Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Mystery of Demetrius, Polish Czar of Russia, by John Elfreth Watkins 1919

The Mystery of Demetrius, Polish Czar of Russia, by John Elfreth Watkins 1919

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Ivan the Terrible, the first ruler of Russia to assume the title of Czar, yielded up his black soul in 1584. His elder son and successor, Feodor, was feeble-minded, and the next heir to the throne was his younger son, Demetrius, a baby of two years. So the people of Russia all centered their hopes in this child who one day was to deliver them from the yoke held about their necks by an idiot. But Boris Godunoff, the Prime Minister, disposed of Feodor and proclaimed himself Czar of Russia. Old Ivan's widow, the empress dowager, was imprisoned in a convent and young Demetrius was kept under guard in the town of Uglich.

When Demetrius was a lad of nine all of his attendants were one day withdrawn and he was left alone to play in the courtyard. Suddenly a servant returning to the scene uttered a shriek of terror, and those who responded to her alarm found lying before them upon the ground a little boy with his throat cut from ear to ear, his features mutilated beyond recognition. The word was sent abroad through the empire that the sturdy little prince—the hope of the Russian populace—had been mysteriously murdered. There was universal mourning among the masses, but Boris Godunoff managed to retain his scepter for the time being.

In those days there dwelt in Poland a great prince, Adam Wisniowecki. He had a young servant who, fifteen years after the murder of the child at Uglich, fell ill, and fearing death confessed to a Jesuit priest that he was none other than the rightful Czar Demetrius, alleged to have been the victim of that crime. According to this youth's story, the agent whom Boris Godunoff had sent to Uglich had smuggled him off to Poland after mutilating a peasant lad resembling him in a general way and leaving that child's body in the courtyard to deceive the populace. In Poland he had been reared as a peasant, but his memory of his identity had not been outgrown. He repeated his confession to Wisniowecki and exhibited to that prince a diamond cross that had been the baptismal gift of little Demetrius, also a jeweled seal bearing the crest of that royal child.

Believing his servant's story, Wisniowecki lost no time in repeating it to Sigismund, the King of Poland, and, since that', monarch was a bitter enemy of Russia, he laid plans to upset the throne of Boris by furthering the claims of the mysterious youth claiming to be the rightful Czar. So Sigismund equipped a Polish army, and, placing the young pretender at the head of it, sent him into Russia in 1604. Demetrius was hailed with delight by some of the Russian populace, who hated the tyrannical usurper, Boris. They rallied to the young invader's standard and victory seemed to be within his grasp when, in a great battle on the plain of Dobrinichi, he suffered a serious defeat. In little more than a week later, however, Boris fell dead from poison and the alleged Demetrius led his army triumphant into the old capital of Moscow, where he demanded the crown.

The nobles at Moscow were more skeptical than had been the peasants outside. They hated Poland, and the story got abroad that the pretender was the tool of King Sigismund. They proposed that as a test of the young man's claim the mother of Demetrius be brought from her convent prison and asked to state whether the claimant to the throne was her son. So the widow of Ivan the Terrible was produced. Alone, in an enclosed tent, she received the pretender. They were together a long time. Then she emerged and announced to her one-time subjects that the young man was indeed her supposedly murdered son. She identified him beyond the shadow of a doubt. So he was crowned Czar of all the Russias in June, 1605.

At first Demetrius pleased his subjects with his wise and just policies, but hatred of Poland soon inflamed the Russians against him. They resented his introduction of Polish customs and his leaning toward the Polish religion. His people were naturally ambitious for him to marry a Russian princess, but his peasant rearing had given him fixed ideas of his own regarding affairs of the heart. Before his invasion of Russia he had become betrothed to Maryna Mniszek, a Polish girl of noble family, and within the year following his coronation he married her. This infuriated the Russian aristocrats, who surrounded his palace May 29, 1605, the eleventh night after his wedding, and secretly broke into the bridal chamber. Leaping from the window to the courtyard, thirty feet below, he broke his leg, and, being unable to reach his soldiers, succumbed to the assassins. The leader of the band of murderers, Vasili Shuiski, seized the throne and threatened to torture old Ivan's widow. In terror she admitted that the young man, who for nearly a year had ruled over Russia, was not her son, but that she had identified him in the hope of freeing herself from her convent prison and of enjoying a fortune which he had granted her.

In the minds of many Russians there is still a question whether this one-time servant of Prince Wisniowecki was indeed the rightful Czar or the impostor which his enemies purported him to be.

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