In fonder times, the tsar scalded and stabbed to death a prince

James Meek

  • Ivan the Terrible: First Tsar of Russia by Isabel de Madariaga
    Yale, 484 pp, £25.00, July 2005, ISBN 0 300 09757 3

Like a single-column photograph in a newspaper, the portrait of Tsar Ivan IV on the dust jacket of Isabel de Madariaga’s book has been cropped down to the essential features: the mournful brown eyes, the long, slightly beaked nose, the plump little mouth nestling in the silver-black whorls of a beard which bleeds out to the edge of the paper. On the inside of the back flap is the caption. ‘Tsar Ivan IV’, it reads. It isn’t him. It is not a picture of the demented, deluded, murderous failure of a man who ruled Russia for 37 years, from 1547 to 1584. ‘There is no authentic portrait of the tsar in existence,’ Isabel de Madariaga writes, ‘and all those reproduced in books about him are imaginary.’

The observation, in the book’s foreword, is characteristic of de Madariaga’s rigourous way of dealing with the obscurity of her subject. The effect of her determination to emphasise the uncertainty of most information about Ivan the Terrible, while setting out a clear, chronological account and analysis of the tsar’s life, is disconcerting, like watching a draughtsman ink precise designs on paper with one hand, and slosh water on them with the other. The smudging is as valid as the precision, but it doesn’t make for easy reading.

‘His eyes have been described both as small, and as large,’ de Madariaga says. She makes conscientiously frequent use of ‘seems’, ‘may’, ‘perhaps’, ‘probably’, ‘almost certainly’, to redeem her speculations. She tends to be coy with details of Ivan’s atrocities; when she does fill in the grisly picture, she is liable to go on to cast doubt on its veracity, because it’s based on the work of a foreigner keen to discredit his sovereign’s enemy, or to turn a quick farthing. Even those precious moments for the historian of 16th-century Russia which are documented by multiple sources have a Rashomon-like plurality to them.

In 1578, for instance, Ivan led a punitive raid on a district of Moscow inhabited predominantly by Germans and people from Livonia, a country covering the territory of what is now Estonia and Latvia. According to Johann Boch, an eyewitness from Antwerp who was there recovering from frostbite and under the tsar’s protection, the people of the district were beaten, stripped and robbed. A French mercenary writing second-hand many years later told a similar story. A Protestant pastor who knew Ivan’s Russia but who wasn’t there said that Ivan’s men raped the women and, when they resisted, the tsar had them beaten, had their nails and tongues torn out, then impaled them on red-hot stakes. Jerome Horsey, an Englishman who knew Ivan and was familiar with his world, but of whose colourful accounts de Madariaga is consistently sceptical, described the tsar ordering a thousand of his gunners to strip and rape or kidnap the women of the district.

We don’t know for sure whether Ivan was literate, or whether he went clean-shaven despite a church prohibition on smooth chins. No original written record remains of any of the tsar’s letters or orders. A large part of our idea of the texture of Ivan’s atrocities depends on the trustworthiness of just four contemporaries: Albert Schlichting, Johann Taube, Eilhard Kruse and Prince Andrei Kurbsky. Only the last of these was Russian, and he fled the country halfway through Ivan’s reign.

The fog of doubt that stands between us and the Russia of 450 years ago also lay thickly between Russia and Western Europe in Ivan’s time. There was a telling episode in 1581 when Antonio Possevino, a papal emissary, was granted an audience with the tsar. Among his gifts was one dedicated to Ivan’s first wife, Anastasia. Nobody in the Vatican knew that Anastasia had died 21 years earlier, and that the tsar was already onto wife number seven.

Over the murkiness of the contemporary record, further clouded by Ivan’s suspected rewriting of what chronicles existed, Russian and Soviet historians have placed distorting lenses of their own. De Madariaga argues that the comparatively late start of serious investigation by Russians into their own history, in the early 19th century, meant it got badly tangled up from the start with German Romantic philosophy; it also suffered from Russians’ ‘historical inferiority complex’, a sense that Russia had lagged behind Western Europe in setting up representative institutions able to channel the desires and needs even of great landowners, let alone bishops, burghers or peasants.

Russian and Soviet historians held up nuggets of democracy panned from the scant records of Ivan’s reign. They found Magna Carta-like moments, English Parliament-like moments, Estates General-like moments. Evidence for these, de Madariaga suggests, is absent. There were no estates; there was an aristocracy, but no offices for nobles to inherit; there were no ‘reforms’ by Ivan, only actions and consequences.

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