Russia in the early 17th century was one of the most ridiculous eras of history—and Marina Mniszech, or “Marinka the Witch,” was the ringleader of all the drama.
Born as Marina Mniszech, this cunning woman didn’t go down in Russian history as “Marinka the Witch” by staying home and tending quietly to the hearth. Instead, Marina used every bit of her considerable smarts to launch herself toward the Imperial throne again, and again, and again. There was nothing (and I really mean nothing) she didn’t do for power…but she paid the ultimate price.
Marina Mniszech was born to be a meddler. Born around 1588 as the daughter of a Polish governor, she had access from a very young age to many of the important people passing through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from both Europe and Russia at the time. On top of that, she learned to read, write, and navigate courtly politics practically from the crib.
A good thing too, since a massive change was coming for her world.
When Marina Mniszech was still in her teenage years, history gave her an enormous plot twist. As the 17th century dawned, a man going by the name of Dmitry Ivanovich began walking around Poland and claiming that he was the grown-up, long-lost son of the old Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible—a boy everyone thought had been assassinated years ago.
Now, Dmitry was gunning for the Russian throne, and ended up right on Marina’s doorstep in the Polish court. Yet his story was much more complicated.
Let’s call a spade a spade: This so-called Dmitry’s tale was suspicious as all get-out, and very few Polish nobles believed the royal heir had somehow escaped his fate, evaded his enemies for years, and was now standing before them. Instead, Dmitry was almost certainly an impostor, earning him the name “False Dmitry”.
It’s very likely even the 16-year-old Marina Mniszech didn’t believe a word he said—but she did like the idea of rising to the top of Imperial Russia. She and her father came up with a diabolical plan.
Marina Mniszech was an extremely sharp, cunning woman already, and it’s possible even the Polish court at the time was too small for the grand dreams she had for herself. When Dmitry came into her orbit, she hitched their wagon right to that star, proposing her hand in marriage to the upstart with the help of her father. But this didn’t come for free.
If there’s one thing you want to remember about Marina, it’s this: She never did anything selflessly. Her offer of marriage had an underbelly. In order to seal the promise, Dmitry also had to vow to get Marina some valuable territories, then kick some other ones over to her father as well. Still, this is only part of the story.
Dmitry and Marina were hardly a match made in heaven—and that’s putting it lightly—but according to some sources, they were in love when they betrothed themselves to each other. There could be something to this, but it’s a little convenient that Dmitry chose the daughter of a powerful governor to help him in his quest toward Russia.
Plus, very quickly after their engagement, they made some earth-shattering moves.
For the next weeks and months, Marina and her new fiancé ran a PR campaign to end all PR campaigns. With the support of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth behind them, they began garnering support from Russian boyars—Russian nobles—and amazing an army of thousands to march against the current Tsar, Boris Godunov.
Sounds great, right? Wrong.
There’s a reason history has both “Do not march on Moscow” and “Never start a land war in Asia” in its annals: You just don’t want to touch Russia. Marina and Dmitry found this out the hard way. While they were able to gather the men, the actual fighting was something else entirely, and the second battle Dmitry fought was a near-massacre.
Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about this now if it ended there. Instead, they got supremely lucky.
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In April 1605, right as Dmitry was fighting for his life and the right to usurp a crown, he and Marina got momentous news. Boris Godunov, the Tsar they were intent on destroying, had passed from a stroke. Although he left behind a son, Feodor II, to rule in his stead, the Russian throne was now weaker than ever before. Marina and Dmitry pounced.
After the passing of the old Tsar and the instalment of a son no one cared about, Russian troops saw which way the wind was blowing. They quickly defected to Dmitry’s side—Marina must have been so proud—and stuffed his ranks to the gills with men. I mean, obviously these were disloyal men with no integrity whatsoever, but I’m sure this isn’t foreshadowing AT ALL.
Then the blood really started running.
With all this might by his side, no one cared a jot anymore if Dmitry was the real thing or an impostor (again: definitely an impostor). Their next act was brutal. Eager for a changing of the guard, his allies quickly staged a palace coup, imprisoning Feodor II and his mother. All that was left to do was for Marina’s love to walk into Moscow’s walls…but not without more violence.
On June 20, 1605, Dmitry strolled into Moscow like he owned the place—he did—with a group of men 8,000 strong trailing behind him. This set off a vicious chain of events. Not coincidentally at all, palace attendants offed Feodor and his poor mother at the very same time. Out with the old, indeed.
So far, Marina was probably delighted to hear all this. But Dmitry’s next actions could have very well infuriated her.
Despite his supposed love for Marina, Dmitry didn’t go running right back to the arms of his fiancée after entering Moscow in June, nor did he do it after his coronation in late July. Instead, he did something much more sinister. He forced Feodor’s sister Xenia—seemingly the only member of the royal family he spared—to become his mistress for five months, then sent her packing to a monastery.
In November, Dmitry finally seemed to remember his long-distance girlfriend, and Marina Mniszech got quite the delivery.
While Dmitry was off breaking kingdoms, Marina hadn’t seen a whole lot of action—and when Dmitry’s men showed up in Poland on a diplomatic mission for her official hand in marriage, she was hardly going to turn them away. She agreed to follow through with it immediately. When I say immediately…I really mean it.
Marina Mniszech knew her man had become one of the most powerful rulers in the world, and his burgeoning sociopathic tendencies were just an extra bonus on top. She rushed to the altar just days after Dmitry’s envoys arrived, marrying him in a symbolic ceremony that he wasn’t even present at.
With that locked down, she and her father set their sights on joining him in Moscow, and they did not go quietly.
Marina Mniszech knew the value of optics. Her entrance into the capital was unforgettable. Even though she didn’t have masses of troops under her control, she nonetheless went into the city with a mind-boggling retinue of 4,000 people, her father included, staging her own parade as she went toward her new husband.
It should have been a reunion that strengthened their rule. Instead, it put a fatal crack in its foundation.
With Marina’s arrival, it was time to confirm her marriage to Dmitry and crown her Tsarina. Ready for her close-up, Marina wore a Polish wedding dress and the famed Patriarch Ignatius, a powerful priest, put the historical Rurikids crown on her head.
Marina Mniszech had finally made it from the remote Polish court to the lofty throne of Russia. Yet in the course of this ceremony, sources say she also made a ruinous error.
Religion was a big deal in Marina’s age, and the Russian people—who were Orthodox—were extremely suspicious of her already, since as a Pole she was traditionally Catholic. Indeed, rumors from the time claimed that, thanks to her powerful father, Marina got a free pass to refuse a conversion to Orthodoxy during her Russian wedding and kept her Catholic faith.
I get that this might seem small. The coming storm proves it very much wasn’t.
In the end, Marina’s arrival in Moscow and her royal marriage to Dmitry was no fairy tale. It quickly turned into a horror story. Fueled by these whispers about Marina’s lack of conversion, new enemies began to pop up all around the Tsar and Tsarina. The most dangerous of these foes was Prince Vasily Shuisky, who went so far as to accuse the couple of trying to infect Russia with Roman Catholicism.
Unfortunately, it got worse.
Here’s a tip for all those would-be usurpers out there. If you really need your claim to come off as legitimate, try to blend into the scenery. Marina and Dmitry very much didn’t. Marina, Polish to her core, stuck out like a sore thumb in Moscow, while Dmitry continually surrounded himself with a cosmopolitan retinue who had disdain for Russian customs.
Not a great thing when you’re trying to prove you definitely-totally-are a long-lost Russian prince. It began to spin out of control very fast.
Dmitry and Marina were still new to this Tsar and Tsarina of Russia thing, but they didn’t seem to realize they had no margin to make mistakes. Not in Russia, anyway—in Russia, mistakes margin you. So as the discontent grew on their various “foreign” proclivities, they also didn’t make much of an effort to tamp it down, and kept right on going. It blew up right in their faces.
In mid-May of 1606, a destructive rumor went around the palace. Prince Shuisky, still stirring up trouble, insisted that the Tsar and his Catholic wife were about to close up the city gates and slay every last Muscovite they could find. This, of course, would then pave the way for Marina’s Polish friends to take over the Russian nerve center.
Was it true? I wouldn’t put it past Marina, even though she was bare days into her rule. But if so, it didn’t work out for her—not in the least.
On May 17, just 10 days after Marina’s official wedding-coronation and mere months after Dmitry took Moscow, the Russians rebelled against the new Tsar and Tsarina. Boyars and commoners alike stormed the Kremlin, and there were enough of them that they pushed themselves inside the bastion. This is where it got really messy.
Here’s the difference between Marina and Dmitry: While she seems to have somewhat kept her cool during this time, her husband most certainly did not. Terrified of the wrath of the oncoming crowd, Dmitry launched himself through a palace window in an attempt to escape. It only made his oncoming end that much more tragic.
Although Dmitry survived his fall, it wasn’t for long. He fractured his leg in the process, and stumbled his way into a bathhouse to try to disappear in the crowd. Unfortunately, a limping Tsar is a noticeable thing, and someone recognized him almost immediately. The rebels dragged him out to the street and offed him right then and there.
Marina’s husband—and her protection—was no more, but this horror show was just getting started.
In the wake of this coup, Marina made her own dark sacrifice. The rebels threw Marina and her father behind bars in the dungeons of the palace, where the two of them surely wondered if every day would be their last. When Marina heard about what the rebels did with her husband’s remains, that fear must have intensified.
Just in case the Russian people were confused about what this latest coup was for, the rebels made it crystal clear for them. Upon Dmitry’s execution, they—and I’ll try to describe this next part as delicately as I can—cremated him and then, er, fired his ashes in a cannon they directed towards Marina’s homeland of Poland.
Yes, they really hated her. They also made her feel it personally.
Marina and her father eventually survived this ordeal, but not without giving up everything. In exchange for her life, the rebels made Marina relinquish her title of Tsarina. Then, in July of 1608—nearly two long years after the coup—they sent her and her father packing back to Poland, sure they would never see them again.
Well, they were very wrong about that.
Any sane woman would have gone through this baptism of blood and decided to settle down into that nice, quiet life after all. Marina took another tack entirely. She and her father vowed to get themselves back on the Russian throne some way and somehow. Just months after their return to Poland, an opportunity reached their ears. It was insanity personified.
See, while Marina and her father were rotting in the royal palace’s personal gulag, another False Dmitry showed up on the scene, also claiming to be that missing Russian prince. No, I’m not kidding. Quite genuinely known as “False Dmitry II,” this Dmitry was well-educated, and—like Marina’s dearly departed husband before him—had also been amassing an army to march on Moscow.
So what does Marina do? Not the reasonable thing, I’ll tell you that.
Once more, Marina Mniszech could have exercised some sanity here and looked the other way. I mean, who wants to meddle in Russian boyar politics a second time? Instead, though, she clocked immediately that she could use this new Dmitry too, and went directly to his encampment. It just got more ridiculous from there.
When Marina reached the camp, she pulled out a bizarre move. She helped legitimize this Dmitry by “recognizing” him as her husband. Yeah, that guy who got burnt up and launched in a cannon clear across eastern Europe two years before.
No, I have no idea how this holds water on any level, metaphysical or otherwise, let alone how anyone believed it. As one commenter put it, the two Dmitrys were alike only in that they “were both human and usurpers”. But the thing is, people did believe it. Or at least they liked the fairy tale, because Marina only grew in power.
This new Dmitry was smart enough to know a good thing when he saw one, and he quickly sealed the deal with Marina, marrying her shortly after she showed up to his encampment. Now that he had a former—if disgraced—Tsarina of Russia by his side, he was sure to only gain more support for his cause.
Even so, Marina Mniszech was no meek wife.
In her brief time as Tsarina, Marina got used to the life of luxury fast, and she insisted on traveling in regal style wherever she and Dmitry II went. He happily obliged, and they lived in various encampments like rag-tag rulers. When they could, they attacked Moscow like gadflies. When these attacks inevitably failed, they settled for dominating regions all over south-east Russia.
Then a breakthrough development occurred.
In 1610, after months “ruling” by her new Dmitry’s side, Marina made a momentous discovery. She was pregnant, potentially with a new heir—tsarevich—to the Russian throne. This, of course, was even better for her position of power within Dmitry II’s world. But before Marina’s life got too comfortable, her husband’s dark side came out.
Marina sure knew how to pick ‘em. Despite his evident education and strangely high-class manners, Dmitry II was a certified brute. A heavy drinker, he also enjoyed flogging his companions if they looked at him the wrong way, a habit that did not make him the best of friends with his supporters. It would be his downfall.
In December of 1610, Marina was heavily pregnant and ready to give birth at almost any moment. Her husband, meanwhile, was celebrating the coming of his child with another bout of drinking. On the night of December 11, he drank copious amounts during dinner, and then decided to keep the party going by ordering his men to harness his sleigh and load it with mead.
It should have led to a night of carousing. It ended in blood.
For the next while, Dmitry II took his Slavic party bus on a tour of the surroundings, collecting up new drinking buddies as he went. He had no idea he’d already signed his death warrant. Among these “friends” was a Tatar Prince, Peter Urusov, whom Dmitry had recently flogged, as was his wont. The prince was about to even the score.
Knowing that Dmitry II was firmly in his cups with his guard down, Urusov saw his shot and took it—literally. While they were all riding their horses to the next pit stop destination, Urusov galloped up to Dmitry’s sleigh and shot him before fleeing on his horse away to safety. It was a bitter, baffling end for Dmitry II, and the consequences for Marina were dire.
Here Marina was, about to pop out a baby, and her second False Dmitry had to go and die on her, just like her first. To make matters worse, in January of 1611, she gave birth to a boy, Ivan—and while this would have been cause for celebration if Dmitry was alive, now it made the little tsarevich a target for anyone who wanted to wipe out rival contenders for the Russian throne.
By now, though, Marina Mniszech knew how to survive. She gritted her teeth and did what she had to do.
Soon after Dmitry II’s violent passing, Marina made a shocking decision. She married one of her late husband’s military masterminds, the Cossack leader Ivan Zarutsky. Zarutsky had experience, cunning, and provided the necessary protection to Marina’s quickly crumbling world. Yet his proximity to Dmitry II wasn’t the only reason this union was shocking.
Once more, Marina Mniszech had been at a crossroads. With end of Dmitry II, she might have been able to take her young son Ivan and flee to somewhere safe, growing old with him by her side. Yet her choice of Zarutsky was, once again, also a choice to fight for the power of the Russian throne—the Cossack was just as committed to this end as she was.
So, like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill, Marina began again, this time to make her son Tsar. Sadly, her luck was about to run right out.
Marina’s timing here wasn’t good. Within a year of little Ivan’s birth, the Russian political landscape had somehow gotten more chaotic. For one—if you can believe it—yet another False Dmitry emerged, Dmitry III, though this time the still-married Marina kept herself in check and didn’t reach out to him offering a reincarnation special.
This was probably a good thing, since he perished just months later. But bigger changes were afoot.
In 1613, Marina received the single worst tidings of her life. After years of turmoil, the Russians finally got it together and elected a powerful, stable Tsar they all mostly agreed on—Michael Romanov, the first Tsar of what would become the extremely long-lived Romanov dynasty. Marina’s window of opportunity had closed with a heavy thud.
If Marina Mniszech and her third husband didn’t sense that Michael was different right away, they very soon would.
Tsar Michael’s first order of business was naturally to wipe out the competition, and Marina, her husband, and her little boy spent the next breathless year fleeing from city to city, pursued by Michael’s men and losing scores of their own supporters along the way. It all came tumbling down in short succession.
In 1614, the townspeople of their latest hideout, Astrakhan, rose up against them, chased them out, and cornered them in the nearby steppes. The next month, they were in the hands of the new Tsar and at his mercy. None came.
Shortly after their capture, Marina witnessed horror after her horror. After imprisoning her yet again in Moscow, the new regime publicly executed both her husband and her toddler, bringing Marina’s years-long dreams of becoming Tsarina again to a blood-soaked halt. Yet as always, the Russians simply couldn’t stop there.
Tsar Michael knew he had to send a message to all the other impostors and rivals to his throne, but his tactic was so disturbing, it’s impossible to forget. He used Marina’s little boy as that message, displaying him after the execution for months at the Serpukhov Gate. This must have been too much, even for Marina.
Perhaps it was merciful, then, that her own end followed so swiftly.
The circumstances of Marina’s fate are mysterious—but no matter which version you believe, they’re all tragic. Some say she drowned, others that she hung, and still others that after hearing about her son’s last breaths, she “died of longing for her own fate”. Despite her action-packed life, she was only around 26 years old.
However, her passing left more than just another black mark on Imperial Russia. Some say it left a curse.
“Marina the Witch” was relentless in her search for power in life, and after the passing of her baby boy Ivan, her revenge was equally unyielding from beyond the grave. According to legend, Marina used some of her last words to curse the House of Romanov, saying, “You began with the death of a tsarevich, you will end with the death of a tsarevich!”
As such, some say she foreshadowed the execution of the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II and his 12-year-old son Alexei, centuries later during the Russian Revolution. It was, after all, as good as her little boy Ivan got.
History may not remember Marina Mniszech well, but by God did she try force herself into its annals, with utterly tragic effect. As famed Russian writer Alexander Pushkin put it after writing a play about her, “She had only one passion and that was ambition…always ready to give herself to whoever can show her a faint hope of a throne which no longer exists”.
Then again, this same overweening, destructive need for power is precisely what makes Marina memorable, vital, and sometimes sickening to those who do learn of her. Pushkin himself went on to add: “I will return to her if God lets me live long enough. She upsets me like a violent emotion”.
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