Sometimes a novel is the spark for historical research. Years ago I read the 1980 book Dmitri by Jamey Cohen and was amazed at how she meshed history with an entertaining story, leaving me wanting to know more. First, a little background on the history.
Ivan IV, otherwise known as Ivan the Terrible, ruled as tsar of Russia from 1547 until his death in 1584. His son, Fyodor I, became tsar upon Ivan’s death, and ruled, sort of, until his own death in 1598. Fyodor was either uninterested or intellectually unable to rule, and that role fell to his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov.
Because Fyodor and his wife were childless, next in line for the throne was Dmitri Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, born in 1582. In 1591, Dmitri died under suspicious circumstances at the age of 9. The two main possibilities were that he was killed by his own knife while he was suffering an epileptic seizure, or he was murdered to prevent him becoming tsar upon the death of his brother Fyodor. Dmitri’s mother told everyone that she believed he had been murdered, and was subsequently forced to become a nun and exiled to a nunnery.
Upon the death of Fyodor in 1598, seven years after Dmitri died, Boris Godunov remained in charge, but Russia entered what is known as the Time of Troubles. There were several years of drought, leading to crop failures and famine. This was also a time of various wars, political conspiracies, civil uprisings and general dissatisfaction with the rule of Godunov.
Then, over a decade later, Dmitri came to the rescue. Or at least he claimed he was Dmitri. He claimed that his mother had anticipated the murder attempt against him and had hidden him away. When he returned and visited her in the nunnery, his mother stated that he was Dmitri. Of course it’s possible she lied because she just wanted to leave the nunnery and return to a life of privilege.
Known to history as False Dmitri I, he ruled Russia for 11 months from 1605 to 1606, when he died attempting to flee from the noblemen storming the Kremlin to kill him. And if you noticed that I called him False Dmitri I, that’s because there were two other “imposters” who were recognized as Dmitri. False Dmitri II was actually claimed as Dmitri by Marina, the wife of the first False Dmitri.
In the interests of time and space, I have completely simplified a very complex story of political alliances and ulterior motives. Historians still debate many aspects of this period in Russian history. Was Dmitri murdered at age 9? Was the first False Dmitri really false? We will probably never know all the answers.
But the book Dmitri made me want to know the answers. An entertaining work of fiction, it gives life to nine-year-old Dmitri beyond just the story of his possible death. Mixing modern-day hypnosis and communication with a boy dead four hundred years, this book weaves history and fantasy together so that you can believe that Dmitri lived to become tsar.
Teenagers often think history is boring because of the way history is taught in many schools. This is the kind of book that makes them want to know more.