Boris Godunov

Born: 1552, Vyazma
Died: 1605, Moscow

Boris Godunov was descended from a Tatar who had abandoned the Golden Horde during the reign of Ivan Kalita. He took the Christian name of Zacharius and founded the Ipatiev Monastery. In Russia, the Saburov and Godunov families both traced their ancestry from Zacharius.

Boris Godunov began his career in the oprichnina after marrying the daughter of Ivan the Terrible’s confidant, Malyuta Skuratov. In September 1580, Godunov became a boyar and eventually one of the tsar’s closest associates. He amassed a large fortune and during the reign of Ivan’s son, Feodor I, was the de facto ruler of Russia.

When Feodor died without leaving any heirs, the government of the country automatically passed to Patriarch Job. The head of the Russian church believed that Boris Godunov should become tsar, on the strength of his success during the reign of Feodor I.

When the official period of mourning came to an end, a council of 474 people was convened on 17 February 1598. After spending five days discussing Boris’s candidature, the council offered him the crown on 21 February. The coronation was held at the Dormition Cathedral on 1 September (Russia still followed the Julian calendar and 1 September was New Year’s Day).

Although Boris Godunov had been elected tsar of Russia by the Land Assembly, the boyars still regarded him as a low-born upstart. The members of the Romanov, Shuisky and Mstislavsky families believed that they had more right to sit on the throne. They supported the rumours that Tsarevich Dmitry was alive and on his way to Moscow to demand his father’s crown.

But Godunov was a shrewd and clever politician. He centralised state power, relying on the support of the nobility. In order to ingratiate himself with the common people, he made several handsome gestures. Rural inhabitants did not have to pay any taxes for a whole year. Merchants were freed of paying customs for two years, while public servants received an additional year’s salary.

Boris Godunov built an unprecedented number of new towns and churches. In 1600, the Ivan Bell Tower was constructed inside the Kremlin. At a height of eighty metres, it was the tallest building in Moscow. The words “king of glory” were emblazoned on the cross and the tower was popularly known as “Ivan the Great.”

Godunov was equally cunning in his foreign policy. Taking advantage of domestic problems in Sweden in 1595, he forced the Swedes to sign a treaty returning the lands lost during the Livonian War. Godunov invited foreign experts to come and work in Russia. He even wanted to open a school in Moscow run by foreigners, but ran up against the opposition of the church.

Boris Godunov was famous for his lavish banquets. One feast in Serpukhov lasted six weeks; another was held for half a million troops. The food was served on gold and silver plates, while the beverages were poured into silver goblets. The tables literally groaned under the weight of the dishes. Wine and vodka were kept in special silver barrels, while beer was served from silver bowls. Guests were presented with rich fabrics – velvet, brocade and silk.

News of the high quality of Russian vodka spread outside Russia and Shah Abbas of Persia asked Boris Godunov to send him a distillery. In September 1600, Russian envoys set sail for Persia, carrying “two goblets, pipes, lids and trivets” and “two hundred buckets of wines.” The shah never actually received his vodka distillery. Five miles before Saratov, the envoys ran into a storm and their ship sank.

In 1601 and 1602, the harvests failed and famine swept the country, followed by a wave of epidemics. Over 127,000 people died in Moscow alone. The price of bread increased one hundred times and there were reports of cannibalism. Although the duma of boyars was summoned in 1603, nothing could be done to solve the problems.

People began to murmur that the troubles were an affliction sent by God to punish Russia for illegally electing Boris Godunov as tsar. A series of popular uprisings broke out, the largest of which was led by Khlopko in 1603. In October 1604, a defrocked monk called Grishka Otrepiev claimed that he was really the son of Ivan the Terrible, Tsarevich Dmitry, and invaded the country with a Polish army. Although government forces managed to defeat the pretender in January 1605, he escaped to Putivl and rumours of the tsarevich’s survival continued to sweep Moscow.

Boris Godunov died of gout in Moscow on 23 April 1605, although it was rumoured that he had poisoned himself in a fit of despair. He was buried inside the Kremlin, in the Archangel Cathedral.

Random articles