Tsar Boris (drama)

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Tsar Boris
Tsar boris book cover.jpg
Written by Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy
Date premiered 1870 (1870)
Original language Russian
Genre Drama

Tsar Boris (Russian: Царь Борис) is a 1870 drama by Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, written in 1868-1869 and first published in 1870 in the #3, March issue of the Vestnik Evropy magazine. It became the third and the final part of Tolstoy’s acclaimed historical drama trilogy which was begun by The Death of Ivan the Terrible (1864) and Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich (1868) plays.[1]


On August 27, 1868, Aleksey Tolstoy wrote in a letter to the Vestnik Evropys editor Mikhail Stasyulevich: "<As for> Tsar Boris, I'm going to start it in the nearest future: all the necessary material is at hand". In the early October the work begun and on November 11 of the same year the author informed Nikolay Kostomarov that Act I has been just finished. In a letter to Mikhail Stasyulevich, dated December 2, 1868, Tolstoy opined that this first piece has "turned out well".

Then the process halted: Tolstoy became intrigued by and confused with the Danish Prince Johan's character, princess Ksenya's fiancée (and Prince Christian and spent some time investigating his background.[1] This took some time, and only on February 7, 1869, Tolstoy informed Boleslav Markevich in a letter that "this giant ship has taken another start and now breaking waves". On February 19 Tolstoy wrote to Stasyulevich: "Two acts are now ready. The third one will be crucial in answering the question, whether the whole thing was worthwhile and am I to continue with clear heart".[1]

While working on the Act 2 Tolstoy got distracted continuously: numerous ballads ("The Song of Harald and Yaroslavna", "Three Massacres", "The Song of Vladimir's Korsunh Campaign") were written in those days. In June 1869 he finished the Act 3 and informed Afanasy Fet on this in a letter (June 23), then in October 7 reported to Stasyulevich that the play was ready, barring three scenes that remained unfinished. By November 3 the thing has been completed, according to the letter to Markevich. On November 30 four Acts of the play were sent to Vestnik Evropy, with a promise that the fifth one will follow suit. On the same day Tolstoy sent Kostomarov a copy, asking him to see if there might be some blunders in the speeches of Misail and Grigory. Some corrections were made and sent to the magazine in December and January 1870.[1]

While still working on the play, Tolstoy mentioned in a letter to the editor that his wife liked Tsar Boris better than the two other plays of the trilogy and that he tended to agree with her. Later he had to admit Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich objectively was the strongest of the three, even if he liked Tsar Boris a lot.[1]

Despite the failure with Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich’s stage production, Tolstoy was working on Tsar Boris counting on it being staged and proposed to present special author's memorandum to future directors, as he did in the two previous cases. In the spring of 1870, when the third of the three tragedies was published as a separate edition, Tolstoy submitted it to the theater censorship department. On April 28 the play, with minor cuts, received the censors' permission. But the directorial Committee of the Imperial theaters refused to accept it. The Tsar Boris was premiered in Anna Brenko's Moscow Pushkin Theater[2] in 1881, six years after Tolstoy's death.[1]

Сharacters development[edit]

In the course of the seven years Tolstoy spent working on his drama trilogy his attitude towards his characters was going through changes. In the second and especially in the third play Boris Godunov comes across as more deep and complicated figure. According to scholar Igor Yampolsky, Tolstoy was beginning to see in him a potentially Europen-type monarch whose idea was to lead Russia out of historical isolation and patriarchal stagnation into the world political arena, and it was this aspect that made Boris Godunov for him such an appealing character. On the other hand, Tolstoy's attitude towards Maria, the wife of Boris, has developed brom bad to worse: more and more he was attributing to her Boris' "evil" features. While in The Death of Ivan the Terrible Maria gets horrified and frightened when learning of her husband's ambitions, in Tsar Boris she helps him with zest and cruelty, motivated by personal interests, not by those of the state. The two Marias – of the first and the third plays – were so different that Tolstoy seriously considered re-working parts of The Death of Ivan the Terrible in 1870, before all three were to be published as a single book.[1]

The Danish Prince[edit]

Aleksey Tolstoy, who used Nikolay Karamzin's History of the Russian State as the major source, became intrigued by and confused with the John, Prince of Schleswig-Holstein's character, princess Ksenya's fiancée and Christian IV of Denmark's brother.[1] He applied to Kostomarov and Baron Karl Ungern-Sternberg for help, trying to resolve a mystery of "how could Ksenya's fiance have fought (according to Karamzin)[3] in the Netherlands under the Spanish banner". To Kostomarov he wrote:

Please, help me find out how and why he, apparently a Protestant, could have fought at the Spanyards' side. May be he was he a Catholic? Or perhaps he come against the Netherlands for the reason of Sweden having been its ally? All this is essential for my understanding of the Dutch prince' character. I am deeply involved now with Tsar Boris and see nothing around me, but this drama of mine which I've given myself with all of my soul. And while never do I feel the need to be much restricted by history, still, I'd rather fill its blank spots than go against it.[1]

Neither Kostomarov nor Baron Ungern-Sternberg provided definitive answers as to the dilemma Tolstoy had been haunted by, so he chose to support the version which contradicted that of Karamzin. According to the play, when the Spanish king "rose to a war, threatening to chain free nation down", the Dutch prince "came up to help his persecuted brothers" and fight against Spain.[1] Meanwhile, Ungern-Sternberg's help in a way proved to be essential. The Baron sent Tolstoy series of excerpts from the official Danish chronicles, some of which mentioned Johan as being King Frederick's illegitimate child. This detail gave the author an idea as to the possible motives of those responsible for the Danish Prince's death. On November 30, 1869, he wrote to Stasyulevich:

Some of those <chronicles> refer to <Johan> as being 'illegitimate'. This came handy, as it helped me coming up with the possible motive of him being poisoned. The notion that he might have been poisoned could be found in our chronicles too, but this deed is usually ascribed to Boris himself which for me goes totally against the logic. And so I threw suspicion upon Boris' wife Maria, Skuratov's daughter.[1]

As for the name, in excerpts provided by Baron Undern-Steinberg and in some of the Russian chronicles, the Danish Prince was being referred to as Johan (Ioann) and Christian[4] and Tolstoy decided to choose the latter ("so as for him not to be confused with Ioann Grozny").

The False Dmitry[edit]

Even as late as the work on Act 1 was completed was Tolstoy still undecided as to which version of False Dmitriy I he'd support: it was just the Grigory Otrepyev one that he rejected outright. Then, the Impostor's plotline, initially considered to be significant, has been dropped altogether. This move had a logic to it: this strand of the story would have got only in the way of the play’s main idea, as the author saw it. "The battle that my hero fights and loses, is the battle with the ghost of his own crime, haunting him as some sort of mysterious threatening creature which gradually destroys his whole life… The whole drama which begins with Boris’ inauguration is, in effect, is nothing but a grandiose fall. It ends with Boris’ death which is brought about not by poison but by the general anemia of a guilty man who comes to the realization of what a mistake his crime had been", Tolstoy wrote in a letter to Princess Saine-Witgenstein on October 17, 1869.[1]

Minor characters[edit]

There were less of fictitious characters in Tsar Boris than in the first two plays of the trilogy, and all of them minor ones: Dementyevna, Resheto, Nakovalnya, the posadsky, Mitya. The latter's emergence Tolstoy explained in a letter to Stasyulevich (dated November 30, 1869): :The introduction of Mitya the Outlaw was prompted by Schiller's advice he's given through his Marquis of Posa character: "Let them treat with respect dreams of their youths". What Tolstoy meant, apparently, was that Mitya appeared in the Prince Serebrenny novel, where Resheto and Nakovalnya were given a mention too.[1]


The major source for all three plays of Aleksey Tolstoy's historical drama was Nikolay Karamzin's History of the Russian State (1816-1826). The conversation in Tsar Boris between Semyon and Boris Godunov concerning prospects of attaching peasants to land accurately reproduces fragments of History (Vol.X, 209-210, Vol.XI, 22, 86). Maria Godunova's talking of Boris' intention of making Prince Johan the King of Estonia was borrowed from the same source (Vol.XI, 45).[1]

Among other books Tolstoy used as sources the Dutch trader Isaac Massa’s memoirs which were published in 1868 in Brussels, Mikhail Pogodin's book The History in Characters of Boris Godunov and His Times (1868) and Nikolay Kostomarov's Moscow State's Time of Troubles in the Early XVII c. (1868). It was according to by Massa's account that Tolstoy, admittedly, recreated Maria Godunova, the way she looked and behaved. From Massa's book the episode of Godunov and the ex-Queen, late Prince Dmitry’s mother's meeting, has been taken.[5]

Tolstoy rejected Karamzin's version of The False Dmitry being Otrepyev, the fugitive monk. "We are to know for sure who he is. And we must give him name, even if we are to invent it", Boris insists in the play. That was exactly Kostomarov's idea: "The Grishka <Otrepyev>'s name has been chosen as the first one that came to hand. They had to name <the Impostor> urgentry, rip him off that awful Dmitry name", he wrote.[1]

Karamzin and Pushkin parallels[edit]

Scholars, analysing Tsar Boris next to Aleksander Pushkin's Boris Godunov, noted several similarities, one obvious reason being that both authors used Nikolay Karamzin's History of the Russian State as a major source. As a result, the prayer (which in Pushkin's play a young boy says in Shuysky's house and in Tolstoy's Shuysky does it himself, at Romanov's) in both dramas looks like the same text. Among Tsar Boris’ direct borrowings from Karamzin is the scene where the Tsar is receiving ambassadors in Act 1 which is, in effect, the dramatization of the first paragraphs of Karamzin's History, Vol.IX ("The External Affairs" section). Some fragments of Tolstoy's tragedy might be seen as references to those of Pushkin's. The Scene 1 of Act IV (with common people talking of The False Dmitry and Grigory Otrepyev dilemma) looks like almost a paste from the Boris Godunov’s scene at the "Square before the Cathedral in Moscow". In fact, the whole way of the Godunov character's evolution, from The Death of Ivan the Terrible to Tsar Boris, might have been the direct consequence of Tolstoy checking himself against Pushkin, according to Yampolsky.[1]

What made Tsar Boris different from Pushkin's Boris Godunov was the philosophical aspect of its general idea. Tolstoy's Boris was in many ways cast after that of Karamzin, who pictured the doomed ruler's tragedy in metaphisical terms, as being a kind of a price he had to pay for his bloody deed. The masses turned away from Boris (as Karamzin and Tolstoy saw it) because of his rapid moral deterioration. Pushkin, on the other hand, regarded Godunov's downfall as natural in the political and social situation of the time. Heavy consciousness didn't help, but had it been clearer, this wouldn't have prevented the Tsar's demise which was inevitable "since what he had to fight after all, was not just the Impostor, but his own people" (Yampolsky).[1]

Chronology issues[edit]

As in the other two dramas of the trilogy, there are several cases of chronological discrepancies in Tsar Boris. Acts II, III and IV should have been dated 1602 (according to the time of the Danish Prince Johan's arrival in Moscow) and 1604-1605 as for the False Dmitry-related events. Kleshnin who died in 1599, appears as part of the events that happened several years later.[1]

There was some of what scholars termed "factual contamination", too. Miranda, the papal nuncio, says things that had been actually pronounced by Pope Clement VIII's legate Allessandro di Comolo who visited Moscow in the times of Fyodor Ioannovich (Karamzin, History, Vol.X, 190). Lachin-bek's speech was that of another Persian ambassador in Russia, Azi Khozrev who (according to Karamzin's History, Vol.X, page 192) said those words in 1593.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s А.К. Толстой. Собрание сочинений в 4-х томах. Москва, Художественная литература, 1964. Т 2. Драмы. Стр. 681–687. И. Ямпольский. Комметарии.
  2. ^ Not to be confused with the Puskin Theater founded in 1914 by Tairov. Anna Brenko's, Russia's first private theater, lasted only for two years, 1880-1882.
  3. ^ Жених воевал тогда в Нидерландах под знаменами Испании: спешил возвратиться, сел на Адмиральский корабль и вместе с пятью другими приплыл (10 Августа 1602) к устью Наровы. – from Karamzin's History.
  4. ^ Apparently as a result of confusing him with a better known brother
  5. ^ Massa's book was also used by Kostomarov, so the latter might have been a more direct source for Tolstoy, Y.Yampolsky argued.

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