Dimitri, Or Dmitri Demetrius, the name of several Russian princes, who reigned in the 13th, 14th, and 17th centuries. The most important of them is known under the name of Dimitri Samozvanetz, or Pseudo-Demetrius, and is generally believed to have falsely assumed the name of the younger surviving son of Ivan the Terrible, who during the reign of the elder son, the feeble Fedor, was confined by Boris Godunofi', the brother-in-law and ruler of the czar, in the town of Uglitch, and died there in 1591 a violent death, which was attributed by his mother to the treachery of Boris; but the latter instituted an investigation, from which it appeared that the child fell in a fit and was accidentally stabbed with a knife he held in his hand. The despotic rule of Boris, before and after the death of Fedor, the last of the Ruriks (1598), had prepared the minds of the Russians for a rebellion, when rumors of Demetrius having escaped the hands of the assassins by the substitution of another victim spread over the country. The pretender, whose real name and origin are still a mystery, made his first disclosures in 1603 at the court of Prince Adam Wisniowiecki in Lithuania, where he was serving in the capacity of a page.
Prince Constantine Wisniowiecki, the brother of Adam, introduced him to his father-in-law, Mniszek, palatine of Sandomierz. Some of the Polish nobles and their friends were gained by the persuasive skill of the pretender, while Mniszek was fascinated by the prospect of seating upon the throne of Russia his daughter Maryna, for whom the youth declared his love. An audience of the king, Sigismund III., was easily gained, and, the interests of both the state and the Catholic church decisively pleading in favor of the cause, the nobles were allowed to set on foot an expedition to Moscow, independently of the government (1604). The future czar was zealously assisted by the Jesuits, and some historians therefore believe him to nave been the tool of the order. A simultaneous revolt of the Russian Cossacks against the rule of Boris, under the lead of Grishka (Gregory) Otrepieff, a runaway monk, with whom Demetrius has often been confounded, seconded the enterprise. The invading army, about 5,000 strong, was reenforced in Russia by detachments of Cossacks. Some of the strongest cities, summoned in the name of the son of Ivan, voluntarily opened their gates; others were taken.
After several victories and repulses, the war was terminated by the sudden death of Boris, and by the Russian commander declaring in favor of Demetrius. The latter captivated the people by a spectacular display of affection at his meeting with the mother of the prince he personated, who acknowledged him as her son. Boris's son and successor Fedor and his family were surprised in the Kremlin and thrown into prison, and the victor entered Moscow in triumph (June, 1605), and was crowned as Czar Demetrius. Fedor and his mother had been murdered, perhaps by his command; other members of the family also were made victims of his cruelty or policy, but a daughter of Boris was spared to become his concubine. His reign was marked from the beginning by energy and ability; but his love of innovations, his undisguised predilection for the culture, institutions, and religion of Poland, and his contempt of the customs, superstitions, and ignorance of his subjects, soon made him the object of national hatred. The arrival of his foreign spouse, with a large train of Polish nobles, warriors, and Jesuits, the arrogant and reckless behavior of some of these followers, and rumors of the czar's intended apostasy from the Russian church, finally undermined his throne.
A few days after the celebration of his nuptials with Maryna, and her coronation, a band of conspirators, led by Prince Shuiski, who was indebted to Demetrius for the pardon of a former plot, assaulted the Kremlin. He defended himself bravely, but the people rising, he and thousands of his men, including nearly all the Poles, were butchered, May 16, 1606. Prince Shuiski was proclaimed czar under the name of Basil III., but, being attacked by a new pretender, also calling himself Demetrius, and by the Poles and Swedes, was obliged to resign his throne. The origin and previous history of the new Demetrius are unknown; his abilities were small, but his depredations made him an object of terror, and he even held the capital in siege for 17 months. Some of his men having captured Maryna, who had been released from prison to return to her country, the princess was compelled to acknowledge him as her lawful husband. But the pretender was soon after (1610) murdered by a Tartar chief of his guards, and the tzaritza perished, according to some, in the waters of the Ural, but according to others in prison.
Even after the accession of the house of Romanoff to the throne of Moscow (1613), the convulsions caused by pretenders, one of whom called himself the son of the first of them, were but slowly suppressed. The history of the first samozvanetz has been poetically embellished by Bulgarin, Pushkin, and Khomiakoff, and made the subject of an unfinished drama by Schiller. - See Les faux Demetrius, by Prosper Merimee (Paris, 1854).