Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Era of the Impostors

We have told how the ashes of Dmitri were loaded into a cannon and fired from the gate of Moscow. They fell like seeds of war on the soil of Russia, and for years that unhappy land was torn by faction and harried by invasion. From those ashes new Dmitris seemed to spring, other impostors rose to claim the crown, and until all these shades were laid peace fled from the land.

Vassili Shuiski, the leader in the insurrection against Dmitri, had himself proclaimed czar. He was destined to learn the truth of the saying, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." For hardly had the mob that murdered Dmitri dispersed before rumors arose that their victim was not dead. His body had been so mangled that none could recognize it, and the story was set afloat that it was one of his officers who had been killed, and that he had escaped. Four swift horses were missing from the stables of the palace, and these were at once connected with the assumed flight of the czar. Rumor was in the air, and even in Moscow doubts of Dmitri's death grew rife.

Fuel soon fell on the flame. Three strangers in Russian dress, but speaking the language of Poland, crossed the Oka River, and gave the ferryman the high fee of six ducats, saying, "You have ferried the czar; when he comes back to Moscow with a Polish army he will not forget your service."

At a German inn, a little farther on, the same party used similar language. This story spread like wild-fire through Russia, and deeply alarmed the new czar. To put it down he sought to play on the religious feelings of the Russians, by making a saint of the original Dmitri. A body was produced, said to have been taken from the grave of the slain boy at Uglitch, but in a remarkable state of preservation, since it still displayed the fresh hue of life and held in its hand some strangely preserved nuts. Tales of miracles performed by the relics of the new saint were also spread, but with little avail, for the people were not very ready to believe the man who had stolen the throne.

War broke out despite these manufactured miracles. Prince Shakhofskoi—the supposed leader of the party who had told the story at the Oka—was soon in the field with an army of Cossacks and peasants, and defeated the royal army. But the new Dmitri, in whose name he fought, did not appear. It seemed as if Shakhofskoi had not yet been able to find a suitable person to play the part.

Russia, however, was not long without a pretender. During Dmitri's reign a young man had appeared among the Cossacks of the Volga, calling himself Peter Feodorovitch, and claiming to be the son of the former czar Feodor. This man now reappeared and presented himself to the rebel army as the representative of his uncle Dmitri. He was eagerly welcomed by Shakhofskoi, who badly needed some one whom he might offer to his men as a prince.

And now we have to describe one of the strangest sieges in the annals of history. Shakhofskoi, finding himself threatened by a powerful army, took refuge in the fortified town of Toula. Here he was soon joined by Bolotnikof, a Polish general who had come to Russia with a commission bearing the imperial seal of Dmitri. In this stronghold they were besieged by an army of one hundred thousand men, led by the czar himself.

Toula was strong. It was vigorously defended, the garrison fighting bravely for their lives. No progress was made with the siege, and Shuiski grew disconsolate, for he knew that to fail now would be ruin.

From this state of anxiety he was relieved by a remarkable proposal, that of an obscure individual who promised to drown all the people of Toula and deliver the town into his hands. This extraordinary offer, made by a monk named Kravkof, was at first received with incredulous laughter, and it was some time before the czar and his council could be brought to listen to the words of an idle braggart, as they deemed the stranger. In the end the czar asked him to explain his plan.

It proved to be the following. Toula lay in a little narrow valley, down whose center flowed the little river Oupa, passing through the town. Kravkof suggested that they should dam this stream below the town. "Do as I say," he remarked, "and if the whole town is not under water in a few hours, I will answer for the failure with my head." The project thus presented seemed feasible. Immediately all the millers in the army, men used to the kind of work required, were put under his orders, and the other soldiers were set to carrying sacks of earth to the place chosen for the dam. As this rose in height, the water backed up in the town. Soon many of the streets became canals, hundreds of houses, undermined by the water, were destroyed, and the promise of Kravkof seemed likely to be fulfilled.

Yet the garrison, confined in what had become a walled in lake, fought with desperate obstinacy. Water surrounded them, yet they waded to the walls and fought. Famine decimated them, yet they starved arid fought. A terrible epidemic broke out in the water-soaked city, but the garrison fought on. Dreadful as were their surroundings, they held out with unflinching courage and intrepidity.

The dam was the centre of the struggle. The besiegers sought to raise it still higher and deepen the water in the streets; the besieged did their best to break it down and relieve the city. It had grown to a great height with such rapidity that the superstitious people of Toula felt sure that magic had aided in its building and fancied that it might be destroyed by magic means. A monk declared that Shuiski had brought devils to his aid, but professed to be a proficient in the black art, and offered. for a hundred roubles, to fight the demons in their own element.

Bolotnikof accepted his terms, and he stripped, plunged into the river, and disappeared. For a full hour nothing was seen of him, and every one gave him up for lost. But at the end of that time he rose to the surface of the water, his body covered with scratches. The story he had to tell was, to say the least, remarkable.

"I have had a frightful conflict," he said, "with the twelve thousand devils Shuiski has at work upon his dam. I have settled six thousand of them, but the other six thousand are the worst of all, and will not give in."

Thus against men and devils alike, against water, famine, and pestilence, fought the brave men of Toula, holding out with extraordinary courage. Letters came to them in Dmitri's name, promising help, but it never came. At length, after months of this brave defence had elapsed, Shakhofskoi proposed that they should capitulate. The Cossacks of the garrison, furious at the suggestion, seized and thrust him into a dungeon. Not until every scrap of food had been eaten, horses and dogs devoured, even leather gnawed as food, did Bolotnikof and Peter the pretender offer to yield, and then only on condition that the soldiers should receive honorable treatment. If not, they would die with arms in their hands, and devour one another as food, rather than surrender. As for themselves, they asked for no pledges of safety.

Shuiski accepted the terms, and the gates were opened. Bulotnikof advanced boldly to the czar and offered himself as a victim, presenting his sword with the edge laid against his neck.

"I have kept the oath I swore to him who, rightly or wrongly, calls himself Dmitri," be said. "Deserted by him, I am in your power. Cut off my head if you will; or, if you will spare my life, I will serve you as I have served him."

This appeal was wasted on Shuiski. He forgot the clemency which the czar Dmitri had formerly shown to him, sent Bolotnikof to Kargopol, and soon after ordered him to be drowned. Peter the pretender was hanged on the spot. Shakhofskoi alone was spared. They found him in chains, which he said had been placed on him because he counselled the obstinate rebels to submit. Shuiski set him free, and the first use he made of his liberty was to kindle the rebellion again.

Thus ended this remarkable siege, one in some respects without parallel in the history of war. What followed must be briefly told. Though the siege of Toula ended with the hanging of one pretender to the throne, another was already in the field. The new Dmitri, in whose name the war was waged, had made his appearance during the siege. Some of the officers of the first Dmitri pretended to recognize him, but in reality he was a coarse, vulgar, ignorant knave, who had badly learned his lesson, and lacked all the native princeliness of his predecessor.

Yet he had soon a large army at his back, and with it, on April 24, 1608, he defeated the army of the czar with great slaughter. He might easily have taken Moscow, but instead of advancing on it he halted at the village of Tushino, twelve versts away, where he held his court for seventeen months.

Meanwhile still another pretender appeared, who called himself Feodor, son of the czar Feodor. He presented himself to the Don Cossacks, who brought him in chains to Dmitri, by whom he was promptly put to death. Soon afterwards Marina, wife of the first Dmitri, who had been released, with her father, by Shuiski, was brought into the camp of the pretender. And here an interesting bit of comedy was played. Marina, rather than go back to meet ridicule in Poland, was ready to become the wife of this vulgar impostor, though she saw at once that he was not the man he claimed to be.

She met him coldly at first, but at a second meeting she greeted him with a great show of tenderness before the whole army, being glad, it would appear, to regain her old position on any terms. The news that Marina had recognized the pretender brought over numbers to his side, and soon nearly all Russia had declared for him, the only cities holding out being Moscow, Novgorod, and Smolensk.

The false Dmitri had now reached the summit of his fortunes. A rapid decline followed. One of his generals, who laid siege to the monastery of the Trinity, near Moscow, was repulsed. His partisans were defeated in other quarters. Soon the whole aspect of the war changed. A new enemy to Russia came into the field, Sigismund, King of Poland, who laid siege to the strong city of Smolensk, while the army of the czar, which marched to its relief, suffered an annihilating defeat.

This result closed the reign of Shuiski. An insurrection broke out in Moscow, he was forced to become a monk, and in the end was delivered to Sigismund and died in prison. Thus was Dmitri avenged. The new condition of affairs proved as disastrous to the false Dmitri. His Poles deserted him, his power vanished, and he descended to the level of a mere Cossack robber. In December, 1610, murder ended his career.

Church of the Assumption


Smolensk fell after a siege of eighteen months, but at the last moment a powder magazine exploded and set fire to the city, and Sigismund became master only of a heap of ruins. The Poles in Moscow, attacked by the Russians, took possession of the Kremlin, burned down most of the city, and massacred a hundred thousand of the people. Anarchy was rampant everywhere. New chiefs appeared in all quarters. Each town declared for itself. The Swedes took possession of Novgorod. A third Dmitri appeared, and dwelt in state for a while, but was soon taken and hanged. The whole great empire was in a state of frightful confusion, and seemed as if it was about to fall to pieces.

From this fate it was saved by one of the common people, a butcher of Nijni Novgorod, Kozma Minin by name. Brave, honest, patriotic, and sensible, this man aroused his fellow-citizens, who took up arms for the deliverance of their country. Other towns followed this example, an army was raised with Prince Pojarski at its head, and Minin, the patriotic butcher, seconded him in an administrative capacity, being hailed by the people as "the elect of the whole Russian empire."

Driving the Poles before him, Pojarski entered Moscow, and in October, 1612, became master of the Kremlin. The impostors all disappeared; Marina and her three-year-old son Ivan were captured, the child to be hanged and she to end her eventful life in prison; anarchy vanished, and peace returned to the realm.

The end came in 1613, when a national council was convened to choose a new czar. Pojarski refused the crown, and Michael Romanof, a boy of sixteen, scion of one of the noblest families of Russia, and allied to the Ruriks by the female line, was elected czar. His descendants still hold the throne.