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25 September 2018

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An Unlikely Tsar

Author: Tamara Eidelman
Translation: Nora Seligman Favorov

May/June 2016
Page 19   ( 3 pages)

Summary: Vasily Ivanovich Shuysky is generally treated as a minor figure in the history of the Time of Troubles, which is not just.


Vasily Ivanovich Shuysky is generally treated as a minor figure in the history of the Time of Troubles. Historians have typically used words like “sly,” “crafty,” and “weak,” to describe the man who ruled Russia from 1606 to 1610, and he is often perceived and depicted as an aging intriguer who wound up ascending the throne more through luck than merit, before being swept away by the winds of history, leaving barely a footprint in its sands.

His story, however, is not so simple, and the twists and turns of Vasily Shuysky’s life are emblematic of the uneasy times in which he lived.

The future Tsar Vasily IV was born in 1552, during a relatively peaceful and prosperous period of Ivan the Terrible’s reign that was, however, far from tranquil for the Shuysky family: Vasily’s grandfather, Andrei Mikhailovich Shuysky, was the first known victim of the brutality that ultimately earned Ivan his epithet. When the young tsar (or rather Grand Prince at the time of Andrei Shuysky’s fall from grace) was all of 13, he decided that the Shuyskys were too politically meddlesome and ordered his huntsmen to kill Prince Andrei. For two hours nobody had the courage to move his corpse from the ground where it lay.

Legend has it that Ivan Shuysky (Andrei’s son and Vasily’s father) was taken by a family servant to Beloozero in the far North, where the two lived like ordinary peasants. Several years later, when the tsar was making a pilgrimage to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, the servant managed to plead his ward’s case directly to Ivan. “The Terrible” let Ivan Shuysky return from exile and even gave him some land outside Moscow. Here he joined the ranks of the distinguished men comprising the realm’s “thousand finest” – a special royal guard that the tsar was organizing at the time. However, Tsar Ivan demonstratively assigned him a low rank, one hardly befitting his distinguished family name. Of course, this insult was born stoically, as raising objections or trying to defend the family honor was hardly advisable under Ivan’s stern rule.

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