The comedy of man survives the tragedy of man. — G. K. Chesterton

Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole




How the Ashes of a Russian Tsar


WERE FIRED FROM A CANNON


The Patriarch Job, the boyars of the Council, the "Archers" and the officials of Moscow kissed the cross to Theodore, the son of Boris, a lad of sixteen. His guardian Basmanof took command of the army, but soon found that no one was going to fight for a Godunof. He resolved to take advantage of the tide and not to stem it. Providence has spoken," said he; "God gives us Dimitri for master. Let us not resist his laws." Then holding up the letter and seal of the impostor, he cried out, "Soldiers, here is the order of our Tsar Dimitri, the son of Ivan, whom the traitor Boris wished to put to death. Saved by divine Providence, he is our true sovereign." A tumult arose; the soldiers proclaimed the pretender; the false Dimitri marched upon Moscow; at his approach the people rose and broke into the Tsar's palace. Theodore and his mother were loaded with chains and either poisoned themselves or were strangled. The new Tsar rode into the city on a splendid charger, guarded by gorgeously dressed Poles and Germans. The bells of Moscow rang a joyous peal of welcome; the people flocked along the streets, crying, "Long life to our father!" "May the Lord cover thy life with his shadow!" "He is our true Tsar!" "The race of Rurik shall not perish!" We were in darkness; now the red sun has arisen." Prince Bielski took off his cap, kissed the sacred picture, and called the people to be faithful. Just then a sudden whirlwind filled the place with dust and hid the Tsar from sight. It was an evil omen.

Whether the pretender were a runaway monk or a Jesuit emissary, the fact remained no less extraordinary. He was Tsar of Russia. His wisdom was soon seen to be folly. He preferred foreigners; he surrounded himself by a body-guard of three hundred Germans, Poles, and Scotchmen, whom he dressed in all magnificence. He offended the boyars by his raillery. "Travel and get learning," he said; "you are savages, you need to be polished." He won the hatred of the clergy by his scorn of their rites and ceremonies; he went to church on horseback, he forgot to salute the holy images, he ridiculed the monks, he borrowed money of the monasteries to pay his soldiers; he replaced the Patriarch Job by Ignatius of Cyprus, at heart a Roman Catholic; he allowed the Catholics to build a church in the Kreml. He also shocked the people by his habits: he ate veal, which was believed to be an unclean meat; he was often impious enough to rise from table without washing his hands; he never napped after dinner, but took the time to walk the streets unattended; he visited shops, talked familiarly with artisans, was fond of foreign music and arts; he gave balls and concerts at a convent. At the entrance of his new palace he placed a bronze Cerberus, which made a frightful noise if touched. The people saw in this "the sign of hell, and the darkness thereof." He entered the arena and fought with bears, he pointed cannons with his own hand. He organized sham-fights with snowballs, and was pleased when his foreign mercenaries defeated the national troops.

The false Dimitri sent to Poland for his bride, Marina, who, escorted by armed Poles, entered the city in a carriage drawn by eight horses, with painted manes and tails. "One would think she were entering a conquered town," murmured the Russians; "why these cuirasses and lances? Do you cover yourselves with iron at a wedding?" At the coronation, which was on a Friday, the Poles leaned on the sacred screens and tombs. Although Martha Nagoi publicly acknowledged him as her son, the people began to doubt him. Within a month after Marina's arrival they were ripe for revolution. Basil Shuiski, nearest to the race of Rurik, put himself at the head of a conspiracy. He was denounced to the Tsar and brought into his presence and condemned to death. The executioner had taken off the Prince's kaftan and was brandishing his hatchet when a reprieve came. Shuiski was restored to honor. The Tsar's advisers remonstrated. "I have sworn not to shed innocent blood," was his reply. "I will keep my oath."

The pretender's over-confidence was his ruin. One night, after a feast, the boyars attacked the Kreml; the guards played traitor; the tocsin sounded. The False Dimitri fled, and leaping out of a high window, fell and broke his leg. He was discovered and stabbed; Basmanof, who tried to defend him, was also killed. The people took him to his chamber, covered him with a cook's kaftan. Behold the Tsar of all the Russias!" they cried. They then exposed the two corpses on the place of execution, with the impostor's feet resting on Basmanof's breast. They threw over his face a ribald mask which was said to have been found in his chamber in the place usually occupied by the holy images. A flute was thrust into his mouth, and a bagpipe was placed under his arms. After three days the juggler, the sorcerer, was flung into the "poor-house," the winter receptacle of friendless dead. After this more prodigies: a hurricane, blue lights, an earthquake, a fearful, untimely frost. The people believed that he was a sort of vampire which would come to life again; they took his body, burned it, charged a cannon with the ashes and scattered them to the winds.