The Guy Who Impersonated A Russian Tsar So Well They Made Him King for Real
In 1766, a mysterious figure appeared in Maine, a small town in Montenegro. He called himself Scepan Mali (“Stephen the Small”) and established a successful business as a folk healer, practicing traditional Balkan herbal medicine. In this role, he was apparently very successful, but the people of Maine couldn’t help but notice there was something strange about their new neighbor. For starters, it was odd for a seemingly well-educated, worldly man to be peddling herbs in what might be politely described as the ass end of nowhere. But more than that, the healer seemed to be haunted by some strange sorrow, and was observed turning his face to the wall and weeping when prayers were offered for the Russian royal family.
Soon rumors began to spread — nobody could ever say who started them — that Scepan Mali was no mere folk doctor. In fact, he was none other than Peter III, Tsar of all Russia and defender of the Slavic peoples everywhere. At the time, Montenegro was divided between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, and many Montenegrins hoped that the Russian army would one day come and free them from foreign domination. So the news that the Russian Tsar was living in a spare bedroom in Maine trying to cure syphilis with mercury caused great excitement.
There was just one small problem with the story — Tsar Peter III was extremely dead at the time, having been overthrown and murdered in a palace coup led by his own wife, who added insult to injury by officially blaming the death on hemorrhoids (Peter was buried wearing a hat at a jaunty angle to disguise the bruising on his face). But this was generally agreed to be a minor detail, and soon a group of Montenegrin tribal elders had set out to ask Li’l Stephen to become their new ruler. And before long, the Zombie-King of the Black Mountain had caused panic in the region, kicking off a major war and prompting an elite team of Russian diplomats to journey to the wilds of Montenegro, determined to prove that their Tsar was dead after all.
Evil Cats, Royal Imposters and a Right Royal Kicking
Royal imposters like Scepan Mali were a huge problem throughout European history. In 1318, for example, a man named John Deydras tried to seize control of a castle in England, claiming to be the true King Edward II. According to Deydras, a careless royal nursemaid had allowed his ear to be bitten off by a pig as an infant. Fearing punishment, the nurse had swapped the earless prince with a nearby common baby, who grew up to take the throne. Deydras was eventually captured and put on trial, at which point he tried to blame everything on his cat, who he said had given him the idea while possessed by the devil. This was generally agreed to be a plausible story and Deydras and his cat were hanged on the same gallows to teach them a lesson.
Most commonly, imposters claimed to be a popular royal who had died under mysterious circumstances. After the young Prince Richard of York vanished under the care of his sinister uncle, a youth named Perkin Warbeck led a major invasion of England claiming to be the prince. This was defeated by Henry VII, who also had to fight another battle against Lambert Simnel, a second imposter pretending to be a second prince (although due to poor communication, the prince Simnel was impersonating wasn’t actually dead). Meanwhile, 13th century Germany was shaken by a man named Tile Kolup, who claimed to be the long-dead Emperor Frederick II. Kolup had something of a mixed reception, being dunked in a sewer when he tried to press his claim in Cologne, before successfully gaining the allegiance of several towns and nobles.
But no country was as infested with royal imposters as Russia, which makes sense when you realize that the Russians regarded their Tsars with almost religious awe, while also murdering them at the drop of a hat. Seriously, by 1801, regicide was so normalized that a nobleman kicked the Tsar to death, woke up his son with the words “Time to grow up. Go and rule!” and stomped out, leaving bloody footprints on the floor. As a result, Russia was frequently plagued by impersonators claiming to be various murdered royals. In 1591, for example, Ivan the Terrible’s young son Dmitri supposedly viciously cut his own throat while playing, allowing the regent Boris Godunov to usurp the throne. No less than three False Dmitris soon emerged and assembled powerful rebel armies, plunging the country into a bizarre and devastating civil war.
‘All Your Ancestors Died in Their Beds’
So there was a rich tradition of Tsars apparently rising from the dead when Scepan arrived on the scene, gazing sorrowfully into the hills and generously being as mysterious as possible. And it certainly didn’t hurt that Tsar Peter’s actual fate remained unclear to the general public — nobody for a second believed he had died of hemorrhoids a week after being deposed, which meant it was quite possible he wasn’t dead at all. There was precedent for something like this: After the infant Tsar Ivan VI was overthrown by his cousin Elizabeth, he disappeared from public view and was widely assumed to be dead. It only later became clear that he had been stripped of all identifying information and raised in solitary confinement in an Arctic fortress, like some kind of Toddler in the Iron Mask. Who was to say that Peter hadn’t escaped similar imprisonment at the hands of his wife Catherine the Great?
In any case, Montenegro was a nation in search of a leader. Again, the country was supposedly split between the Ottomans and Venice, but their rule was effectively limited to the low-lying areas. No foreign power had ever been able to venture far into the mountains, where the Montenegrins maintained a fiercely independent tribal assembly, loyal to a ruling prince-bishop. But the current prince-bishop, Sava, was considered a weak ruler, and the tribes had been riven by a succession of blood feuds so ancient and vicious that the worst insult a Montenegrin could hear was “I know your people — all your ancestors died in their beds.” With the Ottomans and Venetians creeping ever deeper into the country, wiser heads were aware that this state of affairs couldn’t continue.
In such a febrile atmosphere, the news of Tsar Peter’s miraculous arrival created something approaching mass hysteria. This was much to the dismay of the Ottomans and Venetians, who suddenly found spontaneous uprisings breaking out across their Montenegrin territories. Such was the frenzy that in 1766, the tribal assembly formally voted to set aside Prince-Bishop Sava and pledge their allegiance to Scepan Mali, despite the fact that none of them had actually met him (this was all much to the frustration of Bishop Sava, who had met the real Peter and was the only person in the country who could firmly identify Scepan as an imposter). A deputation of 60 distinguished tribal elders quickly set out for Maine, where they asked Scepan to become the new Prince of Montenegro. To everyone’s surprise, he refused.
Prince Scepan Drops His Purse
Scepan insisted that he had no intention of becoming a figurehead ruler and refused to be crowned unless the tribes agreed to put aside their feuds and swear absolute obedience to him. It’s hard to know Scepan’s motivations here. It’s possible that he was a small-time scammer desperately seeking an escape from a lie that had gotten out-of-hand. Alternatively, he may genuinely have wanted the throne and figured that playing hard to get could only increase his prestige. In any case, Scepan-mania had reached the point that there was no real possibility of the Montenegrins refusing and the tribes soon pledged to end their feuds and unite against their outside enemies.
So began the reign of Tsar Peter III (II). To the surprise of many, Scepan the Small turned out to be a highly effective, if brutal ruler, assembling an elite group of bodyguards who executed any of his subjects found guilty of feuding or theft. By 1767, Scepan was so widely feared that it was said he tested his authority by leaving a purse of money by the side of a formerly bandit-infested road, returning a month later to find it undisturbed. When not hanging people, Scepan also established Montenegro’s first court system and made a number of fairly enlightened reforms to the governance of the country.
Meanwhile, the Ottomans and Venetians were increasingly disturbed by the sudden appearance of a functional government in Montenegro, which they had long claimed to rule. In 1768, they formed an alliance and launched a four-pronged attack on Scepan’s kingdom. While Venice blockaded the coast, the Ottomans invaded Montenegro from three directions, besieging the tribes in their mountain strongholds. After nine months of brutal fighting, the situation seemed hopeless, but then a massive rainstorm flooded the Ottoman camp, rendering their gunpowder useless. Soon thereafter, the Montenegrins launched a daring raid, which captured most of the Ottoman supplies and forced them to retreat in disarray.
It was an incredible victory. Unfortunately, it owed nothing to Scepan, who had fled the scene as soon as the Ottoman army appeared. He later reappeared, but his reputation was badly damaged and it seemed as if his rule (and probably life) would soon come to an end. But then his authority received a boost from a highly unlikely source.
The Russians Are Coming!
Back in Russia, news of Peter’s supposed reappearance caused considerable irritation at court, where the oafish, German-obsessed Tsar had been extremely unpopular. And no one had hated him more than his wife Catherine, who, again, eventually led the coup against him and seized the throne for himself. She went on to become one of Russia’s most powerful rulers, remembered by history as Catherine the Great, but her reign would be dogged by no less than seven imposters claiming to be her dead husband. Scepan was the first, and Catherine was extremely unamused to find her former nemesis popping back from the dead like some kind of B-tier comic book character.
In 1769, she sent Prince Iurii Dolgorukii on a top-secret mission to Montenegro. His orders were to secure an alliance with the Montenegrins for Russia’s impending war with the Ottomans — and to expose Scepan as a scammer. Daringly traveling through enemy territory in disguise, Prince Dolgorukii arrived in Montenegro and promptly read a statement from Catherine declaring Scepan an imposter (and she would know, having almost certainly ordered the real Peter’s murder). The shocked Montenegrins promptly arrested Scepan and turned him over to the Russians, who imprisoned him in a room of their inn.
That’s when things got weird. With Scepan gone, the tribes promptly resumed their old feuds, determined to make up for lost murdering time. The elderly Bishop Sava was completely unable to impose his authority on the country, and seemed quite reluctant to leave the monastery Scepan had exiled him to. With order in the country collapsing, Dolgorukii could sense his Montenegrin alliance slipping away. Deciding that the first part of his mission was more important than the second, he unilaterally released Scepan from prison and restored him to power. Although he continued to deny Scepan was Peter, this endorsement from Prince Dolgorukii was widely taken as a sign that Li’l Steve must indeed be the former Tsar.
By this point, the Ottomans and Venetians had had enough. The former folk healer kept surviving impossible odds and emerging even stronger than before. The solution was obvious — Scepan had to die. The Venetians made an attempt to poison him as early as 1769, but he survived and clung on until 1773, when the Ottomans bribed a Greek barber to cut his throat Sweeney Todd-style. Thus ended the career of Scepan Mali, the only royal imposter to ever take the throne and rule successfully for any period of time (False Dmitri I was crowned Tsar in Moscow, but most of the city was on fire at the time, so that doesn’t count).
These days the career of Scepan Mali can seem like a bizarre and embarrassing farce, possible only in a more primitive time when people worshiped kings and seldom strayed beyond the confines of their own village. But maybe the dream of a handsome prince returning from the grave isn’t as far away as we’d like to think. The heir to America’s most glamorous political dynasty, JFK Jr., died in a plane crash in 1999, only for a significant part of Qanon to decide that he had faked his own death and would return to overthrow the sinister deep state. They even identified a guy named Vincent Fusca as JFK Jr. and anointed him as their savior-in-waiting, which is, if anything, even dumber than what happened with Scepan. Because, say what you will about him, Li’l Stephen was a hell of a con artist and a surprisingly decent ruler, which is more than we can expect from some random financial adviser from Pittsburgh.
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