The Specter of Smuta

Оповідь українською

Story by Oleh Mahdych and Marichka Melnyk

Illustrated by Olenka Zahorodnyk

There are great smutas starting.
For God’s sake,
let us hope no damage is wrought
to this holy place.

From a letter written in Church-Slavonic by the monk Symeon Polotsky
of the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius to chronicler Avraamy Palitsyn,
November 26, 1608

The final minutes of Vladimir Putin’s workday were winding down. The Emperor of All Russia was sitting at his writing desk, his gaze drawn to the antique clock hanging above the door leading into his office. He caught the moment when the minute hand struck XII and the hour hand pointed to IX. Three deep “Bongs!” echoed from the corner of the room to the left of the entrance. There, the century-old wooden floor clock, decorated with exquisite carvings and a dial and pendulum made from precious metal, announced the coming of the ninth hour.

At the same time, outside the window, the even older chimes of the Spasky or Savior Tower played the “Glory” chorus from Mikhail Glinka’s opera – the official melody performed during the coronation of the Russian emperor. “Glory, glory to our Russian Tsar!” rang the bells. No, this melody never gets old for Putin, although he’s heard it at the same exact time every day throughout his 18 year reign.

After straightening the receiver in the cradle of the vertushka, the special government phone system which guaranteed a secure and direct dial to the Kremlin, Putin decided to stretch his legs a bit. Rising from the floral upholstered chair, he stepped over to the window on his left, sandwiched between two large bookcases filled with dictionaries, tomes of laws, and historical works, and pushed aside the thick opaque white curtain which let light in but blocked out the view.

The sun reminded him of a giant Kolobok, the little round bun character from a Russian fairy tale, slowly rolling its way down to dip beneath the horizon. It cast its last rays on the red brick walls crisscrossed with white mortar encompassing the perimeter of the Kremlin, erected in the late 15th to early 16th centuries. Five-pointed ruby glass stars blazed on the towers above the entrance gates. They had been installed relatively recently – in the latter half of the 1930s – by imported workers from the nations colonized by the empire. Their color was even richer during the sunset, as if they had been sprinkled with fresh blood. Glittering in the light of the evening, the golden two-headed eagles atop the towers of the State Historical Museum, a few steps outside the wall, looked no less predatory or bloodthirsty as they guarded the great Russian past.

He could have continued basking forever in his beloved view; however, Putin had one more important matter requiring his attention, a task he needed to complete before going home to Rublyovka, the elite suburb of Moscow. Passing by the bookcase on the way back to his desk, he sat down in his chair. Lying next to a desk set made of expensive malachite were six sheets of printed text and a sharpened red pencil. The computer in this office wasn’t turned on very often because its owner preferred to work “old school,” with paper.

He picked up the document he needed to review, maybe even edit, because who knows what the press service had written. Like the Russian proverb says: “Trust, but verify.” Though in the mind of the suspicious Putin, it sounds more like, “Suspect the worst and verify.” What if a liberal oppositionist has infiltrated your media and public relations staff and is waiting to screw you? You never know who you may be working with and when to expect their malice to surface.

The text was particularly important to get just right because it had to do with the past, and Putin was not only the top doyen of Russian history, he was also its Creator, its Executor. At least that’s the way he saw himself for some time now and nobody around him was going to argue. On occasion he liked to fantasize what the school textbooks would write about his reign; whether he would be mentioned or not wasn’t even questioned. He had most certainly solidified a spot for himself in the annals of history and truly believed he would be mentioned alongside Peter the Great, Nicholas I, or Alexander II – emperors whose marble busts he admired every day when he passed them in the corridors of the Senate Palace on the way to his office.

He didn’t have any major objections to what had been written. Fortunately, the speechwriters had mastered his style. Putin marked in red pencil the parts he wanted to emphasize. He inherited this habit from another one of his idols who had ruled in the Kremlin, though not as long ago as the ones whose marble busts he sees every day. Like Stalin’s, Putin’s speeches were printed on a typewriter and not written with a fountain pen and ink on scrolls embossed with a crest as they had been in the time of the tsars.

The emperor underlined several sentences twice. However, his arm jerked involuntarily, and the lines came out a little crooked.

When he was done, the minute hand on the clock across from his desk had passed VI. Now he could finally head home and go to bed with a clear conscience. Tomorrow, he has a flight to Sochi to visit the Sirius Educational Center for Gifted Children, which, roughly speaking, is to become a breeding ground for the new Russian elite. This was one of those projects Putin was monitoring personally, so he couldn’t miss the annual Knowledge Day celebration being held there for the first time since the Center opened in December 2014.

On September 1, 2015, the Sirius auditorium, designed to fit around 200 people, was jam-packed with teachers, selected students, and parents who had been lucky enough to pass the security checks of the Federal Protective Service and Federal Security Service (FSB). A film crew from the TV channel Russia-24 had arrived to broadcast the emperor’s speech live.

There was tension in the air. The Center’s management had prepared for Putin’s visit in advance, but nobody is immune to surprises.

“Ok, children. Only those prepped in advance ask questions. And none of your improvisations. Today, Vladimir Vladimirovich himself will address you and talk about our magnificent past and future.” A 40-ish year-old woman, with short blond hair and wearing a knee-length severe black dress, issuing her final orders to the students. She scurried up and down the aisles, all the while fondling a silver pen with the “Talent and Success Foundation” logo in her right hand.

At long last, Putin appeared on stage, dressed in a light gray Brioni suit (his favorite brand) probably costing ten times the average Russian teacher’s monthly salary of 35,000 rubles ($535).

The audience welcomed the emperor with a standing ovation.

Equipped with state-of-the-art projectors, the auditorium transformed into the infinite cosmos, with planets, comets, stars, and other celestial bodies displayed on the walls, ceiling, and floor. Putin, standing at the lectern in the center, appeared as though he was speaking from a galaxy far, far away.

After the traditional welcoming remarks, he moved on to his speech – a history lesson.

After all, this was the reason he had traveled the more than 1500 kilometers spanning the distance from Moscow to the eastern coast of the Black Sea. His speech marked with red pencil was resting on the lectern before him.

“In the history of our country, we have always relied on people who weren’t afraid to take responsibility. Many among them were young, bold, independent. Such was Peter I, and the like-minded people with whom he set a new vector of development for Russia.” Putting his hands on both sides of the papers, barely looking down at the words, the emperor started talking about his great (not just great, but majestic!) predecessors. It is important to guide the children properly, so they know whom they should choose as their idols.

Describing the Great Russian Empire’s advancements in education and the robust flourishing of science in the Soviet Union, Putin continued to refer to renown individuals – naming Russian ones as well as those appropriated from conquered territories.

His posture, voice, and facial expressions all conveyed Putin’s utter enjoyment of this moment in another of his roles – that of the Great Teacher and “best friend of Russian children.”

The schoolchildren he was trying so hard to impress were unsuccessfully attempting to wipe the looks of boredom from their faces and stifle their yawns (smartphones weren’t allowed). They weren’t hearing anything new, so showing interest, let alone feigning enthusiasm, was difficult. Only those who had been privileged to sit on the big orange beanbags in front of the stage managed to bravely hold their composure, knowing the TV cameras were focused on them.

Suddenly, Putin’s face clouded over and for a split-second, pain and fear flashed in his eyes. He had finally gotten to the twice underlined part of his speech.

“Yes, there were also tragic pages in our country’s history,” he asserted. Although the emperor had taken control of his facial expression, his voice continued to reflect his unease. After all, he was speaking publicly about his greatest fear, about the serious danger threatening his and Russia’s well-being… well, primarily his.

“The lessons of Smutas (pronounced smootas), revolutions, civil war, warn us of how dangerous any division is for Russia. Only unity of the people and public consensus can lead to success, ensure the independence of the state, help oppose any powerful and treacherous enemy,” he said as he continued his erudite lecture.

Putin’s warnings against “division” and calls for “unity” were spoken in a steely tone and bordered on intimidation. One might think he had accidentally gone too far. In reality, he had not – this was his goal.

He wanted to scare the children.

Putin is a sadist.

He wanted the kids to experience the pain and fear he personally feels and can’t find a way to shake – the pain and fear of Smuta, or Time of Troubles.

He wanted this still young Russian elite to tremble from the very mention of Smuta. So Smuta becomes their wound, bleeding constantly and never healing. So that as adults these children would never dare oppose the emperor’s policies by taking part in “dubious” political activities or in any other way. Because if they do, they shall summon the Smuta.

Many cultures have mythical creatures used by adults to scare children into behaving properly or doing as they want. Some depict the creature as a shapeless spirit, some as a hairy monster with sharp teeth and claws, others as an old man with a cane and raggedy bag going from house to house in search of naughty children. In the English-speaking world this creature is called “the Boogeyman.” In Spain, Portugal, and some Latin American countries he’s El Coco. The equivalent in Slavic folklore is the Babay.

“If you don’t want to sleep / eat your oatmeal / share your toys, the Babay will come get you!” Parents would use this rhyme to threaten their children. Putin was trying to do the same: “If you don’t listen to the emperor, the Smuta will get you!” And consequently, this specter haunts Russians every day. It’s never been seen nor heard; yet everyone carries a subconscious fear of encountering it.

What exactly is this frightful Smuta causing Putin and his subjects so much angst?

The term “smuta” is first mentioned in the historical chronicles; it was the name given to the battle for the prince’s throne.

Power struggles between contenders for the throne were common because there was no clear law on succession. Instead, there were two traditions: the lestvitsa and salic systems, which caused discord when applied simultaneously.

Lestvitsa, according to the Old Slavonic language, was a ladder or staircase, and was mimicked in the pattern of succession, passing the right to rule from brother to brother based on seniority. Whereas under the salic tradition, the throne passed from father to eldest son. This principle was first recorded in law by the medieval Franks. 

Failure to implement a single principle for the line of succession almost always resulted in quarrels. Relatives would start fighting for power before the deceased prince was even buried. Uncles fought nephews and vice versa.

Chroniclers referred to each of these conflicts as smuta, because for them these feuds were seen as troubling times of uncertainty. Today one prince sits on the throne, tomorrow another, and the day after they’ve switched places again. How do you keep track? Whom do you praise, whom do you criticize? You swear an oath to the brother of a late prince and tomorrow his son’s soldiers break into your monastery. And prepare yourself to be forced to rewrite the chronicle (best-case scenario, although very time-consuming) otherwise you’ll simply hang from the nearest branch (absolute worst-case scenario).

One notable smuta occurred in Moscow in the mid-15th century. After the death of Prince Vasily I, his brother Yuri and son, also named Vasily, fought for the throne. Their feud resulted in the destruction of entire cities, whose inhabitants were slaughtered by supporters of one or the other of the men. Both sides, by the way, didn’t shy away from recruiting Tatar mercenaries.

During the 30-year conflict, Yuri died (his son Dmitry inherited the struggle) and Vasily (the son) went blind from torture, ultimately being named the victor. “We’ve seen it all before,” the common folk shrugged. They figured, since this prince is fighting another one, let them have at it, as long as they don’t bother us.

Three Great Smutas

Russians single out three Great Smutas, according to their ideological interpretation of history. The first, after which this specter added “Great” to its name, started in 1605 and ended in 1613.

Even though this typical struggle for power in Moscow lasted a relatively short time, historians find it extremely difficult to recreate the events clearly and accurately.

Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich died in 1598. Under Salic tradition, which they tried to follow in the state of Muscovy, his son should have inherited the throne. However, he didn’t have any living heirs – neither male nor female. Succession through the lestvitsa tradition was also impossible, since Dmitry, Fyodor’s brother, had died under suspicious circumstances in 1591. So, the logical question arose: Who rules?

A rather unexpected decision followed: the deceased’s wife, Irina, was declared Tsaritsa. Granted, this required turning a blind eye to the fact that women didn’t have the right to rule and could only be regents for their underage sons – the legal heirs to the throne. However, the Tsaritsa didn’t appreciate the “emancipation” granted to her by the Russian nobles, known as boyars, and abdicated on the ninth day after her husband’s death. Fyodor would thus be the last of the Rurik dynasty to rule Moscow.

The boyars convened a Zemsky Sobor – an assembly of representatives of all estates and lands tasked with electing a new ruler.

The main contender was Boris Godunov, brother of the short-lived ruler Tsaritsa Irina and de facto head of government. His election campaign was brilliant! Though he was disliked by the Boyar Duma, the advisory body of the Muscovite tsar, he was able to reach an agreement with key boyars by bribing some and pressuring others. He also had the Church on his side. Its leader, Patriarch Iov, was Boris’s protégé. So, despite the challenges he faced from several notable competitors, Godunov was unanimously elected the next Tsar. Modestly refusing the crown for a month after the election, he magnanimously agreed only when a crowd of Muscovites flocked to the monastery where he was staying and tearfully pleaded with him to change his mind.

Meanwhile, the Muscovite state continued licking the wounds caused by the constant wars and repressions of Tsar Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible) – the father of recently deceased Tsar Fyodor, brother-in-law to Boris Godunov. Vast swaths of the country hadn’t recovered from the devastation and the mistrust within society continued to grow.

Godunov was a decent manager and used rational measures to overcome the crisis, attempting to improve the deplorable conditions under which ordinary people lived. For example, during the famine in 1601-1603 caused by poor harvests, he ordered the government to organize cost-free distribution of grain from the state reserves. He also introduced a vast construction project to build churches and fortifications to create paid jobs for the population.

Yet, despite all this, public perception of Godunov deteriorated. People with wild imaginations and a penchant for gossip spun incredible tales we would call conspiracy theories today.

It was no secret the new ruler wasn’t of royal blood; he wouldn’t have assumed the throne had the Rurik dynasty not been extinguished. There were no questions about Fyodor’s death – it was natural. The story of his underage brother, Dmitry,  found with a knife in his throat, though, seemed quite odd. Nobody believed his death was an accident. It was said he died falling on his blade during an epileptic attack. The rumor mongers began to raise suspicions and even openly accused Boris of being involved in Dmitry’s death. They claimed he had been looking out for his own self-interest and supposedly had sent people to 8-year-old Dmitry to “help” him impale himself on his own knife. Without any other heirs, power was granted to Boris’s sister Irina. As planned, she refused the throne, and the cunning and corrupt boyars promptly organized the Zemsky Sobor naming Boris Tsar.

Hunger added fuel to the fire, resulting in any remaining common sense still burning in the minds of Muscovites to go up in smoke. At first people whispered among themselves, subsequently escalating to public pronouncements, claiming all their troubles were nothing more than God’s punishment for an illegitimate tsar. Meanwhile, rumors were spreading that Dmitry (Fyodor’s younger brother) was still alive and should ascend the throne instead of the usurper Godunov. People started calling him “Tsarevich Dmitry” to reinforce his rightful status.

Then, out of nowhere, men started surfacing claiming to be the “real” Dmitry.

Critical thinking and informational hygiene have never been a strong point for Russians, especially in the distant 17th century, when fact-checking was impossible. The residents of the Muscovite state were illiterate and therefore, uninformed. Struggling for survival in destitution – they did not travel. Mindlessly pious – they blindly followed the biblical word as interpreted by any Orthodox priest they could find. Abandoned by their tsars, who seldom thought about the commoners – they did not trust official information. Instead, they devoured the most fantastic rumors spreading at lightning speed through the main media channels of the time – markets and fairs.

The fake about Dmitry being alive fell on fertile soil. The amazing story became exceedingly popular, describing how in 1591 at Uglich, the residence of the widow of Ivan the Terrible (his sixth wife) Tsaritsa Maria Nagaya north of Moscow, a boy resembling Dmitry, not the real Dmitry, died from a knife wound to the throat and the two switched identities.

Twelve years after Dmitry’s death, in 1603, in the small town of Bragin, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of Prince Adam Wiśniowiecki’s servants came down with a serious illness. Thinking he would die, the boy asked to give confession. During his frank conversation with the priest, the servant admitted he was actually Tsarevich Dmitry and showed the priest a gold cross allegedly given to him by his mother, Tsaritsa Maria Nagaya. This young man survived the illness and his claim about his royal origin was confirmed by another of Wiśniowiecki’s servants. The stars aligned in the boy’s favor when it was revealed the servant just happened to have been born in Uglich.

Fully recovered, this False Dmitry I openly declared his claim to the throne. He was supported by the Polish, Lithuanian, and Rus nobility, for whom the claim was a way to gain military glory, new lands, and other rewards from the future tsar. Defectors from Moscow, particularly soldiers, also began joining the self-proclaimed tsar’s camp.

The Muscovite government insisted this false tsarevich from Bragin was in fact a monk named Grigory Otrepyev, who for some time served as a secretary in the Boyar Duma and was close to the boyar Fyodor Romanov. Romanov had run against Godunov in the election for the tsar’s throne. Afterwards, in 1602, to eliminate his opponent, the newly elected Tsar Godunov had Romanov sent to a monastery. Shortly thereafter, the henchman Grigory Otrepyev disappeared from Moscow without a trace. And now, he appeared out of the clear blue sky, pretending to be the late Dmitry.

Unfortunately, officially exposing Otrepyev as a fraud didn’t stop the rumors about Dmitry’s miraculous survival from spreading.

In October 1604, False Dmitry I crossed the western border of the Muscovite state with an army recruited in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Several border garrisons also joined his side. Godunov sent his own army against the pretender. After some initial victories, the invader was eventually defeated and retreated with his troops to the town of Kromy. The Muscovites encircled them, though failing to capture their commander who fled with a handful of warriors to Putyvl and lay low for a while.

False Dmitry I, the pretender, was lured out of hiding by the sudden death of Tsar Boris Godunov following a stroke in late April 1605. According to Salic tradition, the next tsar would be his 16-year-old son Fyodor. He was a smart boy who spoke several languages, but he didn’t have any experience in running a state. Weighing the chances of an inexperienced “green” lad being able to handle the crisis now fully under way in the country, the boyars placed their bets on the stronger of the two candidates, in their opinion, and sided with the imposter. The army followed suit and joined the camp of False Dmitry I. A revolt broke out in Moscow. Fyodor, the late Boris Godunov’s son, was arrested and removed from power, and soon afterwards he and his mother were killed.

False Dmitry I couldn’t contain his joy. His rose-colored dream of ascending the throne was finally coming true. The only hitch was confirming his royal origin. For that he needed Maria Nagaya – the mother of the real Dmitry. After face-to-face negotiations in Moscow, where within five minutes the new tsar probably threatened the elderly woman, she identified him as her son. Dmitry was miraculously alive!

The now crowned pretender saw himself as a change-maker. He spoke about opening a university in Moscow. He declared to allow his subjects to leave the country at will. He promised people would be free to practice any religion. In the minds of his dark retinue, all these potential innovations bordered on heresy. The boyars, however, were even more vexed by the behavior of False Dmitry I. He communicated freely with foreigners, didn’t observe Orthodox customs, and tried to rule independently without seeking the advice of the Duma. The last point especially riled them.

Rumors began to spread that the throne was occupied by a False Dmitry I.

Less than a year had passed when the deadly silence of the Kremlin corridors was again disturbed by the clanging of swords and gunshots. On the morning of May 17, 1606, False Dmitry I was killed. His body was cremated, and for greater fanfare the ashes were mixed with gunpowder and shot from a cannon towards the western border. “Let the damned cheat go back to where he came from,” the boyars must have thought. In his place, Vasily Shuysky was declared the new Tsar of the Muscovite state.

If the boyars thought this creative farewell to False Dmitry I would put an end to the claims of fraudulent pretenders to the throne, they were mistaken. From the ashes of one dead bogus tsarevich rose 16 live ones – the alleged sons of Ivan Grozny, Fyodor Ivanovich, and Boris Godunov. The tension in the country was mounting.

The next year, in 1607, in the border town of Starodub, which at the time was part of the Muscovite state, a man suddenly appeared – again without a family or clan – and alleged he was Tsarevich Dmitry. During the interrogation, the imposter told an incredible tale about how during the uprising in the Kremlin the year before, it was not he who had died from the rioters’ bullets, but a man looking very much like him. Dmitry, it would seem, was miraculously saved. Twice.

True to form, the people were hoodwinked again. Dissatisfied with Vasily’s rule, the boyars, nobles, and military were happy to back False Dmitry II, and his camp of supporters gradually grew larger. The imposter managed to gather an army and set out for Moscow. After he failed to take the capital, he retreated and set up camp in the nearby village of Tushino. There he began to form parallel government structures: his own Boyar Duma, his own prikazy (ministries), his own church with a loyal patriarch, and so forth.

Vasily turned to Sweden for help and ceded a section of the Baltic Sea in exchange for a military alliance. The allied army had every chance of soundly defeating False Dmitry II until troops of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth came to the second imposter’s aid.

In 1610, after the victory of the Poles over the Muscovite army at Klushino, the boyars staged another coup. The dethroned Tsar Vasily was tonsured and forced to become a monk. The boyars invited Prince Władysław IV – son of King Sigismund III of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – to rule instead, on the condition he convert from Catholicism to Orthodoxy.

While the negotiations continued, the Muscovite state was ruled by the Semiboyarschina, a council of seven boyars, while a Polish-Lithuanian garrison was stationed in the historical heart of the city encompassing the triad of the Kremlin, Kitay-Gorod, and Bely Gorod. The False Dmitry II disappeared amidst all these vicissitudes as suddenly as he had appeared.

Not everyone in Moscow approved of the candidacy of the Polish tsarevich, Władysław IV. The dissenters began to protest. There was a sizable uprising and parallel government structures separate from those of the boyars were formed. The revolt was led by Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky. After two years of fighting, their army expelled the invading forces from the city. In 1613, a Zemsky Sobor was convened for the first time in a long while to elect the new tsar. Among the numerous candidates, they chose the youngest one: 16-year-old Mikhail Romanov.

At the start of the 17th century, the residents of the Muscovite state – those who participated and witnessed the events of the time – were dazed and confused.

Who is the tsar today? Whom do we bow to? Is he legitimate or not? Is he really, definitely legitimate? Because there are 16 more on the reserve bench vying for the throne. Whom do we fight for? To whom do we pay taxes?

The old barometer an ordinary person had used to guide them through life was broken.

Not everyone fell into frustration and lost the ability to make sense of the lightning-fast changing reality. There were those who took advantage of the situation to advance their own careers, people with a knack for politics. For example, Prince Fyodor Mstislavsky, backed four different pretenders during the feuds. First he served Godunov, then he switched camps to False Dmitry I, next he supported Vasily Shuysky, later he headed the Semiboyarschina, and in 1613 he led the Zemsky Sobor.

Nevertheless, the first Great Smuta was quelled with the ascension to the throne of Mikhail Romanov. Although the fear of something like this happening again in the country didn’t disappear. On the contrary, it lurked in the corridors of the Kremlin palaces and became a specter for all the representatives of the Romanov dynasty. That’s why each one of them did everything they could to strengthen the tsar’s power and prevent any possibility for deep reform of the Russian Empire. This strategy was sustained for a protracted 300 years. Sooner or later, though, it had to come crashing down.

The second Great Smuta hit Russia in 1917-1921. Its harbinger was WWI, which caused a deep economic and political crisis in the Russian Empire led at the time by Tsar Nicholas II, a descendant of the Romanovs.

The obsolescence of the autocratic system of governance had been evident for a long time, becoming particularly acute starting in 1914. The economy proved unable to meet the country’s wartime needs swiftly and effectively. Although production capacity had been modernized over the past 30 years, management remained inept. The war also reopened the empire’s old wounds. Dissent was spreading among those who had grown tired of tolerating their national humiliation by the titular nation; among those who were dissatisfied with the low standard of living and refused to continue to turn a blind eye to the uneven distribution of wealth; and among those who called for a change in the system of government and criticized the weak development of public institutions.

In March 1917, strikes broke out in Petrograd, the capital of the Russian Empire, over food shortages. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, and the hungry crowd’s economic demands soon grew to include political ones. The people demanded the resignation of the current government and formation of a new one. The authorities responded by banning rallies and ordering everyone to return to work, otherwise they would use force. The most stubborn protesters were sent to the front. When this didn’t stop the protests, the emperor gave the order to shoot. This caused some of the military to join the side of the protesters. Strikes demanding more food and against the ministers transformed into a demonstration for Nicholas II’s abdication. Indeed, he signed the abdication manifesto on March 15 while in Pskov.

A Provisional Government was formed, consisting of deputies of the Duma, businessmen, and public activists, and took over the leadership of the state. The new ministers wanted to implement democratic changes in the country, which obviously couldn’t happen instantaneously and required a great amount of effort. Russian society wasn’t willing to wait. Any attempts at civilized discussion turned into irreconcilable disputes. Russians on the front didn’t want to fight. Russians in the rear demanded immediate solutions to agricultural and social problems. Non-Russian peoples wanted independence, or at least cultural autonomy. The various groups immediately criticized one another.

Against the backdrop of this social discord, political forces advocating for strong leadership began to gain more support. In November 1917, they seized control of the country, removed the Provisional Government by force, and started building a dictatorship of the proletariat. Their aim was a state where all power would, supposedly, belong to workers and peasants, while the rights of non-working class groups – their former exploiters – would be restricted. To ensure a point of no return, on the night of July 16-17, 1918, the Bolsheviks ordered the execution of the entire Romanov royal family.

This policy was certain to meet resistance. Opposing the Bolsheviks, who were known as the “Reds” because of the color of their flag, were a number of political forces called the “Whites.” The latter were mostly monarchists who sought the return of imperial rule.

A fierce battle erupted between these two camps, eventually leading to widespread civil war where everyone fought everyone else. As soon as the Reds unleashed mass terror, slaughtering representatives of “enemy classes” regardless of guilt, the Whites would respond with equal violence.

“In the bloody fog of the Russian smuta, people are dying, and the true boundaries of historical events are being blurred,” said one of the leaders of the Whites, General Anton Denikin. Incidentally, his book about those times is called Ocherki Russkoy Smuty or Essays on the Russian Smuta.

Just yesterday, the great empire had “instilled awe.” Today, the same empire was rapidly and irreversibly disintegrating. Contributing to its collapse were national independence movements emboldened by foreign armies coming to their aid on Russian territory. Meanwhile, more and more people in the country were starving. By and large, they didn’t care who would win, the Reds or the Whites, as long as they didn’t experiment with democracy and restored order quickly. The economy had completely ceased to function.

The Great Smuta observed the consequences of its work from a bird’s eye view. The specter grinned widely and rubbed its hands together in satisfaction with the turn of events.

The Smuta retreated only when the victor of the latest Russian feud was more or less evident. It would be the Bolsheviks, who were more brutal and voiced slogans the illiterate population grasped more readily. Afterwards, for a long 70 years, the Red vozhdy, the Communist “bosses,” managed to maintain the exact same empire, albeit without the Poles, Finns, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians, who managed to break free of the double-headed eagle’s sharp claws in 1918-1920. Tragically, during World War II, the Baltic countries once again lost their independence and were occupied by Russia.

This Russian empire had a different name – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And a different coat of arms, with a hammer and sickle, symbolizing the unity of workers and peasants. Above them shined a red star. As the Great Soviet Encyclopedia explains, “…the red five-pointed star is a symbol of the ultimate triumph of the ideas of communism on the five continents of the globe…”

The Bolsheviks’ Napoleonic plans, like their communist ideas, weren’t realistic nor achievable from the very beginning, and therefore, were destined to fail. The unity of the new state was achieved, in fact, with fire and sword executions and concentration camps, and because of a solidarity among the working classes. It was impossible for a contrived unity to last.

The Specter of the Great Smuta was simply waiting for the right opportunity to rear its head again, for the third time.

The specter’s golden hour began when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. It was obvious to everyone the Soviet Empire was in a dangerous crisis; in fact, it was having its last fatal convulsions and was about to be buried in its grave.

At the time, the USSR was addicted to oil – it had become the largest supplier of oil and gas to Europe. However, the huge flow of money from abroad did a disservice to the state. Those responsible for improving the economy’s functioning stopped worrying about its shortfalls and errors. Why should they, when you can buy anything with petrodollars?

The political system was more dead than alive. Nobody, not even the top party cadres, believed in communist ideals. They mostly tried to maintain a good face, in case their subjects suddenly started wondering what happened to the promise of a society with equality and grace. Indeed, this new society was supposed to magically appear in 1980, because it was designated as such by the Third Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during their XXII Congress on October 31, 1961. The 1980s arrived, but without a communist paradise.

Gorbachev declared the start of Perestroika – the “restructuring of Soviet society.” The policy included a number of political, economic, and social reforms; however, neither the new General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union nor his closest associates had a clear plan of what to change and how to do it, and most importantly – what was to be the end result of this project.

Ultimately, the reconstruction of the country resembled a building renovation. They thought it would be enough to replace the old, faded wallpaper – then realized the wall underneath was covered in mold. Once they started removing the mold, they found the roof was leaking and the internal partitions were half-rotten. When they started replacing the walls and roof, it became clear the foundation had been improperly laid.

It was the same in the Soviet Union. The system’s inability to maintain itself and function properly was manifested in every aspect of life. Simple cosmetic repairs wouldn’t help. Attempts to partly fix something only revealed much deeper problems. The residents of the building – the national republics – didn’t want to continue living in a dangerously unsafe structure threatening to bury them under its rubble. Ukraine, like the other republics, had just started moving out and changing its residency registration, when the building began to crack at the seams and by late December 1991 had collapsed completely.

Russia became a separate country. This seemed like a change for the better, a wonderful chance to finally build a comfortable new home with a proper foundation, new walls, and a sturdy roof. And a good opportunity to forge civilized relations with neighbors and former tenants.

Nevertheless, for many Russians, the collapse of the USSR was a tragedy, a time of smuta. They stopped feeling like they were part of a big empire, a country nearly the whole world feared, one having the power to dictate terms to almost anyone and poke its nose into anyone’s affairs, even when unwanted.

The sense of their insignificance was fueled by the economic difficulties associated with the transition from a planned to a market economy and the tangible drop in living standards.

Many businesses closed. Social benefits were delayed for months or even years. Organized crime gained a solid footing, sometimes so entangled with the law enforcement system, the two were indistinguishable. Corruption and the theft of state property en masse, which had started before Perestroika, reached its apogee. The oft repeated phrase Perestroika/perekachka/perestrelka, or Restructure/siphon-off/shoot-to-kill, was an apropos play on words. People were at the brink of survival. When lamenting about how they “lived in poverty before, but are now destitute,” they never forgot to add, “however, yesterday the whole world feared us, and now nobody does.”

The longing for their great imperial past particularly intensified after the defeat in the first Russo-Chechen War of 1994-1996. Russian society couldn’t get over the shock and humiliation. How did Chechen fighters who yesterday were simple shepherds manage to force the “valiant Russian army” to retreat? What the Russians didn’t understand was these “shepherds” were skilled warriors who were fighting for their own independent state. And this was the key to their victory.

Putin set out to raise Russia from its knees and cast away the Great Smuta. Although at times his own hands shook from fear of this specter.

Russian history – with its feuding princes, revolutions, civil wars, and collapse of a multinational state – isn’t unique.

In the latter half of the 15th century, the battle for the royal throne between the House of York and the House of Lancaster divided English society in half for 30 years. The conflict, known as the War of the Roses, put an end to many noble families and took the lives of nearly a quarter of the country’s population.

In the 17th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was shaken twice by a rokosz – a rebellion of the nobles against the king deemed legal if the rights and freedoms of the nobles were encroached. Both the Zebrzydowski Rokosz and the Lubomirski Rokosz were directed against the grab for absolute power by Sigismund III and John II Casimir, respectively. These rebellions forced tens of thousands of citizens to take up swords and meet on the battlefield.

Revolution broke out in France in the late 18th century. The bourgeois, workers, artisans, merchants, students, and free peasants gathered on street barricades and at the walls of the Bastille. With the approval of some of the clergy and nobility from the Estates-General, they formed a united front against the tyranny of Louis XVI. Mass protests led to the removal of the king and his subsequent execution. The state was declared a republic, although political stability was still far off. Military interventions by Austria, Prussia, Britain, Spain, and others in support of the monarchy, confrontations between radical and moderate political forces, constant changes of government – all this kept France off-balance until Napoleon came to power through a coup.

Germany’s defeat in WWI resulted in a complex economic and political crisis. The military mutiny grew into a national uprising forcing Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate the throne and flee the country in November 1918. The struggle between politicians in favor of a parliamentary democracy with gradual reforms and those who agitated for Soviet rule put German society on the brink of civil war. 

In the late 20th century, a bloody drama unfolded in the Balkans. Economic, political, and social difficulties were eroding Yugoslavia from within. When the central government rejected the appeals by the Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, and Macedonians to declare their own independent states, the ensuing wars brought widespread destruction of property, enormous human casualties, and a relentless flow of refugees.

The list of foreign “smutas” can go on and on. There probably isn’t a country in the world that hasn’t at least once in its history been torn apart by internal strife. While most nations have managed to leave them in the past and move on, the Russians cannot. They are fixated on their own feuds which happened who knows when and continue to carry this unnecessary fear-inducing baggage of the past into the future, effectively annulling any chance at their own development.

The Russian historical experience isn’t unique. What is unique is the Russian reaction to it: an overwhelming, long-lasting fear bordering on paranoia. After all, 999 out of 1000 times there are no legitimate grounds for their fear.

What does this fear haunting the more than 140 million residents of Russia stem from and why has it existed for centuries? Its origin is rooted primarily in Russian rulers and their worst personal nightmare – losing the throne. None of them, be it in the distant 15th or current 21st century, has managed to overcome this fear. (Or at least asked themselves: Do I really need this throne?) Though they have learned to contain the fear, even control it. How? Easily – by building the Russian Empire. The biggest guarantee of preserving power is strengthening the empire, at least in this corner of the world, where nobody considers caring for the people’s welfare as a recipe for long-lasting rule.

Starting in the 1480s, Muscovite rulers, having arbitrarily renamed themselves the “sovereigns and grand princes of all Rus,” began to annex the lands of the former Rus principalities – as if the territories were their legal fiefdoms. And they used any means possible: if they couldn’t capture a territory with military force, they used bribery; if money didn’t work, they negotiated dynastic marriages; if marriage negotiations broke down, they again gave the command to “Charge!”

To convince Europeans to start accepting the Muscovites as equals, and not savages from the North having recently crawled out of the swamps or emerged from the surrounding forests, the “political technologists” of the time, were put on the ruler’s payroll. One of them, the monk Filofey of the Spaso-Yelizarov Monastery in Pskov, created a new image for the tsars as holy saviors who were the heirs of “true Christianity.” Moscow was declared the “Third Rome” – “two Romes [Rome and Constantinople] have fallen, the third stands, and there will be no fourth.” To prove the point, a huge stone fortress containing palaces and churches was built in central Moscow within the walls of the Kremlin, emerging from amongst the otherwise wooden structures. It would become the face of a new, “civilized” Russia.

Meanwhile, the internal power vertical was being reinforced and any form of self-government or democracy was gradually liquidated. For example, in the mid-17th century, the Zemsky Sobors, which had elected tsars and passed laws in the past, were stripped of their power and only retained the right to approve tsarist decisions. As the end of the century approached, the sobors were no longer convened.

Absolute power in the Russian Empire was achieved by Peter I, known as Peter the Great. He issued all the laws, appointed all high-ranking government officials and regional governors from the dvoryanstvo or society elites, approved all court sentences, and even appointed the head or Ober-Procurator, as well as all the members of the Synod, which was the highest governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Any plans to limit the emperor’s power were suppressed as soon as they became known. In 1730, when Peter the Great’s niece Anna Ioannovna assumed the throne, the members of the recently created Supreme Privy Council – the highest governing body – wanted to forbid Empress Anna from unilaterally declaring war, giving away state lands, assigning military ranks, and increasing budget expenditures. Having the backing of the army and the nobles, she rejected these proposals. The council was abolished, its councilors fired from their positions and arrested soon after.

All the while, the Russian rulers continued to absorb new territories: Siberia, East Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnipro River, and the Baltic lands. By the 18th century, the Russian Empire was one of the largest countries in the world. However, this didn’t suffice. The empire continued to acquire lands: in the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, by capturing the Caucasus, adding Alaska to its reign, and colonizing Central Asia. 

The three foundations “without which Russia cannot prosper, thrive, or live” – Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality – fully crystallized in the 19th century. Compared to the French motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” the Russian triad sounded particularly archaic. This didn’t stop it from becoming the dominant ideological doctrine of an empire whose “death certificate” was supposedly issued during the 1917 Revolution. The current imperialists dismiss the aforementioned “death” as nothing more than a technicality. 

It would seem the mass protests demanding the abdication of Nicholas II, his forced resignation, and subsequent execution, would have clearly shown you can’t rule a state in times of social progress without having a Constitution in place, providing for the development of political parties, and permitting public debate, all the while neglecting the rights of other nationalities.

But when the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia because of the civil war, they showed you can do just that. You can strangle social progress and continue to build an empire if you just disguise it a little bit.

Power was concentrated again, except not in the hands of a tsar or emperor. Instead, it was held in the hands of the communist party vozhd, the “dear leader” who also happened to rule until his death. The Russians had never had a Constitution before; however, over 70 years, the Soviets gave their subjects four: in 1918, 1924, 1936, and 1977. Only these were works of fiction and simply window dressing, especially when it came to civil rights or the self-governance of the national republics.

No alternative opinions were allowed in this “Russian Empire 2.0.” Everyone had to do what the only legal all-powerful ruling party said. You couldn’t run your own business. Everyone had to work where they were assigned, and you couldn’t change jobs. Proving a person’s guilt wasn’t necessary for someone to be imprisoned, executed, sent to a concentration camp, or have their property confiscated.

On paper the new empire was a federation of equal republics having the right to secede from the USSR. In reality, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev didn’t care about the rights of colonies. The degree of their concern may have differed between them, more or less, but generally speaking, this was a fact. Governance was centralized and Moscow decided everything. The nationalities were deprived of the right to manage their own lives.

Putin, who came to power at the turn of the 21st century, didn’t try to abandon the imperial legacy and build something new, fresh, or democratic.

“Dear Russians, dear countrymen! Today I have been entrusted with the responsibilities of Head of State. In three months, we will hold elections to choose the president of Russia. Let me emphasize there will not be even one minute of a power vacuum in this country. There has not been and there will not be,” he said in his first New Year’s address as acting president following Boris Yeltsin’s resignation.

Since then, the situation with human rights and the governance of territories included in the Russian Federation hasn’t changed. Even the slightest hint of criticism of the government in the media can get one branded a “foreign agent,” and social media posts with “extremist material” can get you sent to prison for a year. Not only are national political parties and NGOs banned, but there are severe restrictions in schools on the use of the languages of the ethnic groups in the national republics.

Meanwhile, Tsargrad, a Russian TV and internet channel is flourishing. Its founder and chief editor, Konstantin Malofeev, openly boasts: “Empire is our past and future. We can’t not be an empire. An empire is who we are.” He obviously understands these words are music to Putin’s ears, a person who, for the sake of tradition, continues to rule the state from the Kremlin. Although today the stone fortress in the center of Moscow is a symbol of Russia’s savagery and archaism. A person who, in pursuit of absolute control, regards with suspicion every word in every speech written for him. A person who is mentally stuck in a bygone era and always checks the time on three clocks simultaneously.

Strong imperial power has lasted so long and been so successful in Russia because its rulers have for centuries nurtured obedient, submissive subjects. They’ve skimped on carrots while generously beating them with sticks. Their motivation is obvious: if there are no rebels, there is no smuta – their biggest personal nightmare. Smuta – which causes them to be deprived of power and, occasionally, their lives.

Every ruler has tried to avoid this unenviable perspective as best they could. Obviously, there was no tolerance for people who posed a threat. In the empire under Nicholas II, for example, the Criminal Code had a separate section on responsibility for sowing smuta. This included unsanctioned rallies, public statements against the authorities, pretending to be a member of the imperial family, and so forth. All these crimes would have easily fit into the adjacent sections of the Criminal Code – “On state change” immediately prior to the one “On smuta,” or the one after – “On disobedience of power.” Putting it in a separate section was a matter of principle. The convicted “smuta-maker,” depending on the severity of the crime, could face 15 days in jail or indefinite exile to Siberia.

In the Soviet Empire, people who “incited smuta” were sentenced under Article 58 of the Penal Code: Counter-Revolutionary Activities. The paranoid Bolshevik vozhds expanded it to 14 sub-articles, the most “popular” of which was the tenth: “Propaganda and agitation calling for overturning, dismantling, or undermining the Soviet regime.” The standard punishment for this was 10 years in the GULAG and 5 years of limitation of rights. During WWII, people were even executed.

Alongside meting out punishment for sowing smuta, Russian emperors also took preventive measures in their battle against it. The rulers instilled in their subjects the idea if the emperor was to suddenly disappear, everyone would suffer. “Any division is deadly for Russia…” There will be disorder, chaos, and instability, just like in the years 1605 to 1613. Or again from 1917 to 1921. Or the mid-1980s to early-1990s. These evil geniuses and virtuoso manipulators made a whole country fear their own worst personal nightmares. They protected themselves from smuta by terrorizing everyone else with the threat of the Great Smuta.

The technique for inciting fear among the population hasn’t changed much. Just like in the 17th century, the 21st century specter was and is continuing to be created by a very specific group of specialists. Back then they were called court chroniclers; today they are the political technologists on Putin’s payroll.

For example, in February 2022, right before the full-scale invasion of Russian forces into Ukraine, Russian social media channels on Telegram started spreading disinformation about a plan by Ukraine’s Special Operation Forces to destabilize Russia. It was called “Smuta” and the outcome was to be a real nightmare – “loss of control, economic upheaval, change in Russia’s position in the world arena.”

Obviously, the Ukrainians had no such plan. Putin simply needed an excuse to reinstate Russian control over one of its largest former colonies (the loss of which bruised his imperial ego), and to get the population to support his policies unconditionally. He succeeded with the latter. In April 2022, results of a Levada Center survey revealed 74% of Russians who participated in the poll approved of the war against Ukraine.

The sun on the northern coast of the Black Sea had almost reached its zenith when a man wearing a baseball cap, mud-colored camouflage, and a bullet-proof vest adorned with a Zwastika and St. George’s ribbon, looking completely out of place in this environment, went for a walk on the central square of a Ukrainian city temporarily occupied by Russia. Another man, also in uniform, with a balaclava covering his face and a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung over his shoulder, walked silently two steps behind him.

The outsider was of above average height, with a strong build and dark blond hair. He had a wide forehead with a crimson scar on the left side, drooping eyebrows, light blue or grey eyes with enormous bags under them, and a bulbous “potato” nose. At first glance he looked to be in his 40s, but who knows – war always leaves its mark on a man’s face. And for the third month since the start of the “special operation,” the damned Banderovtsi, the name given to Ukrainians who were fighting against the occupation, were resisting so fiercely, even an 18-year-old boy could pass for a gray-haired old man.

The man with the scar stopped for a second and looked around the square.

“Now that’s the way it should be!” he mumbled to himself after seeing the Russian tricolor on the flagpole in front of the city council building.

About 50 meters ahead, he spotted a small open space surrounded by spruces, white cedars, and birches. He could hear children’s voices echoing from there. As he got closer, the man was stunned by what he saw. A group of nine 13-year-old boys and girls were skateboarding and performing tricks on their bikes and scooters on the smooth pavement.

“You gotta be kidding me!” he thought.

Who did these kids think they were, fearlessly enjoying life in the open instead of quietly cowering in the four walls of their apartments? He was going to give these obnoxious kids a good talking to and chase them out of there. Along the way to confront them, though, he changed his mind. No, he wouldn’t send them home immediately; first, he’d teach them how to properly love and respect their “new Homeland.” He’d give them a likbez, a crash course in the new rules, so to speak.

“Hey, kids!” the man with the scar shouted at them. “Get over here, now!”

To make the invitation more convincing, the bodyguard, who was closely following on the heels of the man with the scar the entire time, waved his weapon at the kids. The boys and girls looked at each other, dropped their bikes and scooters, and approached the soldiers.

Having found no better option, the wannabe Putin perched himself atop a nearby concrete bin filled with trash. The guard positioned himself next to the bin. The kids surrounded the two of them in a semicircle.

From his imaginary throne, completely oblivious to how ridiculous he looked, the man with the scar began interrogating the teenagers.

“When did the Great Patriotic War begin?” he asked.

“In 1939,” a child’s voice rang out, answering without hesitation.

“There it is…” the man said in disappointment, shaking his head. The boy’s answer assured him the youngsters could do with a history lesson.

“Tell me, who is Stepan Bandera… to you?” he asked the brave young boy who dared speak to him.

For a split second there was silence. The man with the scar was proud of himself. He couldn’t have come up with a better Babay than the most terrible “smuta-maker” in the history of the Soviet Empire. However, three short words from the boy’s mouth forced the occupier to shiver, as an eerie chill ran up his spine.

“He’s our father…”

Other stories written by Oleh Mahdych and Marichka Melnyk

Other stories illustrated by Olenka Zahorodnyk


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