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The False Dmitrii Phenomenon

Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience. She holds degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

History shows time and again how people will grasp at miracles to survive tumultuous times. Russia is not a nation to escape the same phenomenon. As the nation entered the Times of Troubles in 1598, it found itself willing to accept imposters to the throne in an effort to obtain hope. The false Dmitrii’s gave the nation the chance to acquire a purity it had lost through corruption and intrigue.


The Reason

The root of Russia’s need for a false Dmitrii can be found in the mysterious death of the young prince. At just over nine years old, the young prince was found dead in his courtyard. His throat was slit open. Though the official explanation was an epileptic fit caused the young boy to fall on the knife he was playing with at the time, the people refused to believe it and quickly assassinated the ones that were meant to guard him. The death of an innocent child second in line to the throne left a hole in the hearts of the Russian people.

As the death of Tsar Theodore occurred a few years later, many saw the possibility of murder from within the tsar’s inner circle in the form of the newly appointed tsar, Boris Godunov. Though there was no concrete proof of the advisor’s involvement, his deliberate actions to ensure his rise to power reveal the hunger for the throne that many saw as powerful enough to remove anyone who stood in his way. Russia had changed over the years which meant the nation was faced with more than just an empty throne. It was faced with completely new challenges.


Growing Pains

Russia was now at its largest size and the power the tsar had was immense. The tsar had more authority than ever before in the nation’s history. Taxes were high, previous tsars had exploited the nation and all levels of society, and famine swept over the land to create a restless people who longed for relief.

All felt the effects of these times from the upper classes down to the lowliest of peasants. Godunov, who had been controlling the throne behind Tsar Theodore, found he was unable to keep control and suppress the rebellions that arose from the Cossacks. The nation saw itself spiraling down a chaotic vortex that they saw beginning with the blood of a young child in a desolate courtyard.


A Miracle

When a man rose up claiming to be the dead child, the nation grasped at the chance that a miracle had occurred and the innocent child had been saved. Even the deceased prince’s mother claimed the man as her long-lost child.

The hope of all was placed in the hands of this stranger who gave the people of Russia a glimpse of what might be. There was nothing else for the people of Moscow to hold on to as they “devoured grass, bark, cadavers of animals and, on occasion, even other human beings.” The people had nothing to lose and all to gain.

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Trouble Brewing

Yet, the nation did not see beyond the hope of a miracle to what installing a fake tsar on the throne would bring to the nation. By giving the throne to someone other than a legitimate heir, the Russians handed the throne and the nation to foreign powers. In essence, Poland took over the large nation.

The Russians saw their hope turn to despair and murdered the false Dmitrii. Blood continued to be spilt and miracles were still sought when a second False Dmitrii was found to put all hope in. This time, the hope for a miracle was short lived and the nation realized that it was time to put aside foolish miracle seeking and move forward with a stronger and more secure government. It was only with the establishment of Tsar Mikhail Romanov on the throne that the Dmitrii phenomenon was set aside, ironically, until the end of the Romanov line when it would arise again under the name of Anastasia.


Time of Troubles

The people saw in the first False Dmitrii a miracle in the return from the dead of an innocent child that the nation saw as an icon of the nation as a whole. As the death of the child left its scar on the people, so did the tumultuous times that would become known as the Time of Troubles.

It was a time of assassination, starvation, rebellion, and the loss of hope. The people could look back and see it all fall away from them as the blood flowed from the lifeless body of Prince Dmitrii. It only stood to reason that through the same prince could the nation be brought whole again. It would take years for the Russian people to realize that Muscovite Russia was in the past as was the innocence embodied in Prince Dmitrii. The nation had to move forward and forget resurrecting the dead body of the past. Hope had to be placed in the future which meant in a living tsar.


Lohr, Eric (Editor); Poe, Marshall T. (Editor). Military and Society in Russia, 1450-1917.

Leiden, , NLD: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. apus/Doc?id=10089102&ppg=92.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia, Eighth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Ziegler, Charles E. History of Russia. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed February 19, 2012).

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