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Prominent Russians: Boris Godunov

1552 – April 13, 1605

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The ruler of Russia from 1587-1598 and Tsar from 1598 to 1605, Boris Godunov played an important role in Russian history.

According to legend, Godunov’s family originated from the Tatar Prince Chet, who immigrated from the Golden Horde to Russia. Boris was the son of Fyodor Godunov, an average landowner. After his father’s death, he was brought up by his uncle Dmitry Godunov, who reached a high post at the court of Ivan the Terrible. Boris Godunov’s career of service began as an “oprichnik”- a member of the organization “Oprichnina,” established by Ivan the Terrible as a prototype police force but also as an instrument to expose, torture and murder his internal enemies.

Godunov married a daughter of the Tsar’s favorite, Malyuta Skuratov, which further strengthened his position. In 1580 Boris Godunov’s sister married the Tsar’s son Fyodor and after that Godunov received the aristocratic title of boyar.

The role of the entire family of Godunov gradually increased and by the end of the 1570s they obtained a footing at Ivan the Terrible’s court. Still, Boris Godunov himself was very cautious in his actions and preferred to stay in the background. Unexpectedly, the year of 1581 brought a series of changes to Godunov’s life: Ivan the Terrible had an argument with his son Ivan and hit him with a staff, which caused the death of the prince. Boris Godunov’s brother-in-law,

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Fyodor, became the heir to the throne.

Until 1584 Boris Godunov was not very close to Ivan the Terrible, though he did use his positions at court to favor of his family. According to some historians, Godunov, together with Bogdan Belsky, was a confidante to the Tsar during the last year of the Tsar’s life. Boris Godunov’s role in the death of Ivan the Terrible remains unclear. There were rumors that the ruler was suffocated or poisoned by Belsky and Godunov. The official version stated that the Tsar died from a long-term illness. But, the truth remains unknown.

Ivan the Terrible’s son Fyodor ascended to the throne. According to various sources, the new ruler had physical and mental problems and was not able to control the country. A board of noblemen was created to serve as Fyodor’s advisors and guardians. Starting as a member of the board, Boris Godunov soon became the factual head of the country. Among the 14 years that Fyodor held the throne, 13 of them were the years of the rule of Godunov.

Boris Godunov’s internal and external policies were aimed at the all-round strengthening of the country. He played an important role in the implementation of a patriarchate in Russia and in 1589 Metropolitan Job was appointed as the first Russian patriarch. This event increased the prestige of Russia.

In terms of internal policy, a massive construction of cities and fortresses was undertaken, among

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them Voronezh Fortress and Belgorod City. Moscow experienced unbelievable innovations for the times, including the building of a water supply system, which pumped water from the Moscow River. The economic crisis of the 1570s – 1580s lead to the introduction of serfdom and a corresponding law that all peasants who ran away from their masters must be returned if caught within five years from the time they fled.

In his external policy Godunov showed himself a talented diplomat. In 1595, having taken advantage of a complicated domestic situation in Sweden, Boris Godunov signed a peace treaty and returned several cities and regions to Russia.

In 1598 Tsar Fyodor died. Since he didn’t have children, his death designated the end of the Moscow branch of the Rurik Dynasty and also marked the beginning of the so-called Time of Troubles (a period between 1598 and 1613, preceding the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty). Immediatley after Fyodor’s death the Zemsky Sobor (the first Russian parliament) appointed Boris Godunov Tsar.

The period of Godunov’s official reign was characterized by the unprecedented closeness of Russia to many western countries. Documents show that he sought to found a high school in Russia, with foreign teachers, though the idea was criticized by the Church authorities. The foreign specialists (doctors, metalworkers and tradesmen) were greeted in Russia as never before. His external policy was generally peaceful.

Regarding internal policies, the Tsar allowed peasants (except those from the Moscow Region) to move from one landowner to another. Godunov put great effort into finding royal spouses for his son and daughter, in order to reinforce the positions of his family line, but he was not very successful.

1601 was the beginning of bad luck for Boris Godunov. Three years of failing crops, caused by

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frosts and heavy rains, led to a famine. Godunov’s orders to keep the price of grain at the same level were not followed, and instead prices increased a hundredfold. The Tsar opened the state granaries for the poorest and also provided them with money. Nevertheless, there were not enough resources for everyone. Having heard about the Tsar’s help, people from all over Russia left behind their homes and their poor, personal stores of food, and headed to Moscow. During 1604 a minimum of 127 thousand people died of hunger in the capital city. Godunov’s position dramatically deteriorated; word spread that his reign was not lawful, and thus cursed by God.

Rumors began circulating that Ivan the Terrible’s son Dmitry was still alive and was going to take the throne. Evidently, there were three impostors who claimed, during the Time of Troubles, to be the youngest son of Ivan IV. In 1604 False Dmitry I gathered some troops and headed towards Moscow in order to attack it. Godunov’s army crushed the attackers, who had to abandon their positions.

Boris Godunov’s son Fyodor, an intelligent and educated man, became the next Russian tsar. In a few months’ time False Dmitry I organized a coup in Moscow and took the throne. He ordered the death of the young tsar and his mother. Fyodor’s sister Ksenia was spared, but was forced to become a concubine for the newly-appointed Tsar False Dmitry I.

Boris Godunov’s personality inspired many famous artists to create pieces of art named after him, including a drama by Aleksandr Pushkin, an opera by Modest Musorgsky and a film by Sergey Bondarchuk.

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