Magazine article Russian Life

An Unlikely Tsar: 1606: Vasily Shuysky Crowned

Magazine article Russian Life

An Unlikely Tsar: 1606: Vasily Shuysky Crowned

Article excerpt

VASILY IVANOVICH SHUYSKY is generally treated as a minor figure in the history of the Time of Troubles. Historians have typically used words like "sly," "crafty," and "weak," to describe the man who ruled Russia from 1606 to 1610, and he is often perceived and depicted as an aging intriguer who wound up ascending the throne more through luck than merit, before being swept away by the winds of history, leaving barely a footprint in its sands.

His story, however, is not so simple, and the twists and turns of Vasily Shuysky's life are emblematic of the uneasy times in which he lived.

The future Tsar Vasily IV was born in 1552, during a relatively peaceful and prosperous period of Ivan the Terrible's reign that was, however, far from tranquil for the Shuysky family: Vasily's grandfather, Andrei Mikhailovich Shuysky, was the first known victim of the brutality that ultimately earned Ivan his epithet. When the young tsar (or rather Grand Prince at the time of Andrei Shuysky's fall from grace) was all of 13, he decided that the Shuyskys were too politically meddlesome and ordered his huntsmen to kill Prince Andrei. For two hours nobody had the courage to move his corpse from the ground where it lay.

Legend has it that Ivan Shuysky (Andrei's son and Vasily's father) was taken by a family servant to Beloozero in the far North, where the two lived like ordinary peasants. Several years later, when the tsar was making a pilgrimage to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, the servant managed to plead his ward's case directly to Ivan. "The Terrible" let Ivan Shuysky return from exile and even gave him some land outside Moscow. Here he joined the ranks of the distinguished men comprising the realm's "thousand finest"--a special royal guard that the tsar was organizing at the time. However, Tsar Ivan demonstratively assigned him a low rank, one hardly befitting his distinguished family name. Of course, this insult was born stoically, as raising objections or trying to defend the family honor was hardly advisable under Ivan's stern rule.

Vasily Shuysky was 13 when the Terrible, who always had a penchant for playing dramatic and cruel tricks on his subjects, divided his realm into two parts: the zemshchina and the oprichnina. The zemshchina (based on the word for land, zemlya) was supposedly left in the hands of the boyars, while Ivan and a coterie of loyal followers retreated to the oprichnina--a term used for the meager portion of lands a noble widow had the right to inherit from her deceased husband.

Ivan, of course, was no poor, unfortunate widow. After retreating with his ruthless oprichnina troops to Alexandrova Sloboda, his royal hunting lodge in the village of Alexandrov, he proceeded to rule the entire country from there with an iron fist, striking terror into the hearts of the boyars he had supposedly left in charge of the country. Anyone who began to look too strong, too charismatic, too independent, or too smart, was immediately suspected of treason and in peril of arrest, torture, and a painful death.

It is interesting that the Shuysky family, which had fared so poorly during relatively placid times, came through this tumultuous period unscathed, unlike many of their fellow boyars. Evidently, experience had taught them a thing or two about survival, and Ivan Shuysky and his sons kept their heads down and adapted to circumstances. In 1572, Ivan Shuysky wed his son Dmitry to the daughter of the tsar's infamous executioner, Malyuta Skuratov. The logic behind this marriage is obvious. Although the bride came from exceptionally humble stock compared with the groom, Shuysky apparently saw the match as an investment in his family's safety. The timing, however, could have been better, since that very year the tsar disbanded the oprichnina and even forbade the word from being uttered. Had Skuratov not died during a military campaign, he probably would have been killed off by his sovereign. …

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