"False Dmitri" is the name given to three mysterious pretenders to the Russian throne who arose from obscurity at the turn of the 17th century, preying on the ambitions of the powerful and the desperate hopes of the weak to rally huge armies to their banners and shake the Russian Empire to its foundations, thus inaugurating the dark era in Russian History known simply and straightforwardly as "The Time of Troubles"
This sordid tale of treachery and woe began in 1584, the appropriately named Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible died while playing a game of chess with his closest associate and all-purpose right-hand man Bogdan Belsky. Interestingly, there is considerable evidence to suggest that Ivan was poisoned, perhaps even by Belsky himself, at the behest of the powerful boyar Boris Godunov, whose sister Irina Ivan had apparently tried to rape just three days before (Irina was also married to Ivan's son - did I mention the appropriateness of his sobriquet?).
In any case, Ivan's death left the Empire in a confused state of affairs. Ivan's son and heir, Feodor - well, let's just say he didn't exactly have all the required bats in his belfry. And belfry is quite the appropriate metaphor, for indeed there was nothing Feodor liked better in life than to wander his empire going from church to church and ringing their bells. Oh, how he loved the sound of those bells! And that was why they called him "Feodor the Bellringer."
But I digress. The important part was that Ivan's death left Boris Godunov in charge of the Empire - Godunov claimed that on his deathbed, Ivan had asked him to serve as regent for Feodor, and nobody really felt inclined to challenge the powerful lord Godunov's version of the story, least of all Feodor, who really just wanted to keep ringing those bells.
But Boris had a slight problem. It turns out that Ivan had another son, the tsarevitch Dmitri, who was only two at the time, but would eventually grow up and could pose a challenge to his authority. Technically Dmitri was considered an illegitimate child and could not inherit the throne, since he was the son of Ivan's seventh wife and the Russian Orthodox church only allowed people to marry three times. But Boris, sensing that many people were not inclined to pay much attention to such technicalities, decided not to take any chances. At the earliest opportunity, he forced Dmitri and his mother into exile to the Tsarevich's appanage city of Uglich. Seven years later, the then 9-year-old Dmitri died of an allegedly "self-inflicted" stab wound while allegedly alone in a room with no witnesses.
Dmitri's mother and her brother immediately cried bloody murder, and angry mobs rioted in Uglich and vigilantes lynched no less than 15 purported "assassins" including the local magistrate and a boy who was one of little Dmitri's playmates. However, the official government investigation headed by the Vasili Shuisky eventually declared Dmitri's death entirely an accident, concluding that he died of a self-inflicted stab wound to the throat, and Dmitri's troublesome and loud-mouthed mother was pressured into becoming a nun.
So for a time, all seemed calm for Boris Godunov, and his rule seemed secure.
But among the incredibly oppressed Russian peasantry, a messianic cult soon grew up around Dmitri. Some versions of this cult claimed that Dmitri was not dead, but that rather his death had been faked and he was hiding, biding his time until he could rise up to overthrow Godunov. In other versions, Dmitri really was dead, but it was prophesied that he would one day rise up from the dead to lead the Russian people to greatness.
The path had been laid for the coming of the False Dmitris.
False Dmitri I
The first and most successful of the False Dmitris first appears to history around 1600, when he showed up in Moscow claiming to be Dmitri and impressed Patriarch Job of Moscow with his aristocratic bearing and his learnedness. This Dmitri claimed that his mother had uncovered the plot to assassinate him and had smuggled him away under the care of a doctor who hid with him for years in various monasteries across Russia. After the doctor died, he had fled to Poland where he worked as a teacher. This young man was about the right age to have been the real Dmitri, and people who had known the Tsarevitch as a young boy were unanimous in affirming that he did bear a remarkable resemblance to the boy they had known.
Naturally, when Boris Godunov (who by now had had himself crowned Tsar Boris I) heard tell of these goings-on, he ordered him to be seized for "examination," whereupon Dmitri fled to Lithuania and took up with some Lithuanian princes, who were only too happy to accept his claims, for it gave them a chance to meddle in Russian affairs.
Dmitri spent the next several years gathering support among Polish nobles, aiding his cause greatly by converting to Roman Catholicism, becoming engaged to marry Marina Mniszech, the daughter of a prominent Polish noble family, and even winning a verbal endorsement from Polish king Sigismund III.
Finally, in 1604, False Dmitri I invaded Russia with a private army of 3,500 men donated to his cause by various Polish and Lithuanian noble families. His army swelled as the numerous enemies of Boris, including some crack units of Cossacks, joined his ranks along the route of his march. Fighting against reluctant and confused Russian troops, Dmitri won a crushing victory in his first battle, capturing several cities, but the Russians regrouped and routed Dmitri in a second engagement.
All looked lost as Dmitri's army was in a state of disintegration, but just in the nick of time, news arrived that the reviled Tsar Boris had suddenly died. Russian troops began to defect to Dmitri's side en masse, and he resumed his march on Moscow.
The boyars, sensing which way the wind had shifted, took action before Dmitri even arrived, imprisoning and then executing the hastily crowned Feodor II and hailing Dmitri as Tsar Dmitri IV
The new Tsar set about consolidating his power by visiting the tomb of Ivan the Terrible as well as the convent where the Tsarevitch's mother was a nun, and she swore up and down that he was indeed her long lost son Dmitri.
Dmitri then began to introduce a series of enlightened political and economic reform measures, attempting to make life easier for the peasants, shoring up ailing Russian finances, and calling for increased religious toleration. Surprisingly and contrary to expectations, he did not act at all like a puppet of the Polish lords who had supported him nor the Catholic Church.
But whereas Dmitri's efforts at reform were popular with the masses, they soon angered the conservative and entrenched boyars, who began to plot against him. The situation was worsened by the fact that Dmitri had pardoned all of his worst enemies, including Vasili Shuisky, who became the leader of the plots against him. Accusing him of attempting to "convert" Russia to Roman Catholicism and practicing "foul Polish customs" like sodomy, they began to gather support for a coup. Their cause was aided when Dmitri married his Roman Catholic Polish fiancée Marina Mniszech, but did not first force her to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, as would normally have been required of the wife of a Tsar, swinging the Russian Church over to the side of his enemies.
Finally, on May 17, 1606, just two weeks after the marriage, the conspirators stormed the Kremlin. Dmitri tried to escape by jumping out of a window, but broke his leg in the fall, and was shot dead on the spot by the plotters. His body was later burned and the ashes were fired from a cannon in the direction of Poland.
As the leader of the plotters, Vasili Shuisky had himself crowned Tsar Vasili IV and immediately set about undoing all of Dmitri's reforms. Dmitri's reign had lasted only 10 months.
False Dmitri II
The following year, a man appeared in the small Russian town Starodub, claiming to be the Muscovite boyar Nagoy. Like his predecessor, this Dmitri was extremely learned, fluent in both Polish and Russian, and of an aristocratic bearing. Nevertheless, his story seemed suspicious so the townsmen arrested him and interrogated him, at which point he confessed under torture that he was in fact the true Tsarevitch Dmitri, having been in hiding all of these years. Because this revelation had been made under torture, everyone assumed it had to be true, and thousands of disaffected peasants, Cossacks, and Poles rallied to his banner.
Polish nobleman Jerzy Mniszech, the father of False Dmitri I's bride Marina Mniszech, arranged a "reunion" between the second Dmitri and Marina, who miraculously recognized him as her husband Dmitri, even though he looked nothing at all like the first false Dmitri she had married the year before.
At this point, Dmitri was recognized by the same group of Polish and Lithuanian nobles who had supported the first False Dmitri, and they supplied him with funds for his rebellion along with 7,500 soldiers. Advancing on Moscow in the spring of 1608, he quickly captured several towns, and routed Tsar Vasili IV's army at the Battle of Bolkhov. Promises of wholesale confiscation and redistribution of the boyars' estates to the peasants drew more and more people into his band, and by the time he set up camp in the village of Tushino, just a few miles outside of Moscow, his army had swelled to more than 100,000.
However, just then, Polish king Sigismund III decided to invade Russia, and all of the Poles in Dmitri's army left him to flock to the banner of their king. At the same time, a large Russo-Swedish army under the Tsar's cousin Mikhail Skopin-Shuisky arrived to reinforce Moscow, and Dmitri was compelled to flee the scene disguised as a peasant.
Regrouping his army at Kostroma in central Russia, Dmitri was rejoined by Marina and set up a court from which he was able to assert his control over all of south eastern Russia. Dmitri made a second attack on Moscow as well, but was repulsed.
Finally, on December 11, 1610, False Dmitri II was shot in the head at close range by Tatar princeling Peter Urusov, a member of Dmitri's personal guard whom Dmitri had ordered publicly flogged in humiliating fashion a few weeks before.
False Dmitri III
The third of the false Dmitris is the least known of the three pretenders. Later said by some to have actually been a local deacon named Sidorka, he walked out of the woods one day in March, 1611 and crossed the river Narova into the Ingrian town of Ivangorod, where he proclaimed himself the one true Tsarevich Dmitri Ivanovich.
The Cossacks, who in those chaotic times were terrorizing the regions around Moscow with the support of the Swedes, heard tell of him and proclaimed him Tsar on March 2, 1612. The Cossacks and the Swedes set him up in the city of Pskov and forced the local nobles to acknowledge him as Tsar, but the Pskovans soon turned against him, and he was forced to flee. Captured by the authorities while on the run, he was delivered up to Moscow where he was promptly executed.
By 1612 Russia lay in ruins. Years of bad harvests had caused hundreds of thousands to die in famines, and riots and the various wars between the False Dmitris, the boyars, the Poles, and the Swedes had claimed tens of thousands of additional lives. The throne lay empty, Moscow was in the hands of the Polish army, the frontiers of the Empire were disintegrating, and the Cossacks were marauding at will.
However, that winter a popular uprising was organized under the leadership of Prince Dmitri Pozharsky and the Novgorod merchant Kuzma Minin. Marching on Moscow, they ousted the Poles and oversaw the election of Michael Romanov as Tsar Michael I, inaugurating the Romanov dynasty which would last until 1917. With a capable tsar finally on the throne for the first time in decades, the Time of Troubles was at an end.