Some of you might know that I’ve spent the last couple of years in a Russian history rabbit hole, both to get in touch with my roots and in service of a Super Secret Project I hope I can tell you more about someday soon.
This week, I’m here to tell you one of the very best stories I stumbled across during my research, which I knew was going to be a wacky time from the name of the event and then just keeps getting hilariously weirder and weirder:
The Saga of False Dmitri!
To begin, some context-setting. We’re in Russia at the tail end of the 16th century. Ivan the Terrible has just died, and his second son Feodor is now tsar.
(Ivan the Terrible had already accidentally stabbed his eldest son and heir by this point, because of course he had. But that’s another story.)
Problem, though: Feodor spent all his time praying, had no desire to be tsar, and died of an old-timey illness. This power vacuum was a bad time for Russia for a variety of dynastic reasons, and the former regent, a guy named Boris Godunov who was also Ivan the Terrible’s brother-in-law, stepped in to rule the country.
I profoundly do not care about Boris Godunov. This newsletter is not about him. Boris Godunov did exactly one thing I personally care about, which is this: he exiled Ivan the Terrible’s third son, Dmitri, who then promptly DIED UNDER MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES.
There was an inquest, of course, because if you’re Ivan the Terrible’s son, you can’t just mysteriously drop dead without an inquest. And the finding of this inquest was—I shit you not—that Dmitri had stabbed himself in his own throat during an epileptic seizure.
So from Godunov’s perspective, this is all unfolding according to plan. It’s 1591, all the heirs of the former tsar are now out of the running, and he can proceed calmly with creating his own dynasty.
Or he could have…
IF NOT FOR THOSE MEDDLING KIDS!
A few years go by, and this random teenager shows up in Moscow and starts talking. He says he’s actually Dmitri I, the son of the tsar who everyone thinks is dead. He says he escaped the assassination attempt and hid in a monastery in Poland. He says he’s one hundred percent not dead and happy to be tsar anytime anyone wants to give him the throne back. Boom, baby!
Boris Godunov, uh, doesn’t love this. But apparently the kid looks a lot like Dmitri, he’s fancy like Dmitri, and a bunch of people really really didn’t like Godunov anyway, so people around town are starting to listen to this kid.
And then in 1605, False Dmitri got his hands on like 4,000 members of the Polish army and tries to storm the capital.
It’s a military disaster, but conveniently, Godunov drops dead not long after anyway, and folks in Russia are like “you know who would be a good replacement tsar? That totally real, totally not dead dude Dmitri who’s got the Polish army!”
So it was that False Dmitri I ascends the throne and becomes tsar. What he may have lacked in legitimacy, he made up for in absolute balls of steel, so bless him for that.
The Very Short Reign of False Dmitri I
Dmitri starts out his reign as tsar by…raping and/or murdering the entire Godunov family, so let the record show that I immediately rescind my blessings on this piece of shit.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was a shitty tsar in other ways too, so a group of boyars (Russian nobility) ganged up to assassinate him. Dmitri tried to escape the attack by jumping out a window, but he broke his leg in the fall and the boyars easily caught up to him and killed him.
They then cremated his body, packed the ashes into a cannon, and fired them in the general direction of Poland as a posthumous fuck-you, which is for some reason the funniest possible funeral I can think of.
But Wait! There’s More!
About a year later, another vaguely royal-looking dude is wandering around a Russian city claiming to be Tsar Dmitri. He says he absolutely definitely was not fired out of a cannon, but faked his own death NOT ONCE BUT TWICE and is now back to take the throne for real.
The people of Russia rally behind this guy, who history has helpfully dubbed False Dmitri II, and this time he raises an army of ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND PEOPLE to take back the throne!
Except one of his soldiers stabs him while he’s drunk, so that is the end of False Dmitri II.
But That’s Not All!
A few years later!! In 1611!!
(I suspect you know where I’m going with this!!)
An additional man!!
Shows up in Moscow!!
And do you know who he claims to be??
THE HUNDRED PERCENT NOT DEAD DMITRI!!
WHO HAS NOW FAKED HIS DEATH THREE (3) TIMES!!
AND IS READY TO TAKE THE THRONE!!
(If my increasingly unhinged font choices aren’t making it clear, if I were telling you this story in person, I would be shrieking.)
He got an unspecified number of people to follow him, and likewise tried to take the throne, until he too got murdered. RIP False Dmitri III.
You think I’m joking.
But there might have been another one.
Sources aren’t sure, it might have been people were just having a hard time keeping track of all these goddamn Dmitris, but I laughed out loud when I saw this note on the Wikipedia page:
Yeah, you’re telling me. No wonder Russia calls this period the Time of Troubles. “Time of an Absolutely Fucked-Up Quantity of Dmitris” would also have been acceptable.
Anyway, the guy who shot False Dmitri I out of a cannon becomes the next tsar, and then he got deposed, and then Poland got involved and everything went even further to shit, and then some fucker named Mikhail Romanov wandered in, and we all know what happened dynastically from there.
Russian history, man. There’s just so much.
That’s all from me this week, friends. As always, the absolute best way to support this newsletter is to share it with a friend you think might enjoy it!
Or, if you want to support me—the dirtbag who writes this newsletter!—the best way to do that is to pick up a copy of my book if you haven’t done so already! Or leave a review if you have!
Or, if you want to con your way into a promotion or something, start calling yourself Dmitri. It’s worked more often than you might think.