Vol. 27 No. 23 · 1 December 2005

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

James Meek

3593 words
Ivan the Terrible: First Tsar of Russia 
by Isabel de Madariaga.
Yale, 484 pp., £25, July 2005, 0 300 09757 3
Show More
Show More

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.

Ivan’s reign doesn’t fit the Marxist model of progressive class struggle into which Soviet historians tried to squeeze it, or the notion which Stalin, an admirer of Ivan, loved and promoted, that cruelty and mass terror were justified by the necessity for a strong, unified state able to defend itself against external enemies. Ivan divided his realm into two parts, unleashing one – the part he took for his own – to prey murderously, greedily and destructively on the other. It requires some historical jiggery-pokery to see this as an act in the cause of unity, and would do so even if greater Russian unity had followed – which it didn’t.

For non-Russians, the remoteness and unfamiliarity of the Russian language, compared to other inter-European translations, was and remains a further layer of mist. The counterparts of Ivan’s court in the West never seem to have realised the religious and political significance of his coronation as tsar, rather than grand prince like his forebears: it was not some barbarous sub-Tartar appellation, but a claim to have inherited the role of religious protector of the Orthodox Christian East Roman Empire after the fall of Constantinople, tsar being the Russian translation of Caesar. Constantinople was ‘Tsargrad’.

Even the epithet ‘the Terrible’ may not be what it seems now. The Royal Navy named ships HMS Terrible as recently as the 1940s, and the Russian word, grozny, is as likely to have been a term of approval as of censure. The ability to inspire terror in Russia’s enemies would have been desirable in a ruler. Then, as today, a section of Russia’s population would admire a leader who frightened the troublemakers, bandits and ne’er-do-wells – as long as those punished remained comfortably remote. The fort of Grozny in the north Caucasus was so named by Russia in the 19th century with the idea that the Chechens would find it terrifying.

As de Madariaga points out, however, in English ‘there is a nuance between dread and terrible: dread is what one is; terrible refers to what one does.’ Among the layers of mystery and misinterpretation, she manages to pick out a story she more or less believes in, and to see the dim glimmer of a man.

One weakness in her portrait is her avoidance of the issue of Ivan’s sexuality, and the nature of his long relationship with Fyodor Basmanov, which ended with Basmanov’s execution after he was forced to kill his own father. In fonder times, the tsar scalded and stabbed to death a prince who Basmanov said had taunted him about his homosexual relationship with Ivan. De Madariaga is happy to explore circumstantial evidence that Ivan genuinely loved his first wife, or may have been influenced by the story of Vlad Dracul in his predilection for driving stakes into people. Yet she evades discussion of Ivan’s sexual orientation with this bizarre footnote: ‘There is little point in discussing whether Ivan was or was not a homosexual. He was evidently bisexual and there is really nothing surprising about that. Russians were frequently considered to be addicted to sodomy.’ By whom, and what this means, de Madariaga does not make clear.

Her final view of Ivan is not so far from that of the revered 19th-century Russian critic, Vissarion Belinsky, who called him a fallen angel. But Belinsky’s formulation emphasises the angelic. De Madariaga, like Ivan’s most ferocious contemporary Russian critic, Prince Kurbsky, emphasises the fall, and the haughty spirit before the fall. She describes a man so obsessed with his divine right to absolute power that he failed to understand the impermeability of the final barrier to personal divinity.

A part of Ivan’s psyche was always yearning for the North, for the lakes, forests and monasteries of the cold, quiet lands between Moscow and the Dvina river. It was here Ivan went to brood, repent and develop his next violent design; these lands led to the White Sea and the Arctic and, for Ivan, the potential sanctuary of England. This was the route by which the English traders reached Russia, bringing, among other things, armaments, and wary messages from Queen Elizabeth and her government, with vague promises of political asylum for the paranoid tyrant and suggestions of brides (Elizabeth herself, de Madariaga believes, was never a possible consort for the tsar).

Though he never travelled there, Ivan was known in London, and it is almost surprising that none of the Elizabethan or Jacobean playwrights, despite possible references in The Winter’s Tale and Tamburlaine, mined his life. Marlowe’s cousin was involved in the Russia trade, and Ivan’s death coincided with Shakespeare’s beginnings as a writer. It is easy to spot a point at which a Shakespearean tragedy might begin: the triumphant return of the 22-year-old tsar to Moscow in 1552 after his army’s conquest of Kazan, the Tatar stronghold whose fall was the decisive military expression of what had been true for some years – that Russia was no longer subservient to its Mongol conquerors of three centuries earlier. Ivan, religious to the bone, exults in having done his Christian duty by beating the Muslims: mobbed by adulatory crowds kissing his hands and feet, he learns that his wife has given birth to his first son, Dmitri. Ivan thanks his army and vows to be a good ruler.

The tragedy could end three decades later, with the tsar driven to new depths of madness by his manslaughter, in a moment of rage, of his only capable surviving son and heir, also called Ivan. There a play could end; but the stage, by this time, is so soaked in blood that it bubbles up between the boards with every tread, enough to make even a Jacobean playwright balk. In his reign Ivan combined the bloody ambition of Macbeth with the folly of Lear and the ability of Othello to believe the worst of those he had trusted and loved.

In truth, Ivan’s ease with death and torment came long before the fall of Kazan. Even as a boy, he liked to throw animals from high places in the family fortifications and watch them break on the ground. At the age of 13, he ordered a potential rival for power to be beaten to death; shortly before his coronation in 1547, there is evidence that he executed three of his boyars in front of his soldiers, and that at the first of a series of beauty contests where he would select his brides, he took time off to order a beheading and an impaling. In the same year, 75 citizens of Pskov who had come to Moscow to complain about a local injustice were scalded with boiling wine and ordered to be stripped. Luckily for them, the attention-deficient teenage tsar was diverted by a noisy and exciting accident involving Moscow’s biggest church bell.

De Madariaga tempers her account with regular reminders of how harsh a world early modern Europe was. There is no doubt that, during his early teenage years, Ivan and his immediate family were engaged in a struggle against the powerful boyars for their lives, never mind control of Russia. De Madariaga compares Ivan’s position with that of England’s Edward IV, surrounded by ambitious English boyars. ‘Edward may have been fond of one or both of his uncles, but he seems to have signed their death warrants without a murmur,’ she points out. Had Ivan eased off on his crueller tendencies once his grip on power was secure, the implication is, he might have gone down in history as a great, loved ruler.

Three events seem to have taken Ivan’s incipient paranoia and enjoyment of cruelty to a new level. One was the Moscow fire of 1547, which destroyed thousands of buildings and killed thousands of people. The threat of the raging mob of Muscovites thirsting for scapegoats – they stoned the tsar’s uncle to death inside a cathedral in front of the head of the Orthodox Church, and demanded that his grandmother be put to death as a witch – must have increased Ivan’s fear of his fellow Russians. A second was a serious illness which Ivan suffered in 1553. Nothing is more likely to foster a reign of suspicion and pre-emptive revenge than the survival of a monarch after those around him have begun openly to anticipate his death. Then, in 1560, Anastasia died. Ivan believed she had been poisoned by his enemies. There was no evidence, but from this moment the tsar seems to have lost any remaining inhibitions.

The main political manifestation of how unhinged he had become, and the vehicle for his worst atrocities, was his division of Russia in 1564 into two parts: one for his exclusive use, which he called ‘the lands apart’, oprichnina; and the remainder, which would, in theory, stay with the boyars. He made a great show of withdrawing from the day to day running of the country, moving with his treasure and many of the country’s best soldiers and administrators to Alexandrovskaya Sloboda, now Alexandrov, about seventy miles north-east of Moscow, from where he issued his demands. He insisted that his paranoia be legitimised. He wanted to be formally accepted as a tyrant: that is, allowed to punish whomever he chose, however he chose, whenever he chose, without any restraint of law or custom. He imposed a heavy new tax to pay for the new regime. To seize the lands declared part of the oprichnina and evict or murder their tenants, he set up the corps of oprichniki. These opportunists, legalised bandits, swathed themselves in black, hung dogs’ heads from their bridles and rampaged across the country, turning families of all ranks out of their homes, murdering and raping with impunity. Kurbsky called them ‘the children of darkness’.

While this was going on, Ivan pressed forward with his widening purge of anyone he suspected of treachery. One prince was hanged along with fifty of his vassals and retainers. Another, Prince Semyon Lobanov Rostovsky, was arrested, killed and beheaded, his body pushed under the ice of a river and his head sent to the tsar. Members of an assembly called together in Moscow in 1566 to discuss a peace treaty with Poland-Lithuania naively took the opportunity to ask Ivan to abolish the oprichnina. This set him off to new extremes: three of the protestors were immediately executed and two hundred were whipped through the streets. Members of the Orthodox Metropolitan’s retinue had their tongues cut out; others were quartered or skinned alive. Over the following years, those who had taken part in the assembly were tracked down and killed, along with many of their followers and family.

The worst revenge was reserved for a senior boyar, Ivan Fyodorov, who had been one of the outspoken critics of the oprichnina. In 1568 he was summoned to Ivan’s throne room and ordered by the tsar to wear the royal clothes, take the royal sceptre and sit on the royal throne. The tsar bared his head, knelt in front of him, told him to savour the moment, then stabbed Fyodorov in the heart several times. His soldiers followed suit; Fyodorov’s corpse was dragged around Moscow, his retinue was drowned, and the men, women and children on his estates massacred. Not for the first or the last time, some of the women were hanged from the gates of their own houses. The following year, Ivan forced his cousin Vladimir, his wife and their nine-year-old daughter to drink poison in front of him; he had the deposed Metropolitan suffocated before the churchman could curse him; and sacked the Russian cities of Tver and Novgorod, torturing and killing thousands of suspected traitors and pushing their bodies under the ice.

The pinnacle of cruelty came at a sort of public festival of sadism held in a meadow in Moscow on 25 July 1570. Three hundred nobles, already at death’s door, some accompanied by their wives and children, crawled or were dragged in front of Ivan, who looked down from his horse, dressed in black, with an axe and a bow and arrows. The first victim, Ivan Viskovaty, once a leading member of Ivan’s administration, was tied between two stakes and cut to pieces, starting with his nose. The next was killed slowly with alternate cold and boiling water. And so it went on, with more than a hundred varied executions. Ivan himself impaled a lame old man with a spear and stabbed him 16 times before he was beheaded. One of his oprichniki beheaded a noble, his wife and their two children and laid the bodies at Ivan’s feet. This executioner held the rank of prince.

Stalin’s admiration of Ivan, reflected by the sycophantic historians of his day, is notorious, as is the Soviet dictator’s enthusiasm for part one of Eisenstein’s film portrayal of the tsar – the harsh but just reformer-warrior – and his hostility towards part two, where Ivan is portrayed losing his mind. There is a sad assonance between the reign of the two tyrants, four hundred years apart. Both believed themselves to be beyond human laws; both lost sight of the difference between their self-love and the interests of the country they were ostensibly protecting. Both benefited from a culture of denunciation, in which people would betray their friends and relatives either to forestall the witchfinder’s finger coming to rest on them, or to gain a post or property they coveted. Both enlarged their realms, yet failed to give the new lands the conditions they needed to prosper. Both obstructed the exchange of new ideas with the West. Both weakened their armies with random purges and then, faced with the consequences of their actions, displayed cowardice and indecision: Stalin after Hitler’s invasion in 1941, Ivan when the Crimean Tatars sacked Moscow in 1571. Both responded to economic challenges of their own making by introducing forms of slavery: Stalin the slave labour system, Ivan the early stages of serfdom.

The vanity of each was reflected in a yearning to be considered an authority in a field other than his own. With Stalin, it was the arts, notably literature; with Ivan, it was religion. He spent much of his life in monasteries, on pilgrimages, at prayer, in the repentance that both followed and presaged an atrocity, in debate with foreign visitors about the relative merits of Orthodox Christianity and what he saw as the Lutheran and Roman heresies, in acting out, with costumes, with his children of darkness, boozy, orgiastic, sadistic parodies of the monastic life. His letters are suffused with biblical references. He seemed to divide humanity into those who cleaved to God’s will and those he called curs, hounds, mongrels. For Ivan there was only the godly and the dogly, and nothing between.

Man’s creation of God had an ambiguity to it. On one side, it moved the seat of ultimate power out of the reach of the most powerful earthly man; it forced a degree of humility on any believing king or emperor. On the other, it meant that a ruler could believe himself humble only before God, and subject to no one else, to no earthly law or institution. The Russians of Ivan’s time were well aware of this duality. Many of the tsar’s victims went to their deaths assuring him and each other that he would be punished on the day of the Last Judgment. Perhaps he was simply mad; he did refer to himself, in one letter, as ‘mentally deranged’. Yet there was a twisted piety to Ivan. De Madariaga thinks that, in these moments of torture, he was able to convince himself that he was protecting the remainder of his people from damnation.

‘He brought together the human and the divine, which authorised him to act to purify the world of sin, using divine violence,’ she writes.

He was an incarnation of this union, which gave moral authority to everything he did and placed him on a par with God.

It was this self-identification of Ivan with the idea of sacred violence which opened the way for the tsar’s belief in the purificatory value of his cruelty, and enabled him to accept as divine in origin the sadism which made life a hell for his subjects. He needed it in order to cleanse both himself and his people from sin.

In a letter to his enemy Prince Kurbsky, one of the few to escape his wrath by finding asylum overseas, Ivan identifies himself with divine punishment. He sounds surprised. ‘If you are so righteous,’ he asks, ‘why do you not permit yourself to accept suffering from me?’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences