Godunov, Boris Fyodorovich

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(15521605), Tsar of Russia (15981605).

Tsar Boris Godunov, one of the most famous (or infamous) rulers of early modern Russia, has been the subject of many biographies, plays, and even an opera by Mussorgsky. Boris's father was only a provincial cavalryman, but Boris's uncle, Dmitry Godunov (a powerful aristocrat), was able to advance the young man's career. Dmitry Godunov brought Boris and his sister, Irina, to the court of Tsar Ivan IV, and Boris enrolled in Ivan's dreaded Oprichnina (a state within the state ruled directly by the tsar). Boris soon attracted the attention of Tsar Ivan, who allowed him to marry Maria, the daughter of his favorite, Malyuta Skuratov (the notorious boss of the Oprichnina). Boris and Maria had two children: a daughter named Ksenya and a son named Fyodor. Both children received excellent educations, which was unusual in early modern Russia. Boris's sister Irina was the childhood playmate of Ivan IV's mentally retarded son, Fyodor, and eventually married him. When Tsar Ivan died in 1584, he named Boris as one of Tsar Fyodor I's regents. By 1588, Boris triumphed over his rivals to become Fyodor's sole regent and the effective ruler of Russia.

Boris Godunov has been called one of Russia's greatest rulers. Handsome, eloquent, energetic, and extremely bright, he brought greater skill to the tasks of governing than any of his predecessors and was an excellent administrator. Boris was respected in international diplomacy and managed to make

peace with Russia's neighbors. At home he was a zealous protector of the Russian Orthodox Church, a great builder and beautifier of Russian towns, and generous to the needy. As regent, Boris was responsible for the elevation of his friend, Metropolitan Job (head of the Russian Orthodox Church), to the rank of Patriarch in 1589; and Boris's generosity to the Church was rewarded by the strong loyalty of the clergy. Boris continued Ivan IV's policy of rapidly expanding the state to the south and east; but, due to a severe social and economic crisis that had been developing since the 1570s, he faced a declining tax base and a shrinking gentry cavalry force. In order to shore up state finances and the gentry so that he could continue Russia's imperial expansion, Boris enserfed the Russian peasants in the 1590s, tied townspeople to their taxpaying districts, and converted short-term slavery to permanent slavery. Boris also tried to tame the cossacks (bandits and mercenary soldiers) on Russia's southern frontier and harness them to state service. Those drastic measures failed to alleviate the state's severe crisis, but they did make many Russians hate him.

Boris was accused by his enemies of coveting the throne and murdering his rivals. When it was reported that Tsar Ivan IV's youngest son, Dmitry of Uglich (born in 1582), had died by accidentally slitting his throat in 1591, many people believed Boris had secretly ordered the boy's death in order to clear a path to the throne for himself. (Several historians have credited that accusation, but there is no significant evidence linking Boris to the Uglich tragedy.) When the childless Tsar Fyodor I died in 1598, Boris was forced to fight for the throne. His rivals, including Fyodor Romanov (the future Patriarch Filaret, father of Michael Romanov), were unable to stop him from becoming tsar, but they did manage to slow him down. At one point, an exasperated Boris proclaimed that he no longer wanted to become tsar and retired to a monastery. Patriarch Job hastily convened an assembly of clergy, lords, bureaucrats, and townspeople to go to the monastery to beg Boris to take the throne. (This ad hoc assembly was later falsely represented as a full-fledged Assembly of the Land [or Zemsky Sobor ] duly convened for the task of choosing a tsar.) In fact, Boris had enormous advantages over his rivals; he had been the ruler of Russia for a decade and had many supporters at court, in the Church, in the bureaucracy, and among the gentry cavalrymen. By clever maneuvering, Boris was soon accepted by the aristocracy as tsar, and he was crowned on September 1, 1598.

For most Russians, the reign of Tsar Boris was an unhappy time. Indeed, it marked the beginning of Russia's horrific Time of Troubles (15981613). By the end of the sixteenth century, Russia's developing state crisis reached its deepest stage, and a sharp political struggle within the ruling elite undermined Tsar Boris's legitimacy in the eyes of many of his subjects and set the stage for civil war. In his coronation oath, Tsar Boris had promised not to harass his political enemies, but he ended up persecuting several aristocratic families, including the Romanovs. That prompted some of his opponents to begin working secretly against the Godunov dynasty. Contemporaries described the fearful atmosphere that developed in Moscow and the gradual drift of Tsar Boris's regime into increasingly harsh reprisals against opponents and more frequent use of spies, denunciations, torture, and executions.

Early in Tsar Boris's reign catastrophe struck Russia. In the period 16011603, many of Russia's crops failed due to bad weather. The result was the worst famine in all of Russian history; up to one-third of Tsar Boris's subjects perished. In spite of Boris's sincere efforts to help his suffering people, many of them concluded that God was punishing Russia for the sins of its ruler. Therefore, when a man appeared in Poland-Lithuania in 1603 claiming to be Dmitry of Uglich, miraculously saved from Boris Godunov's alleged assassins back in 1591, many Russians were willing to believe that God had saved Ivan the Terrible's youngest son in order to topple the evil usurper Boris Godunov. When False Dmitry invaded Russia in 1604, many cossacks and soldiers joined his ranks, and many towns of southwestern Russia rebelled against Tsar Boris. Even after False Dmitry's army was decisively defeated in the battle of Dobrynichi (January 1605), enthusiasm for the true tsar spread like wildfire throughout most of southern Russia. Support for False Dmitry even began to appear in the tsar's army and in Moscow itself. A very unhappy Tsar Boris, who had been ill for some time, withdrew from public sight. Despised and feared by many of his subjects, Boris died on April 13, 1605. It was rumored that he took his own life, but he probably died of natural causes. Boris's son took the throne as Tsar Fyodor II, but within six weeks the short-lived Godunov dynasty was overthrown in favor of Tsar Dmitry.

See also: assembly of the land; cossacks; dmitry, false; dmitry of uglich; filaret romanov, patriarch; fyodor ivanovich; ivan iv; job, patriarch; oprichnina; romanov, mikhail fyodorovich; slavery; time of troubles


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Chester Dunning