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The Semiotics and Politics of the Smuta in Russian Culture

by Gordon M. Hahn

Russia’s Smuta or ‘Time of Troubles’ is an important symbol in the iconography of symbols that populate Russia’s traditionalist national security culture and norm or value of vigiliance against domestic and foreign threats tied to the West. It became embedded in the Tsarist Russian political and strategic cultural narratives, marginalized and buried under layers of other symbols, values, and norms during the Soviet era of Marxism-Leninism, and now reactivated in the 21st century as a result of NATO expansion, color revolution democracy-promotion targeting Russia’s neighborhood, and the ‘new cold war.’ The lesson of the dangers to Russian state and society instilled by the partnership between internal opposition and foreign foes during the Smuta survived and often reinforced through the ages. Of course, the majority of those who experienced the Smuta and its aftermath the Smuta was not aware of all the details of Vatican, Jesuit and Polish involvement and boyar connivance in the Dmitrii plot. But what was known was enough to feed Russia’s national security culture and norm of vigilance against potential threats internal and external emanating from the West.

The symbolic images of the Poles, Lithuanians, Catholics and Protestants in Russian society were designed by articulations in official gramota issued immediately after the False Dmitrii’s assassination by Shuiskii’s chancellery and the ROC Patriarchate as well as gramota and other documents (such as stories by various publicists) produced later during and immediately after the Smuta. These documents detailed the violence and crimes committed by the invading Westerners against Russians and anathemized them in harsh terms defined by the religious intolerance and fanaticism of the era as well as natural hatred for the foreign occupiers. They typically emphasized the Poles’ and Lithuanians’ role in manipulating the False Dmitrii and bringing to Russia “Lutherans, Jews, Poles and Romans” (Catholics) in pursuit of “the destruction of the true belief, Orthodox Christianity” through the imposition of Catholicism and Protestantism.[1] Such documents were replete with derogations, setting the Westerners apart not as constitutent but wholly alien ‘Other.’ They are “filthy” and “defiled” enemies and destroyers of the Russian state, their faith and customs are “malignant” “idolatry.” They are the Russian state’s would-be destroyers, “eternal enemies” and “fighters against God” (bogoborotsy). King Sigismund is equated with Satan and doing the devil’s work. Poles are the embodiment of “guile” (lukavstvo), a combination of treachery, cunning, and recklessness (kovarstvo, khitrost’, verolomstvo).[2] Other contemporary documents communicated, for example, the improper conduct of Marina and her party in Russian churches, occupying soldiers’ defilement of churches and holy relics, and the “defilement of the honor” of Russians’ wives by the invaders.[3]

Such attitudes towards the invaders for much of society were extended to their infidel compatriots in Poland, Rome, and the entire non-Orthodox Christian West and became more embedded in the culture in decades and centuries, especially as colluders and collaborators were punished or eliminated and such communiques continued to influence Russian values.[4] Marina Mniszech became a Russian synonym for “witch.” Four centuries later, the Polish mazurka danced in Mikhail Glinka’s opera Life for the Tsar set in the Smuta in the scene of the wedding of Dmitrii and Marina in the Kremlin represents the intrusion of the “decadent foreigner.”[5]

The grim word spread and in later centuries became well-known even among the illiterate peasantry. Russian as well as foreign historiography established and published the details. Russia’s greatest historians – Platonov, Klyuchevskii (both cited extensively herein), Sergei Solovyov, and Nikolai Karamzin – as well as other major Russian (and Western) historians passed down through the ages the Smuta’s horrors and the Poles’ role in its instigation. Paul Pirling’s work Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom (From the Time of Troubles: False Dmitrii I and His Ties with the Papal Throne) on Vatican, Jesuit and Polish primary sources was first published in Russia in 1902 and was recently republished in Russian in 2016 (the edition cited extensively herein).[6]

Examples of the Smuta’s embedding, sedimentation and reactivation in Russian culture through the arts abound. The father of Russian literature and still Russia’s most popular poet, Alexander Pushkin, focused on the Smuta in his perhaps best play, Boris Godunov. Numerous writers before and after Pushkin concentrated on the theme as well. Pushkin’s Pskov region resonated with reminders of the Smuta. Recall False Dmitrii delegated Pskov and Novgorod to Mniszechs as their ‘votchina.’ Pushkin’s residence at the time was surrounded by reminders of Polish-Russian conflict in the form of monuments to the Livonian War dead and Polish king Stepan Batoriy’s seige of Pskov, presaging the Smuta’s Polish invasions. One of the conspirators of a group of Russian dissenters influenced by their march through Europe to Paris, the Decembrists, wrote Pushkin suggesting he dedicate a poem to Pskov “the last flicker of Russian freedom,” apparently in reference to Moscovy’s routing of the principality and its veche ‘republic.’ However, the great poet chose as his muse not Pskov but Moscow’s boyar intrigues in his (1825) “research drama” Boris Godunov, ), which Tsar Nicholas I did not allow to be staged but which became the ‘screenplay’ for Russia’s most famous opera of the same name.[7] Unfortunately, Pushkin’s early death prevented him from writing a series of additional plays he planned on the Smuta. Another great 19th century Russian writer, Alexei Tolstoy (not to be confused with Lev Tolstoy) managed to devote a trilogy to Smuta-related themes: The Death of Ivan the Terrible (1864), Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich (1868), and Tsar Boris (1870).

In music, Mikhail Glinka’s masterful patriotic opera ‘Ivan Susanin’ or ‘Zhizn za Tsarya’ (Life for the Tsar), which recounts Susanin’s death during his mission to save the life of tsar, Mikhail Romanov, by misleading Poles nearing Kostroma to kill the new tsar near the Smuta’s end. Glinka’s opera was composed in the mid-1830s and first performed on 9 December 1836 in St. Petersburg. An earlier version which inspired Glinka’s re-make was performed in 1815 for the first time in Russia in the wake of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia.[8] Glinka’s ‘Life for the Tsar’ remains a staple in the repertoire of Russia’s premier theaters of ballet and opera, Moscow’s Bolshoi and St. Petersburg’s Marinskii Theaters.

The same is true of one of monumental Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpieces, his operatic tour de force ‘Boris Godunov,’ based on Pushkin’s play, first staged in 1869 and devoted to the Smuta as national tragedy. Billington describes well the late scenes of the opera that bring audiences, especially Russian audiences to tears, engraving the Smuta in their culture:

(T)he sound of two Polish Jesuits from the entourage of the False Dmitry chanting a Latin prayer in measured tenor notes (is heard offstage). Varlaam and Missail’s booming bass voices incite (a Russian) mob to haul off these “ravens and vampires,” even though they themselves are committed to the support of Dmitry. The Jesuits are hauled off to be lynched. They represent Latinstvo, the oldest and most enduring symbol of Western ideology, which is rejected with particular violence by proponents of a special path for the Russian people, whether presented in an old Catholic or in a new liberal form. … These two Jesuits are disciples of the sinister Rangoni, who is not present in Pushkin’s play but dominated the Polish act in Mussorsky’s final version of the opera: a king of reminder that Mussorgsky’s age was more profoundly anti-Western than Pushkin’s. 

… (T)he mob leaves the stage, following the False Dmitry. Bells ring; a red glow from a distant firelights the background; and the humiliated (holy) fool steps forth like Boris before him…and brings the opera to an end:

bitter tears

tears of blood

weep, weep Orthodox soul

soon the enemy will come and the darkness fall

and the darkness impenetrable…

weep, weep Russian people, hungry people.[9]

The tens of millions of Russians who visit Moscow’s Red Square in their lifetimes are drawn to a small monument that stands at Russia’s very heart next to the Kremlin and just in front of St Basil’s Church. This, the first major sculptured monument set in Moscow, was dedicated to the leaders of the second resistance to Poles of the Smuta invasions, Minin and Pozharskii. The monument – one even Stalin dared not dismantle – was commissioned by Tsar Alexander I in the early 1800s and was opened on 20 February 1818 in the wake of Napoleon’s Russia intervention. Its designer and sculptor, Ivan Martos, dedicated his work to “the liberators of the Fatherland from the foreign intervention.”[10] A century later the monument became the focus of a patriotic demonstrations during the first days of World War I.[11]

During the Soviet period, Minin, Pozharskii, the monument, indeed the very utility of the idea of ‘Russian history’ were attacked in Marxist-Leninist terms. Within the traditional structure of ‘Russia/Other’ and ‘internal/external foes,’ Minin and Pozharskii were declared traitors and class enemies once the internationalist Bolsheviks so opposed to traditional Russian culture as it stood at the time of the revolution came to power. For example, in an unrequited call for the monument’s removal from Red Square and proximity with the Lenin Mausoleum published in the 27 August 1930 edition of the newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva, they were denounced as “representatives of the boyar trade union, concluded 318 years ago in order to strangle the peasant war,” referencing the agreement between some Russian boyars and Sigismund III and thus pointing to the connection between internal dissension and disunity, on the one hand, and foreign designs against the Russian state, on the other.[12] The Smuta’s portrayal as a class-based revolutionary ‘peasant war’ was just one of many Soviet historiography’s distortions of Russian history.[13]

With Soviet power’s fall, the heroic narrative of the Minin and Pozharskii myth and the Smuta have undergone a revival. For example, a replica of Moscow’s Minin and Pozharskii monument was opened in 2005 in Nizhnii Novgorod from where the second liberation force embarked. The myth is now fully reconstituted under Vladimir Putin, who in 2005 established November 4th (October 22nd Old Style) as a national holiday to commemorate the Russian national liberation struggle against the Poles (and, secondarily, the Swedes) during the Smuta. Alluding to the cost of internal divisions incurred during the Smuta, the holiday was designated “The Day of National Unity.” Putin established the tradition on the holiday of laying a wreath at the monument to Minin and Pozharskii on Red Square, handing out state acheviement awards, and delivering a speech on the theme of national unity. Putin’s and Dmitri Medvedev’s (2008-2011) Unity Day speeches have focused on the centrality of social unity, solidarity, and harmony for Russia’s development and self-defence and the value of Russia’s national and cultural sovereignty. On the first National Unity Day in 2005, Putin noted:

“Today we celebrate the Day of National Unity for the first time. While this is a new state holiday, its meaning and value have deep spiritual and historical roots. Almost four centuries ago, at the beginning of November 1612, Kuzma Minin and Prince Pozharskii led their home guard army to liberate Moscow from foreign invaders. This marked the end of the Time of Troubles in Russia, and of civil strife and conflicts connected with that period.

“This was a victory of patriotic forces, a victory for the project to strengthen the state by uniting, centralizing and joining forces. These heroic events mark the beginning of the spiritual revival of the Fatherland and the creation of a great and sovereign power.

“Undoubtedly, it was the people themselves that defended Russian statehood. They showed true civic consciousness and the greatest degree of responsibility. They acted not because they were compelled to by a higher authority, but because they followed their hearts. Thus, people of different ethnic origins and creeds united to determine their destiny and that of their Fatherland.

“The call ‘all for one and one for all’ by a citizen of Nizhny Novgorod, Kuzma Minin, reflects the best traits and qualities of Russian national character.”[14]

On 1 November 2007, director Vladimir Khotinenko’s historical film, 1612, was released with great fanfare to coincide with the holiday. Its two main heroes are an ethnic Russian and his sidekick, an ethnic Tatar, underscoring interethnic harmony. In 2011 President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin travelled to Nizhnii Novgorod to lay wreathes at the Minin-Pozharskii replica monument there, and in 2012 Putin did the same.

As I showed with my article on Prince Kurbskii as a symbol and anti-hero of Russia’s national security culture and vigilance value, the Russian opposition and dissidents have a tendency to reject the symbols that the usually authoritarian Russian state puts forward in order to fortify the national security culture and vigilance value. This is in part because of that culture’s and that value’s focus on the threat from the West, which much of the opposition usually holds out as a model in significant measure. Thus, opposition oriented, democratic, political economist Dmitrii Travin proposed abandoning the November 4th commemoration of the Smuta but would not even entertain the idea of abandoning May 9th Victory Day, commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War. He also suggested that May 8th be added to bring Russia’s Victory Day celebration more in line with Western celebration of the ened of World War II.[15]

Another democrat, politician and historian Vladimir Ryzhkov has questioned the need for  the November 4th Day of National Unity. In a 2004 article in Vedomosti, as the new holiday was included in a draft bill in the State Duma, he rejected the idea on the basis of very valid technical reasons: on November 4th the Russian partisans only liberated Kitai Gorod in Moscow with the Polish garrison in the Kremlin holding out until November 9th, the liberation struggle lasted for another five years elsewhere in Russia, and the bulk of Russian actors cooperated with either the Poles, the Swedes or various Cossack and bandit marauders. He proposed instead October 17th, the date in 1905 when Tsar Nikolai II promulgated the October Manifesto giving Russians civil, political and human rights and seeting in motion the creation of a parliament in the form of the State Duma as the holiday that would better replace the November 7th Soviet era commemoration of the Bolsheviks’ October coup.[16] This suggests a desire on Ryzhkov’s part to shift the focus of a new holiday from a patriotic symbol invoking the image of the Western threat to a symbol representing democratization.

U.S. government radio ‘Radio Svoboda’ interviewed Ryzhkov on the subject in March 2005 after the new November 4th Unity Day holiday was passed into law. Interviewer Mikhail Sokolov began the interview by noting, in addition to technical historical correction to the lawmakers’ chornology and dating regarding the the liberation of Moscow from the Poles, Russians had never celebrated in the course of 400 years since the Russian partisans’ victory but now would be, intoning a certain sarcasm in regard for the need to celebrate such an event. For his part, Ryzhkov noted he voted against the bill and cited the explanatory not attached to it as stating that November 4th was the day of Moscow’s liberation from the Polish interventionists, calling that a “lie.” Both characterized the seven boyars who ruled in the Kremlin with Polish backing as “the legal authority” that the partisans Minin, Pozharskii, and Trubetskoi overthrew and did so with the backing of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church—a rather decisive ‘vote’ in the polity and culture of Muscovite Russia at the time. Here there is another complication, as Ryzhkov notes: Filaret received the patriarchy from Polish hands.[17] But it was his predecessor, Patriarch Hermogen, who earlier called the insurgency to action and continued to back it. Sokolov and Ryzhkov repeatedly state that the Smuta was a civil war.[18] This is true by the time the partisans arose, but the chaos that ended in civil war was sparked by the Poles who organized and financed the original ‘False Dmitrii’ and his army and insinuated them into Russia for their march on Moscow, which split the country and allowed Cossack bands to begin forming, marauding, and declaring their own false pretenders to the Russian throne. Ryzhkov also remarks that “Pozharskii – the icon of our Orthodoxy today and our patriotism – invited the Swedish prince to the Russian throne and actively cooperated with the Swweds, that is, he was, a so-called (in today’s language) a traitor and collaborationist.”[19] What is not mentioned is that some Russians turned to the Swedes seeking an ally against the Poles, Russia’s weakened state meant they had to offer much to protect themselves from Warsaw. Thus, much of the discussion downplays the Polish intervention as a major element of the Smuta.

Ryzhkov also makes an odd statement for a historian: “What the Romanov dynasty has to do with Russia in the beginning of the 21st century, how we should celebrate today the main holiday of the Romanov dynasty, and how is it a holiday of the Russian people are decisively unclear to me.”[20] Russia is a historical if not legal successor state to Imperial Russia, and if there had been no Romanov dynasty, there would have never been an Imperial Russia. The ‘seven boyars’ were little more than Polish vassals. Without an insurgency and establishment of the Romanov dynasty, there would very possibly have been no sovereign Russia or a Russia broken up into several countries made for easy Polish and/or Swedish conquest, conversion from Orthodoxy to Catholicism and/or Protestantism, and no old Russian culture for post-Soviet Russia to refer back to. None of this is to say that it was absolutely necessary to institute the November 4th holiday no less to institute as historically incorrectly as the Kremlin did. On the other, hand the Soviet legacy needed to be replaced with indigenous Russian tradition, and holidays are an essential symbol and form of national ‘worship’ of a country’s history. Again, the discussion by these Russian dissidents is more geared to rejecting the regime’s attempts to use history and construct a structure of symbols and myths that emphasizes national security and vigilance against Western meddling, interventionism, and outright military invasion.

Despite the Kremlin’s efforts to popularize the new holiday, thus far National Unity Day has acquired only limited popularity and pales in its significance, as Ryzhkov predicted, compared with May 9th, Victory Day—the commemoration of the USSR’s defeat of fascist Germany in the Great Patriotic War. Over time, however, the new holiday could begin to ‘stick’ and acquire more importance. But it can never muster the kind of powerful aura as that surrounding the annual May 9th celebration of overcoming in victory the more recent, resonant, though perhaps no more catastrophic Great Patriotic War, which casts a pall over every Russian family to this very day.


[1] B. N. Florya, Pol’sko-Litovskaya interventsiya v Rossii i russkoe obshchestvo (Moscow: Indrik, 2005), pp. 384-5.

[2] Florya, Pol’sko-Litovskaya interventsiya v Rossii i russkoe obshchestvo, pp. 385-6, 391-2 and 395.

[3] Florya, Pol’sko-Litovskaya interventsiya v Rossii i russkoe obshchestvo, pp. 385, 387, 389-90.

[4] Florya, Pol’sko-Litovskaya interventsiya v Rossii i russkoe obshchestvo, pp. 388-9.

[5] James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Vintage, 1970), p. 106.

[6] P. O. Perling, Iz Smutnogo Vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, vtoroe isdanie (Moscow: Lenand, 2016).

[7] Lotman describes Pushkin’s Boris Godunov as a research drama (drama-issledovanie), oriented towards a “Sakespearean tragedy,” and the triumph of realism in Pushkin’s endeavors. See Yurii Lotman, Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin: Biografiya pisatelya (St. Petersburg: Azbuka, 2015), pp. 148-9.

[8] Viktor Korshukov, “Dve Ivany Susaniny,” A Saucerful of Secrets, 8 February 2009,, last accessed on 20 February 2018.

[9] Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, pp. 411-12.

[10] N. N. Nepomnyashchii, Istoriya Moskvy v poslovitsakh i pogovorakh (Moscow: Veche, 2008), p. 153.

[11] “File:Minin-Pozharsky-1914-manifestation.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons,, last accessed on 20 February 2018.

[12] Viktoroya Shokhina, «Krasnyi den’ kalendarya. O Minie i Pozharskom v kontekste istrii,” Svobodnya Pressa, 4 November 2015,, last accessed on 20 February 2018.

[13] Chester S. L. Dunning, Russia’s First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2001), pp. 6-9, 67-71 and 112.

[14] “Speech at the ceremonial reception for the Day of National Unity,”, 4 November 2005,

[15] Dmitrii Travin, “Novaya sistema prazdnikov,” Novaya gazeta, No. 124, 6 November 2019,, 1 November 2019,

[16] “Vladimir Ryzhkov napisal v ‘Vedomosti’stat’yu ob otmene prazdnika 7 noyabrya,, 17 November 2004,

[17] “Vladimir Ryzhkov and Viktor Militarev, Chto prazdnuyut Rossiya 4 i 7 noyabrya,” Radio Svoboda, 11 March 2005,

[18] “Vladimir Ryzhkov and Viktor Militarev, Chto prazdnuyut Rossiya 4 i 7 noyabrya.”

[19] “Vladimir Ryzhkov and Viktor Militarev, Chto prazdnuyut Rossiya 4 i 7 noyabrya.”

[20] “Vladimir Ryzhkov and Viktor Militarev, Chto prazdnuyut Rossiya 4 i 7 noyabrya.” As the discussion proceeds the emphasis is usually on the way in which the Smuta reflects poorly on the Russian elite of the time, but the November 4th holiday is not a celebration of the Smuta and its bad Russia, Polish, Swedish, and Cossack actors, but of the overcoming of the Smuta and the restoration of order and the end to the spilling of Russian blood as a result of intervention and civil war.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, forthcoming in 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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