Boris Feodorovich Godunov (ca. 1551-1605) was czar of Russia from 1598 to 1605. Although an able and intelligent ruler, he came to suspect widespread subversion and treason and more and more resorted to political terror.
Boris Godunov was born in Moscow. He was a member of the ancient Russian family of Saburov-Godunov of Tatar origin, which migrated from the Golden Horde in the 14th century. The family was close to the Moscow court, and Boris became a favorite of Ivan IV. Although he could probably do no more than sign his name and during his whole life never read a book, Godunov had a natural wit and intelligence which the relatively learned Ivan appreciated. While not an oprichnik, (member of the nobility associated with the court) Godunov was linked with the oprichnina by his marriage to the daughter of Maliuta Skuratov, perhaps the most notorious oprichnik of all and a favorite of Ivan. In 1580 Godunov was promoted to the rank of boyar on the marriage of his sister to Feodor, the son of Ivan IV.
When Ivan IV died in 1584, Feodor became czar of Russia. Feodor, however, had the mentality of a child and was temperamentally incapable of taking initiative. Rule, therefore, passed to a dual regency of Nikita Romanovich Yuriev, the Czar's uncle, and Boris Godunov. With the death of Yuriev in 1586, Godunov became Russia's new master in all but name.
Godunov kept a separate court of his own and dealt directly with foreign powers. He is believed to have controlled completely the machinery of the government, especially the security police, headed by his cousin, Simon Godunov, which he used to eliminate his political rivals.
During Godunov's regency, Muscovy's warlike operations dating back to the reign of Ivan IV continued on the various frontiers. In 1590 the Russians became engaged in a war with Sweden that lasted until 1595 and resulted in Moscow's recovery of the territories on the shores of the Gulf of Finland lost under Ivan IV. Sweden, however, retained the port of Narva, which was the real object of Russian ambitions.
Russia also resumed its advance in western Siberia and strengthened its hold there by establishing new military and trading outposts. Russian infiltration in the northern Caucasus continued, and in 1598 Moscow established relations with Georgia.
Significant developments also took place in domestic affairs. Taking advantage of the visit to Moscow by the Patriarch of Constantinople, who came to Russia in quest of alms, Godunov obtained his consent to the elevation of the head of the Russian Church to the rank of patriarch. Job, a nominee of Godunov, was elected by a Russian Church Council in 1589 as the first incumbent of the new office.
Godunov was interested in learning from the West and even thought of establishing a university in Moscow, but he had to abandon the idea because of opposition from the clergy. He did, however, send 18 young men to study abroad. He also promoted foreign trade, concluding commercial treaties with England and with the Hansa.
It was not surprising that after Feodor's death in 1598 the head of the Russian Church offered Godunov the crown on behalf of the nation. Although Godunov was well fitted by experience and ability to become czar, he refused the crown, insisting on the convocation of a national assembly. The assembly met in 1598 and duly elected Godunov to the throne. Godunov acquired, however, unlimited autocratic power like any hereditary autocrat.
In spite of all his efforts, Godunov's brief reign witnessed tragic events. In 1601 famine brought disaster to the people. The crops failed again in 1602 and also, to a considerable extent, in 1603. Although the government tried to feed the population of Moscow free of charge, send supplies to other towns, and find employment for the destitute, its measures availed little against the calamity. It has been estimated that more than 100,000 people perished in the capital alone. More and more peasants fled from the center of Muscovy to join the Cossacks. Godunov's attempts to restrain them failed, and mass banditry developed.
The people blamed Godunov for these problems. Rumors spread that he was a criminal and a usurper and that Russia was being punished for his sins. It was rumored that Godunov had plotted to kill Prince Dimitry, the son of Ivan IV, but had mistakenly murdered another boy. It was further alleged that the true prince had escaped and would return to claim his rightful inheritance.
In 1603 a claimant to the throne did appear, professing to be Czarevich Dimitry. The true identity of the Pretender is not known, but it was as Grishka Otrepyev, a runaway monk and former serf of the Romanov family, that Godunov officially denounced him. The Pretender spent the year 1603 canvasing help in Poland. In 1604 he crossed into Muscovy at the head of over a thousand adventurers, chiefly Poles. He proclaimed himself rightful heir to the Russian throne and denounced Godunov as a usurper. A measure of Godunov's unpopularity was the fact that Cossacks and disaffected elements in southwest Russia rallied to the invader in large numbers. As Dimitry marched toward Muscovy, many towns went over to him without a shot being fired.
Czar Godunov himself seemed paralyzed in the Kremlin. He did not personally take the field against the Pretender, although he did attempt to confirm that Prince Dimitry was dead. When it seemed that his efforts might succeed, Godunov died suddenly on April 23, 1605. He was succeeded by his son Feodor II. But in a few months riots broke out in Moscow, and Feodor and his mother were murdered. In June 1605 the Pretender entered the capital in triumph.
Further Reading on Boris Feodorovich Godunov
One biography of Boris Godunov is Stephen Graham's inadequate Boris Godunof (1933). A fictionalized account is Aleksandr Pushkin's drama, Boris Godunov (1831; trans. 1918). A good study of the Pretender episode is Philip L. Barbour, Dimitry, Called the Pretender: Tsar and Great Prince of All Russia, 1605-1606 (1966). Sergei F. Platonov, The Time of Troubles (1923; trans. 1970), is a classic study of the period. George Vernadsky, A History of Russia, vol. 5, 2 parts (1969), is recommended for general background.
Additional Biography Sources
Emerson, Caryl, Boris Godunov: transpositions of a Russian theme, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.