Boris Godunov Summary

Alexander Pushkin

Boris Godunov

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Boris Godunov Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Boris Godunov by Alexander Pushkin.

Boris Godunov is a play written by famed Russian playwright and poet Alexander Pushkin. Originally written in 1825 and published in 1831 as a closet play, Boris was intended to be read by a sole reader or in small, private groups and was not approved by the Russian censor for public performance until 1866. Dealing with the traditional and exciting subjects of palace intrigue, political espionage, and conspiracy in its portrayal of the events that led to “The Time of Troubles” in the late 1500s, Boris Godunov remains a timeless critique on both the consolidation of power by the elite and the danger of unchecked populism. While the play was considered a failure by its 1931 audience, Pushkin considered his masterpiece a “romantic tragedy.”

The title character, Boris Godunov, is a powerful Russian nobleman at the play’s outset. Upon the death of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, Tsarevitch Feodor ascends to the throne, but his ability to reign is compromised by his weak and distracted nature. Boris, already a leader amongst the nobility, is selected as regent to take on some of the tsar’s formal duties of governance. Recognizing the opportunity to seize power, Boris begins to plot his way to the throne.

His first task is the assassination of Tsarevitch Dmitri, Feodor’s younger brother and second in line to the throne. Boris schemes to have the murderers caught in the act and promptly executed, and then he orders a phony investigation into Dmitri’s death. While no official evidence links Boris to the crime, rumors of his involvement nonetheless begin to surface.

Upon the death of Tsar Feodor, Boris Godunov seizes the throne and begins his official reign as tsar. Initially feigning hesitation despite the overwhelming cry of the people for his appointment as tsar, Boris accepts the office with the guise of humility and duty. However, he promptly enacts a severe and brutal reign that involves a heavier level of subjugation of the serfs and the elimination of political enemies, and as more rumors of his involvement in Dmitri’s death begin to circulate, he quickly quashes them.

Meanwhile, a young monk named Grigoriy Otrepyev begins to hear the rumors himself, and after a fellow monk remarks that Grigoriy and Dmitri were close to the same age, Grigoriy hatches his own run at the monarchy. He plots to pose as Feodor’s younger brother and claim to have never been murdered. His plan will no doubt work because he knows that Boris Godunov will never offer any evidence that may implicate him in the real Dmitri’s murder.

Of course, Grigoriy’s plan isn’t without its own complications. Word gets back to Boris that a monk is attempting to impersonate Dmitri, so the tsar sends out assassins to track him down and kill him. Grigoriy makes it into Lithuania as one in a trio of beggar monks, but eventually Boris’ men catch up to him. He barely avoids capture and continues to build his case for insurrection.

Boris has problems of his own back home. Disease and famine have taken hold across Russia, and leery noblemen seem to endlessly plot his demise. Boris is nonetheless resilient, but the stress of the job is beginning to take a toll on his health. He progressively worries about maintaining his distance from Dmitri’s murder while holding onto power and managing the “pretender’s” insurrection. The murder itself is a constant specter, haunting the aging tsar and causing him increased mental unrest.

Grigoriy’s movement starts to gather steam. The governments of both Poland and Lithuania believe his story, and since they enjoy the prospect of potentially creating for themselves some stake in the Tsardom of Russia, they allow him to amass an army. He and his troops swiftly cross into Russia, adding to Boris’ woes.

These woes eventually catch up to him, as well as the guilt from Dmitri’s murder and the stress of maintaining composure in the face of an increasingly skeptical populace: Boris drops dead in the presence of the Duma. Grigoriy’s force hasn’t even begun to approach Moscow, and readers/viewers are left to consider the historical events that eventually lead to Dmitri’s enthronement in the wake of the real Boris Godunov’s death.

Pushkin’s play pries at one of the ultimate political questions that still haunts modern societies: can corrupt power still be good? In Tsar Boris, the audience is prompted to root for his downfall while simultaneously sympathizing with his stress and personal decline. Grigoriy, a monk appearing as the darkhorse cavalier riding a wave of populism, seeks the tsarship under the pretense of gaining unlimited power. Neither men approach the office with a sense of altruistic duty.

These two central characters exhibit flaws common to literature across time and genre—both are prideful yet daring and calculated in meeting their ends. Grigoriy and Tsar Boris also contrast each other. As a monk Grigoriy is a member of the lower class, while Boris’ nobility entitles him to nearly-unlimited agency. Even if these characters are crafted to appear redeemable at times, both men are power mongers working only toward the maturity of their own status.