Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov
Boris Godunov
Regent of Russia (de facto)
Tsar of All Russia
Regent of Russia (de facto)
Reign c. 1585-1598
Predecessor none
Successor himself as Tsar of All Russia
Tsar of All Russia
Reign 21 February 1598 - 23 April [O.S. 13 April] 1605
Coronation 1 September 1598
Predecessor Feodor I
Successor Feodor II
Consort Maria Grigorievna Skuratova-Belskaya
Feodor II of Russia
Xenia Godunova
Full name
Boris Feodorovich Godunov
Dynasty Godunov
Father Feodor Ivanovich Godunov
Mother Stepanida Ivanovna
Born c. 1551
Died 23 April [O.S. 13 April] 1605
(aged 54)
Burial Godunov Mausoleum in front of the Cathedral of the Assumption at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius
Religion Eastern Orthodox

Boris Fyodorovich Godunov (Russian: Бори́с Фёдорович Годуно́в, IPA: [bɐˈrʲis ɡədʊˈnof]; c. 1551 – 23 April [O.S. 13 April] 1605) was de facto regent of Russia from c. 1585 to 1598 and then the first non-Rurikid tsar from 1598 to 1605. The end of his reign saw Russia descend into the Time of Troubles.


Early years

Boris Godunov was the most noted member of an ancient, now extinct, Russian family of Tatar origin, which came from the Horde to Kostroma in the early 14th century. He was descended from the Tatarian Prince Chet, who went from the Golden Horde to Russia and founded the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma. Boris was the son of Feodor Ivanovich Godunov "Krivoy" ("One-eyed") (died, c. 1568–1570) and his wife Stepanida Ivanovna. His older brother Vasily died young and without issue.

Godunov's career began at the court of Ivan the Terrible. He is mentioned in 1570 as taking part in the Serpeisk campaign as an archer of the guard. The following year, he became an oprichnik - a member of Ivan's personal guard and secret police. In 1570/1571, Godunov strengthened his position at court by his marriage to Maria Grigorievna Skuratova-Belskaya, the daughter of oprichniks' head Malyuta Skuratov-Belskiy. In 1580, the Tsar chose Irina (Alexandra) Feodorovna Godunova (1557 – 26 October/23 November 1603), the sister of Godunov, to be the wife of his second son and eventual heir, the fourteen year old Feodor Ivanovich (1557–1598). On this occasion, Godunov was promoted to the rank of Boyar. On 15 November 1581, he was present at the scene of the Tsar's murder of his own eldest son, the crown prince Ivan. Godunov tried to intervene, but received blows from the Tsar's sceptre. Ivan immediately repented and Godunov rushed to get help for the Tsarevich, who died four days later.[1]

On his deathbed, Ivan appointed a council consisting of Godunov, Feodor Nikitich Romanov, Vasili Shuiski and others, to guide his son and successor, for Feodor was feeble both in mind and body; "he took refuge from the dangers of the palace in devotion to religion; and though his people called him a saint, they recognized that he lacked the iron to govern men."[2]

Upon his death, Ivan also left the three year old Dmitri Ivanovich (1581–1591), from his seventh and last marriage. As the Orthodox Church recognized only his first three marriages, and any offspring thereof, as legitimate, Dmitri (and his mother's family) technically had no claim to the throne. Still, taking no chances, shortly after Ivan's death the Council had both Dmitri and his mother Maria Nagaya moved to Uglich, some 120 miles north of Moscow. It was there in 1591 that Dmitri died at the age of ten. An official commission headed by Vasili Shuiski was sent to determine the cause of death. The official verdict was that the boy had cut his throat during an epileptic seizure. Ivan's widow claimed that her son had been murdered by Godunov's agents. Godunov's guilt was never established and shortly thereafter Dmitri's mother was forced to take the veil.[2] Dmitri Ivanovich was laid to rest and promptly, though temporarily, forgotten.


At the coronation of Feodor Ivanovich as Tsar Feodor I on 31 May 1584, Boris was given honors and riches as a member of the regency council, in which he held the second place during the life of the Tsar's uncle Nikita Romanovich. When Nikita died in 1586, Boris was left without any serious rival for the regency.

A conspiracy against him by other boyars and Dionysius II, Metropolitan of Moscow, sought to break Boris's power by divorcing the Tsar from Godunov's childless sister. It was unsuccessful, and the conspirators were banished or sent to monasteries. After that, Godunov was supreme in Russia and he corresponded with foreign princes as their equal.

His policy was generally pacific and always prudent. In 1595, he recovered from Sweden some towns lost during the former reign. Five years previously he had defeated a Tatar raid upon Moscow, for which he received the title of Konyushy, an obsolete dignity even higher than that of Boyar. He supported an anti-Turkish faction in the Crimea and gave the emperor subsidies in his war against the sultan.

Godunov encouraged English merchants to trade with Russia by exempting them from duties. He built towns and fortresses along the north-eastern and south-eastern borders of Russia to keep the Tatar and Finnic tribes in order. These included Samara, Saratov, Voronezh, and Tsaritsyn, as well as other lesser towns. He colonized Siberia with scores of new settlements, including Tobolsk.

During his rule, the Russian Orthodox Church received its patriarchate, placing it on an equal footing with the ancient Eastern churches and freeing it from the influence of the Patriarch of Constantinople. This pleased the Tsar, as Feodor took a great interest in church affairs.

Boris's most important domestic reform was the 1597 decree forbidding the peasantry to go from one landowner to another, thus binding them to the soil. The object of this ordinance was to secure revenue, but it led to the institution of serfdom in its most oppressive form.


On the death of the childless Feodor on 7 January 1598, self-preservation as much as ambition led Boris to seize the throne. Had he not done so, the mildest treatment he could have hoped for would have been lifelong seclusion in a monastery. His election was proposed by Patriarch Job of Moscow, who believed that Boris was the one man capable of coping with the difficulties of the situation. Boris, however, would only accept the throne from the Zemsky Sobor, or national assembly, which met on 17 February and unanimously elected him on 21 February. On 1 September, he was solemnly crowned tsar.

During the first years of his reign, he was both popular and prosperous, and ruled well. He recognized the need for Russia to catch up with the intellectual progress of the West and did his best to bring about educational and social reforms. He was the first tsar to import foreign teachers on a large scale, the first to send young Russians abroad to be educated, and the first to allow Lutheran churches to be built in Russia. After the Russo–Swedish War (1590–1595), he felt the necessity of access to the Baltic Sea and attempted to obtain Livonia by diplomatic means. He cultivated friendly relations with the Scandinavians and hoped to take a bride from a foreign royal house, thereby increasing the dignity of his own dynasty. However he declined the personal union proposed to him in 1600 by the diplomatic mission led by Lew Sapieha from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Boris was one of the greatest of the Russian tsars. But his great qualities were overshadowed by paranoia. His fear of possible pretenders induced him to forbid the leading boyars to marry. He encouraged informers and persecuted suspects on their unsupported statements. The Romanov family especially suffered severely under his regime.

Boris died after a lengthy illness and a stroke on 13/23 April 1605. He left one son, Feodor II, who succeeded him and ruled for only a few months, until he and Boris' widow were murdered by the enemies of the Godunovs in Moscow on 10 June/20 July 1605. Boris's first son, Ivan, was born in 1587 and died in 1588. His daughter, Xenia, was born in 1582. She was engaged to Johann of Schleswig-Holstein, but he died shortly before their planned wedding in October 1602. Xenia was given the name "Olga" upon being forced to take monastic vows at the Voskesesnskij Monastery in Beloozero and her name is inscibed as "the Nun Olga Borisovna" at the crypt of the Godunovs at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius where she lived from 1606, when she sojourned there to attend the reburial of her Father, until her death in 1622.[3] Boris, his wife, and their children are buried together in a mausoleum near the entrance of the Assumption Cathedral at Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra.

Arts and popular media

Boris' life was dramatised by the founder of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin, in his play Boris Godunov (1831), which was inspired by Shakespeare's Macbeth. Modest Mussorgsky based his opera Boris Godunov on Pushkin's play. Sergei Prokofiev later wrote incidental music for Pushkin's drama. In 1997, the score of a 1710 baroque opera based on the reign of Boris by German composer Johann Mattheson was rediscovered in Armenia and returned to Hamburg, Germany. This opera, never performed during the composer's lifetime, had its world premiere in 2005 at the Boston Early Music Festival & Exhibition.

The character Boris Badenov in the cartoon The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show takes his name from a play on Godunov's.


See also

  • Tsars of Russia family tree


  1. ^ Troyat, Henri (1993). Ivan le terrible. Flammarion. pp. 284. ISBN 2080644734. 
  2. ^ a b Durant, Will (1961). The Story of Civilization. VII—"The Age of Reason Begins". Simon & Schuster. pp. 513 
  3. ^ Pushkareva, Natalia (1997). Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century (New Russian History). M. E. Sharpe, Inc.. pp. 319. ISBN 1563247984. 

External links

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Feodor I
Tsar of Russia
Succeeded by
Feodor II

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