Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Charles Morris

The Macbeth of Russia

On the 15th of May, 1591, five boys were playing in the court-yard of the Russian palace at Uglitch. With them were the governess and nurse of the principal child—a boy ten years of age—and a servant-woman. The child had a knife in his hand, with which he was amusing himself by thrusting it into the ground or cutting a piece of wood.

Unluckily, the attention of the women for a brief interval was drawn aside. When the nurse looked at her charge again, to her horror she found him writhing on the ground, bathed in blood which poured from a large wound in his throat.

The shrieks of the nurse quickly drew others to the spot, and in a moment there was a terrible uproar, for the dying boy was no less a person than Dmitri, son of Ivan the Terrible, brother of Feodor, the reigning czar, and heir to the crown of Russia. The tocsin was sounded, and the populace thronged into the courtyard, thinking that the palace was on fire. On learning what had actually happened they burst into uncontrollable fury. The child had not killed himself, but had been murdered, they said, and a victim for their rage was sought.

In a moment the governess was hurled bleeding and half alive to the ground, and one of her slaves, who came to her aid, was killed. The keeper of the palace was accused of the crime, and, though he fled and barred himself within a house, the infuriated mob broke through the doors and killed him and his son. The body of the child was carried into a neighboring church, and here the son of the governess, against whom suspicion had been directed, was murdered before it under his mother's eyes. Fresh victims to the wrath of the populace were sought, and the lives of the governess and some others were with difficulty saved.

As for the child who had killed himself or had been killed, alarming stories had recently been set afloat. He was said to be the image of his terrible father, and to manifest an unnatural delight in blood and the sight of pain, his favorite amusement being to torture and kill animals. But it is doubtful if any of this was true, for there was then one in power who had a reason for arousing popular prejudice against the boy.

That this may be better understood we must go back. Ivan had killed his ablest son, as told in a previous story, and Feodor, the present czar, was a feeble, timid, sickly incapable, who was a mere tool in the hands of his ambitious minister, Boris Godunof. Boris craved the throne. Between him and this lofty goal lay only the feeble Feeder and the child Dmitri, the sole direct survivors of the dynasty of Rurik. With their death without children that great line would be extinguished.

The story of Boris reminds us in several particulars of that of the Scotch usurper Macbeth. His future career had been predicted, in the dead of night, by astrologers, who said, "You shall yet wear the crown," Then they became silent, as if seeing horrors which they dared not reveal. Boris insisted on knowing more, and was told that he should reign, but only for seven years. In joy he exclaimed, " No matter, though it be for only seven days, so that I reign!"

This ambitious lord, who ruled already if he did not reign, had therefore a purpose in exciting prejudice against and distrust of Dmitri, the only heir to the crown, and in taking steps for his removal. Feodor dead, the throne would fall like ripe fruit into his own hands.

Yet, whether guilty of the murder or not, he took active steps to clear himself of the dark suspicion of guilt. An inquest was held, and the verdict rendered that the boy had killed himself by accident. At once the regent proceeded to punish those who had taken part in the outbreak at Uglitch. The czaritza, mother of Dmitri, who had first incited the mob, was forced to take the veil. Her brothers, who had declared the act one of murder, were sent to remote prisons. Uglitch was treated with frightful severity. More than two hundred of its inhabitants were put to death. Others were maimed and thrown into dungeons. All the rest, except those who had fled, were exiled to Siberia, and with them was banished the very church-bell which had called them out by its tocsin peal. A town of thirty thousand inhabitants was depopulated that, as people said, every evidence of the guilt of Boris Godunof might be destroyed.

This dreadful violence did Boris more harm than good. Macbeth stabbed the sleeping grooms to hide his guilt. Boris destroyed a city. But he only caused the people to look on him as an assassin and to doubt the motives of even his noblest acts.

A fierce fire broke out that left much of Moscow in ruin. Boris rebuilt whole streets and distributed money freely among the people. But even those who received this aid said that he had set fire to the city himself that he might win applause with his money. A Tartar army invaded the empire and appeared at the gates of Moscow. All were in terror but Boris, who hastily built redoubts, recruited soldiers, and inspired all with his own courage. The Tartars were defeated, and hardly a third of them reached home again. Yet all the return the able regent received was the popular saying that he had called in the Tartars in order to make the people forget the death of Dmitri.

A child was born to Feodor,—a girl. The enemies of the regent instantly declared that a boy had been born and that he had substituted for it a girl. It died in a few days, and then it was said that he had poisoned it.

Yet Boris went on, disdaining his enemies, winning power as he went. He gained the favor of the clergy by giving Russia a patriarch of its own. The nobles who opposed him were banished or crushed. He made the peasants slaves of the land, and thus won over the petty lords. Cities were built, fortresses erected, the enemies of Russia defeated; Siberia was brought under firm control, and the whole nation made to see that it had never been ruled by abler hands.

Boris in all this was strongly paving his way to the throne. In 1598 the weak Feodor died. He left no sons, and with him, its fifty-second sovereign, the dynasty of Rurik the Varangian came to an end. It had existed for more than seven centuries. Branches of the house of Rurik remained, yet no member of it dared aspire to that throne which the tyrant Ivan had made odious.

A new ruler had to be chosen by the voice of those in power, and Boris stood supreme among the aspirants. The chronicles tell us, with striking brevity, "The election begins; the people look up to the nobles, the nobles to the grandees, the grandees to the patriarch; he speaks, he names Boris; and instantaneously, and as one man, all re-echo that formidable name."

And now Godunof played an amusing game. He held the reins of power so firmly that he could safely enact a transparent farce. He refused the sceptre. The grandees and the people begged him to accept it, and he took refuge from their solicitations in a monastery. This comedy, which even Caesar had not long played, Boris kept up for over a month. Yet from his cell he moved Russia at his will.

In truth, the more he seemed to withdraw the more eager became all to make him accept. Priests. nobles, people, besieged him with their supplications. He refused, and again refused, and for six weeks kept all Russia in suspense. Not until he saw before him the highest grandees and clergy of the realm on their knees, tears in their eyes, in their hands the relics of the saints and the image of the Redeemer, did he yield what seemed a reluctant assent, and come forth from his cell to accept that throne which was the chief object of his desires.

But Boris on the throne still resembled Macbeth. The memory of his crimes pursued him, and he sought to rule by fear instead of love. He endeavored, indeed, to win the people by shows and prodigality, but the powerful he ruled with a heavy hand, destroying all whom he had reason to fear, threatening the extinction of many great families by forbidding their members to marry, seizing the wealth of those he had ruined. The family of the Romanofs, allied to the line of Rurik, and soon to become pre-eminent in Russia, he pursued with rancor, its chief being obliged to turn monk to escape the axe. As monk he in time rose to the headship of the church.

The peasantry, who had before possessed liberty of movement, were by him bound as serfs to the soil. Thousands of them fled, and an insupportable inquisition was established, as hateful to the land-owners as to the serfs. All this was made worse by famine and pestilence, which ravaged Russia for three years. And in the midst of this disaster the ghost of the slain Dmitri rose to plague his murderer. In other words, one who claimed to be the slain prince appeared, and avenged the murdered child, his story forming one of the most interesting tales in the history of Russia. It is this which we have now to tell.

About midsummer of the year 1603 Adam Wiszniowiecki a polish prince, angry at some act of negligence in a young man whom he had lately employed, gave him a box on the ear and called him by an insulting name.

"If you knew who I am, prince," said the indignant youth. "you would not strike me nor call me by such a name."

"Knew who you are! Why, who are you?"

"I am Dmitri, son of Ivan IV., and the rightful czar of Russia."

Surprised by this extraordinary statement, the prince questioned him, and was told a plausible story by the young man. He had escaped the murderer, he said, the boy who died being the son of a serf, who resembled and had been substituted for him by his physician Simon, who knew what Boris designed. The physician had fled with him from Uglitch and put him in the hands of a loyal gentleman, who for safety had consigned him to a monastery.

The physician and gentleman were both dead. but the young man showed the prince a Russian seal which bore Dmitri's arms and name, and a gold cross adorned with jewels of great value, given him, he said, by his princely godfather. He was about the age which Dmitri would have reached, and, as a Russian servant who had seen the child said, had warts and other marks like those of the true Dmitri. He possessed also a persuasiveness of manner which soon won over the polish prince.

The pretender was accepted as an illustrious guest by Prince Wiszniowiecki, given clothes, horses, carriages, and suitable retinue, and presented to other Polish dignitaries. Dmitri, as he was thenceforth known, bore well the honors now showered upon him. He was at ease among the noblest; gracious, affable, but always dignified; and all said that he had the deportment of a prince.

He spoke Polish as well as Russian, was thoroughly versed in Russian history and genealogy, and was, moreover, an accomplished horseman, versed in field sports, and of striking vigor and agility, qualities highly esteemed by the Polish nobles.

The story of this event quickly reached Russia, and made its way with surprising rapidity through all the provinces. The czarevitch Dmitri had not been murdered, after all! He was alive in Poland, and was about to call the usurper to a terrible reckoning. The whole nation was astir with the story, and various accounts of his having been seen in Russia and of having played a brave part in the military expeditions of the Cossacks were set afloat.

Boris soon heard of this claimant of the throne. He also received the disturbing news that a monk was among the Cossacks of the Don urging them to take up arms for the czarevitch who would soon be among them. His first movement was the injudicious one of trying to bribe Wiszniowiecki to give up the impostor to him the result being to confirm the belief that he was in truth the prince he claimed to be.

The events that followed are too numerous to be given in detail, and it must suffice here to say that on October 31, 1604, Dmitri entered Russian territory at the head of a small Polish army, of less than five thousand in all. This was a trifling force with which to invade an empire, but it grew rapidly as he advanced. Town after town submitted on his appearance, bringing to him, bound and gagged, the governors set over them by Boris. Dmitri at once set the free and treated them with polite humanity.

The first town to offer resistance was Novgorod-Swerski, which Peter Basmanof, a general of Boris, had garrisoned with five hundred men. Basmanof was brave and obstinate, and for several weeks he held the force of Dmitri before this petty place while Boris was making vigorous efforts to collect an army among his discontented people. On the last day of 1604 the two armies met, fifteen thousand against fifty thousand, and on a broad open plain that gave the weaker force no advantage of position.

But Dmitri made up for weakness by soldierly spirit. At the head of some six hundred mail-clad Polish knights he vigorously charged the Russian right wing, hurled it back upon the centre, and soon had the whole army in disorder. The soldiers flung down their arms and fled, shouting, "The czarevitch! the czarevitch!"

Yet in less than a month this important victory was followed by a defeat. Dmitri had been weakened by his Poles being called home. Boris gathered new forces, and on January 20, 1605, the armies met again, now seventy thousand Muscovites against less than quarter their number. Yet victory would have come to Dmitri again but for treachery in his army. He charged the enemy with the same fierceness as before, bore down all before him, routed the cavalry, tore a great gap in the line of the infantry, and would have swept the field had the main body of his army, consisting of eight thousand Zaporogues, come to his aid.

At this vital moment this great body of cavalry, half the entire army, wheeled and quit the field,—bribed, it is said, by Boris. Such a defection, at such a moment, was fatal. The Russians rallied; the day was lost; nothing but flight remained. Dmitri fled, hotly pursued, and his horse suffering from a wound. He was saved by his devoted Cossack infantry, four thousand in number, who stood to their guns and faced the whole Muscovite army. They were killed to a man, but Dmitri escaped,—favored, as we are told, by some of the opposing leaders, who did not want to make Boris too powerful.

All was not lost while Dmitri remained at liberty. Lost armies could be restored. He took refuge in Putivle, one of the towns which had pronounced in his favor, and while his enemies, who proved half-hearted in the cause of Boris, wasted their time in besieging a small fortress, new adherents flocked to his banner. Boris was furious against his generals, but his fury caused them to hate instead of to serve him. He tried to get rid of Dmitri by poison, but his agents were discovered and punished, and the attempt helped his rival more than a victory would have done.

Dmitri wrote to Boris, declaring that Heaven had protected him against this base attempt, and ironically promising to extend mercy towards him. "Descend from the throne you have usurped, and seek in the solitude of the cloister to reconcile yourself with Heaven. In that case I will forget your crimes, and even assure you of my sovereign protection."

All this was bitter to the Russian Macbeth. The princely blood which he had shed to gain the throne seemed to redden the air about him. The ghost of his slain victim haunted him. His power, indeed, seemed as great as ever. He was an autocrat still, the master of a splendid court, the ruler over a vast empire. Yet he knew that they who came with reverence and adulation into his presence hated him in their hearts, and anguish must have smitten the usurper to the soul.

His sudden death seemed to indicate this. On the 13th of April, 1605, after dining in state with some distinguished foreigners, illness suddenly seized him, blood burst from his mouth, nose, and ears, and within two hours he was dead. He had reigned six years,—nearly the full term predicted by the sooth sayers.

The story of Dmitri is a long one still, but must be dealt with here with the greatest brevity. Feodor, the son of Boris, was proclaimed czar by the boyars of the court. The oath of allegiance was taken by the whole city; all seemed to favor him; yet within six weeks this boyish czar was deposed and executed without a sword being drawn in his defence.

Basmanof, the leading general of Boris, had turned to the cause of Dmitri, and the army seconded him. The people of Moscow declared in favor of the pretender, there were a few executions and banishments, and on the 20th of June the new czar entered Moscow in great pomp, amid the acclamations of an immense multitude, who thronged the streets, the windows, and the house-tops; and the young man who, less than two years before, had had his ears boxed by a Polish prince, was now proclaimed emperor and autocrat of the mighty Russian realm.

It was a short reign to which the false Dmitri for there seems to be no doubt of the death of the true Dmitri—had come. Within less than a year Moscow was in rebellion, he was slain, and the throne was vacant. And this result was largely due to his generous and kindly spirit, largely to his trusting nature and disregard of Russian opinion.

No man could have been more unlike the tyrant Ivan, his reputed father. Dmitri proved kind and generous to all, even bestowing honors upon members of the family of Godunof. He remitted heavy taxes, punished unjust judges, paid the debts contracted by Ivan, passed laws in the interest of the serfs, and held himself ready to receive the petitions and redress the grievances of the humblest of his subjects. His knowledge of state affairs was remarkable for one of his age, and Russia had never had an abler, nobler-minded, and more kindly-hearted czar.

But Dmitri in discretion was still a boy, and made trouble where an older head would have mended it. He offended the boyars of his council by laughing at their ignorance.

"Go and travel," he said; "observe the ways of civilized nations, for you are no better than savages." The advice was good, but not wise. He offended the Russian demand for decorum in a czar by riding through the streets on a furious stallion, like a Cossack of the Don. In religion he was lax, favoring secretly the Latin Church. He chose Poles instead of Russians for his secretaries. And he excited general disgust by the announcement that he was about to marry a Polish woman, heretical to the Russian faith. The people were still more incensed by the conduct of Marina, this foreign bride, both before and after the wedding, she giving continual offence by her insistence on Polish customs.

While thus offending the prejudices and superstitions of his people, Dmitri prepared for his downfall by his trustfulness and clemency. He dismissed the spies with whom former czars had surrounded themselves, and laid himself freely open to treachery. The result of his acts and his openness was a conspiracy, which was fortunately discovered. Shuiski, its leader, was condemned to be executed. Yet as he knelt with the axe lifted above him, he was respited and banished to Siberia; and on his way thither a courier overtook him, bearing a pardon for him and his banished brothers. His rank was restored, and he was again made a councillor of the empire.

Clemency like this was praiseworthy, but it proved fatal. Like Caesar before him, Dmitri was over-clement and over-confident, and with the same result. Yet his answer to those who urged him to punish the conspirator was a noble one, and his trustfulness worth far more than a security due to cruelty and suspicion.

"No," he said, "I have sworn not to shed Christian blood, and I will keep my oath. There are two ways of governing an empire,—tyranny and generosity. I choose the latter. I will not be a tyrant. I will not spare money; I will scatter it on all hands."

Only for the offence which he gave his people by disregarding their prejudices, Dmitri might have long and ably reigned. His confidence opened the way to a new conspiracy, of which Shuiski was again at the head. Reports were spread through the city that Dmitri was a heretic and an impostor and that he had formed a plot to massacre the Moscovites by the aid of the Poles whom he had introduced into the city.

As a result of the insidious methods of the conspirators, the whole city broke out in rebellion, and at daybreak on the 29th of May, 1606, a body of boyars gathered in the great square in full armor, and, followed by a multitude of townsmen, advanced on the Kremlin, whose gates were thrown open by traitors within.

Dmitri, who had only fifty guards in the Palace, was aroused by the din of bells and the uproar in the streets. An armed multitude filled the outer court, shouting, "Death to the impostor!"

Soon conspirators appeared in the palace, where the czar, snatching a sword from one of the guards, and attended by Basmanof, attacked them, crying out, "I am not a Boris for you!"

He killed several with his own hands, but Basmanof was slain before him, and be and the guards were driven back from chamber to chamber, until the guards, finding that the czar had disappeared, laid down their arms.

Dmitri, seeing that resistance was hopeless, had sought a distant room, and here had leaped or been thrown from a window to the ground. The height was thirty feet, his leg was broken by the fall, and he fainted with the pain.

His last hope of life was gone. Some faithful soldiers who found him sought to defend him against the mob who soon appeared, but their resistance was of no avail. Dmitri was seized, his royal garments were torn off, and the caftan of a pastry-cook was placed upon him. Thus dressed, he was carried into a room of the palace for the mockery of a trial.

"Bastard dog," cried one of the Russians, "tell us who you are and whence you came."

"You all know I am your czar," replied Dmitri, bravely, "the legitimate son of Ivan Vassilievitch. If you desire my death, give me time at least to collect my senses."

At this a Russian gentleman named Valniefshouted out,

"What is the use of so much talk with the heretic dog? This is the way I confess this Polish fifer." And he put an end to the agony of Dmitri by shooting him through the breast.

In an instant the mob rushed on the lifeless body, slashing it with axes and swords. It was carried out, placed on a table, and a set of bagpipes set on the breast with the pipe in the mouth.

"You played on us long enough; now play for us," cried the ribald insulter.

Others lashed the corpse with their whips, crying, "Look at the czar, the hero of the Germans."

For three days Dmitri's body lay exposed to the view of the populace, but it was so hacked and mangled that none could recognize in it the gallant young man who a few days before had worn the imperial robes and crown.

On the third night a blue flame was seen playing over the table, and the guards, frightened by this natural result of putrefaction, hastened to bury the body outside the walls. But superstitious terrors followed the prodigy: it was whispered that Dmitri was a wizard who, by magic arts, had the power to come to life from the grave. To prevent this the body was dug up again and burned, and the ashes were collected, mixed with gunpowder, and rammed into a cannon, which was then dragged to the gate by which Dmitri had entered Moscow. Here the match was applied, and the ashes of the late czar were hurled down the road leading to Poland, whence he had come.

Thus died a man who, impostor though be seems to have been, was perhaps the noblest and best of all the Russian czars, while the story of his rise and fall forms the most dramatic tale in all the annals of the empire over which for one short year he ruled.