“The people are silent with horror”

Mikhail Shishkin, in The Atlantic:

The world is surprised at the quiescence of the Russian people, the lack of opposition to the war. But this has been their survival strategy for generations—as the last line of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov puts it, “The people are silent.” Silence is safer… As the popular adage has it: “One should not wish death on a bad czar.” For who knows what the next one will be like?

The action in Boris Godunov happens against the background of “modern Russia’s first civil war” or, according to some accounts, a popular uprising. It is the exact opposite of the “quiescence of the Russian people.” Not only does popular opinion turn against Boris but some people take up arms against him and for the young pretender known as the first False Dimitry.

“One should not wish death on a bad czar” might have been the principal lesson the Russian nation learned from that period, the Time of Troubles. But Pushkin’s crowd definitely wished to have Czar Boris deposed – meaning dead, in practical terms.

At the end of the play, the same crowd falls silent when facing the bitter fruit of their cause. Moments earlier, they clamored for Boris to be overthrown and his family to be destroyed, and now Boris’s widow and teenage son have been brutally murdered. “The people” are dumbstruck by this gratuitous brutality:

MOSALSKY. People! Maria Godunov and her son Feodor have poisoned themselves. We have seen their dead bodies.

(The People are silent with horror.)

Why are ye silent? Cry, Long live the tsar Dimitry Ivanovich!

(The People are speechless.)

One can interpret this final silence as a sign of shock and horror, a gesture of moral approbation, or a “not in my name” moment. It is definitely not part of any survival strategy – otherwise, the people would have cried, “Long live Dimitry!”

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