Historical Basis of The Plot
An understanding of the drama of Boris Godunov may be facilitated by a basic knowledge of the historical events surrounding the Time of Troubles, the interregnum of relative anarchy following the end of the Ryurik Dynasty (1598) and preceding the Romanov Dynasty (1613). Key events are as follows:
- 1584 – Ivan IV "The Terrible", the first Grand Prince of Muscovy to officially adopt the title Tsar (Caesar), dies. Ivan’s successor is his feeble son Fyodor, now Fyodor I, who cares only for spiritual matters and leaves the affairs of state to his capable brother-in-law, boyar Boris Godunov, who soon becomes the de facto regent.
- 1591 – Ivan’s other son, the eight-year-old Tsarevich Dmitriy Ivanovich, dies under mysterious circumstances in Uglich. An investigation, ordered by Godunov and carried out by Prince Vasiliy Shuysky, determines that the Tsarevich, while playing with a knife, had an epileptic seizure, fell, and died from a self-inflicted wound to the throat. Dmitriy's mother, Maria Nagaya, exiled with him to Uglich by Godunov, claims he was assassinated. Rumors linking Boris to the crime are circulated by his enemies.
- 1598 – Tsar Fyodor I dies. He is the last in a line of representatives of the Ryurik Dynasty who have ruled Russia for 7 centuries. Patriarch Job of Moscow nominates Boris to succeed Fyodor I as Tsar, despite the rumors that Boris ordered the murder of Dmitriy. Boris agrees to accept the throne only if elected by the Zemsky Sobor. This the assembly does unanimously, and Boris is crowned the same year.
- 1601 – The Russian famine of 1601–1603 undermines Boris Godunov's popularity and the stability of his administration.
- 1604 – A pretender to the throne appears in Poland, claiming to be Tsarevich Dmitriy, but believed to be in reality one Grigoriy Otrepyev. He gains the support of the Szlachta, magnates, and, upon conversion to Roman Catholicism, the Apostolic Nuncio Claudio Rangoni. Obtaining a force of soldiers, he marches on Moscow. The False Dmitriy's retinue includes the Jesuits Lawicki and Czernikowski, and the monks Varlaam and Misail of the Chudov Monastery. Crossing into Russia, Dmitriy’s invasion force is joined by disaffected Cossacks. However, after a few victories, the campaign falters. Polish mercenaries mutiny and desert.
- 1605 – Boris dies of unknown causes. He is succeeded by his son Fyodor, now Fyodor II. The death of Boris gives new life to the campaign of the False Dmitriy. Boyars who have gone over to the Pretender murder Fyodor II and his mother. The False Dmitriy enters Moscow and is soon crowned. Prince Shuysky begins plotting against him.
- 1606 – The Russian boyars oppose Dmitriy's Polish and Catholic alliances. He is murdered shortly after wedding Marina Mniszech, and is succeeded by Vasiliy Shuysky, now Vasiliy IV.
- 1610 – Vasiliy IV is deposed, and dies two years later in a Polish prison. Another pretender claiming to be Dmitriy Ivanovich, False Dmitriy II, is murdered.
- 1611 – Yet a third pretender, False Dmitriy III, appears. He is captured and executed in 1612.
- 1613 – The Time of Troubles comes to a close with the accession of Mikhail Romanov, son of Fyodor Romanov, who had been persecuted under Boris Godunov's reign.
Note: The culpability of Boris in the matter of Dmitriy's death can neither be proved nor disproved. Karamzin accepted his responsibility for the crime as fact, and Pushkin and Mussorgsky after him assumed his guilt to be true, at least for the purpose of creating a tragedy in the mold of Shakespeare. Modern historians, however, tend to acquit Boris of the crime.
Read more about this topic: Boris Godunov (opera)
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