Who was Boris Godunov?


Confidante and favourite of Ivan the Terrible, Tsar of all Russia, pacifist and possible murderer, Boris Godunov was a figure of power, intrigue and scandal.

Godunov's career began at the 16th-century court of Ivan IV Vasilyevich (Ivan the Terrible), where he served as a member of the 'Oprichnina', a blood-thirsty secret police force established in 1565 to torture and execute Ivan's enemies.

During this time Godunov grew close to Ivan and rose to the position of Boyar, the highest ranking member of the Russian aristocracy, second only to the Tsar himself.

Mysterious events
The legacy of Boris Godunov's regency and subsequent Tsardom is shrouded in mystery.

Following the death of his ruler, Ivan the Terrible, and the coronation of Ivan's feeble and weak-minded heir Feodor, Godunov was made regent of Russia.

In 1598, Feodor died childless and the country was left without a Tsar. Believed to be the only man who could manage this challenging and problematic situation, Boris seized the throne.

Although Godunov's reign was initially prosperous, his popularity was undermined by the gossip surrounding his rule.

The mysterious death of Ivan the Terrible's illegitimate son, Dmitry, aged 10, was at the heart of this gossip. His death was officially attributed to an epileptic fit, during which the boy slit his own throat, but Dmitry's mother claimed he was killed on Godunov's orders.

On the stage
Alexander Pushkin's famous play Boris Godunov (1831) has been hailed as the Russian Macbeth.

It dramatises the rumour surrounding this figurehead's rise to power and the consequent fall-out of his regime.

Writing during the political tumult of 19th-century Russia, Pushkin's play is set at the time of Feodor's death when, Tsarless, Russia looks to Boris for guidance and leadership.

Boris Godunov paints its protagonist as an ambiguous figure; merciful to the poor and well-liked by the people, yet undeniably guilty over the death of Ivan's heir, Pushkin's Boris struggles with his responsibility to his country and his culpability for the boy's death.

Godunov's tumultuous life also led to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov (1869).

Image: Portrait of Boris Godunov Tsar of Russia. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.


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