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Boris Gudonov was born around 1552 into a prominent family headquartered in Kostroma, an area that he continued to favor. The family also owned land around Viazma and Novgorod. Boris's father, Feodor; and uncle, Dmitrii, entered into the Oprichnina which brought Boris into Ivan's circle when Feodor died and Boris, along with a brother and sister, became wards of his uncle, who was chamberlain to the Oprichnina court. Moreover, Boris married in 1570 Maria Grigor'evna, daughter of Maliuta Skuratov. Boris remained in Ivan's favor even after the Oprichnina was abolished. Boris even was appointed to look after Ivan's son, Feodor. Feodor eventually married Boris's sister, Irina. Feodor's reign is discussed in the section on him.
But most of Boris's significant political and military activities took place during Feodor's reign while Boris was the actual power behind the throne. Among these was the supression of the efforts of the Nagoi and Shuiskii families and others to expand their influence at court. The Shuiskii's achieved their revenge later. However, the claim ( advanced as rumor) that Boris was the instigator of the death of Tsarevich Dmitrii at Uglich is false. Nevertheless between Pushkin's play and Musorgskii's opera in which the central theme is Boris's guilt, it may be that he is the most well known Russian ruler of the period as far as the English language world is concerned.
Feodor Ivanovich died without heir in 1598 bringing on a sucession crisis. The Shuiskii's had an indirect claim based on their being Rurikid princes. Feodor's widow, Irina, was recognized as ruler, even though there had been no female ruler in Rus since Olga and not even a male claiming legitimacy through a female line. But she declined and entered a convent. Boris also declined officially, but as Musorgskii depicts so well, was '"talked into" accepting the "popular" demand that he assume the throne.
Boris naturally hoped to pass the crown on to his son, also Feodor, and prepared him well. Boris also tried unsuccessfully through multiple avenues to find a suitable husband for his daughter, Ksenia.
In foreign, that is military, affairs Boris was successful on the Polish - Swedish front. He obained a truce from the former and regained the region containing Ivangorod, Kopor'ye and Yam fortresses from the latter.
But in internal, domestic affairs Boris was fated with what turned out to be an insurmountable confluence of difficulties. First, he faced the continual plotting by the opposing boyar - princely families who maintained their dynastic superiority to the upstart tsar. Second, he faced economic calamity with famine and opposition in the towns. Third and finally worst of all, there appeared the 'False Dmitri' with Polish backing, who could exploit the first two of Boris's difficulties.
The attack came through Severia, where there already was popular disapproval of the Muscovite government. Initially voyevodes Basmanov and Mstislavskii were victorious in driving False Dmitri's forces back. But after they were replaced by Dmitrii Shuiskii, the situation gradually changed. One has to suspect that this Shuiskii was thinking more about his family fortunes and less about keeping Boris on the throne. However, the military situation still favored Boris, when, in April 13, 1605 he suddenly died of a stroke.


Here is a popular view of Boris.



In April Don Cossacks brought word of preparations of the Tatars for a new attack. Boris issued orders for a full mobilization on the Oka. On 20 April the cossacks reported advance elements of the Tatar force were attacking the border posts. Boris decided to head the army himself. On 2 May he left for field headquarters at Serpukhov. This was the largest field army yet mustered on the Oka. It contained mostly deti boyarski and dvoriani but also had large streltsi, cossack and artillery units. Service was proclaimed to be “Bezmestnichestvo” that is without regard for precedent of rank. As a psychological move, Boris gave his Tatar princes high places in the command. The Astrakhan Tsarevich, Arslan Kaybulich, headed the Main polk, the Kazakh Tsarevich, Uraz-Mahmet, headed the right polk, and the Siberian Tsarevich, Mahmet Kul, headed the lead polk. Captain Margert, a French mercenary in Boris's guard, described the scene as Boris greeted the envoys of the Tatar Khan. He assembled the entire army and lined both sides of the road for a distance with his artillery. The Tatars were suitably impressed and asked for peace. Boris then returned to Moscow and was crowned Tsar.(220)

Tsar Boris did not let the southern defense rest on impressive shows. He studied plans for new fortified towns and organized a flotilla on the Oka. His preventive campaign for 1598 was extremely important for the whole defense system. The Oka “shore” system was obsolete with so many people living south of it. A new line was needed, which Boris supplied with the construction of the fortified triangle of the towns of Mtsensk, Novosil, and Orel. South of this, Belgorod on Donets was built in 1598, along with Oskol the same year and Valuik in 1599.(221)


Boris took a bold step and constructed the fortress of Tsarev- Borisov, on the lower Oskol River near the Donets. This town, so near the Crimea, served as a defensive and offensive base. The importance Boris gave to this new fortress shows in his appointment of the military expert, Bogdan Bel'sky, to construct it. A detachment of service cossacks and one of the streltsi went to the fortress with new townspeople. Bel'sky also took his own dvor troops.(222)


In 1604 Tsar Boris Godunov obtained an agreement from Khan Ishterek of the Great Nogai that he would send 60,000 Nogai against Crimea if the Crimeans attacked Moscow and if the Kaziev Tatars would not oppose the move. If the Kaziev Tatars did oppose then, Ishterek explained, he could not send help because the Kaziev Tatars would attack his villages while his men were away. Tsar Boris told the Nogai of the rich Polish lands and the plunder they could get there if they would join him in a war on Poland. The khan agreed that the target was tempting but said that the distance was too far and his troops would need rations for the long journey. Also, he insisted on a joint campaign with Russian troops, specifically streltsi, in direct support of his raiders. Tsar Boris decided this would be too imposible to justify so he dropped the idea.

The same year Shah Abbas of Persia tried to organize a coalition against the Ottoman Turks composed of France, Russia, the Empire, and the Papacy. He sent his ambassador to the west via Moscow, but this scheme also fell through.

It was Boris himself who suffered the most in 1604, and at the hands of a brazen young adventurer, Dmitri the Pretender. In October Dmitri started for the Russian frontier with an army of 580 Polish and Muscovite hussars, 1,5O0 infantry, and 1400 cossacks. When he reached Kiev he had 20,000 followers of various types. His first major obstical was the well fortified town of Chernigov. The local inhabitants tied up the voevoda and surrendered the town. On November 12th his army reached 38,000 when 9,009 cossacks arrived. The next town was Novgorod-Seversk, also well fortified, and defended by Peter F. Basmatov the son and grandson of two of Ivan IV's chief generals. He had 500 streltsi and dvoriani in the citadel. Dmitri besieged the town, dug trenches, and prepared gabbions. He had 8 medium cannon and 6 falconets firing on the city, but his assault failed. Then he tried wooden turrets mounted on sledges to approach the walls, but this too failed.

Boris' relief army under Prince Fedor Ivanovich Mstislavsky numbering 40-50,000 men approached on 18 December. Dmitri's advance guard of 80O men met Boris' reconnaisance unit of several thousand Tatars and surprised them. On the 28th of December the armies met and began skirmishing, which continued until the 30th. On December 31st both armies deployed for a formal battle. Dmitri's left wing of 200 men attacked the Muscovites under Prince D. I. Shuiski and Prince Mikhail Kashin. Dmitri's other units gradually joined the battle on the left while his own guard attacked in the center. The Muscovite streltsi were left in a valley at some distance from the battle until Dmitri's infantry found them and drove them away. Thus Boris' army retreated 10 miles and dug in behind an abbatis. Dmitri lost 60 men to the Muscovite's 6,000.

Dmitri put his army into winter quarters. Most of his Polish nobility went home after demanding more pay and being refused. Then 12,000 more cossacks with cannon arrived. The Russian army meanwhile retired to Starodub for the winter.

Boris sent Vaslii Shuiski as the new commander to replace the wounded Mistislavski. By the end of January Boris had 70-80,000 men under arms. The Muscovites again advanced toward Dmitri's army at Dobrynichi. Dmitri's cossacks insisted on attacking. On 30 January they tried a surprise attack, but Vasilii Shuiski was too clever and had prepared for them. He discovered the attack and had his army drawn up for battle. The army formed in line with the 20,000 Tatars on the right wing, the Muscovites and foreign mercenaries next in line and 30,000 Muscovites formed the left wing. Dmitri had Polish mercenaries in the center, Zaporozhni cossacks on the right and his artillery and Muscovites on the left. The armies converged. Cannon on both sides opened fire. Dmitri's main attack with cavalry tried to cut between the Muscovites and a village. Then the Tsar's right wing advanced with the two foreign units. Dmitri's troops charged anyway with ten cavalry companies. After a sharp battle the Russians began to retreat on the right, however the center held firm. The Polish troops next encountered an infantry unit that had cannon. The infantry fired a volley from their harqubuses. There being 10-12,000 of them, this so frightened the Poles that they stopped. The rest of Dmitri's army was advancing, but when they saw that the cavalry had stopped and was turning around, they also turned and fled. Dmitri lost 15 banners and 13 artillery pieces and 5-6,000 men killed or captured. He retreated to Putivil, where 4,000 more Don Cossacks joined him.

Boris' army besieged Ryl'sk but not Putivil. Then Dmitri sent 5,000 cossacks into Ryl'sk so the Tsar's army gave up the siege and retired toward Novgorod-Seversk. In the spring of 1606 Dmitri called for all cossacks and Tatars as far as the Urals to revolt against Tsar Boris. The Don Cossacks talked the Nogai Tatars into joining them for a march on Moscow. The Crimean Tatars also supported Dmitri. By now his forces held many southern towns such as Voronezh, Oskol, Belgorod, Borisgorod, etc. These were the towns comprising Moscow's defense line against the Tatars.

At this critical time Boris Godunov died, leaving his young son to rule with Boris's widow as regent.


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