Otrefief—the Sham Prince Dimitri

On the death of Feodor, son of Ivan the Terrible, the Russian throne was occupied by Boris Godunoff, who had contrived to procure the murder of Dimitri, or Demetrius, the younger brother of Feodor. For a time he governed well; but the crafty nobles beginning to plot against him, he had recourse to measures of extreme cruelty and severity, so that even the affections of the common people were alienated from him, and universal confusion ensued. Advantage was taken of this state of affairs by a monk named Otrefief, who bore an almost miraculous likeness to the murdered Dimitri, to assume the name of the royal heir. At first he proceeded cautiously, and, retiring to Poland, by degrees made public the marvellous tale of his wrongs and of his escape from his assassins. Many of the leading nobles listened to his recitals and believed them. In order to render his campaign more certain, the pretender set himself to learn the Polish language, and acquired it with remarkable rapidity. Nor did he rest here. He represented to the Poles that he was disposed to embrace the Catholic faith; and by assuring the Pope that if he regained the throne of his ancestors, his first care should be to recall his subjects to their obedience to Rome, he succeeded in securing the patronage and the blessing of the Pontiff. Sendomir, a wealthy boyard, not only espoused his cause, and gave him pecuniary help, but promised him his daughter Marina in marriage whenever he became the Czar of Muscovy. Marina herself was no less eager for the union, and through Sendomir's influence the support of the King of Poland was obtained.

News of the imposture soon reached Moscow, and Boris instantly denounced Dimitri as an impostor, and sent emissaries to endeavour to secure his arrest. In this, however, they were unsuccessful; and the false Dimitri not only succeeded in raising a considerable force in Poland, but also in convincing the great mass of the Russian population that he really was the son of Ivan. In 1604 he appeared on the Russian frontier at the head of a small but efficient force, and overthrew the army which Boris had sent against him. His success was supposed by the ignorant peasantry to be entirely due to the interposition of Providence, which was working on the side of the injured prince, and Dimitri was careful to foster the delusion that his cause was specially favoured by heaven. He treated his prisoners with the greatest humanity, and ordered his followers to refrain from excesses, and to cultivate the goodwill of the people. The result was that his ranks rapidly increased, while those of the czar diminished. Even foreign governments began to view the offender with favour; and at last Boris, devoured by remorse for the crimes which he had committed, and by chagrin at the evil fate which had fallen upon him, lost his reason and poisoned himself.

The chief nobles assembled when the death of the czar was made known, and proclaimed his son Feodor emperor in his stead; but the lad's reign was very brief. The greater part of the army and the people declared in favour of Dimitri, and the citizens of Moscow having invited him to assume the reins of power, Dimitri made a triumphal entry into the capital, and was crowned with great pomp. At first he ruled prudently, and, had he continued as he began, might have retained his strangely acquired throne. But after a time he gave himself up to the gratification of his own wild passions, and lost the popularity which he really had succeeded in gaining. He disgusted the Russians by appointing numerous Poles, who had swelled his train, to the highest posts in the empire, to the exclusion of meritorious officers, who not only deserved well of their country, but also had claims upon himself for services which they had rendered. These Polish officers misconducted themselves sadly, and the people murmured sore. The czar, too, made no secret of his attachment to the Catholic faith; and while by so doing he irritated the clergy, he provoked the boyards by his haughty patronage, and disgusted the common people by his cruelty and lewdness. At last the murmurs grew so loud and threatening, that some means had to be devised to quiet the popular discontent, and Dimitri had recourse to a strange stratagem. The widow of Ivan, who had long before been immured in a convent by the orders of Boris, and had been kept there by his successor, was released from her confinement, and was induced publicly to acknowledge Dimitri as her son. The widowed empress knew full well that her life depended upon her obedience; but notwithstanding her outward consent to the fraud, the people were not satisfied, and demanded proofs of Dimitri's birth, which were not forthcoming. Discontent continued to spread, and at length the popular fury could no longer be restrained. According to his promise, the sham czar married Marina, the daughter of the Polish boyard. The very fact that she was a Pole made her distasteful to the Russians; but that fact was rendered still more offensive by the manner of her entrance into the capital, and the treatment which the Muscovites received at the bridal ceremony. The bride was surrounded by a large retinue of armed Poles, who marched through the streets of Moscow with the mien of conquerors; the Russian nobles were excluded from all participation in the festivities; and the common people were treated by their emperor with haughty insolence, and held up to the scorn of his foreign guests. A report also became rife that a timber fort, which Dimitri had erected opposite the gates of the city, had been constructed solely for the purpose of giving the bloodthirsty Marina a martial spectacle, and that, sheltered behind its wooden walls, the Polish troops and the czar's bodyguard would throw firebrands and missiles among the crowds of spectators below. This idle rumour was carefully circulated; the clergy, who had long been disaffected, went from house to house denouncing the czar as a heretic, and calling an their countrymen to rise against the insolent traducer of their religion; and the secret of his birth and imposition was everywhere proclaimed. The people burst into open revolt, and, headed by the native prince Schnisky, rushed to storm the imperial palace. The Polish troops broke their ranks and fled, and were massacred in the streets. Dimitri himself sought to escape by a private avenue in the confusion; but watchful enemies were lying in wait for him. He was overtaken and killed, and his body was exposed for three days in front of the palace, so that the mob might wreak their vengeance upon his inanimate clay. Marina and her father were captured, and after being detained for a little time were set at liberty.

By the death of the impostor, the throne was left vacant, and the privilege of electing a new czar reverted to the people. Schnisky, who had headed the revolt, made good use of his opportunity and popularity, and while the people were exulting over their success, contrived to secure the empire for himself. But when the heat of triumph died away, the nobles were chagrined because they had elevated one of their own number to rule over them, and the reaction against the new czar was as strong and as rapid as the extraordinary movement in his favour had been. The Muscovite nobles were determined to oust him from his newly-found dignities, and for this purpose adopted the strange expedient of reviving the dead Dimitri. It mattered little to them that the breathless carcase of the impostor had been seen by thousands. They presumed upon the gullibility of their countrymen, and, asserting that Dimitri had escaped and was prepared to come forward to claim his throne, endeavoured to stir up an insurrection. The cheat, however, was not popular, and the sham czar of the nobles never appeared.

But although the nobles failed in their attempt to foist another Dimitri upon their fellow-countrymen, the Poles, who were interested for their countrywoman Marina, were not discouraged from trying the same ruse. They produced a flesh-and-blood candidate for the Russian sceptre. This person was a Polish schoolmaster, who bore a striking likeness to the real Dimitri, and who was sufficiently intelligent to play his part creditably. To give a greater semblance of truth to their imposture, they succeeded in persuading Marina to abet them; and not only did she openly assert that the new Dimitri was her husband, but she embraced him publicly, and actually lived with him as his wife.

At the time that this impostor appeared, Sigismund declared war against Russia, and his marshal Tolkiewski succeeded in inflicting a terrible defeat on Schnisky. Moscow yielded before the victorious Poles; and in despair Schnisky renounced the crown and retired into a monastery. But no sooner was the diadem vacant than a host of false Dimitris appeared to claim it, and the chief power was tossed from one party to another during a weary interregnum. At last, in 1609, Sigismund, who had remained at Smolensko while his marshal advanced upon Moscow, proclaimed his own son Vladislaf to the vacant sovereignty, and the pretended Dimitri sank into obscurity. Others, however, arose; and although some of them perished on the scaffold, it was not until 1616 that Russia was freed from the last of the disturbing impostors who attempted to personate princes of the race of Ivan the Terrible.