Poetry Madness

Reviews From


Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, May 22nd, 2005


Ivan the Terrible

by Isabel De Madariaga

Madness, not method

A review by Douglas Smith

The dust-jacket of Ivan the Terrible, Isabel de Madariaga's new book, shows the face of a middle-aged man, his eyes weary, drooping at the corners yet seemingly still smouldering with intensity, full lips pursed amid a luxurious wavy brown beard, and a long, phalloid nose suggestive of sexual debauchery. It is the face of Russia's most notorious Tsar, Ivan the Terrible.

Or is it? As she notes in her foreword, images like this when turned to face the other way have also been said to depict the Jesuit Antonio Possevino, a visitor to Ivan's Court. The truth is there are no accurate portrayals of this Tsar, simply imaginary renderings of what he might have looked like.

This curious fact is worth noting since it touches on the main challenge confronting anyone writing on the life of the terrible Tsar, namely the complete lack of any extant original documents -- letters, orders, or notes -- written by Ivan. What we know about him is based on a random, uneven collection of sources that, although they offer insight into the workings of his Court and administration, shed little light on Ivan the man -- his thoughts and feelings, his motivations and desires. This state of affairs has been exacerbated by the American scholar Edward L. Keenan's claim, put forward thirty-four years ago, that two of the most revealing sources, Ivan's correspondence with Prince Andrei Kurbsky, and the History of Ivan IV, believed to be by Kurbsky, were actually seventeenth-century forgeries.

The many blank spots in the record have been at once an obstacle and a boon to historians. If they meant that little could be said about Ivan and his reign with any certainty, they also granted the freedom to connect the few available dots in many different ways and so construct a number of theories and interpretations. Over the past two centuries several wildly divergent Ivans have been proposed, from satanic madman to Renaissance Prince, from brilliant "state-builder" to insignificant pawn of the boyar elite.

In turning to Ivan, de Madariaga has turned away from another famous Russian ruler, the Empress Catherine the Great, who has been the primary focus of de Madagriaga's scholarly attention for over three decades. And as displayed in her numerous influential writings on Catherine and the eighteenth century, de Madariaga brings to her new subject a probing intelligence that exposes the flabby reasoning of previous scholars and pulls the foundations out from under shaky interpretations with gusto. Ivan the Terrible is a persuasively argued, widely researched and impressively authoritative work that casts new light on the Tsar, his reign, and Russia in the sixteenth century.

Born in 1530, Ivan was raised in a toxic atmosphere of whispered plots, ruthless torture and political murder. His father, Vasily III, shortly before his death in 1533, set up a Regency Council of several loyal boyars, princes and his wife's uncle in an attempt to safeguard the throne for his son. Soon there -- after, Ivan's mother, Elena Glinskaia, together with Prince Ivan Telepnev Obolensky, a council member and her reputed lover, turned on her late husband's two brothers, the main rivals for the throne. Both were accused of plotting against little Ivan, clapped in irons, and thrown in prison, where they died. Their families were also imprisoned, and their retainers and allies, including many of princely blood, were tortured and then hanged for all to see along the road to Novgorod. When Elena's uncle objected to their ruthlessness, they arrested him too and sent him to starve in prison.

Elena died (possibly by poison) in 1538, and Prince Vasily Shuisky seized control of the Regency Council. Within days of her death Shuisky had arrested Obolensky and consigned him to the same prison where he and Elena had deposited her uncle. Next, Shuisky ordered Ivan's trusted governess to be locked away in a convent, since she happened to be Obolensky's sister. For the next four years Prince Shuisky and his brother held sway, largely ignoring the Council. They shared the spoils with their family and sought to tighten their hold via marriage to the Grand Prince's family. Their enemies at Court were arrested, subjected to bloody tortures, and then executed.

Having lost all his family, save his younger brother, Yuri, and his few protectors, Ivan found himself alone, terrified and defenceless against the Shuiskys. They treated the boys rudely, abused their servants, and even killed some of their supporters on the Boyar Council. Ivan watched how the Shuiskys operated, and he learned. When the Shuiskys' grip over the Regency Council weakened in 1542, after the death of the two Princes, Ivan struck back: he ordered the sole remaining Shuisky to be arrested and beaten to death. Ivan had already developed a taste for extreme cruelty by then. For years he had taken perverse pleasure in killing animals by throwing them off tall towers, and now he had graduated to men. In 1546, he killed three boyars apparently for no other reason than to provide some entertainment for his bored troops.

Although the deadly struggles for power at Court had provided one powerful influence on Ivan's development, there were other, more salutary influences as well. For a time Metropolitan Makarii appears to have overseen Ivan's education, such as it was, trying to fill his soul with things other than torture and murder and to encourage his budding religious inclinations. Ivan was often away from Moscow, either hunting or on one of his many pilgrimages to holy sites across Russia. In a fascinating aside, de Madariaga comments that on one of his visits to the monastery of Beloozero Ivan possibly heard the "Tale of Dracula", based on the life of a sadistic fifteenth-century ruler of Wallachia, and speculates on how this might have shaped Ivan's ideas of what it meant to be a ruler.

The regency ended in 1547 when Ivan was crowned "Tsar" (from Caesar), the first Russian ruler to take that exalted title instead of the traditional "Grand Prince". The first few years of his reign witnessed several significant reforms, most notably the thorough revision of the law code (the Sudebnik), the church reform of 1551 (the Stoglav), and a reorganization of the provincial administration. Important changes were also made to the structure of the Russian military, including the creation of a corps of musketeers -- the strel'tsy, that helped Ivan to defeat the Khanates of Kazan' (in 1552) and Astrakhan' (in 1556).

Emboldened by his successes, Ivan turned his sights to the north, where Livonia formed a barrier to trade with Western Europe and denied Russia convenient access to the Baltic. In 1557, Livonia concluded an alliance with Poland-Lithuania against Russia, which Ivan used as a pretext for invading the following year. After several early Russian victories, Poland intervened and the campaign bogged down in a stalemate. The Livonian War would drag on nearly until Ivan's death and become the source of tensions between the Tsar and the powerful nobles at Court. De Madariaga's treatment of the war is masterful, as is her entire discussion of foreign affairs in Ivan's reign.

Between 1549 and 1560, Ivan ruled with the aid of a group of advisers known to historians as the Chosen Council. Who belonged to this body and what its precise role in governing the country was have long been points of debate: was it no more than an informal group that lent advice to the Tsar, or was it a formal institution that set policy over his head?

De Madariaga comes down squarely, and convincingly, in favour of the former interpretation and detects in the latter a long-standing attempt on the part of Russian historians to politicize Ivan's reign for their own ideological purposes. As perhaps the most egregious example of this, de Madariaga points to the historiography on the Zemskii sobor (Assembly of the Land) of 1566, summoned by the Tsar to consult on the Livonian War. She rejects the idea that this gathering of several hundred of the elite constituted any sort of established institution comprising the various Russian "estates", since it met only infrequently and since Russia had no concept of estates on the model of the feudal West. Such attempts to find corresponding Russian institutions (the Boyar Duma as House of Lords, for example) de Madariaga shows to be deeply flawed, arising from a misguided search for a usable past amid the chaos and destruction of Ivan's reign.

She finds a similar error in the historiography of the notorious oprichnina. By the early 1560s, a series of shocks had pushed Ivan deeper into paranoia: the Livonian War had proved a failure, and many of his commanders had defected; in 1553, as he lay gravely ill, several prominent boyars had refused to swear an oath of allegiance to his son, supporting his cousin instead; and then, in 1560, Ivan's wife, Anastasia, whom he seems to have truly loved, died - poisoned, or so Ivan believed, by a boyar plot.

Ivan left the Kremlin and took up residence outside Moscow. He communicated to the boyars that he would not return unless he was permitted to deal with his enemies once and for all, without any interference from either the Church or traditional legal customs. Furthermore, he intended to divide Russia in two -- one half, the oprichnina, was to be under the Tsar's sole control, the other, the zemshchina, was to be administered by a group of boyars. The boyars had little choice but to acquiesce.

Ivan created the oprichnina in early 1565, taking for his new realm the most developed and most productive areas of the country; the rest he left for the zemshchina. The oprichnina had its own palace, its own Court and officials, and its own armed forces, paid for by a massive levy on the entire country. Ivan's bloodthirsty corps of oprichniki -- robed in black, the cry of "hoyda, hoyda", on their lips -- drove out princes and noblemen from lands that had been allotted to the oprichnina.

The atrocities stagger the imagination. Late in 1569, Ivan and the oprichniki swept into the town of Tver', torturing and killing the residents at random, looting and burning their homes. Many of the victims had their legs hacked off before their bodies were stuffed under the ice on the Volga River. By the time the five-day orgy of violence had run its course, some 36,000 had been slaughtered. From there they rode on to Novgorod. They encircled the ancient city, denying any possibility of escape. First they rounded up all the clerics and plundered the local churches and monasteries; then the oprichniki turned on the townspeople: men, women and children were tortured with hot prongs and boiling water, then bound together in small groups with rope and thrown into the icy rivers of the Volkhov River. The rampage lasted over a month. No one knows how many perished; the estimates range as high as 700,000. The oprichniki continued to terrorize the Russian lands for five more years before Ivan ended the experiment in 1572, for reasons that remain murky.

The oprichnina represents one of the most controversial episodes in Ivan's reign and has long baffled historians as to his possible motives. Some Russian historians have claimed to detect a method in all this madness: that Ivan established the oprichnina as a way to destroy the authority of the aristocratic clans for good, and so solidify his power. Still others add that this was part of the larger historical process of the centralization of political power in Russia.

De Madariaga, however, finds no method here, only madness. There was no logic to the killings and expulsions, no discernible policy. Ivan's victims came from practically all levels of society -appanage princes, boyars, service gentry, and even peasants -a fact that suggests he was thrashing about wildly at his supposed enemies and lacked any defined plan. But whatever his motives, Ivan's creation of the oprichnina, indeed his reign as a whole, can only be seen as a catastrophe for the country. When he died in 1584, Ivan left Russia traumatized from decades of terror and further isolated, both diplomatically and culturally, from the West. Its political institutions had been strained to the point of collapse. Its agriculture and economy lay in ruins; famine and plague were widespread. Much of the population had taken flight to escape the whirlwind of the oprichnina. In the lands around Pskov, 85 per cent of the homesteads had been abandoned; around Novgorod, almost all of them.

The key to understanding Ivan and his reign, de Madariaga writes, is to be found in his psychology. It was the madhouse of his own febrile imagination, which saw betrayal lurking in every dark corner, that led Ivan to strike out again and again in mounting waves of violence against his supposed enemies. But this irrational fear explains only part of it. Just as important was Ivan's idea of what it meant to be Tsar. Ivan came to believe that he had been charged with the eternal salvation of his people, and that he would have to answer for this divine charge at the Last Judgment. It was the awesomeness of this responsibility, fed by Ivan's deepening paranoia and megalomania, that led him to demand unlimited power (samovlastie) so that he might rid his land of treason and perfidy -indeed, of all sin -through "sacred violence". In this perverse attempt to save the Russian people by trying to become God, Ivan nearly destroyed them. To Isabel de Madariaga, "he is Lucifer, the star of the morning, who wanted to be God, and was expelled from the Heavens".

Douglas Smith's Love and Conquest: Personal correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin won the Heldt Translation Prize for 2004.

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