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Prominent Russians: Vasily Shuysky

1552 – September 12, 1612

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A politician during the Time of Trouble and the Russian Tsar from 1606 to 1610.

Vasily Shuysky originated from the Shuysky family of princes, who were descendants of Aleksandr Nevsky’s brother Andrey II Yaroslavich. According to the opinion of his contemporaries, Shuysky lacked entrepreneurial spirit, but was cunning, durable, and very persistent in obtaining his political ambitions.

Vasily Shuysky began his political career during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. In 1576 Shuysky was in the Tsar’s close circle; he was even a best man at the ruler’s last wedding. From 1581 to 1582 Vasily Shuysky, who was then a general, was sent to protect the Russian border from the Crimean Horde at the Oka River. There is information that during 1582-1583 Shuysky fell into disgrace, though he soon regained his place at court, and even received the aristocratic title of boyar following his marriage to Princess Elena Repnina.

After Ivan the Terrible’s death Vasily Shuysky was in opposition to Boris Godunov, who became the new ruler of the country. In an act of revenge, Godunov exiled Shuysky to the town of Galich. Shortly after that Vasily Shuysky, thanks to his flattery and cunning, was forgiven and returned to Moscow. Moreover, Shuysky was appointed to head a commission that was formed to investigate the death of Ivan the Terrible’s third son Dmitry. Eight-year old Dmitry either killed himself during an epilepsy attack or was murdered under Boris Godunov’s order. Even though the general public considered Godunov to be guilty in the death of his possible rival, Vasily Shuysky announced that the boy died as a result of an accident. It is not known whether he did it in order to gain Godunov’s favor, but his position considerably improved. Shuysky was returned to the Boyar Duma (Russia’ Supreme Council) and, as a general, he took part in the Crimean campaign (1598).

In 1604 False Dmitry I, claiming to be the survived son of Ivan the Terrible, gathered troops in order to take the throne. Vasily Shuysky made a public announcement that the real Dmitry died years ago and that the new pretender was an impostor. After Shuysky’s speech Boris Godunov felt even more confident in his former opponent. As an experienced general, Vasily Shuysky was appointed to initiate military actions against False Dmitry I. In January 1605, during the well-known battle near the village of Dobrynichi, he virtually smashed the enemy’s army. Shuysky had a brilliant chance to completely defeat the impostor, but instead he took his troops aside. This action was greatly disapproved of by Boris Godunov, though the latter unexpectedly died about four months later, which saved Shuysky from the Tsar’s reprisal.

In June 1605 Vasily Shuysky took the side of False Dmitry I, having said in public that, as head of the investigation of the death of Ivan the Terrible’s son, he knew for certain that Dmitry had survived.

Nevertheless, very soon Shuysky himself conspired against False Dmitry I, who by that time had seized the throne. Having been accused of propagating rumors about the new ruler’s imposture, Vasily Shuysky was sentenced to death. According to the annals, Shuysky bravely endured all tortures, didn’t rescind from his testimony and didn’t give his accomplices away. He was miraculously saved on the very day of execution when the Tsar granted his royal pardon. It is believed the False Dmitry I did it in an attempt to gain support from the boyars, as Shuysky was popular among the upper classes. Vasily Shuysky was exiled and deprived of all his wealth.

After the official coronation of False Dmitry I in July 1605 all those disgraced and exiled were forgiven. Vasily Shuysky received his titles and property back and returned to Moscow. He didn’t stop his intrigues against the new Tsar, but this time Shuysky was more cautious.

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In May 1606, with the support of the top boyars, church authorities and powerful merchants, Vasily Shuysky headed a new plot against False Dmitry I. The group of conspirators managed to gain the backing of an army of 18 thousand soldiers, which had recently gathered in Moscow to set off to Crimea. Shuysky explained he had fabricated his previous speeches in support of False Dmitry I and that he knew that the ruler was not the real Dmitry. He justified his previous false statements by saying that the new pretender had seemed to be a good alternative to the hated Boris Godunov; but now that False Dmitry I had started to incline towards Poland, the time had come to dismiss him and tell the truth. Apparently, this excuse was good enough to persuade many people to take a stand against the impostor.

During the uprising of 17 May 1606 False Dmitry I was killed. Two days later Vasily Shuysky’s supporters hailed Shuysky as the new tsar. During the official coronation Shuysky swore to make all important decisions in consent with the boyars, thus limiting his powers.

Among the first actions of the new ruler was an official announcement that Boris Godunov was in charge of killing Prince Dmitry. The latter was sainted as an “innocent murder victim.”

Vasily Shuysky’s reign coincided with the beginning of the peasant revolt under the direction of Ivan Bolotnikov. In order to suppress the social conflict and strengthen the forces of the governing classes, Shuysky mobilized all the military resources of the country and issued an order that made peasants fully dependent on their landowners.

By autumn 1607 the peasant revolt was totally crushed. Still, this victory didn’t bring peace to the country, which now was attacked by False Dmitry II. After the Russian army failed to stop the Polish troops of the new invader, False Dmitry II besieged Moscow. Several central regions of Russia (including Ryazan and Arzamas) agreed to accept False Dmitry II as their ruler, hoping that this step would save them from destruction. Vasily Shuysky made a decision to hire the Swedish army, promising to give a part of Russian territory to Sweden. The situation deteriorated due to mass unrest and the country fell into chaos.

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Shuysky appointed his nephew, General Mikhail Skopin-Shuysky, to lead the Russian-Swedish army against the enemy. By March 1610 Skopin-Shuysky won most of the lost territories back and lifted the siege of Moscow. Consequently, the general gained popularity among the Russian people, which made Vasily Shuysky worry about his throne. According to rumors, Shuysky ordered his nephew killed. Even though the rival relative was murdered, this didn’t improve the Tsar’s life; a number of noblemen and boyars organized a revolt against Vasily Shuysky, who in July 1610 was dethroned and forcibly made a monk. In September 1610 Shuysky was delivered to the Polish hetman (army commander) Stanislaw Zolkiewski, and soon was moved to Warsaw, Poland. The former Russian tsar died a prisoner in Gostynin Castle in Poland.

Shuysky was married twice, but didn’t have an heir (his two daughters both died at an early age).


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