The so-called Time of Troubles, which began with the doomed reign of Boris Godunov, was a saga of destruction, murder and betrayal, but its final chapter, in the Kremlin, was the darkest one of all. In July 1610, a group of boyars, with the support of church leaders and hand-picked citizens, drove Vasily to abdicate. They made sure of his permanent neutrality by forcing him to take the vows of a monk and all but locking him inside the Chudov Monastery. With the glum acquiescence of the city fathers, a seven-man council of boyars assumed interim power, ostensibly to prepare for the accession of Wladislaw.
They may have been the wealthiest and most distinguished nobles in the land, but the boyars of this short-lived council were trapped within their Kremlin’s own high walls, and trapped, too, by the mental habits that those walls had fostered over long decades. As detachments of cossacks, bandits and former slaves continued to ransack almost every suburb of Moscow, the seven council members could only cling to rule-books that they knew. Despite the fact that many Russians still seemed drawn to home-grown ‘tsars’ (Tushino had fallen, but ‘Dmitry’ remained at large until December 1610), the councillors could never contemplate a rough pretender on the throne. Nor could they imagine another form of power. Instead, they proposed, in the tradition of their ancestors, to dazzle the people with a new tsar, Wladislaw Sigismundovich, a royal heir, a fulcrum for the secretive, privileged and tightly regulated world they wished to recreate. Far from inviting Wladislaw to take the crown, therefore, they pleaded with him. Court officials were even tasked with listing the Kremlin’s treasures (and the delights of its kitchens) as a form of enticement. Moscow’s royal regalia – the sceptre and jewelled collar, the caps of Monomakh, of Kalita, of Godunov – were just the start; if the prince had acceded to the boyars’ wishes, he could have wrapped himself in golden robes and fur-lined, pearl-trimmed, velvet cloaks. He also stood to inherit gold and silver plates and vessels, gemstones, sables and large quantities of cash.
Instead of welcoming a prince, however, the Kremlin staff soon had to cope with a rabble of mercenary troops in need of winter billets. The boyar council turned out to be more afraid of its own people than of foreign soldiers. There were already some paid troops in the Kremlin, including Margeret’s, but in the late summer of 1610 the council agreed to allow a Polish officer, the hetman (cossack chief) Stanislaw Zolkiewski, to move more troops into Moscow as a guarantee of public order. It was not a smooth operation, and at one point the city seemed about to rebel, but Zolkiewski eventually billeted parts of his army in the walled areas of Kitai-gorod and the White City and a final group, under his own leadership, inside the Kremlin itself.
According to the hetman, the Poles behaved impeccably, but others reported arrogance, greed, and the burdensome demands that several thousand men were bound to make. Patriarch Hermogen was prominent among those speaking out against the Popish horde, and as the long wait for Wladislaw stretched into months the old man started to attract a following beyond the Kremlin walls. His message, and the shame of citizens who feared their whole culture’s collapse, stirred Orthodox resistance in the provinces. Then came the news that Sigismund had never planned to send his son, and meant instead to seize the crown himself. Hermogen leaked this from his throne in the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral, thundering away about the dangers of Catholic rule. At the same time, the diplomatic Zolkiewski left the Kremlin. Control of its garrison was handed, at Sigismund’s request, to a brutal officer called Alexander Gosiewski. His attitude to the job was typified by his (unsuccessful) attempt to cancel the Kremlin’s annual Palm Sunday procession in the interests of public order. Though he was also responsible for thousands of civilian deaths, few acts were better calculated to outrage Orthodox Russian souls.
Any pretence that Polish troops might act as saviours of Russia (an unlikely proposition at the best of times) was dissipated by events in the early spring of 1611. The foreign garrison in Moscow came to be regarded – by everyone except the handful of noble families whom they were protecting – as a hostile army of occupation. Beyond the Kremlin, and especially beyond Moscow itself, exhausted citizens in the provinces began to organize resistance movements whose aims were to expel the Catholics, defeat the scourge of banditry, and recapture their holy sites, including the Kremlin. The groups did not all work together, but for some insurgents, the liberation of the capital became a priority. In March 1611, soon after Easter, news reached the city of a breakthrough by Russian troops from Ryazan, and Muscovites responded with an attack that was intended to oust the Kremlin’s Catholic garrison. Gosiewski’s answer was merciless. The Kremlin turned on its own city with savage force. Jacques Margeret’s memoir does not go into details, but another foreigner observed that when the French commander led his troops back into the fortress from one of its missions against the rebels, their clothes were drenched with so much blood that they looked like butchers.
Gosiewski also ordered the destruction of any district where troublemakers might have taken shelter. With the approval of the terrified boyars, parts of Moscow were set alight. ‘Out of this,’ wrote a German diplomat called Adam Olearius, who heard it all from witnesses two decades later, ‘came such a colossal fire that the whole great city of Moscow, except for the Kremlin and the stone churches, was reduced to ashes in two days.’ Only the lines of ruined chimneys, like accusing fingers, suggested where rows of houses had stood before the massive fire took hold. For preaching his fierce anti-Polish views, Hermogen was imprisoned in the Chudov Monastery. What remained of Moscow was then looted over several days. When there was nothing left that looked worth stealing, the mercenaries dug in to wait for Sigismund behind the Kremlin’s smoke-blackened walls. Sharing the fortress with them, the monks in the Chudov fasted and prayed, while just across the citadel’s internal square, below Godunov’s gleaming tower, the members of the boyar council, like the woebegone hosts of a squatters’ commune, huddled with their skeleton clerical staff.
In 1611, the state of Muscovy ceased to exist. There was no legitimate government, no ruler, and the capital was occupied by foreign troops. Smolensk had fallen to the Poles, Novgorod was in Swedish hands, and much of the most productive countryside elsewhere had been abandoned or ruined by fighting. What saved the Russian lands from final dismemberment was not a tsar, nor the Kremlin’s fabled charisma, but the people themselves. Hermogen, now starving to death in his cell, wrote letter after letter as he weakened, and his passionate calls to arms were smuggled out of the Chudov Monastery to monks and waiting citizens along the Volga and in the north-east. The Orthodoxy that he invoked meant a range of different things, but piety combined with guilt and shame, hatred of the devil and the foreigner, and love of homeland and the local saints made it a powerful mix. Among the thousands who heeded the call to liberate the Russian people was a trader in the Volga town of Nizhnyi-Novgorod called Kuzma Minin. By 1612, the army that he helped to found, led by the soldier-prince Dmitry Pozharsky, became the force the Poles feared most. Along with several other military bands, especially the one now under the command of the nationalist leader Prince Dmitry Trubetskoi, it might have established a separate state within the wider Russian land. Instead, the combined militia set its sights on the Kremlin. The truth was that no fortress in Russia could command a comparable measure of sacred power.
For another eighteen months, however, the Kremlin was still occupied by a dwindling band of foreign mercenaries. As ever, it was a little universe in its own right. Moscow had become a wasteland, food supplies were scarce, and no news of the future ever seemed to come, but like all armies the garrison complained the most when it was not paid. The boyar council had no cash to its own name, so it began to loot the Treasury. This was a quasi-government matter, so the first round involved melting the gold and silver plate down for coins. The money, struck in the tsars’ mint in 1611, was stamped with the name of Tsar Wladislaw. But treasure has a magic of its own, and soon Gosiewski and members of the Russian elite were packing up sables (hundreds of them), removing gems, and helping themselves to bolts of velvet and fantastic golden robes. Predictably, with such a glut, the price of gold and other treasure soon dropped heavily against more mundane goods, and gold chains scarcely bought a single cabbage, let alone a loaf of bread. If they could find a route out through the lines of walls, inventive troops now started to desert.
Even Gosiewski did not stay until the end. Before they quit the Kremlin in the spring of 1612, the hetman and his closest retinue removed the most valuable of the royal crowns, insignia and other precious items from the heyday of the Riurikids. The so-called Cap of Godunov, which blazed with two enormous Sri Lankan sapphires, was one of the occupiers’ most valuable prizes, but the mercenaries also took a crown intended for the first Dmitry and a gold staff decorated with jewels. The golden cap of Ivan Kalita vanished, too, and so did icons, crosses, gems and furs. Some of this booty found its way across the border – two jewel-encrusted objects of devotion, an icon and a reliquary, landed in Munich in 1614, where they remain in the Schatzkammer of the Residenz – but much was plundered by the cossack bands that preyed on any traveller who lingered on his journey west. And Russia was impoverished whoever took the gems. The looting of the Treasury was a primitive version of capital flight, and where the current generation has Swiss bank accounts, the thieves of 1612 buried any gold that they could not contrive to smuggle out. ‘Unbelievable wealth, in the form of gold, silver, precious stones, and other valuable things, was seized and sent to Poland,’ reported Olearius, and ‘for amusement the soldiers loaded large single pearls in their firearms and shot them in the air.’
For several months after Gosiewski’s departure, the remnants of the garrison clung on. By the summer of 1612, most of Moscow had been taken in the name of Russia’s people, and only the Kremlin and Kitai-gorod remained in boyar and Polish control. Cut off from almost every regular supply, the Kremlin mutated from army slum to charnel-house. In September the first soldiers began to starve. A foreign merchant who visited the Cathedral of the Dormition discovered a sack full of human heads and legs in a shallow grave near the walls. Beyond the Kremlin, starving Muscovites stopped venturing out, for there were rumours that hungry Polish troops stalked the suburbs at night in search of succulent meat; the Kremlin itself became a symbol of dread. Behind its walls, the mercenaries fought over the bones of dead comrades, took shots at crows, and duelled for the corpses of the rats. From 3,000, the garrison had shrunk to roughly 1,500 men. It took till October for the liberators to break through, and by that time the citadel was little better than a morgue.
No sacred site was undespoiled. As they counted their dead, people were unlikely to mourn the precious manuscripts and books that had been burned, the history that they had lost for ever. An outsider might even have thought that this was a good time for Russian patriots to start afresh. The people had rescued their country from destruction, the tsars were dead, and now a new sort of elite, perhaps some form of parliament, could plan a better, more enlightened future for everyone. But though the Russian people had indeed acquired a voice, the impulse of the time turned out to be conservative. The nation was still at war on many fronts (the Swedes and Poles each held substantial chunks of Russian territory), the Kremlin was a gaping ruin, and the old elite, the great boyars, had failed everyone. But for all that, the past – in foggy, tinted, and romantic form – seemed safer than divisive and untried alternatives. Of all the things that had been taken or destroyed in 1612, after all, it was not Godunov’s sapphire crown, let alone the piles of plate, that people mourned. The loss that really rankled, as Russians prepared to build the Kremlin and their government anew, was Ivan the Terrible’s cruel staff, the one that had been carved from the magical horn of a unicorn.