just under than of the ruling class), Boris Godunov grew up in the household of Ivan the Terrible. When Tsar Ivan killed his son Ivan, who would be the next Tsar, another son of Ivan’s had to take the crown.

Fedor, who married Boris Godunov’s sister Irina, was unfit to rule, due to mental disabilities. Boris Godunov ruled as regent, instituting the system of serfdom and securing Russia’s borders. When Fedor died, the “Assembly of the Land” elected Boris to the position of tsar.

While Boris Godunov’s rule is enough to make him a notable Russian ruler, it’s the crime and controversy surrounding another son of Ivan the Terrible, Dmitry, that has made Boris Godunov the subject of stories, operas, and scholarly research.

Dmitry, the son of Ivan the Terrible and his seventh wife, was nine years old when he was murdered in 1591. Dmitry, epileptic and living with relatives in the village of Uglich, was found with his throat cut. Whether he died at the hands of someone else or during a seizure, history may never reveal the details. Boris Godunov was widely criticized for plotting to kill the boy to prevent Dmitry from claiming the throne. (However, the church would never have recognized Dmitry as tsar – according to church doctrine, only three marriages were permitted, and a child by a seventh wife would not have been considered heir apparent. See Medieval Slavic Marriage Laws for more information.)

Years later, a “False Dmitry” appeared in Poland, gaining support from the Polish-Lithuanian government and minimizing Boris Godunov’s good standing with his subjects. To this day, no one is quite sure who the pretender to the throne was, but it has long been suspected that the False Dmitry was a rebel monk who was able to convince others of the legitimacy of his “royal” birth. Other theories point to a man groomed (possibly by the Romanov family) to believe that he was Dmitry, that another boy was murdered in place of Dmitry, or that it was someone else altogether.

Boris Godunov died in 1605. Dmitry briefly became tsar, then was denounced by one of Boris Godunov’s opponents. Karamzin, Pushkin, and Mussorgsky all wrote Boris Godunov’s story as a tragic tale of criminal guilt. However, his interest in Western society and education, his way of dealing with enemies, and his foreign policy were successful at securing his position as a capable and popular tsar.