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His name was Dmitri, and he was hereditary Grand-Prince of all the Russias, being the son of Ivan the Terrible, and only surviving brother of Feodor, the childless successor of that blood-thirsty czar. He was carefully killed in the presence of witnesses, during his boyhood, and duly buried, with honors appropriate to his station in life; so that if Dmitri had been an ordinary mortal, or even an ordinary prince, there would have been no story of his life to tell, except the brief tragedy of his taking off. He was no ordinary prince, however, and so the trifling incident of his death during childhood had as little to do with his career as had one or two other episodes of a like nature in the history of his later life. He was born to rule Russia, and was not at all disposed to excuse himself from the performance of the duty Providence had thus imposed upon him, by pleading the two or three thorough killings to which he was subjected. The story, as preserved in authentic history, is a very interesting one, and may perhaps bear repeating here. The reader may find all the facts in any reputable history of Russia, or of the houses of Rurik and Romanoff.
In his jealousy of the absolute power he wielded, Ivan the Terrible had made constant war upon his nobility--killing them, or driving them away, and in every way possible destroying whatever share of influence they possessed in the state. When he died, leaving as his successor Feodor, a weak prince, of uncertain temper and infirm intellect, the nobility--naturally enough--hoped to regain their ancient influence in the state, and might have accomplished their purpose without difficulty if their measures to that end had been taken concertedly; but, jealous as they were of the privileges of their class, they were even more tenacious of their individual and family pretensions. They quarrelled among themselves, in short, and, while they were quarrelling, a bold and ambitious man, Boris Godunof, who happened to be the czar's brother-in-law, conceived the project of becoming prime-minister and actual ruler of the empire. Indeed, his ambition extended even further than this. Not content with governing Russia in the name of Feodor, he set covetous eyes upon the purple itself, and was resolved to become czar in name as well as in fact. But this was a delicate and difficult task, and could by accomplished only at great risk and by great patience. Boris was a man of undoubted genius, extreme shrewdness, unlimited ambition, and remarkable personal courage; and difficult and dangerous as his task was, he seems never to have faltered in his purpose from the instant of its conception to the time of its execution.
Knowing the power of money in state affairs, he took care to accumulate a vast sum in his own private coffers, as a first step. He conciliated the common people in a hundred ways--by wise legislation, by the reformation of abuses which pressed hardly upon them, and sometimes by the oppression of the nobles in the interest of the lower classes. He was not long in making himself altogether the most popular man in Russia. He removed, by death or banishment, those whom he could not conciliate, together with all other persons whom he thought likely to prove obstacles in the way of his grand purpose. In short, a very brief time sufficed him for the winning of a popularity which, in any country but Russia, would have been sufficient for his need. But Boris knew his Russians well. He knew that loyalty to the line of Rurik was the strongest feeling in their breasts, after that of devotion to their creed--of which, indeed, it formed a chief part. It was their fixed belief in the divine right of the legitimate princes of the House of Rurik to reign, that had kept them patient, even under the rigors of Ivan's rule; and Boris knew well enough that no usurper, however strongly intrenched in their affections he might be, could hope to win those superstitiously loyal people to his support against any prince of the right line, however brutal, unjust, and despotic that prince might be. He knew, in brief, that so long as any descendant of Rurik should live, no other man could hope to seat himself upon the Muscovite throne.
Feodor had no children, but he had one brother, the lad Dmitri, who would be his successor in the natural course of events. His existence was sure to prove an effectual bar to all Boris's hopes; and so it was necessary to get him out of the way before the scheme should be ripe for execution. To accomplish this, the wily minister sent Dmitri and his mother to the distant town of Uglitch, and there, by his orders, the young prince was murdered, in the presence of his nurse and six other people, and buried from his mother's residence. This was in 1591. The lad's death was announced, of course. Indeed, it was known to nearly everybody in Uglitch, the tocsin having been sounded, and the population having gathered around the murdered boy, where they put to death a good many who were suspected of complicity with the murderers. But in publishing it abroad in Russia, Boris deemed it prudent to attribute it, some say to a fever, others to an accidental fall upon a knife with which the boy had been playing; and lest the people of Uglitch should embarrass the minister by insisting upon a different diagnosis of the boy's last illness, that prudent official put a great many of them to death, cut the tongues out of others' heads, and banished the rest to Siberia--laying the town in ashes. He spared the lad's mother, but shut her up in a convent.
Dmitri was now out of the way, or, rather, he would have been if he had had an ordinary capacity for staying comfortably killed; and Boris redoubled his efforts to prepare the way for his own elevation to the throne, as Feodor's successor, when that prince should chance to let the sceptre fall from his grasp.
To secure the influence of the Church in his behalf, he bought of a Greek bishop the right to appoint the successor of the patriarch (a sort of Greek Church pope); and that office presently becoming vacant, he appointed a creature of his own as head of the Church. He succeeded in winning the favor of the inferior nobility, who were very numerous, and made himself strong in many other ways.
Boris was a fellow of infinite good-luck; and so it fell out that, at the precise moment when all his plans were complete, the Czar Feodor obligingly died. So opportunely did this event happen, that grave historians have been inclined to suspect Boris of having procured it in some way; but of this there is no positive evidence.
Feodor dead, there was no heir to the throne. With him ended the line of Rurik, which alone the Russians recognized as legitimately entitled to rule the empire; and now a new czar must be chosen. The nobles quarrelled, of course. They agreed in thinking that one of their order should be elevated to the throne; but they could by no means agree which one it should be. Each resented the pretensions of all the others, and it speedily became manifest that the patriarch's nomination, upon whomsoever it might fall, would turn the scale and elect a czar. The patriarch was Boris's own creature, appointed for the sole purpose of forwarding that minister's plans; and he promptly nominated Boris to the vacant throne. The election was a prearranged affair; and presently Boris was waited upon--in the convent to which he had retired with the declared purpose of leading a monastic life in future--and informed of his selection by the people as Czar of all the Russias. He modestly declined, of course; and, equally of course, his modesty only made the people the more clamorous. After some weeks of petty dalliance Boris finally allowed himself to be persuaded, and was crowned czar, in due form, in the year 1598.
He was not long in discovering that his position was insecure, and incapable of being made safe. Whatever policy he might adopt--and he was disposed, it appears, to govern wisely and well--was sure to displease some of his subjects; and in the hands of a hostile faction, his want of hereditary claim upon the throne was a powerful weapon. What he had seized by crime he must keep by tyranny and violence, and a three years' famine added greatly to his embarrassments. Whatever he did excited discontent; and to make his wretchedness complete, he fancied himself haunted by the ghost of the murdered Dmitri. There were symptoms of mutiny everywhere, which daily threatened to culminate in open revolt. It needed only a match to fire the mine.
In 1603, when matters were at their worst, there appeared in Poland a young man claimed to be the murdered Dmitri. His story was that, by means of an adroit substitution, another boy had been killed in his place; that he had escaped; and he claimed the throne of the Ruriks. He strongly resembled the prince he claimed to be, and his identity seemed to be established, also, by other evidence than mere personal resemblance. There was no "strawberry mark on his left arm," but both he and the dead prince, if, indeed, they were two distinct persons, had a wart on the forehead, and another under the right eye, and in both one arm was slightly longer than the other. The pretender, or real prince, as the case may be, had also a valuable jewel which had belonged to Dmitri; and so he was not long in winning credence for his story, both in Poland and in Russia. Boris gave out that the young man was the monk Otrafief, who had appeared in the army as his advocate and emissary; and some historians--Karamsin and Bell among the number--have accepted this theory; but a careful comparison of dates seems to contradict it. Whoever the man was, he was an able and accomplished diplomatist as well as a singularly bold warrior; and he succeeded presently in winning the recognition of Sigismund, King of Poland, and putting himself at the head of an army with which he invaded Russia. He had privately abjured the Greek faith, and undertaken to convert Russia into a Catholic power; and, in addition to the many other favors promised the Poles, he had engaged to marry Marina, the daughter of a Polish nobleman.
During the autumn of the year 1604, this new Dmitri began his invasion at the head of a small army made up of Poles and Don Cossacks. On his march his force was swelled by accessions, and a number of towns declared in his favor. Boris sent an army four times as great as his own, to destroy him; and battle was joined on the last day of December. Dmitri's case seemed utterly hopeless; but he was both able and brave. He fought with the resolution and courage of a hero, the skill of a consummate tactician, and the fury of a demon. And in spite of the terrible odds against him, he won a great victory. In a military way, its results were neutralized by the withdrawal of his Poles, and by some other circumstances which forbade his pushing forward towards the capital; but the moral effect was altogether in his favor. The superstitious Russians saw in his marvellous success a miracle, and accepted it as proof positive that this was the true prince, to oppose whom was sacrilege. By dint of great energy Boris was able to maintain the war till the time of his own death, which happened during the spring of 1605. His son Feodor was crowned as his successor; but a few weeks later he was deposed and strangled, and the new Dmitri came to the throne.
For a time his wisdom as a statesman promised to equal his skill and courage as a soldier, but his manifest preference for Poles to Russians soon created jealousy; and imagining that he could overcome prejudices by violent measures, as easily as he had conquered a throne, he spared no pains to insult the Russian national feeling. He appointed only Poles to high office, and lavished upon foreigners so much attention as to breed discontent in his own capital. His apostasy from the Greek to the Roman faith, also, was suspected, and the clergy became his implacable enemies. The disaffection grew daily, and the efforts Dmitri made to overawe his enemies only exasperated them. Finally, on the occasion of his marriage with Marina, the Polish princess--which was celebrated with great pomp by a throng of Polish soldiers and others, invited to Moscow for the purpose--a mob, headed by Shuiski, or Schnisky--for the name is spelled in both of these and half a dozen other ways--stormed the palace, butchered the Poles, and impaled Dmitri on a spear. To leave no doubt of his death this time, they kept his body transfixed with the spear, in front of the palace, for three days, that the people might wreak their vengeance upon the dead czar by insulting his corpse.
Schnisky profited by his victory, and while the blood of the populace was still hot was chosen czar, as successor of the impostor he had overthrown. His popularity was short-lived, however. His fellows among the nobles resented his elevation above themselves, and ere long the desire for his removal was as unanimous as his election had been. This seemed a good time for the doubly dead Dmitri to come to life again; and so it was presently rumored that after all he had not been killed; that the corpse the people had spat upon and insulted was not his; that he was alive, in Poland, and ready to claim his own. This report was industriously circulated by the nobles; but as the people had not yet forgotten their hatred for the usurper, he was permitted to lie down in his grave again.
To prevent his coming to life for a third time, the dead czar's remains were disinterred and burned. The ashes were collected and fired from a piece of artillery, and it was supposed that further resurrection on his part was impossible. But, as we have seen, Dmitri had a most astonishing genius for coming to life after being thoroughly killed; and presently he appeared again in Poland. This time, history says, he was either a Russian schoolmaster or a Polish Jew; but however that may be, certain it is that he so closely resembled the other two Dmitri's in personal appearance, even to the two warts and unequally long arms, that he imposed on everybody around him with his story. Even the Princess Marina accepted him, and actually lived with him as his wife.
He was able, without much difficulty, to interest the King of Poland in his behalf, and to secure a declaration of war by that potentate against Czar Schnisky. He invaded Russia, won battles, captured Smolensko, invested Moscow, and finally entered the city.
About this time Dmitri appeared in several other places, but only one of him was in Moscow at the head of a victorious army; and in behalf of this particular one Schnisky resigned his crown and retired to a monastery, whence he was soon removed to a dungeon.
At this juncture the King of Poland, having plans of his own for the union of Russia and his own kingdom, withdrew his countenance from Dmitri; and that prince retired from the business of governing, and devoted himself for the rest of his life to the less honorable, but perhaps equally lucrative, profession of highway robbery. He was again killed after awhile, this time by a Don Cossack. But even this public killing had small effect. A dozen or more new Dmitri's appeared, claiming the throne; and some of them, says the historian Bell, "actually touched the sceptre for a moment, but only to recoil in fear from the dangerous object of their insane ambition."
After awhile, having found the task an unprofitable one, perhaps, Dmitri seems to have made up his mind to stay dead; but in due course a race of his sons sprang up quite as mysteriously, if not quite as persistently, to pester the Russians, and peace came to them only through the elevation of the Romanoffs to the imperial throne. Connected as they were by ties of blood with the race of Rurik, they brought legitimacy to the rescue of a land long torn by faction. The loyalty of the people to sovereigns whose right to rule was derived from Rurik, gave the dynasty a strength sufficient to maintain itself; and after a little while Peter the Great taught his Russians civilization, and a new era in Russian history was begun.