1592: The Uglich Bell

Add comment April 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1592, the bell of Uglich had its “tongue” cut out, then was sent to Siberian exile — the crowning indignity of the collective punishment visited on that Volga River town for the murder of Tsarevich Dmitri.

Eight years on from the death of the ferocious and epoch-making Ivan the Terrible, Russia was under the rule of the boyar Boris Godunov, governing in the stead of his brother-in-law, etiolated Ivan heir Tsar Feodor.*

Although rival interpretations exist,** the conventional understanding of events we shall detail here is that Godunov turned assassin in order to maintain his hold on power and, eventually, achieve the tsardom for himself.


Boris Godunov’s 1598 coronation, from the Mussorgsky opera Boris Godunov.

Not yet the tsar himself at this point, Godunov’s problem was that he exercised power only through Feodor … and that heirless sovereign had a (much) younger brother, our victim Tsarevich Dmitri, who in the fullness of time might easily come to supplant both Feodor and Godunov. Boris Godunov had hidden this moppet and his mum away in Uglich, where the child had his own court as Russia’s last appanage prince. The English diplomat Gil(l)es Fletcher† never met Dmitry but his 1591 Of the Russe Commonwealth caught the peril of the situation, with a bit of foreshadowing.

Besides the emperor that now is who hath no child (neither is like ever to have for ought that may be conjectured of his body and the barenness of his wife after so many years’ marriage),‡ there is but one more, viz., a child of six or seven years old in whom resteth all the hope of the succession and the posterity of that house

[The child] is kept in a remote place from the Moscow under the tuition of his mother and her kindred of the house of the Nagois, yet not safe (as I have heard) from attempts of making away by practice of some that aspire to the succession if this emperor die without any issue. The nurse that tasted before him of certain meat (as I have heard) died presently. That he is natural son to Ivan Vasil’evich the Russe people warrant it by the father’s quality that beginneth to appear already in his tender years. He is delighted (they say) to see sheep and other cattle killed and to look on their throats while they are bleeding (which commonly children are afraid to behold), and to beat geese and hens with a staff till he see them lie dead.

The court rumors about Dmitry’s danger were onto something. On May 15, 1591, the eight-year-old princeling was found dead. He’d been stabbed in the neck.

Dmitry’s mother had the local prelates ring the cathedral bell summoning townsfolk to the commons to announce the murder and accuse Boris Godunov’s agents of perpetrating it. Outrage and panic soon whipped people into a mob that rampaged through Uglich, lynching 15 people — including one of Dmitry’s playmates as well as Moscow’s dyak, Mikhail Bityagovsky.


18th century icon of the Tsarevich Dmitry “Uglichsky” (click for larger image) shows his murder (left), and the cathedral bell being sounded to instigate summary justice (right). At the base of the cathedral, Mikhail Bityagovsky tries to batter down the door to silence the alarm.

Dangerous to bystanders, this mob was impotent against the Russian state. Boris Godunov dispatched a delegation that whitewashed Dmitry’s murder and ruthlessly punished Uglich; some 200 are reported to have been put to death for the disturbances.

The bell itself received the crowning punishment on the first of April in 1592, as the literal physical instigator of the riot: hurled from its tower, it was flogged on the public square and mutilated by having its “tongue” (the clapper) torn out. Then it was sent into exile in Tobolsk, where it remained until the 19th century. It hangs today at Uglich’s Church of St. Dmitry on Blood, although — as detailed in the bell’s Russian Wikipedia page — there is some debate about its authenticity.

As for “Saint Dmitry”, his story was just beginning and the canonization wasn’t the half of it.

When Tsar Feodor died in 1598 and Boris Godunov seized the throne outright, Russia entered her “Time of Troubles” — fifteen terrible years of civil war, invasion, and contested succession that ended with the seating of the Romanov dynasty. The Time of Troubles was characterized by, among other things, several imposters claiming to be this very murdered Prince Dmitry and therefore the rightful tsar. False Dmitrys were so ubiquitous during this interregnum that they have their own pretender regnal numbering, but all were failures in the contest for power: False Dmitri I, False Dmitri II, and False Dmitry III each came to violent and sordid ends.

* Ivan the Terrible had a perfectly cromulent heir being groomed for power in the form of one Tsarevich Ivan, but the volatile tsar had struck him during an argument in 1581 and accidentally killed him — which brought the unprepared Feodor into the succession and set up the catastrophic events of this post, as well as this incredible Ilya Repin painting:


Detail view (click for the full image) of Repin’s rendering of the horrified Ivan the Terrible clutching his mortally wounded son.

** The other principal version (Russian link) is that Dmitry suffered an epileptic fit while playing a game with knives, and accidentally stabbed himself. Many Uglichans gave this story to the official investigation (more Russian) that ensued the prince’s death, but their testimony is hard to depend upon since the Godunov-affiliated authorities conducting the investigation (like Patriarch Job, whom Godunov had made metropolitan of Moscow) preferred that version and presumably made sure that they received it. After Godunov’s death the official story reassigned responsibility to him — although this again was driven by the political imperatives of that moment. Some historians down the years have given credence to the “accident” hypothesis.

† That’s Giles Fletcher the elder, who is not to be confused with his son, the poet Giles Fletcher the Younger.

‡ Feodor had only a single daughter, Feodosia, born in 1592 (she died in 1594). As of the time of Dmitry’s murder, Feodor was 33 years old and completely childless.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Borderline "Executions",History,Inanimate Objects,Public Executions,Rioting,Russia,Treason

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1613: Ivan Susanin, a life for the tsar

5 comments February 24th, 2009 Headsman

On an uncertain date in February (perhaps) 1613 — so says a cherished Russian national legend — a villager met a Polish army intent on deposing the Russian tsar, offered to guide it on a “shortcut,” and proceeded to lead it into a forest or fen where it succumbed to the elements.

A monument to Ivan Susanin in Kostroma. Image courtesy of Barbara Partee (Barbara adds: to help prevent future executions of the wrongly convicted, check out the Innocence Project.)

That peasant, Ivan Susanin, is supposed to have been put to death as the army realized its folly and imminent doom — the fate one would expect, although also not the sort that would leave a lot of corroborating witnesses.

Though the particulars are of doubtful veracity, Susanin’s son-in-law was awarded estates for the man’s tortures by enemy armies seeking the tsar — so the story is not completely baseless.

It was tsarist public relations, however, that gave us Susanin in his dramatic, familiar* form with the trackless wilderness.

This Susanin embodies the Russian people’s sacrificial love for their autocrat … and more specifically, since this was the Time of Troubles when the Russian crown’s succession was contested, for the Romanov dynasty whose first scion chosen in February 1613 would have been the Poles’ target.**

Thus, Glinka’s 19th century opera A Life for the Tsar.

But Glinka and Ivan proved up to the shifting needs of authority as the tsar gave way to the Politburo, and that to the post-Soviet state.

In a fascinating 2006 academic disquisition,† Marina Frolova-Walker dissects A Life for the Tsar‘s transmutation into Ivan Susanin, a Stalin-era opera with the same score but a libretto altered to expunge the tsar — and the success this adaptation of a national classic enjoyed vis-a-vis Soviet artists’ original creations under the impossible aesthetic and political restrictions of official censorship.

Not only did this now-nationalist composition thrive in the USSR, it has been successfully re-staged in its Soviet form, or as a fresh amalgamation of Stalin and Glinka, in the Putin era.‡

From the days of serfdom via the days of the gulag past the fall of the Iron Curtain, here’s Ivan Susanin‘s stirring finale performed by the Russian army at the Vatican, and broadcast on Russian television.

* Familiar to Russians, certainly, and you can call one who gets you lost “susanin”.

** And we all know how they left the throne.

† Marina Frolova-Walker, ‘The Soviet opera project: Ivan Dzerzhinsky vs. Ivan Susanin’, Cambridge Opera Journal (2006), 18:2:181-216

‡ In the Yeltsin era, the opera was staged in its pre-Soviet form. Frolova-Walker argues that the version incorporating Stalinist edits actually speaks to contemporary Russia more aptly than the original, an operatic mirror of the state’s re-adopting the Stalinist national anthem after having used a tsarist piece (written by Glinka!) during the 1990’s.

The reappearance of these cultural tokens is occurring because high Stalinism provides the most easily assimilable model for Russian nationalism today: it is less remote than its nineteenth-century counterpart … The eclectic and confident nationalist of the new Susanin contains the appropriate message for those Russian citizens wealthy enough to attend the Bolshoi today.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous,History,Language,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Popular Culture,Put to the Sword,Russia,Summary Executions,Volunteers,Wartime Executions

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