While the privileged generally feel entitled to do as they please regardless of the consequences for others, the oppressed often find it more difficult to justify asserting their interests. Consequently, they sometimes contrive elaborate legitimizations of their desires in the terms of their oppressors.

Following the death of Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1584, rule of Russia passed into the hands of the aristocrat Boris Godunov. All Ivan’s children were dead by the end of the century; Dmitri, the youngest, died of a stab wound under suspicious circumstances in 1591.1 However, twelve years later, a young man appeared in the west who claimed to be Dmitri, declaring that he had escaped assassination and was returning to claim his rightful throne.

Godunov’s regime was widely hated, and supporters flocked to the standard of the new Dmitri; townspeople across southern Russia overthrew their local governments and pledged allegiance to him, pinning all their hopes on his insurgency. After Godunov died in 1605, a great part of the armed forces changed sides; finally, the population of Moscow rose up and toppled the government, welcoming Dmitri as the new Tsar. The mother of the original Dmitri accepted him as her son, and many others vouched for his authenticity.

Less than a year after this, Dmitri was assassinated in an aristocratic coup, and his body exhibited in Red Square. Yet announcements and letters continued to appear in the murdered Tsar’s name, and the southern provinces returned to rebellion. An escaped slave named Bolotnikov, carrying a letter in Dmitri’s handwriting proclaiming him commander-in-chief, took charge of the rebel forces; soon half the nation was in their hands, and they laid siege to Moscow. Dmitri himself did not appear, but captured rebels swore to the death that he was alive.

At length, the siege was broken, and Bolotnikov’s forces were themselves besieged. In fall 1607, when they were on the verge of defeat, a man professing to be Dmitri appeared in the west, convening another army. Bolotnikov arranged to turn himself over to the authorities in return for his soldiers going free; he was imprisoned and murdered, but his men flocked to the new Dmitri, and soon Moscow was once again besieged.

The siege lasted for a year and a half. In 1608, Dmitri’s wife arrived at the rebel camp and recognized the new Dmitri as her murdered husband. Even after this Dmitri was killed in December 1610, it was only a few months before another appeared. The unrest continued until Poland and Sweden invaded and the Russian ruling classes were finally able to consolidate control in the course of mobilizing a nationalist defense.

Many historians regard the string of Dmitris as nothing more than the repetition of a cynical ploy, but one could also interpret Tsar Dmitri as a collective identity, a myth any rebel could incarnate. For example, after Dmitri was assassinated in 1606, his friend Molchanov “became” Dmitri just long enough to inspire a new outbreak of resistance. Later that year, “Tsarevich Petr,” a poor cobbler’s son who assumed power among the rebels by identifying himself as a fictitious relative of the slain leader, nonetheless set out in search of him—even though Dmitri had been killed twice by then, and doubtless would have known that he had no nephew Petr! Likewise, when Petr was killed, a “Tsarevich Fedor” appeared at the head of 3000 Cossacks, claiming to be Petr’s younger brother; it also turned out that the nonexistent Tsarevich had an uncle, “Tsarevich Ivan-Avgust.” Dozens of other beggars, peasants, and escaped slaves became real or invented noblemen via this kind of transubstantiation, and—more strikingly—were accepted by their countrymen as such.

Perhaps, in such a stratified society, it was easier for an entire nation to convert to a sort of magical realism than for the oppressed to rise up in their own name. As peasants and slaves, their agency was meaningless, illegitimate; but as the Tsar, or at least warriors in his service, they became literally entitled to it. Despite their tribulations under the autocratic system, it came more naturally to found a struggle upon the impossible fantasy of a just, rightful Tsar than to reject Tsardom altogether.

All this begs the question—what Tsar is not an imposter?2 How does blood lineage, or divine right, or for that matter the electoral process, qualify a person to rule others? It may be that, as faith in the validity of the Tsar’s power was itself supernatural, common Russians were open to further supernatural developments relating to the Tsar—especially if those happened to validate their own rebellious desires. On the other hand, some historians speculate that the first person to appear as the resurrected Dmitri was so persuasive because he had been raised from childhood to believe he was the rightful inheritor of the throne. What would it take to raise an entire people to feel similarly entitled to their agency, royal blood or no?

The idea of the rebel Tsar as a manifestation of divine authority among the common people, butchered by earthly authorities yet miraculously surviving, echoes the story of Christ. Indeed, this period of Russian history brings to mind the Anabaptist uprisings in Western Europe of the preceding century, in which peasants justified armed struggle in apocalyptic religious terms. Both upheavals attest to the power of myth to enable people to pass beyond self-imposed limits, but also reveal how mythologies framed in the rulers’ terms impose limits of their own. Until the oppressed feel entitled to act for themselves without reference to divine ordainment, hereditary rights, legal statutes, humanitarian responsibilities, or grand historical narratives, they will only be able to borrow the paltry freedom of their oppressors.

  1. This marked the end of the dynasty founded by the legendary Rurik in the 9th century, though centuries later the anarchist Peter Kropotkin could trace his lineage to that chieftain. Peter Kropotkin’s fellow revolutionists teased that he had more right to the throne than Tsar Alexander II of the ruling Romanov family. 

  2. In a surreal bid to undercut the cult of personality around the dead leader, the aristocrat who seized power after Tsar Dmitri’s assassination presented the corpse of a dead child as the disinterred, miraculously preserved body of the original boy Dmitri, and ascribed additional miracles to the Tsarevich. He forced the Orthodox Church to grant sainthood to the Dmitri who had died in 1591, and made Dmitri’s mother, who had so recently accepted Tsar Dmitri as her son, announce that this was her true son’s body. Government forces were blessed in the name of “St. Dmitri” before going into battle; thus, in fall 1606, the rebels and the government faced off under the standards of two false, dead Dmitris.