(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1128 words.)