Several episodes in Russian history are so fanciful that they read like novels. One of the more mysterious and interesting is the so-called “curse of Prince Dmitry.” This past Sunday, the Orthodox Church celebrated his memory as a “passion-bearer”—someone killed unjustly, who by his innocent suffering, emulated Christ’s own sacrificial death.
But the story of Prince Dmitry, from a historical point of view, reads more like a mystery than a life of a saint (see the original Russian article here, of which this is a translation and adaptation).
It began in October 1582, when Ivan the Terrible had a son named Dmitry, who had the unfortunate fate of being the last of the Rurikid dynasty (in the male line). According to the officially recognized history, he lived only eight years, but the curse of Prince Dmitry hung over Russia for over twenty-two years.
Alarm Bells in Uglich
Everything ended for the last son of Ivan the Terrible on May 25, 1591, in Uglich. Around midday, Prince Dmitry played a game of throwing knives with other children. In the official papers collected after his death, we read the following eye-witness account from one of the boys:
Prince Dmitry was playing at knives in the back courtyard, and suddenly he was struck with a fit, and he fell on his own knife.”
This account was the only proof needed to officially announce the death an accident. However, no official word could possibly convince the residents of Uglich. Russians in the late Medieval era always believed in signs and miracles much more eagerly than any logical conclusions of mere mortals. And there was a sign, and then some!
Immediately after Prince Dmitry’s heart stopped beating, the great alarm bell of Uglich rang loudly. That in itself is nothing special, except local legend has it that the bells rang of their own accord. For several generations after this event, Uglichians continued to believe that this was an evil omen.
As soon as news spread of the prince’s death, the locals rioted. They broke into the local offices of the Treasury and killed the clerk and his entire family. The powerful boyar Boris Godunov, who was the de facto ruler of Russia during the reign of the weak-willed Feodor Ioannovich, sent a detachment of Streltsy to put down the riot.
It wasn’t merely the locals who were punished for the riot. The alarm bell had it worst. Its tongue was torn off, its “ear” was cut down, and it was publicly lashed twelve times in the city square. Then the shamed bell was sent off with the rest of the rioters to Siberia. The local prince of Tobolsk in Siberia ordered the bell to locked up in a special cell, with a special sign over the door: “the inanimate first rioter from Uglich.” (You can’t make this stuff up!)
The End of the Rurikid Dynasty
As soon as news of Prince Dmitry’s death spread to the rest of Russia, the rumors started. Immediately, people suspected Boris Godunov’s hand in the “accidental death.” However, there were others who suspected the tsar himself in the murder. And there were reasons to think so, actually.
Forty days after Ivan IV’s death, Feodor, his heir, began to actively plan his coronation. One week before his coronation, he ordered that Prince Dmitry and his mother (Ivan’s sixth wife) be effectively banished to Uglich. This was obviously a terrible insult to the dead tsar’s family. However, Feodor did not stop there.
For example, only a few months after he began ruling, he officially ordered the clergy to remove Dmitry’s name from the list of liturgical commemorations. The ostensible reason was that Prince Dmitry was the product of a sixth (and ecclesiastically unrecognized) marriage. But everyone knew that was just an excuse. There were more than a few who assumed this cessation of commemoration was essentially a death wish.
A British traveler named Fletcher reported during his travels of 1588-1589 that Dmitry’s wet nurse died of poisoning. Many whispered that the poison had been intended for the prince instead.
The Curse Begins
Six months after Prince Dmitry died, Feodor’s wife, Irina Godunova, conceived. Although everyone eagerly awaited an heir, and various legends tell that every possible wizard and soothsayer in the court promised a son. Instead, a daughter was born, named Feodosia. As soon as she was born, the rumors began. The people whispered that she was born exactly one year after the death of Dmitry, and the official announcement of her birth was delayed a month for that reason.
But this wasn’t the worst omen. The girl only lived for a few months before she died. And here, for the first time, we begin to hear of the curse of Prince Dmitry. Tsar Feodor changed after the death of his daughter. He lost all interest in the ruling of his country and began to spend months on end in monasteries. The people said that he was trying to atone for his guilt in killing the innocent Prince Dmitry. Tsar Feodor Ioannovich died in 1598, leaving no heir.
The Great Famine
The death of the last Rurikid opened the door to the rule of Tsar Boris Godunov. By this time, the common people attached the epithet of “killer of the prince” to Godunov’s name. This, however, didn’t bother him too much. Through a series of shrewd political moves, he assumed the throne and immediately began reforming the government. In two years, he enacted more changes than all the tsars of the 16th century.
Just as it seemed that he had gained the love of the people, a catastrophe struck Russia. A series of natural disasters led to a horrifying famine that lasted three years. The historian Karamzin wrote,
People ate grass like cattle; people found hay in the mouths of the dead. Horseflesh was considered a delicacy. People ate dogs, cats, carcasses, all sort of filth. People became worse than animals. They left their wives and families just to avoid sharing the last bit of food. People did not only rob each other, of kill for a bit of bread, but people cannibalized each other. Human meat was sold in markets inside pies!”
In Moscow alone, 120,000 people died. Bands of outlaws ravaged the countryside. Whatever love had appeared for the new tsar died with the famine. Once again, people remembered the curse of Prince Dmitry and called Boris “the accursed one.”
The end of the short-lived Godunov Dynasty
The year 1604 finally had a good harvest. It seemed that things might go back to normal. But it was only the calm before the storm. In late 1604, Godunov found out that an army was gathering in Poland, led by “Prince Dmitry,” who had miraculously avoided his killers in Uglich back in 1591. Now, Godunov was called “the slave tsar,” and everyone awaited the return of the beloved prince.
Godunov never met “Prince Dmitry.” He died in 1605, a few months before the triumphal “return” of the false Dmitry. The curse of Dmitry did not end for the Godunov family with Boris’s death. His son Feodor and his wife were smothered to death shortly before the false Dmitry’s arrival in Moscow.
The end of the people’s trust
The false Dmitry never managed to “restore” the Rurikid dynasty. A group of boyars, led by Vasili Shuiskii, organized a coup and killed the false Dmitry. They officially announced to the people that the returned hero prince was actually an imposter, and his dead body was publicly humiliated for good measure.
This absurd display completely ended the people’s trust in the government. The commoners refused to believed that the prince was an imposter, and they lamented his death bitterly. And nature seemed to concur. That summer, an unusual freeze hit Moscow, and it destroyed that year’s harvest completely. The curse of Dmitry took on a new life. People began to tell of various miraculous appearances of the martyred prince.
Afraid of the rise of a cult around the killed false prince, Shuiskii had his body disinterred, burned, and fired out of a cannon in the direction of Poland.
The end of Vasili Shuiskii
Vasili Shuiskii was the boyar in charge of the official investigation into the young Prince Dmitry’s death in Uglich in 1591. He was the one who officially announced that the death was an accident. But as soon as he took over and became Tsar himself, he changed his mind and declared that, actually, Boris Godunov had murdered the young prince. By doing this, Shuiskii killed two birds with one stone. He discredited his dead predecessor Godunov and showed that the “new Dmitry” was, in fact, an impostor.
He decided to finalize the latter truth by arranging a committee to investigate the possibility of glorifying the killed prince as a saint. Metropolitan Philaret (Romanov) of Rostov headed a group of investigators who traveled to Uglich. They disinterred the body and were shocked to find an incorrupt child’s body that began to smell sweetly as soon as they uncovered it. Not only that, but in those fifteen years, his clothing, a handkerchief in his left hand, and even a few nuts that the boy still clutched in his right hand were all untouched by rot.
Most telling of all was the fact that his neck had clearly been slashed open.
The relics were triumphantly brought to the Kremlin, and the crowds gathered to venerate the child-saint. Eyewitness accounts of miracles began to be recorded almost immediately, especially the healing of various blind people. (Interestingly, the famous Nesterov painting above depicts the prince with his eyes closed, as though he didn’t need them any more.)
The after-effects, so to speak, of the curse of Prince Dmitry continued for a few years. Various other impostors pretending to be Dmitry appeared on the scene, and the Time of Troubles left Russia at the mercy of Catholic Poland. However, Metropolitan Philaret’s role in his canonization and the development of his veneration effectively sealed the future fate of a successfully restored Russian monarchy. His son Michael became the first Romanov tsar. It’s almost as though Prince Dmitry, finally at rest, blessed the rise of the new dynasty that would see Russia become a major political and cultural player in the world.
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