Tsarevich Dimitry by Mikhail Nesterov. (1899)

Dmitri of Uglich and the Three False Dmitris: One of the Most Bizarre Episodes in Russian History

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Dmitri (Dmitry) of Uglich, known also as Tsarevich Dmitri or Dmitri Ivanovich, was the youngest son of the first Tsar of All the Russias, Ivan IV Vasilyevich, more commonly known as Ivan Grozny or Ivan the Terrible. There is not much that can be said about the life of Dmitri of Uglich, as he died at the extremely young age of eight. Nevertheless, it is his ‘afterlife’ that contributed to one of the most bizarre episodes in Russian history.

Three False Dmitris

About a decade and a half after the young Tsarevich’s death (be it due to murder or by accident), not one, but three pretenders appeared within a short period of ten years. Each of these imposters claimed to be the murdered Tsarevich, and with that identity, laid claim to the Russian throne as well. These pretenders are known today as False Dmitri I, False Dmitri II and False Dmitri III respectively.

An Unstable Home Life

The story of Dmitri of Uglich begins with the death of Ivan Grozny’s beloved first wife, Anastasia Romanovna, in 1560. Following Anastasia’s death, Ivan remarried five times, the last of which was to Maria Nagaya, who later gave birth to Tsarevich Dmitri. As the Church only authorized the first four of the Tsar’s marriages, Ivan’s marriage to Maria Nagaya was considered illegitimate, as was her son, Dmitri.

The death of Ivan’s first wife also severely affected his mental health, causing him to become mentally unstable. Apart from problems with affairs of the state, Ivan’s insanity also had a profound effect on his domestic affairs. For instance, the Tsar’s insanity once led him to beat his pregnant daughter-in-law, causing her to miscarry. Furthermore, Ivan caused the death of his own heir, Ivan Ivanovich, when he struck his son’s head with his pointed staff during a fit of rage.

Ivan the Terrible near the body of his son Ivan Ivanovich, whom he murdered in a fit of rage. By Vyacheslav Schwarz.

Ivan the Terrible near the body of his son Ivan Ivanovich, whom he murdered in a fit of rage. By Vyacheslav Schwarz. (1864) ( Public Domain )

A Feeble Heir Takes the Throne and the Next in Line Dies

As a result of these actions, Ivan was succeeded by his much less capable son, Feodor, upon his death in 1584. According to some, the new Tsar was not only feeble in body, but also in mind. This meant that Feodor was a ruler only in name, and that real power was in the regency council that was established to guide the Tsar.

One of the most prominent figures of the council was Boris Godunov, the Tsar’s brother-in-law. Feodor and his wife, Irina, did not produce an heir, and, according to one popular account, Godunov was hoping to occupy the Russian throne once Feodor died. In order to achieve this, Godunov would have to have to get rid of the last of Ivan’s sons, Dmitri.

odor puts a golden chain on Boris Godunov. By Aleksey Danilovich Kivshenko.

Feodor puts a golden chain on Boris Godunov. By Aleksey Danilovich Kivshenko. ( Public Domain ) Feodor was a weak Tsar and Boris Godunov was one of his most prominent councilors. Many scholars also suspect Godunov is responsible for Dmitri’s exile and assassination.

Therefore, in the year than Ivan died, Dmitri, his mother, and his uncles were exiled to Uglich, the Tsarevich’s appanage city. In 1591, Dmitri died from a stab wound under mysterious circumstances. It was only natural that Godunov was suspected to have a hand in this.

Engraving depicting the murder of Tsarevich Dmitri of Uglich (1870)

Engraving depicting the murder of Tsarevich Dmitri of Uglich (1870) ( Public Domain )

The Parade of False Dmitris Begins

Godunov eventually succeeded Feodor when the latter died in 1598. However, a surprise was on the way and in 1604, a man claiming to be Tsarevich Dmitri appeared. This was a man later to be known as False Dmitri I, whose true identity, even today, remains a mystery, though there is one strong but unproven possibility.

According to this speculation, False Dmitri I was Grigory Otrepiev, the son of a minor official in a rural village. After failing in every other occupation, Otrepiev became a monk, and resided in a monastery near Moscow. He had to flee, however, as he incurred the displeasure of both the Church and State authorities when he began telling his fellow monks that he would become the Tsar someday.

He then lived amongst the Cossacks for a while, and even managed to convince a number of them that he was Tsarevich Dmitri. After this, he moved to Poland, and found himself in the service of Adam Wisniowiecki, a Polish prince. Eventually, the Tsarevich revealed his ‘identity’ to his patron, and was presented to the Polish king, Sigismund III.

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