Boris Fedorovich Godunov
BORIS FEDOROVICH GODUNOV, tsar of Muscovy (c.1551-1605), the most famous member of an ancient, now extinct, Russian family of Tatar origin, which migrated from the Horde to Muscovy in the 14th century. Boris' career of service began at the court of Ivan the Terrible. He is mentioned in 1570 as taking part in the Serpeisk campaign as one of the archers of the guard. In 1571 he strengthened his position at court by his marriage with Maria, the daughter of Ivan's abominable favourite Malyuta Skuratov. In 1580 the tsar chose Irene, the sister of Boris, to be the bride of the tsarevich Theodore, on which occasion Boris was promoted to the rank of boyar. On his deathbed Ivan appointed Boris one of the guardians of his son and successor; for Theodore, despite his seven-and-twenty years, was of somewhat weak intellect. The reign of Theodore began with a rebellion in favour of the infant tsarevich Demetrius, the son of Ivan's fifth wife Marie Nagaya, a rebellion resulting in the banishment of Demetrius, with his mother and her relations, to their appanage at Uglich. On the occasion of the tsar's coronation (May 31, 1584), Boris was loaded with honours and riches, yet he held but the second place in the regency during the lifetime of his co-guardian Nikita Romanovich, on whose death, in August, he was left without any serious rival. A conspiracy against him of all the other great boyars and the metropolitan Dionysy, which sought to break Boris' power by divorcing the tsar from Godunov's childless sister, only ended in the banishment or tonsuring of the malcontents. Henceforth Godunov was omnipotent. The direction of affairs passed entirely into his hands, and he corresponded with foreign princes as their equal. His policy was generally pacific, but always most prudent. In 1595 he recovered from Sweden the towns lost during the former reign. Five years previously he had defeated a Tatar raid upon Moscow, for which service he received the title of sluga, an obsolete dignity even higher than that of boyar. Towards Turkey he maintained an independent attitude, supporting an anti-Turkish faction in the Crimea, and furnishing the emperor with subsidies in his war against the sultan. Godunov encouraged English merchants to trade with Russia by exempting them from tolls. He civilized the north-eastern and south-eastern borders of Muscovy by building numerous towns and fortresses to keep the Tatar and Finnic tribes in order. Samara, Saratov, and Tsaritsyn and a whole series of lesser towns derive from him. He also re-colonized Siberia, which had been slipping from the grasp of Muscovy, and formed scores of new settlements, including Tobolsk and other large centres. It was during his government that the Muscovite church received its patriarchate, which placed it on an equality with the other Eastern churches and emancipated it from the influence of the metropolitan of Kiev. Boris' most important domestic reform was the ukaz (1587) forbidding the peasantry to transfer themselves from one landowner to another, thus binding them to the soil. The object of this ordinance was to secure revenue, but it led to the institution of serfdom in its most grinding form. The sudden death of the tsarevich Demetrius at Uglich (May 15, 1591) has commonly been attributed to Boris, because it cleared his way to the throne; but this is no clear proof that he was personally concerned in that tragedy. The same may be said of the many, often absurd, accusations subsequently brought against him by jealous rivals or ignorant contemporaries who hated Godunov's reforms as novelties.
On the death of the childless tsar Theodore (January 7, 1598), self-preservation quite as much as ambition constrained Boris to seize the throne. Had he not done so, lifelong seclusion in a monastery would have been his lightest fate. His election was proposed by the patriarch Job, who acted on the conviction that Boris was the one man capable of coping with the extraordinary difficulties of an unexampled situation. Boris, however, would only accept the throne from a Zemsky Sobor, or national assembly, which met on the 17th of February, and unanimously elected him on the 21st. On the 1st of September he was solemnly crowned tsar. During the first years of his reign he was both popular and prosperous, and ruled the people excellently well. Enlightened as he was, he fully recognized the intellectual inferiority of Russia as compared with the West, and did his utmost to bring about a better state of things. He was the first tsar to import foreign teachers on a great scale, the first to send young Russians abroad to be educated, the first to allow Lutheran churches to be built in Russia. He also felt the necessity of a Baltic seaboard, and attempted to obtain Livonia by diplomatic means. He cultivated friendly relations with the Scandinavians, in order to intermarry if possible with foreign royal houses, so as to increase the dignity of his own dynasty. That Boris was one of the greatest of the Muscovite tsars there can be no doubt. But his great qualities were overbalanced by an incurable suspiciousness, which made it impossible for him to act cordially with those about him. His fear of possible pretenders induced him to go so far as to forbid the greatest of the boyars to marry. He also encouraged informers and persecuted suspects on their unsupported statements. The Romanov family in especial suffered severely from these delations. Boris died suddenly (April 13, 1605), leaving one son, Theodore II., who succeeded him for a few months and then was foully murdered by the enemies of the Godunovs.
See Platon Vasilievich Pavlov, On the Historical Significance of the Reign of Boris Godunov (Rus.) (Moscow, 1850); Sergyei Mikhailivich Solovev, History of Russia (Rus.) (2nd ed., vols. vii.-viii., St Petersburg, 1897).
(R. N. B.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)