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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

Boris Godunov (Russian: Борис Годунов) is a play by famed Russian poet, playwright, and novelist Alexander Pushkin, written in 1825 and published in 1831. Since it wasn’t approved for public performances until 1886, Boris Godunov is often described as a closet play. As the title suggests, the story revolves...

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Boris Godunov (Russian: Борис Годунов) is a play by famed Russian poet, playwright, and novelist Alexander Pushkin, written in 1825 and published in 1831. Since it wasn’t approved for public performances until 1886, Boris Godunov is often described as a closet play. As the title suggests, the story revolves around the Russian Tsar Boris Godunov, who ruled the Tsardom of Russia from 1598 to 1605.

In the beginning of the play, we familiarize ourselves with the political climate of the Russian Tsardom. After the death of Ivan the Terrible, his son, Fyodor I Ivanovich ascends to the throne, but, due to his aloof nature, he soon proves to be an unfit ruler. Thus, the people sign a petition in which they ask the influential and powerful nobleman Boris Godunov to assume the throne and deal with important political duties. Godunov agrees, but soon becomes tired of being just a prince-regent, and begins plotting a strategy to get to the throne.

Godunov executes his plan with the murder of Dimitri Ivanovich – Fyodor’s brother, and second in line for the throne. He even stages a fake criminal investigation and swears that he will find Dimitri’s “murderer.” Soon after, Fyodor I dies, and Godunov is crowned as the new tsar of Russia; thus, he begins a reign of terror, injustice and brutality.

However, a young man by the name of Grigoriy Otrepyev heard the rumors that the current tsar might be involved in Dimitri’s murder. A monk tells him that he and Dimitri are of the same age. Inspired by this revelation and determined to put an end to Godunov’s reign, Grigoriy decides to impersonate Dimitri, go to the Russian capital, and claim that he was never murdered. He even manages to escape the tsar’s men, who were sent by Godunov himself, when he heard that there is an impostor who plans to overthrow him.

Grigoriy arrives in Poland, where both the Polish and the Lithuanian nobility immediately accept him, and tell him that they believe his story. Soon, the “Pretender,” is assigned as the leader of the Polish army, and makes his way towards Russia to take down the monarchy.

Meanwhile, the Russian Tsardom is taken over by disease, pestilence and famine, and the elite is desperately trying dethrone Godunov. This takes a toll on the tsar’s mental and physical health, which becomes much worse when he hears that the “Pretender” has arrived on Russian soil and is rapidly advancing toward the palace. Scared and confused, he hallucinates that Dimitri stands before him, alive and well. Unable to deal with the shock and the stressful situation, Tsar Boris Godunov dies in the council chamber, in front of his fellow noblemen. Soon after his death, Russia begins to descend into what will become one of the most talked about periods of Russian history—the Time of Troubles.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1128

Boris Godunov, a privy councilor, is a schemer. He plans the assassination of Czarevitch Dmitri so that the assassins are caught and promptly executed by a mob, so that no suspicion falls on Boris. He even orders the nobleman Shuisky to investigate the crime. Shuisky returns and tells with a straight face the version of the murder that Boris suggested to him.

When the people begin to clamor for Boris to become czar, Boris and his sister take refuge in a monastery, ostensibly to escape the pressure of the populace that acclaims him their ruler. With a great show of humility and hesitation, he finally accepts the great honor. In spite of his initial popular appeal, Boris proves to be a cruel ruler, binding the serfs more firmly than ever to their masters and crushing ruthlessly nobles who oppose him. There are a few, however, who do not forget that Boris murdered Dmitri.

Father Pimen is an old monk, a writer of chronicles. At night he writes his observations of Russia’s troubled times, while a young monk named Grigory Otrepyev sleeps nearby. Grigory is troubled by grandiose dreams. It seems to him that he is mounting a great staircase from the top of which all Moscow is spread out before him. When he awakens, Father Pimen counsels him to forget the call of the world, for lust and power are illusory. Grigory scarcely listens, for he knows that in his youth Pimen was a soldier and had his fill of secular life.

When a wicked monk tempts Grigory by reminding him that he is the same age as the murdered Dmitri would have been, Grigory quickly resolves that he will indeed be Dmitri. To get support for his enterprise Grigory goes to Lithuania, and, so as to pass unnoticed through the country, he attaches himself to two beggar monks. Somehow Boris hears of the impostor’s intentions. A description of Dmitri is broadcast, and the czar’s agents are instructed to arrest him on sight. In a remote tavern, several officers come upon Grigory and his two companions. Grigory draws his dagger and flees.

Both the Lithuanians and the Poles are delighted to help Grigory march on Moscow. The Poles, especially, are eager to attack the hated Muscovites. As rumors of the impending rebellion spread, many Russians come into Poland to join the swelling ranks of Grigory’s supporters. Before long, Grigory finds another powerful ally in a Jesuit priest who promises to throw the influence of Rome behind the pretender. Grigory at the head of a rebellious army in Poland is a real menace to Boris’s throne and life.

However, Grigory, comfortably installed at an estate near the Russian border, lingers in Poland. He cannot bring himself to give orders to advance because Maryna, the daughter of the house, captures his heart. She is cold to him and finally asks him outright whether he is really Dmitri or an unfrocked monk, as some people are saying. When Grigory, unnerved by love, confesses that he is a baseborn monk, Maryna haughtily refuses to ally her noble blood with his. Stung by her actions, Grigory thereupon proudly declares that he will be czar, and if Maryna denounces him, he will use his power to punish her. Satisfied that he has an indomitable spirit, Maryna overlooks his birth and agrees to be his czarina.

The next morning, Grigory begins his conquering march, and for a while all goes well. Towns and villages join his campaign willingly, for the name of Dmitri is a powerful one. In Moscow, Boris is greatly perturbed and asks the patriarch to give his best counsel. He is told that Dmitri’s grave is noted for its cures; the patriarch himself knows of an old man who was blind for many years before a visit to the tomb restored his sight. If Dmitri’s remains are brought into the Kremlin and a miracle were to happen before all the people, Moscow will have proof that Dmitri is dead and the pretender is a fraud. Boris pales at the suggestion. Tactfully Shuisky proposes another course. Rather than appear to use religious means in a political quarrel, he will go before the people and denounce Grigory. Surely, when the people know the truth they will desert the baseborn monk who calls himself Dmitri.

For a time, events seem to favor Boris. Grigory is beaten back in several attacks on strongholds held by Boris’s troops. Nevertheless, Grigory remains cheerful and confident, even after his forces are defeated.

Boris entrusts the command of his whole defense to Basmanov, an able leader though not of noble birth. Basmanov is gratified at the honor, for he has as little patience with the intrigues of the court as he does with the fickle loyalties of the mob. His conference with Boris is interrupted by the arrival of a delegation of foreign merchants. Boris hardly leaves the room before an alarm sounds; the czar is suddenly ill. Blood gushes from his mouth and ears.

Before his death, Boris formally names his son Feodor the next czar. As his life ebbs away, he advises Feodor to name Basmanov the military leader, to retain all the stately court procedures that give dignity to the government, and to preserve strictly the discipline of the Church. After the last rites are administered, Boris dies.

At army headquarters, Pushkin, a supporter of Grigory, has an interview with Basmanov. Pushkin admits that Grigory’s army is only a rabble and that Cossacks and Poles alike are not to be trusted. If, however, Basmanov will declare for Grigory, the new czar will make him commander of all the Russian armies. At first, Basmanov hesitates, but Pushkin reminds him that even if Grigory is an impostor, the magic name of Dmitri is enough to ensure that Feodor has no chance of retaining his czardom. Basmanov, convinced, publicly leads his troops to Grigory’s side.

Basmanov’s defection spreads. The people of Moscow listen to Pushkin when he makes an inflammatory speech in the great square. As he reminds them of all they have suffered under Boris and of the justice of Dmitri’s accession, the crowd shouts their allegiance to the false Dmitri. Impassioned, the mob surges into Boris’s palace to seek out Feodor, who looks hopelessly out the window. Some in the crowd feel pity, but their voices are overruled. The boyars force their way inside, presumably to make Feodor swear allegiance to Dmitri. Out of the uproar comes screams. At last the door opens. One of the boyars makes an announcement: Feodor and his mother took poison. He saw the dead bodies. The boyar urges the people to acclaim Dmitri, but the people stand silent, speechless.

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