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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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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