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by Tamara MAKARENKO, Cand.Sc.(Biology), Forensic Medicine Office, Moscow Public Health Committee; and Tatyana PANOVA, Cand.Sc.(History), History Museum of the Moscow Kremlin
Thinking back to the dramatic pages of Russian history in the sixteenth century, the poet Apollon Maikov (1821-1897), who was also a Corresponding Member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, wrote these lines:
That was the age when Venetian poison Invisible, plague-like, lurked in everything: In an epistle and in the Eucharist, and in a winebowl, In meat and drink...
This might look like an overstatement had in not been for our latest research findings... Poison in Russia, as we now know, was a real and effective weapon in the power struggle...
The fitful events of the sixteenth century are usually connoted with the reign of Czar Ivan IV (1533-1584), otherwise known as Ivan the Terrible. Meanwhile the preceding period, just as eventful and enigmatic, somehow lingers in the shadow. The reign of Grand Prince Basil (Vassily) III (1505-1533) and the regency of his widow, Grand Princess Yelena Glinskaya (1533-1538), left a trace in Russian history just as well. Yet it is not the foreign and domestic policies pursued by Russia in those days-described in sufficient detail - that attract our attention. The lives of persons then in power are no less interesting to us. The more so as we are dealing with a regent princess, an exceptional case for the Russia of the Middle Ages when women were kept from playing first fiddle in politics. The eighteenth century, the time of "big-bosomed empresses" on the Russian throne, was yet far off.
The regency of our heroine. Grand Princess Yelena (Helen) Glinskaya, continued for about five years and caused heavy infighting at the princely court. But let us begin at the beginning and recall how this young high-bom woman, who represented one of the greatest families of the Grand Principality of Lithuania, turned up in Muscovy.
The Glinsky family came to Russia in 1508. Prince Mikhail, the most conspicuous personality of that family, was well educated and even practiced the medical profession (he was a certified doctor of medicine). This man was restless, with a flicker of adventure in his blood. Vassily III, the ruling prince, bestowed great honors on him, but the ambitious adventurer hankered for more. He wanted the city of Smolensk, captured by Russian troops in 1514, to be added to his domains. Not getting it in hand, Prince Mikhail tried to flee to Lithuania but failed in this attempt too and landed in gaol. He was set free only in February 1527, soon after Grand Prince Vassily married (Yelena), who was his (Mikhail's) niece. After Vassily's demise (1533) Mikhail became a guardian of Ivan, an heir to the throne and a small child then (three years old), with Yelena as regent Princess. Fearftil of Mikhail's influence, the Moscow nobility succeeded in his ouster and incarceration. The high-bom Lithuanian ended his days in gaol.
At first Vassily III was married to Solomonia Saburova. He made a break with her and, in November 1525, had forced her to take the veil under the monastic name Sophia. The only reason for the divorcement was that no children were born during the many years of their wedlock. That is, there were no heirs to the throne. Two months later, on 21 January 1526, Grand Prince Vissily III wedded Yelena Glinskaya.
Many of his retinue, especially among the court aristocracy, opposed that marriage. To please his young wife, who was sweet and twenty, the Grand Prince even broke the time-honored Russian tradition and sacrificed his beard - an unheard-of thing!-leaving in "just moustache alone". The nobility and the rabble alike gasped in wonder. As testified by the chronicles of the day, Vassily "became enamored of Yelena ... for the pulchritude of her visage and her good looks but first and foremost because of her chastity". The Grand Prince's letters likewise attest to his nuptial bliss-five epistles to his spouse have survived in the archives. In his first letter the sovereign - again in a break with tradition! - penned part of the text with his own hand, "... and I put my hand to this writ to thee so that thou couldst peruse this writing and keep it for thyself."
Two sons were bom in this wedlock. The older son, bom on 25 August 1530, was named Ivan. To grace this occasion, the happy father even pardoned exiled nobles and had his former wife Solomonia transferred from the northern town ofKargopol (near Archangel) to Suzdal, about a hundred miles east of Moscow, where the nun joined the sisters of the Convent of the Protecting \fcil. The Grand Prince revoked his ban and gave permission to his brothers - Prince Yuri of Dmitrov (a small town 50 miles north of Moscow) and Prince Andrei of Staritsa (about 150 miles to the northwest) - to marry.
Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author. - Ed.
Being childless in his first marriage, Vassily III had prohibited them to get married and have a family. Clearly, he was loath to aggravate the vital issue of succession.
On 30 October 1532 Yelena Glin-skaya gave birth to their second son, Yuri. As shown by written testimonies, the Grand Prince showed great care and attention for his wife and little boys. A loving father, he tasted the joy of fatherhood only on the wrong side of fifty. His firstling and heir to the throne, Ivan, was the cynosure of fatherly love. Once the little kid got a boil on his neck; and so the anxious father scripted these lines to his spouse: "Wherefore didst thou not write to me of that before? Thou shouldst write me whether God hath mercy on Ivan the son, and what kind of thing there is on his neck, and in what wise doth it happen to small children? If it doth, then what from: be it by birth, or from something else? Thou shouldst talk to boyars of all that, and inquire them, and then write me as it is ... write about everything." The Grand Prince, absent as he was from his home and family traveling on business, showed concern for the children's diet: "And henceforth do let me know what kind of meals Ivan the son has ... that should be within my ken." The younger son, alas, grew frail and sickly As the chroniclers admitted at a later date. Prince Yuri was "stupid and simple-minded, and not good to anything", but his father was not destined to learn that sad truth: while hunting, he fell ill late in September 1533. An inflammation of the periosteum (periostitis) is believed to be the cause of his death. Prince Ivan, three years of age then, was proclaimed heir to the throne, with Princes Dmitry Belsky and Mikhail Glinsky acting as guardians, and Yelena as regent princess. Prince Belsky was ousted fairly soon, and the same lot befell Prince Belsky who, thrown into gaol, ended his life there.
Although the regency of Grand Princess Yelena did not last long, it was packed with important events. It saw the monetary reform of 1535 when a single currency was introduced in Muscovy; also, a truce with Lithuania;
regulations that restricted monastic land ownership; and so on. The city of Moscow fortified its defenses by building protective walls and turrets around Kitaigorod, a town district just east of the Kremlin and Red Square. In order to safeguard the interests of her underage son Ivan, Princess Yelena had to play tough in dealing with her brothers-in-law, Princes Yuri and Andrei, the putative rivals; both died in goal. The young regent princess was facing a stiff opposition from many nobles that had fallen from grace under Vassily III who had been combating separatist tendencies among the old feudal aristocracy
And then again, having a woman on the throne was contrary to the traditions of medieval Russia, the Muscovy.
Shall we marvel, therefore, at Yelena's sudden demise in 1538? The annals of the day make no mention of any disease that carried her off. The chronicler did not elaborate on circumstantials, his account was terse and matter-of-fact: "On the second day of April the Grand Princess Yelena expired, to grace the memory of our venerable confessor Hegumen Nikita ... on Tuesday night, at three o'clock, to be committed to the grave in the Ascension [Church]."
Turning to the history of those days, as good as all authors hint Yelena Glinskaya must have been poisoned. However, we find no hard evidence to this effect in any
of the documents of that time or of the succeeding decades. And we cannot trust the testimony of Petrus Petreus, a Swedish diplomat and army officer, who visited Moscow a hundred years after the event: "...with the demise of the Grand Prince, [the princess] used to go to the brothel, would whore and fornicate a good deal... so much so that she incurred open hatred from everybody. The grand boyars could not bear and forbear any longer, and they poisoned her..." Reading such kind of stuff, we cannot help smiling - all that is too primitive, too simplistic to enable an insight into the complex pattern of Russian politics in the 1530s. Furthermore, the author betrays his total ignorance of the Russian ways.
But here is a bit of better evidence, available in the List of the Cwr's
Archives, 1575-1584, in which a reference is made to box 27 that contained an entry recounting that Prince Mikhail Glinsky had a man, Kopegin by name, sent to "give the bane ... to the Queen and Grand Princess Olena..." It's pretty hard to interpret this testimony, especially if we recall that Prince Mikhail was no longer in the land of the living then and could not have a finger in the pie. Yet one thing is clear: poisons were in wide use in Muscovy (though in this particular case they could be administered as drugs). No hope of unraveling the mystery of Princess Yelena's death, it would seem. And yet...
History has decreed it otherwise: her tomb has survived to our days. Yelena Glinskaya (mother of Ivan the Terrible) was laid to rest in the vault of the Ascension Cathedral of the
Moscow Kremlin; this cloistral church was used as a burial ground of Muscovian grand princesses from the year 1407 on*. A description of the vaults was made in 1929, before the structures of the Ascension Cloister (Nunnery) were pulled down. All the sarcophagi were taken to the basement chamber of the southern annex of the Archangel Cathedral. More than 460 years have passed since the burial of the Grand Princess. Thanks to modem science, capable of the finest genetic studies, we can learn quite a bit about persons who lived hundreds and even thousands of years ago-suffice if some bones of the skeleton and a patch of headgear or cerements are there. Today forensic medicine experts and coroners help archeologies in investigating all the various burial finds, among them those dating from the Middle Ages too. Of particular importance are the spectral analysis techniques employed for studying the elementary composition of bone tissue and other objects. In the course of his or her natural life an individual acquires certain pathologies; the body tissues and organs are contaminated with metals and other pollutants present in the habitation medium. In point of fact, certain basic elements are always present in any living organism, such as oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur that go into the making of protein molecules (by the way, Academician Vladimir Vernadsky undertook a study of this problem all the way back in the 1920s). Next comes the widespread phosphorus, chlorine, magnesium, potassium, sodium, calcium and ferrum. The other elements (and these are quite numerous, recall Mendeleyev's Periodic Table of the Elements!) are assigned to microelements which likewise have a significant effect on the human organism. This effect may be either positive or negative. Now, the job that crime detection specialists had to tackle was this: find
* See: N. Voronova and T. Panova, ''... By Calumny and Bane Foredone...", Science in Russia, No. 3, 1998. -Ed.
the elementary composition of objects in Yelena Glinskaya's tomb and determine the concentration of mercury there, for the sudden and premature death of the Grand Princess looks suspicious.
And so forensic medicine experts turned to the job at hand. They made a spectrum analysis of a rib fragment, of a patch of the silken burial shroud made in Italy (damask) and of two bits of the headpiece (capillitium)-one from the brow tape (ribbon), and the other - from the top (lace). Even some ofYelena's hair preserved in the capil-litium headpiece - her hair was bright red, and so were her eyelashes detected in the eyesockets of the skull. For the elementary composition assay, a modified technique, that of emission spectral analysis, was used - for it allows to identify dozens of elements in one and the same sample simultaneously Both intact and ashed (reduced to ash in the quartz crucibles of a muffle furnace at 400C) samples were mounted on an ISP-30 crystal spectrographer and studied in an AC arc (power source, UGE-4). But we would rather not puzzle our readers with technicalities. Still, the above techniques made it possible to identify a number of pertinent macro- and microelements, especially those in the bone tissue (the elementary composition of the headpiece and burial clothes was almost identical). The rib was found to contain the same elements as those in a control sample-the bones of our contemporary (a Moscow resident by the way). These was also an enhanced content of manganese, lead, silicon, aluminum, titanium and other elements. That must be due to overall contamination and the long time that has passed since the burial. Experts know it quite well that some elements, manganese above all, are deposited in bone tissue with time. As to the lead, this metal was part of the medieval cosmetics, hence its buildup.
But what about mercury, a "patent" poison of many lands? It was assayed by means of an AA-30 atomic absorption spectrophotometer with the aid of a
mercury hydride adapter, in a flow of nitrogen (wavelength, 253.6 nm; current in the lamp, 4 mamp; a 1 mm-wide slit). Mercury was detected in the brow tape, in the shred of the burial clothes and in the bone tissue (its concentration was 55 ug/g in the fabric of the tape, 3 ug/g in the fabric of the cerements and 0.36 ug/g in the bone tissue).
Now, compare: the mercury concentration in raw human organs and tissues is usually in the 0 to 0.05 ug/g range. For instance, in the brain it is from 0 to 0.01 ug/g, in the liver and kidneys - up to 0.02 ug/g. No data are available in the literature at our disposal on the natural concentration of mercury in the human bone tissue (it is believed not to be accumulated there). Therefore our results appear of particular interest. The enhanced concentration of mercury in Yelena Glinskaya's headpiece came from her hair. All kinds of "metal" poisons, you see, are accumulated in the hair - mercury too. No matter how this poison gets into the organism, it is deposited mostly in the kidneys, liver and spleen. And in the hair, of course.
True, mercury held a special place in medieval medicine as a drug that "could give vim to the body and immortality". So adding mercury sulphide to all medicines was a must. Studying the relics of the Czar Ivan the Terrible in 1963, forensic medicine experts detected a very high concentration of this element. The czar, seeking relief from the pain in his joints that plagued his toward the end of his life, must have been using oriental salves that contained mercury
And so, the mercury in the rib of the Grand Princess and in her clothes must have come from some external source; the bane was then deposited in her bones and hair.
Crime detection experts are always cautious in their conclusions. Their verdict in this particular case does not exclude the possibility of deliberate poisoning with salts of mercury But even they were amazed at the high concentration of this substance in the bones. It's too early yet to place a full stop in this story. But some tentative conclusions might be in place. Too many things in the life of Grand Princess Yelena Glinskaya, a woman drawn into the maelstrom of Muscov-ian politics, foreshadowed her end. As regent princess, she was destined to survive but five years in a land that frowned upon women in power and that was wary of aliens in general; and in a court embroiled in intrigues and infighting. It had to happen anyway
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