For the past few days I have been listening to a Russian opera in my car. Not being someone who has listened to a lot of operas, and certainly not Russian ones, I have found this particular opera to be both very amazing on its own terms as an opera (even if I cannot understand the Russian) but also very intriguing from the point of view of a student of Russian history and culture. Since this opera is likely to be unfamiliar to most of my readers, and the history behind it even more so, and because that history and the opera’s perspective are very relevant to contemporary Russian behavior and view of the West, it is worth exploring what the opera Boris Gudunov has to say about a characteristic Russian dilemma concerning leadership and authority. As this dilemma does not appear to be faced in the same way by most Western cultures, it is worth exploring.
The opera Boris Gudunov has a complex history. It is the only completed opera from Russian 19th century composer Modest Mussorgsky, and the opera focuses on two characters. The first is the the titular Boris Gudunov, whose ambitions to reign as czar lead him to murder Dmitri, heir to Ivan the Terrible, and to reign first as regent during the reign of Ivan’s son Feodor I and then as the first non-Rurikid czar afterwards until his sudden death in 1605 as Russia faced invasion from Poland. The second is the first (of three) false Dmitris, who was set up as a puppet czar by the Poles from 1605-1606, and whose reign was meant to increase the influence of Catholicism in Russia and to secure Poland’s own borders and prevent a strong Russia from threatening it. The opera itself is based somewhat on Alexander Pushkin’s play of the same name as well as a work of Russian history. Two later famous Russian composers made three revised versions of the opera from 1896-1940, on top of the original and revised scores that had been made by Mussorgsky in getting the opera staged in Russia in the first place, and most later versions are a conflation of the original and revised version of Mussogsky even if the later changes by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich are largely rejected at present. The opera is quite powerful and beautiful and deeply sad at the same time.
Much of the sadness of the opera comes about as a result of the political dynamic of Russia during the time of troubles that took place between the death of Tsar Ivan the Terrible and the accession of Michael Romanov in 1613. The death of Feodor I meant the end of the main line of the Rurik dynaty that had ruled over Russia in various forms and in various places since the establishment of the Russian state hundreds of years before in AD 862. Boris Gudunov, as the regent to the deceased Feodor, was well-placed to take power through the election of a council of boyars (Russian notables), even if he was a somewhat unpopular ruler. The opera shows him as repentant for having killed Dmitri for his own political ambitions but someone who was a patriotic Russia and who desired that his son and daughter would be able to live in peace, free from the guilt that haunted him as an ambitious Russian ruler dealing with foreign invasions and famines resulting from climate change. Unfortunately, the opera ends before the successful overthrow of Gudunov’s young son, who briefly ruled as Feodor II before being strangled (along with his mother) in a palace coup, but it conveys the tragic nature of Russian history in the absence of strong leadership.
The opera contrasts the conscientious but doomed Boris Gudunov with a false Dmitri who impersonates the dead heir of Ivan the Terrible and seeks to rise to power with the support of the Polish army. His attempts nearly fail as Gudunov’s army defeats his, but the sudden death of Gudunov led the victorious Russian army to join with the Poles and attack Moscow, preferring a fake Rurikid to being ruled by a sixteen year old son of an unpopular ruler. Ultimately, it is Dmitri’s marriage to a Catholic noblewoman named Marina that leads in turn for the Orthodox population of Moscow to kill him in an armed protest, and then to set up as Tsar one Vasili Shuysky, a member of a cadet Rurik line who was unable to defeat the Poles and ended up dying himself in Polish captivity while the Poles sought to establish more puppets on the Russian throne. It took several more years before Russia could elect a Tsar that it could stand behind, one Michael Romanov, and he was a young man himself in exile in a monastery when he was elected Tzar by a Russian nation that was facing great ruin after a decade of nearly constant war with Poland and Sweden that had devastated Moscow and the countryside.
The opera, whether consciously or not, manages to convey a characteristically Russian dilemma that remains a problem today in Russian politics. On the one hand, it is commonly viewed and believed that a very strong hand is necessary to preserve Russia’s survival as a unified state, given the fact that Russia lacks defensible borders and has long viewed nations from the West (Sweden, Poland, Germany, NATO/EU, etc) as threats and has also had to face threats from the East from the various nomadic nations (most notably the Mongols and their successor states), which has involved the Russians in a great deal of wars to vainly seek some sort of secure borders even as they incorporated restive minority populations that chafed against Russian rule. This bias towards strong rulers, even of a totalitarian bent, was aided by the historical memory of the consequences of vulnerability in the face of internal division and weak rulers, which led to Mongol domination over a divided Russian state for centuries, Polish domination in the early 17th century, and the embarrassing losses to Japan, Germany, and Poland in wars from 1905-1921. Where Russia has been divided against itself or ruled by weak rulers, other nations have been able to push for increased influence and set up what Russians consider to be puppet regimes lacking in legitimacy because they are unable to resist domination.
Obviously, this dilemma is an unhappy one, as Russia is set up either to seek to dominate the nations around it in a futile attempt at security because the land and territory necessary to feel secure carries with it people who do not want to be ruled over by Russians and whose resistance threatens Russia’s unity and strength even as less authoritarian regimes show themselves to open Russia to unwanted influence from the West. It is not hard to see how these longstanding concerns influence Russian behavior in the present day, as an unpopular and insecure leader like Putin would be able to gain at least a fair amount of support from nationalist segments of the population for his known strength in dealing with neighbors (Ukraine, Georgia) and his commitment to defending Russian power in the face of Western expansion into bordering regions. While it may be a bit of a stretch to consider Putin to be a Boris Gudunov-like character, he certainly gains a great deal of support from his strong stand against those who would be puppets to the West. So long as Russia fears influence from the West and being pressured to adopt a Western culture that is foreign to Russia’s interest, they will be likely to at least grudgingly support those rulers who demonstrate enough strength to preserve Russia’s own strength and identity.