Day 15: Heroes, Especially for our Time

Welcome to Day Fifteen of my blog series on “accepting the world.” You can catch up on earlier posts at this series’ dedicated page here.

As I trusted, my personal hero’s journey at the WMG SF craft workshop happened, and then some. It’s been everything I could have hoped, and more. Mostly because of self-knowledge and a clear idea of how to improve as a writer, in terms of my craft. There are probably going to be many more insights in the coming days, mostly because it takes time to synthesize this much information, and only after some rest and contemplation can one really makes sense of these kinds of events.

A Decided Lack of Heroes

There is one thing that struck me a few days ago. Our teacher, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who is one of the best writers and editors of short stories of our time, gave us a lecture on the history of the science fiction genre. In some ways, this genre is as old as stories are, but practically speaking, it really only started with Frankenstein. But even in two hundred years, the history of the genre is one of acrimony, bad feelings, and a decided lack of heroes.

It struck me, because so often we take for granted our own rich history and the presence, in that history, of heroes and saints who provide models for emulation on a daily basis. Not many people in our pluralistic world have the benefit of such heroes. And yet, we often forget about them, preferring to repeat doom and gloom pronouncements about the lack of heroes in our own time.

So, to remind myself first of all, I’m including a chapter from my recent book, Heroes for All TimeI hope you will be inspired and edified by the memory of our many heroes.

Heroism. Heroes. We want to believe in them. But too often, both in history and current events, it seems the heroes have headed for the hills, leaving the halls of power to the cunning and the unscrupulous. And so we indulge in escapist fantasies about superheroes that might save us from ourselves, if they can get their own lives in order first, that is.

In my writer’s manifesto, I describe what I see as a necessary “story hero” for our time. He is not a hulking warrior who puts down hundreds of enemies with his sword. He is not a cunning politician who outwits his corrupt fellows to help further yet another social program. No Conan, no Odysseus.  Instead, he is a man of humility, yet a man of strength. (I should say that whatever I say of heroes is true of heroines as well). 

As difficult as it is to find such heroes in fiction, it ’s even more difficult to find them in history, especially during the tumultuous time when Prince Dmitry was murdered. But it seems that the best heroes are made in the crucible of dark times. Interestingly enough, one such hero, a true hero for any time, was also a Prince Dmitry. But his last name was Pozharky.

A Military Family

The Pozharsky family was descended from Riurik, the half-legendary first ruler of the Rus. In the 16th century, the family fell into decline and lost its ancestral holdings. In those days, there were several ways for a noble family to gain status:

• Appointment to a military command

• Assignment as a city governor

• Presence at court

• Ideally, a seat in the Boyar Duma, the circle of advisors to the Tsar.

To get into the Duma, however, you had to receive a special rank from the Grand Prince of Moscow himself.

In the 16th century, scores of aristocratic families campaigned to achieve “Duma” status. Hundreds more vied for military commander postings. The Pozharsky family showed no such ambitions, content to merely be useful. They received low-level assignments in the army.

Many of them lost their lives in various battles. They never achieved Boyar or Duma status, despite their noble birth. And when one of them rose to a slightly higher social position, that Pozharsky was always happy to serve, even if that service took him somewhere to the remotest outskirts of the country.

It’s interesting to me that a man who would become the savior of Russia came from relatively humble, if hardworking, stock.

The Times of Trouble

Prince Dmitry entered the so-called Time of Troubles (1598-1613)  as a middle-rank officer, something between colonel and major general in our terms. This was considered a decent career for those times, better than most of Dmitry’s ancestors. Still, it was nothing spectacular. In spite of this, he became one of the most remarkable figures of the short, but bloody, Time of Troubles.

During the reign of Tsar Vasily Shuisky (1606 – 1610), Pozharsky finally became a first-rank military commander (voyevoda). He was an effective commander, defending the capital from Polish-Lithuanian gangs and Russian rioters alike. Shuisky, one of the least popular Tsars in Russian history, failed to control a rising tide of ill feeling against him. It didn’t help that a man pretending to be a murdered heir of the Riurikid line, the first so-called False Dmitry, was gaining support among all levels of society as he marched on Moscow with a Polish army.

In 1610, Pozharsky was serving as voyevoda of Zaraisk, a town near Moscow. It was besieged by an army of Russians who believed in the right of False Dimitri to the throne of Moscow. In this frightening atmosphere of treachery, when one couldn’t tell friend from foe, Pozharsky managed to keep his own army loyal to the Tsar, remaining steadfast inside the kremlin of Zaraisk. Eventually, though he was besieged, he managed to put the rebellion down.

However, in that same year, the Russian aristocracy, having decided that it preferred to rule the country on their own, betrayed Tsar Vasily Shuisky. Lulled into false security by spurious promises of the Polish government, they invited an army of Polish invaders into Moscow. They believed they could take control of the political turmoil and get rid of autocracy in favor of an oligarchy. Instead, they betrayed their country and made it a vassal state of Poland. It was a moment of terrible, unbearable humiliation for Russia.

Despite False Dmitry’s temporary success in taking Moscow, he still needed to secure his military position. He invited Ukrainian Cossacks to Moscow to support his own Polish troops. Before they could reach Moscow, Pozharsky’s army and a guerilla force led by Prokopii Liapunov managed to clear them out of the areas near Ryazan. Then, both of the victorious Russian armies moved toward Moscow. Pozharsky got there first.

The Fight for Moscow

It didn’t take long for a rebellion to break out inside Moscow itself. The Muscovites could no longer bear the oppression, thievery, and humiliation at the hands of the Polish garrison. The fight for the city was merciless and violent. The Poles stormed Russian barricades, while the barricade defenders shot at Poles from guns and cannons. 

The last stronghold of Russian resistance was a simple wooden fortification built on the orders of Pozharsky near the Church of the Meeting of the Lord on Sretenka. The Poles couldn’t take his position. Instead of losing Moscow, they preferred to burn it down. A horrible fire consumed the greater part of the capital.  Pozharsky himself was heavily wounded, and his rebellion stagnated.

However, an army, gathered from various cities near Moscow, arrived to help the rebels. For more than a year, they remained near the ruins of the capital, intermittently fighting the invaders to a stalemate. Dmitry Pozharsky was evacuated from the city.

The Liberator

The autumn of 1611 was possibly the worst year in Russian history. There was no government to speak of. The ostensible rulers of Russia were a gang of traitors who occupied the Kremlin and tried to rule the country with foreign soldiers. Ravaging Cossacks burned down cities and villages all over the countryside, robbing and killing as they went. The Swedish army captured the entire Russian North, even going so far as Novgorod.

The Polish king crossed the border and his troops camped near Smolensk. He sent reinforcements to the Polish garrison in Moscow.

At such a moment, the entire history of Russia teetered on the edge of a knife. It would have been very easy to give up, to capitulate, to abandon Russia’s future for temporary gain. But mustering all that remained of its strength, Pozharsky’s small resistance army remained standing on the ashes of the capital. However, without him there, the commanders couldn’t stop quarreling among themselves.

Russia was on the verge of a permanent collapse, never to revive. But then, something changed.

A few wealthy cities remained unoccupied by Polish invaders. Among these, Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod were an epicenter for the liberation movement. A new army began to rally at Nizhny Novgorod, then gathered troops and supplies throughout the region until it reached Yaroslavl.

In Yaroslavl, a “provisional government” was organized, which included a Council of the Land with government offices and even its own mint. Yaroslavl essentially became the Russian capital for a time.

The Charter of the Council of the Lands began with the words: “By the order of the Moscow State, the boyars and the governors, and the steward and voevoda Prince Dmitry Mikhailovich Pozharsky.”

To be thus singled out among all other noblemen was a great honor, but Pozharsky was not a seeker for power. He was a skilled military commander, but so were many others. What set him apart was his reputation for honesty and integrity, as well as incredible courage. He had never grabbed money for himself. He had never taken advantage of the confused political situation to advance his own family’s humble prospects. 

And the commoners were ready to follow him, despite his noble standing. There was almost no one else to trust, except for the humble, yet adamantine war leader. 

Russia did not have a Tsar, but Prince Pozharsky assumed many of his functions. The persistent Nizhny Novgorod citizens and Smolensk noblemen, who were the nucleus of the new army, insisted that he needed to lead them. Pozharsky had not yet recovered from his wounds and was leery of betrayal. However, he agreed to take command of the army after long negotiations.

In July 1612, the vanguard of this new liberation army arrived in Moscow. By August 20, the main force had also arrived. From the west, the traitor Cossack Hetman Khodkevich’s powerful armies swooped swiftly towards the city. The collision with him would decide the fate of the Russian capital.

What view met Prince Pozharsky’s eyes when he returned to Moscow? Black fires, smoking churches, burnt-out hulks of buildings here and there, stained with ashes. However, some business-minded Muscovites had managed to build themselves new “mansions” among the rubble.

The soldiers of Pozharsky’s first rebel army, which he was forced to abandon when wounded, had made themselves dugouts, occupying the surviving houses. They lived in persistent hunger. Only the walls of the ancient Kremlin, crippled by artillery fire, towered over the ruins …

Pozharsky had a very small number of well-armed, truly battle-worthy cavalry from the nobility as well as a small section of Tatar cavalry at his disposal. The bulk of the troops were foot soldiers. As an experienced leader, the prince knew that the Russian infantry of that time rarely showed steadfastness at the time of battle. But on the defensive, it was almost unbreakable.

Give a dozen Russian sharpshooters not just a stone wall, but even a few overturned wagons, and they would keep off hundreds of enemies. So, Pozharsky decided to build wooden fortifications inside the city as strong points, and then to dig trenches. He planned to combine the defensive tactics of the infantry with cavalry offensives.

This tactic brought him success in a persistent three-day battle.

On August 22, Pozharsky’s cavalry attacked the Poles and Cossacks around the Novodevichy Convent. The Poles threw in massive forces into the battle, and the Russian cavalry retreated, but was able to regain its bearings at a small wooden fortification near the Arbat Gate. Here, Khodkevich threw his reserves into the fray. Nevertheless, the Cossacks could not shake the Russian soldiers from the position they had occupied.

The persistent confrontation with the hardened soldiers of Khodkevich made the outcome of the battle more and more ambiguous. But a sudden strike from the detachments of the first rebel militia, who finally came to aid their comrades in their hour of need, decided the matter: the Poles and Cossacks retreated.

However, on the night of August 22-23, aided by a Russian traitor, the Poles captured the small wooden fortification of the first rebel army. For no apparent good reason, Hetman Khodkevich took the entire next day to prepare for a decisive blow, giving the Russian liberation army a much-needed rest.

On August 24, the Poles pushed back the Russians, but they failed to break through the defense of the main forces. However, one of the militia regiments failed to hold a key fortification, and they allowed Khodkevich to break through into the center of Pozharky’s lines. It looked again like Pozharsky would lose. But his forces suddenly counterattacked and drove the Poles back.

The fighting paused. The troops of both sides had suffered horrendous losses and were exhausted. Pozharsky realized that this moment was ideal for taking the initiative. He sent a detachment of several hundred fighters, led by the merchant Kusma Minin, to the Moscow River. The unexpected attack of the Russian forces, who the day before barely held their positions and seemed on the edge of collapse, took the Poles by surprise. Soon, their fighting spirit was broken, and the battle for Moscow turned.

It was the decisive last step that broke the invaders’ backs. The next day, the enemy forces began to withdraw from Moscow.

The invaders still held the center of the city for a few more months. In November, the Russian militia stormed China-city. The Polish garrison surrendered soon afterward.

The peak of the Great Trouble had passed.

After the liberation of Moscow and the beginning of the reign of Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich (who ruled from 1613 to 1645), the first of the Romanov dynasty, Pozharsky was awarded the highest rank of boyar (1613), admitted to the Duma, and was given large estates. For him, a man seemingly inconspicuous in the ranks of the brilliant Moscow aristocracy, the boyar rank had been an unattainable dream.

Servant to the Tsar

Dmitri Mikhailovich was honored as a “great bogatyr”, a military leader “skillful in war”. He continued to take part in military operations. In 1615, Pozharsky defeated the soldiers of the famous Polish vagabond Lisovsky next to the city of Orlov. Leading 600 people against 2000, Pozharsky repelled the enemy, taking 30 captives, the enemy banners and drums. In autumn 1618, Pozharsky, a sick man barely alive from old wounds, served as the siege voevoda in Kaluga, harassing the Poles with constant attacks and eventually forcing the enemy to retreat from the city.

Even during the Smolensk War of 1632-1634, Pozharsky, exhausted by the “black ailment” (a serious illness), aged over 60, still led his soldiers tirelessly.

He funded the construction of the Kazan Cathedral on Red Square, which was destroyed in the Soviet era and rebuilt in the 1990’s. Pozharsky donated generously to churches. He especially liked to buy expensive liturgical books for priests.

He died from complications from his wounds in 1642. Here is how historian Ivan Zabelin describes this hero for our time:

You do not need particularly keen eyes to see Pozharsky’s motives. He did not stand for personal goals and he did not serve any party. He served his people and his land, and he served  them purely, straightforwardly, and honestly. It was his ordinary deeds and actions that gave such a quotidian man a significance unusual for that time. It was this significance that the people in Nizhny Novgorod understood so well, when they wished to find a leader for the liberation movement who would not betray them all, who would not switch sides, searching for advantages for his own honor or for self-interest, as did the vast majority of the princes, boyars, and governors of the time.”

How wonderful such an assessment sounds, and how necessary for our days! What’s so amazing about his story is that he was only a single man, and not a very powerful one at that. And yet, his single-minded virtue and integrity moved mountains and changed the tide of a war no one thought he could win. That’s a lesson any person can learn, especially when it seems that we can do nothing to shift the tide of injustice, corruption, and degradation in our own culture and political system.

To read more stories of heroism like this, make sure to buy Heroes for All Time, now available in both ebook and paperback formats.

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