Appearance of the False Dmitry

Russia’s pretender to the throne, the False Dmitry, reigned briefly during an age of pretense, turmoil, and chaos, ultimately bringing about political change and the realization of Russia’s need for a “good czar.”

Summary of Event

On July 18, 1605, the False Dmitry was crowned czar of Russia. The episode was part of an extended crisis that almost destroyed Russia between 1584 and 1613. Known in Russian history as the Time of Troubles Time of Troubles (1584-1613) , this period saw pretenders, civil wars, social revolt, famine so severe as to induce cannibalism, and, in its darkest hours, occupation of the Russian throne by Poland and the conquest of large sections of the country by Sweden. Famine;Russia
[kw]Appearance of the False Dmitry (c. 1601-1606)
[kw]Dmitry, Appearance of the False (c. 1601-1606)
[kw]False Dmitry, Appearance of the (c. 1601-1606)
Government and politics;c. 1601-1606: Appearance of the False Dmitry[0170]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;c. 1601-1606: Appearance of the False Dmitry[0170]
Otrepyev, Grigory

The immediate cause of the catastrophic series of events was the extinction of the Rurik line of princes who had governed Russia for more than seven hundred years. More fundamental were the incredible strains imposed upon all segments of the Russian population by the Muscovites in their drive to solidify their hold on Russia and to expand its borders in the east and the west.

The culmination of the transformation of Russia into an absolute monarchy occurred during the reign of Ivan the Terrible Ivan the Terrible . He waged merciless war against the powerful landed nobles, known as the boyars. By use of murder, pillage, rapine, torture, and exile, he ended their pretensions of independent political power in Russia. Unstable, violent, and probably mentally unbalanced, Ivan had killed his eldest son in a fit of rage and left as his heirs Fyodor Fyodor I , a physically frail and politically impotent twenty-six-year-old, and the toddler Dmitry Dmitry Ivanovich . Given the greed and ferocity of the boyars; the discontent of the peasant, Cossack, and merchant populations; and the covetous aims of Sweden and Poland, Russia was deprived of a strong, legitimate ruler when one was desperately needed.

After Ivan’s death in 1584, Fyodor was crowned czar, but because of his physical and mental weakness, he was dominated by various boyars and other men of military and administrative experience who struggled for power behind the scenes. The eventual winner in that struggle was Boris Godunov, Godunov, Boris who had been one of the most reliable henchmen of Ivan IV, “the Terrible,” and was married to Fyodor’s sister. In 1598, Boris became czar in his own right, despite the active opposition of the boyars and the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite his success at making peace with Lithuania, the creation of a Russian patriarchate, deterring invasions from the Tatars, beginning diplomatic relations with Europe, and promoting trade, Godunov failed to establish himself on the throne as the initiator of a new line. This failure made it possible for the False Dmitry to play his part in Russian history.

In the period during which he had been the dominating force behind Fyodor, Boris had been faced with the ever-present possibility that the friends and relatives of Dmitry’s mother would attempt to place the boy on the throne upon the expected death of Fyodor. Boris tried to forestall this by sending Dmitry and his mother, along with other members of the family, to the convent at Uglich on the northern reaches of the Volga River. There, under circumstances never completely explained, the nine-year-old boy died from a knife wound to his throat in 1591. He was epileptic and, according to his nurse, he suffered a fit and cut himself with a knife with which he had been playing. Within four days, Boris sent to Uglich a commission that conducted a thorough investigation and submitted a report verifying the nurse’s story that the wounds were self-inflicted. The report was not widely circulated, however, and it soon came to be widely believed that Boris had arranged to have the boy killed.

Following Godunov’s ascension to power, natural disasters of flooding and frost ruined harvests throughout Russia in 1601. These events signaled disaster for a country barely able to subsist. One-third of the population reportedly died Population decreases;Russia . Although Godunov attempted to alleviate the problems of his country, he turned against the boyars. Unrest followed.

The first rumors of the False Dmitry occurred in 1598, and he was reported in Moscow as early as 1601 and 1602. He escaped, however, when it appeared he might be arrested when he claimed to be Dmitry. He then was seen in Poland in 1602 as a valet to a Polish landowner. Identified by Russian authorities as Grigory Otrepyev, the False Dmitry was a runaway monk who had formerly served the Romanovs and was a skilled transcriber and composer. He was a dignified, self-possessed man with much grace both on horse and afoot and was said to be courageous and intelligent. He knew a great deal about the circumstances under which Czarevitch Dmitry had lived. It is almost certain that he had come to believe that he was Dmitry, and during his brief period of glory, he acted with complete self-assurance and inner conviction. He convinced his noble master that he was genuine and gained, if not the support, at least the benevolent neutrality of King Sigismund III Vasa Sigismund III Vasa of Poland, who welcomed any excuse to make things difficult for the Russian czar. The False Dmitry acquired further support in Poland by marrying Marina Mniszech, the daughter of his Polish lord, and by becoming a convert to Roman Catholicism in the spring of 1604. Yet the Polish king neither instigated nor actively supported Dmitry’s attack on and his eventual capture of the throne of Moscow.

At the head of a small army of less than four thousand freebooting Polish nobles and runaway peasants, the False Dmitry crossed the Dnieper River into Russia in October, 1604. In southern Russia, he quickly gained mass support from Cossacks, disaffected small landholders, and peasants. He was opposed by government troops and suffered some military defeats, but he advanced steadily toward Moscow at the head of an ever-growing swarm of disaffected Russians. In April, 1605, Godunov suddenly died, and the last barrier was removed. The mobs of Moscow murdered Godunov’s supporters, and the great boyars of the capital, led by Vasily Shuysky Vasily Shuysky , refused to swear allegiance to Godunov’s son and successor, Theodore. Godunov’s wife and son were murdered, and on June 20, 1605, the False Dmitry made a triumphal entry into Moscow. Shuysky, who had led the commission investigating Czarevitch Dmitry’s death in 1591, now declared that the new arrival was Dmitry, as did the mother of the czarevitch, who was brought from the convent for that purpose. Shuysky also administered the oath to the False Dmitry. Russia, desperate for a Rurik, accepted the impostor as czar; another step had been taken toward civil war and anarchy.


Once he was installed as czar, the False Dmitry’s support ebbed rapidly. His manner was too frivolous and too “Western” for the Muscovites, who preferred their czars to be solemn and devoted to court and religious ritual. He and his Polish supporters lived too gaily, holding numerous balls and parties that upset the puritanical Muscovites. Moreover, he was a practicing Roman Catholic and brought with him Jesuit priests, who frightened and irritated the Russian Orthodox clergy and the population of Moscow.

Finally, Vasily Shuysky and the surviving boyars, who had hoped to use Dmitry as a tool, found that he served his own interests and feared that he might serve those of King Sigismund III Vasa of Poland. Their nationalistic emotions coincided with their desire for power, and they incited the nationalistic fervor of the inhabitants of Moscow. On May 17, 1606, the False Dmitry was murdered; on May 29, his body was burned, his ashes being fired from a cannon in the direction of Poland.

Further Reading

  • Barbour, Philip L. Dimitry, Called the Pretender, Tsar, and Great Prince of All Russia, 1605-1606. London: Macmillan, 1967. This excellent book is sound in scholarship and recounts an engrossing story.
  • Dunning, Chester S. L. Russia’s First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. In this post-Marxist reassessment, Dunning maintains the Time of Troubles was not a Russian peasant rebellion but a long and violent civil war. Also recounts the story of the False Dmitry.
  • Emerson, Caryl. Boris Godunov: Transpositions of a Russian Theme. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Emerson explores the Russian story in terms of historical, literary, and musical interpretations.
  • Florinsky, Michael T. Russia: A History and an Interpretation. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1947, 1953. Florinsky’s work is accepted by many as the best general history of Russia in English. Includes a glossary, a bibliography of principal sources, and, in each volume, an index.
  • Massa, Isaac. A Short History of the Beginnings and Origins of These Present Wars in Moscow Under the Reign of Various Sovereigns Down to the Year 1610. Translated by G. Edward Orchard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. A Dutch eyewitness account of the historical events.
  • Perrie, Maureen. Pretenders and Popular Monarchism in Early Modern Russia: The False Tsars of the Time of Troubles. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. An in-depth study of a series of Russian pretenders to the throne and a comparison to other impostors in Europe.
  • Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. A comprehensive survey of Russian history that includes a chapter on the Time of Troubles and discussion of the False Dmitry.
  • Szvák, Gyula. False Tsars. Translated by Peter Daniel. Boulder, Colo.: Eastern European Monographs, 2000. This work examines pretenders to the Russian throne from the Time of Troubles to the end of the nineteenth century. Szvák, a Hungarian historian, describes how three men claimed to be Dmitry, the son of Ivan the Terrible.

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Michael Romanov; Sigismund III Vasa; Vasily Shuysky. Otrepyev, Grigory