With a knife, pillow, snuff box. How to kill a tsar

Overwhelmingly, European “political regicides” were carried out publicly. The perpetrator boasted about their crime or performed penance for it, sometimes living out the rest of their days, more often themselves perishing at the hands of an avenger. They were always called by their true name however – both the perpetrator and the act of murder.

This subject is hanging in the air like the word “rope” in the home of someone who has been hanged. Cultured people are please by allusions: the erudite first recalled the Ides of March (15 March), then they started to console themselves that “in the Orthodox calendar it falls two weeks later.” There were jokes from Israel that, “this year Purim can finally be celebrated as it should be” (as we know, this holiday, celebrated this year from the night of 16 to 17 March, recalls the killing of the oppressor of the Jewish nation, Haman, as described in the Book of Esther.) Simple observers and political aficionados propagate memes, journalists ask directly: is there a chance to remove Vladimir Putin from power, in a more or less brutal way, as the result of a “palace” coup?
The chances probably are not big (analysts point to the lack of signals of disloyalty or a split in the power structure responsible for the security of the president of Russia), and the questions themselves probably derive from helplessness: since the Russian side is continuing the criminal war against Ukraine, neither undeterred by losses nor sanctions – what, besides the elimination of the most important person in the state, could stop it?

see more
These questions are also appearing for another reason however: the awareness of how often in Russia the ruler was murdered by his closest entourage – while this act was not so much the result of personal revenge or rivalry, but a tool of stabilization or correction of the system of power.

I only emphasize these circumstances since only they allow for the experience of Russian history to be properly distinguished from European history, where hundreds of regicides occurred after all. It started with Julius Caesar (though really much earlier), while – daggers, swords and the blades of guillotines flashed, from which, as Jacek Kaczmarski sang lamenting Louis XVI, “necks crunched in underwear.”

Raising their hands against crowned heads, assasins (both of sound mind and insane), anarchists and Dominicans, they were liquidated through political trials (Karol II), the fell at the hands of execution squads – from Byzantium to London, from the castles of early Frankish rulers (it is estimated that to the times of the relative stabilization of the Carolingians, around 40 crowned heads were killed at the hands of their rivals on the territory from the Pyrenees past the Rhein) past Polish Gąsawa, where Prince Leszek the White perished in 1227.

Unknown Perpetrators

Even if we separate the deaths at the hands of a madman, an explicit enemy or a jealous wife – European “political regicides” were overwhelmingly carried out in public. The perpetrator boasted about their crime or performed penance for it, sometimes living out the rest of their days, more often themselves perishing at the hands of an avenger. They were always called by their true name however – both the perpetrator and the act of murder. Of course it could happen like in Hamlet, a brother poured poison into his brother’s ear, simulating a natural death – and up to the present day we are not aware of some of these deeds. Otherwise, how else would the authors of successive, sensational history books make a living?

Still, the rule (which can be explained by both the European fondness for truth, and the permanent political disintegration of the continent, its incurable pluralism) was to reveal the masterminds, perpetrators and circumstances of an assassination. Russia is something different. The Boyars still chopped up Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky in 1174, as was the custom then. But later – later just a secret wrapped in a mystery, tongues ripped out, witnesses sent to hard labor and no nighttime conversations among fellow countrymen.

And it all started with Tsar Dmitry.

It was lovely, boyish and innocent, strolling through the birch grove in an ermine fur coat, fair-haired and bright-eyed (at least on the Mikhail Nesterov’s sentimentalizing painting from 1899), because according to the account of one of the first English travelers to Muscovy in those days, John Fletcher, he rather took after his father, Ivan the Terrible: “they say that he likes to curiously watch as sheep have their throats cut and that he himself joyfully beats geese and chickens with a stick until they drop” – reports Fletcher in the treatise On the State of Muscovy.
Tsarevitch Dmitry. Painting by Mikhail Nesterov, 1899. Photo: http://www.art-catalog.ru/picture.php?id_picture=12982; http://art-nesterov.ru/painting/52.php, Общественное достояние, Wikimedia Commons
The spitting image of daddy! – but a bit illegitimate, since he was born, so to say, from the concubine of the deceased tsar, not the first no less. And concurrently – a rival to the throne. So as soon as Feodor I came to power in Moscow after the death of his father, Ivan the Terrible, his first decision was to send away his two-year-old step-brother, along with his mother, wet nurses, servants and heavy guard to Uglich on the Volga, 250 versts from the capital.

Unlucky Mublety-peg

And in Uglich – a bed of roses: birch groves, lambs, geese, chickens – only the servants hired to taste the little Dmitry’s dishes were often took ill with incurable stomach ailments. But nothing disturbed the idyl, nothing foretold misfortune, no one put faith in the rumors that the little boy is a fishbone in the throat of both Tsar Feodor (who could not wait for a male heir), and a fraction of the Boyars, disinclined towards a strong ruler. Until the misfortune on 15 May 1591, when the nine-year-old tsar, under the watchful eye of his wet nurse and two servants, with their four children, who were younger than him, began to play the old Russian version of Mublety-peg, called “poles”: everyone stands on a drawn line and throws a knife – whoever throws it furthest, so that it sticks into the ground?

They threw and threw (Dmitry threw the furthest of course) – and suddenly, according to the account of the wet nurse, the boy had a bout of “black infirmity,” as epilepsy was then described. His eyes rolled back into his head, he began to go into convulsions – and with such bad luck, that the knife in his hand stabbed right into his left neck artery. A moment – and the tsarevitch was gone.

A neurologist would acridly note that during an epileptic seizure, most muscles go limp, so there is no way to hold on to anything in the hand, and certainly not to cut through yourself with surgical precision from the side of the neck, all the way through the spinal cord. Did the residents of Uglich posess similar knowledge or did a grain of mistrust reside within them – enough to where, at the sound of the bell ringing to notify of the misfortune, ran up and tore to pieces most of the adults present at the site of the accident. And this was just the beginning of the ambiguity.

Four days later, a special investigate commission arrived from Moscow, which, besides Metropolitan Gelasius, and several seminarians, included Vasili Shuisky – the future tsar, then a member of the Boyar “fraction.”

The investigation lasted for two months, around 150 witnesses were interrogated, nay! – a clean copy of the description of the events was even preserved, presented to the Duma two months after the tragedy. The verdict was unambiguous: Tsarevitch Dmitry fell victim to an unfortunate accident. In order to forcefully display his outrage towards slanderers and sensationalists, Vasili Shuisky ordered that the heart be cut out of the bell that was rung in terror after the death of the child (“like you cut out the tongue of a slanderer”), and that the muted bell be sent, along with the perpetrators of the lynching, to the Pelym fortress beyond the Urals, at the ends of the known world.

Ukrainian Green Wedge – a disputed land on the Pacific Ocean shore

In the 1920s after initially taking control in the country, Moscow then accused Ukrainians of attempting to wrench the Far East from the Soviet Union.

see more
What really happened – after 400 years is impossible to determine, and even an autopsy of the remains of the tsarevitch (more on this in a moment) would not produce much. Something else is decisive however: the huge plasticity, let’s call it, of the relations and determinations coming from the authorities.

… And You, Always in Commissions

In 1591, Boyar Vasili Shuisky, affirmed the results of the investigation with his signature, which adjudicated the unfortunate accident of the tsarevitch. Fourteen years later, in 1605, when False Dmitry I, or Pseudo-Demetrius I, took the Moscow throne, as if the youth had miraculously survived in Uglich (the history of his presumed and likely road to the throne has to be skipped over here, though it is fascinating) – Vasili Shuisky, along with thousands of his moved subjects, recognized in him the son of Ivan the Terrible, the rightful heir to the throne after the usurper Godunov.

Finally, 10 months later, in May 1606, when a revolt broke out (instigated by Shuisky) against Pseudo-Demetrius and, after a ceremonious coronation in the Dormition Cathedral, Tsar Vasili Shuisky sat upon the Kremlin throne. One of his first decisions was… to call a commission which was to confirm the death of Tsarevitch Dmitry in Ulgich 15 years earlier!

At least the goal of calling this commission was clear: it was meant to prevent the appearance in Rus of subsequent usurpers, who were multiplying like the heads cut off of a dragon. But the result was impressive.

The inspectors, headed by Metropolitan Filaret from the increasingly important Romanov family, went to Ulgich, where, after the opening of the grave, as could be expected, a sweet fragrance spread through the Orthodox church, while the untouched body of a nine-year-old boy was retrieved from the sarcophagus, with a handful of nuts in his palm. Tsar Shuisky came out to meet the procession which set out towards Moscow – and, seeing it in Tainskoje village, he immediately recognized Ivan the Terrible’s unfortunate son.

After all, his mother, Marta, did something similar (a year earlier she had ripped the veil of the carriage to take the miraculously saved Usurper in her arms!) as did the people of Moscow. The offering of the assassins of Boris Godunov was all the more quickly placed on the altars – and only the bell hung to the east of the Urals until the end of the 19th century.

The fate of the memory of Tsarevitch Dmitry was exceptionally turbulent – however it became a matrix for the later settling of complex dynastic issues. Peter III, the unfortunate spouse of Catherine II, prematurely bald after a case of smallpox and hated by the people for an excessive attachment to German drills?

An Attack of Colic and Hypocrisy

He was overthrown in a military coup on 2 July 1762 and sent under guard to the Ropsha palace outside of St. Petersburg. And there? Supposedly an attack, as attested to by two court medics, hemorrhoidal colics, a normal thing – but doubts are multiplying.
J.-Ch. Thibault de Laveaux. History of Peter III. 1799. vol. 1. Photo: Wikimedia/ Znatok76 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
In the day before his death, two court anatomists were seen arriving in a carriage with a saw used for autopsies, too long to fit into a traveling bag. The trusted servants of the tsar were suddenly sent away. While the supervisor of the prisoner, Alexei Orlov, the empress’s lover at the time, wrote these words to her:

“Mother of all-Russia, you don’t have him in the world, but no one planned it; and how could we raise a hand against the Gosudar? But lady, a misfortune happened: we were drunk, him too, at a certain moment he got into a fight with Fiodor [Baratynsky]: we did not manage to separate them – and he was no longer among the living…”

So: how could we raise a hand – yet someone did. We did not plan it – but it happened as could be foreseen. Responsibility was blurred: first of all, there were many of us, furthermore – drunk… And everything – ambiguous, as if in Teodor Parnicki’s Death of Flavius: the same words, as if meaning one thing, but at its foundation – a second, they can be read both ways. Two days before the death of the emperor this Orlov wrote (but we cite this from the 19th-century transcripts prepared by Prince Rostopchin – did he add anything? Did someone edit it?):

“Our monster and freak fell ill, a terrible colic befell him, and I am afraid now for him not to die this night, and I am even more afraid that – he not come back to life. I fear the anger of Your Highness, that you not deign to conceive some unfounded suspicions towards us for this, and that we not unwittingly become the cause of death of the one who did so much hard to Your Highness…”

Officers’ honor in the mid-18th century commanded a high price. Orlov and other officers could plan a coup and the murder of the former tsar, but it was unseemly for them to physically raise a hand against him; it was a type of stain, since earlier he had been pledged loyalty to. Several civilians had to be found who would get into a brawl, encouraged by people in uniform. They should however be drunk – enough to be hotheaded in their movements and to later explain themselves as not remembering their deeds, but not so much as to trip over themselves. And it would be good for them to disappear from the court as quickly as possible: and actually, most of them perished within a few years, during the suppression of Pugachev’s Rebellion.

Contender off the Cart, Lighter for the Empress

Endings in the water… Ivan VI, born in 1740 to one of the daughters of Peter I, he ruled for only one year and one month: removed from the throne before he even started teething by Empress Elizabeth, he spent the rest of his life first in a cold chamber of a Siberian monastery and then in Shlisselburg Fortress. Already during the reign of Catherine, she ordered the guards to shoot, not only in case of escape, but even – release upon presentation of her decree, and then – she inspired one of the lieutenants, Vasili Mirovich, apprehend the unfortunate monarch.

„Nuremberg trial for Putin”. What can the world do in face of war crimes?

The Internet is full of information on 'zachistki' carried out by the Russian army in Ukraine.

see more
During an attempted revolt in Shlisselburg, Ivan IV was stabbed, Morovich ended up quartered on one of St. Petersburg’s squares for treason. Contender off the cart, lighter for the empress… Ivan IV was “wiped from memory” practically until the end of the reign of the Romanovs. Within a month after his overthrow, Empress Elizabeth ordered that coins with his visage be withdrawn, within two years, possessing them became an anti-state act – and today they belong to the most valuable: any old copper coin easily goes for $25,000.

And Paul I, the son of the unfortunate Peter III, remembered rather well by Poles, because – settling on the throne in 1796, out of spite to the memory of his detested mother, released Thaddeus Kościuszko from imprisonment? A dozen people broke into his bedroom on the night of 23-24 March 1802, right at midnight. Turmoil, the smell of sweat and fear, the emperor of all-Russia is pulled out from behind the curtain in his nightgown, they order him to sign an act of abdication, he forbids it, a shouting match ensues, like a fight in a schoolyard, “but keep your hands to yourself,” one push, another, stronger, and finally a gold, ruby-encrusted snuff box is smashed into his temple by Platon Zubov, Catherine the Great’s last lover (now that’s motherly revenge from beyond the grave!). The drunk Georgian Duke Iashvili reaches for a medal sash and begins to strangle him, and according to another account not Iashvili, but Tatarinov, commanding officer of one of the regiments. Six of them set upon him, a tangle on the floor, they had been drinking Champagne since supper at ten, and in full glasses, disgusted, Count Bennigsen went out to the anteroom to admire the Italian townscapes hanging there…

I have stylized this scene somewhat for it too look like the picture of Beria’s hearing from Armando Iannucci’s popular comedy-drama “The Death of Stalin” from 2017 – but really, not much coloring is needed. It is a leap, casting away various forms, like throwing off clothes – in place of scrupulously, sensitively followed forms, titles and order of taking the floor is now only a tangle of middle-aged men.

Oh, Betrayal is Hiding Everywhere!

There are winded breaths, cursing, blows dealt without the grace that can be found in a duel or a battle between equals. Incompetent, brutal strikes that wound instead of kill, hits dealt by people used to armchairs and desks, terrified that steady steps do not bring relief, and then there will be no mercy for them. And that is why, now, at this moment, an accomplished fact is needed, even if it must be done with a snuff box, ashtray, or chair leg.

And these sumptuous verses by Janusz Szpotański from the poem “The Empress and the Looking Glass" (1974), really fits just as well to Peter III as to Paul I. As to Beria. As to Brezhnev. And to their numerous successors.

The Tsarina’s terrible: „A! A!! A!!!”
So shook the walls of the Kremlin,
That it seems like: Moscow is crashing,
That it seems like: the earth has cracked all around!
The regiments are already standing on alert,
The cannons are being loaded.
The marshals have pale faces,
The guards are running the corridors,
Holding automatics in their hands!
One door falls: crash! crash!
Then fall the second, third, fourth!
Oh, fear is lurking all about,
Oh, betrayal is hiding everywhere!

– Wojciech Stanisławski

– Translated by Nicolas Siekierski
Main photo: Vasili Mirovich over the body of Ivan VI in the Shlisselburg Fortress. Painting by Ivan Tvorozhnikov (1848-1919). Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Tvorozhnikov.jpg, Public Domain
See more
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Pomeranian Crime: Whoever is Polish must disappear
Between September and December, 1939, 30,000 people in 400 towns of Pomerania were murdered.
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Escape from Stalag – Christmas Eve Story 1944
Prisoners sought shelter in a German church... It was a mistake.
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
New Moscow in Somalia
The Russian press called him "the new Columbus".
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Anonymous account by Witold Pilecki
The friend with whom they had escaped from KL Auschwitz was killed on August 5. He died with the words: “for Poland”.
History wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Journalist purge to restore media monopoly
Only “trusted people” were allowed to work; over 100 employees were interned.