Sumarokov's tragedy Dimitrij Samozvanec stands at the pinnacle, such as it is, of Russian neoclassicism. As Russia's foremost pure neoclassicist, its author worked tirelessly in both didactic and exemplary works to promote the movement's poetics; tragedy, moreover, was for Sumarokov the most prestigious genre, and Dimitrij Samozvanec his most successful tragedy. The play enjoys in addition the considerable honor of having inspired, if only through its limitations, the greatest rejoinder in the history of Russian drama, Pushkin's magisterial Boris Godunov. Yet despite recent efforts to rejuvenate Sumarokov studies (in the work of Marcus Levitt and, more vocally, in Inna Vishnevskaja's recent Aplodismenty v proshloe), modern criticism on the whole is clearly no longer able to imagine what Pushkin, with his polemical stance, still very much could: the possibility that a viewer could in any degree take such older drama seriously.
In the long-established--indeed almost the only--reading of Sumarokov's play, "other than the names of Dimitrij the Pretender, Shujskij, and Ignatij, everything was invented by the author" (Sumarokov, Biblioteka poeta edition, 572). The assumption has always been that playwrights like Sumarokov were forced to dispense with historical accuracy and psychological plausibility because of the contrived demands of neoclassical dramaturgy. Yet curiously, having cleared room to allow for complete manipulation of character and event, Dimitrij Samozvanec actually does not engage in the slavish adherence to strictures that has been ascribed to it. Though some stipulations are resolutely observed, others are at every step questioned, challenged, and violated.
By the rules, both as inherited and as repeated in Sumarokov's own methodological works, the main outlines of a tragedy are pre-determined. Individual psychology is said to be immutable; in the play, characters are counseled throughout to reform and modify their behavior, and then struggle in separate monologues to explain to themselves whether such self-change is actually possible and if so, what it might mean. Action as a matter of course recedes in favor of speech; yet the theory by which Parmen tries to prove God's existence to Dimitrii ignores holy writ and focuses entirely on divine acts. Most problematic is the role of pretence. A play with a pretender for its villain clearly takes falsehood to be a vice, yet the "evil" Dimitrij is constitutionally incapable of dishonesty (to the extent of never once, in Sumarokov's telling, even mentioning his kinship), while the hero Shujskij lies repeatedly and spends most of his efforts teaching others how to be untrue to Dimitrij and their own hearts. Indeed, deception and why it is acceptable despite its immorality furnish the work's most discussed topics. All this in a play which speaks much more of istina as its positive touchstone than it does, say, of dobrodetel' or pravosudie. If clarity, especially moral clarity, is said to be required for didactic purposes, other characters' resistance to Shujskij's urgings to lie shamelessly leaves us with a distinctly mixed message. And most strikingly, neoclassicism's central ethical tenet, that virtue conquers vice, is overturned by the demonstration that here at least, vice does.