Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Dmitri - Is That You?

To celebrate the first day of 2014, Mark Bittman of the New York Times wrote about previous years ending in 4, going all the way back to 1944. Following Mr. Bittman’s example, I propose that we go back even deeper into history to the year 1604. Why 1604? Well obviously because that was the year that False Dmitri (or, should I say, “a False Dmitri”) invaded Russia from Poland.

False Dmitri based his invasion on the claim that he was the real “Dmitri,” namely the long-lost son of the recently deceased Russian Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. Clearly, he was not. Nevertheless, he was validated as a true and beloved son by his mother, the widow of the late Ivan. (This must surely have been a What's in this for me? moment for Mrs. Terrible.)

False Dmitri quickly assembled an armed force, comprising mainly Poles and other western types, made for Moscow, and, after a struggle, managed to seize the throne. Once installed as Tsar, he did something every Russian of his day considered a heinous and unforgivable sin: he married a Catholic. His bride and Tsarina, Marina Mniszech (aka Marinka the Witch), declined to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church. That’s when things started to get weird.

A nobleman named Vasily Shuisky accused False Dmitri of promoting Catholicism, Protestantism and, just for good measure, sodomy, in the Russian court. There was also a widely believed story that Dmitri planned to use his foreign minions to slaughter thousands of good Orthodox Russians. Armed with paranoid-induced passion, Shuisky managed to gather a mass of followers who stormed the Kremlin. 

In a desperate effort to escape, False Dmitri leapt from a window, but broke his leg in the fall. He was quickly caught by Shuisky’s followers and executed. But death was not adequate punishment for someone who dared to not really be Dmitri. Consequently, his body was first publicly displayed, then cremated and, following this, his ashes were stuffed into a cannon and shot westward in the direction of (the hated, Catholic) Poland.

 False Dmitri I - In a Cocky, Self-assured Moment

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I am a particular fan of False Dmitri, or that I condone the impersonating of deceased heirs to thrones as a commendable life plan.  However, I feel compelled to give False Dmitri credit for one thing at least - originality. Here’s why.

Our False Dmitri (commonly known today as False Dmitri I) was followed in 1607 by False Dmitri II and a few years later by False Dmitri III. Each of these copycats showed up and claimed to be Ivan the Terrible’s long-lost son and each insisted he had NOT been blasted to Poland. On top of this, each one was presented to Marinka the Witch who authenticated each in turn as the true Dmitri. More on that later.

False Dmitri II, though a copycat, does deserve a little credit for not leaping immediately onto the False Dmitri bandwagon. He did not, after all, begin his public life by mendaciously claiming to be the late Tsar’s son. No, he started by mendaciously claiming to be Boyar Nagoy, a prominent Muscovite nobleman. It was only under torture that he “confessed” that this was a lie, and that he was actually the long-lost Tsarevich Dmitri, son of the late Ivan the Terrible.

Released by his torturers, False Dmitri II quickly assembled an army of Polish and Cossack troops (which apparently was easily done in those days), and marched on Moscow. His campaign ultimately failed and so he resigned himself to being the Tsar of some provincial territories out in the Russian boondocks. After a few years of being a mini-Tsar, and in the midst of a drunken binge, he was assassinated by Peter Urusov, a nobleman whom Dmitri had once had flogged. Urusov reportedly chopped off Dmitri’s head and hand after killing him, thus maintaining the “death is not enough” tradition initiated by the executors of the original False Dmitri.

False Dmitri II - It's No Wonder His Widow Was Fooled

No, we’re not done yet. There followed, in 1611, the sudden appearance of False Dmitri III who gained the backing of yet another army of Cossacks. The Cossacks of those days were apparently not too particular about their Dmitris as long as they were validated as authentic and true by the ever-amenable widow Marinka (the witch). “Yes,” proclaimed Marinka, “this one is definitely my Dmitri.”

False Dmitri III did somewhat better than F.D. I and F.D. II in that he was merely killed and was not fired from a cannon nor was his body publicly mutilated. In May 1612, he was quietly "disappeared" in a manner that today would probably have impressed even Jimmy Hoffa’s handlers.

How many more Dmitris would Marinka have willingly validated in her effort to maintain her tenuous claim on the Russian throne we know not, for with the demise of False Dmitri III, Russia ran out of Tsarevich Dmitris. So ends a period of Russian history of which I can honestly say, I would rather read about than live through.

In conclusion, I'd like to take a moment to thank my colleague Professor Alex Boguslawski who first introduced me to the false Dmitris during his spring 2013 seminar on Russian history. Any errors or false notes in this essay must be attributed to me and not to my true and learned friend, Alex. And thanks to Wikipedia for the Dmitri pictures.