Ivan the Terrible, by Isabel de Madariaga

Ivan the Terrible

Isabel de Madariaga’s Ivan the Terrible is in some ways an excellent book. It’s very thorough and tells probably about as much as is known about the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible, as well as providing much relevant information about that period of Russian history and to a lesser extent the history of the European and other nations around Russia.

But it’s also very much a scholarly book. Most lay people with a casual interest in Ivan the Terrible would probably find the academic style less readable or less entertaining than a popular biography. There’s a lot that’s clearly part of various narrow academic debates, such as how developed certain institutions were in that period of Russian history. (The author is on the side of those who contend that many of the institutions other historians claim to be able to discern from back then really didn’t exist yet or were just coming into being and were still kind of informal forerunners of what they would be later.)

As someone who is not an academic working in the same field, I had to force myself through some of the longer, drier sections. I knew as I was reading it I’d never remember the details of all the political intrigue and constantly changing alliances and wars.

Anyway, I’ll mention a few things that did stick with me for whatever reason after reading this book:

It’s interesting how little is known about Ivan. I don’t think of him as some really obscure figure from the distant past, but in terms of how much evidence there is about his life, that’s what he is. He lived in the 16th century—he was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I—but you’d think he was Socrates or someone from thousands of years ago. The author constantly points out gaps in our knowledge of him, and places where we can at best take educated guesses based on very limited evidence.

No one even knows what he looked like. Anything purporting to be a portrait of him, including on the cover of this book, is actually something generic, the equivalent of a modern day stock photo. You can find the same images used as depictions of various saints and such. There are a few written descriptions of his appearance, but they give little detail and aren’t always consistent with each other anyway.

Ivan didn’t consider most kings and queens to be the real deal, like him. In part this was based on the fact that in many other countries there was some formal or informal process of nobles getting together and choosing the next king, especially when there was no unambiguous succession, and Ivan thought you couldn’t be a real king if other people chose you rather than if you were a king by birth. (Never mind that in a place like Russia, there were constant violent disputes about succession, so in effect whoever did get to be the next king (tsar) only achieved that because he had the most ruthless allies, i.e., he obtained the position through the actions of others, just with violence rather than ballots or discussion.)

Furthermore, he thought of himself as above most or all other monarchs because he claimed he could trace his succession all the way back to Augustus Caesar of the Roman Empire. (That was totally ludicrous of course, and no one other than Ivan and his supporters ever took it seriously.)

He had a terrible temper, no impulse control, and a major sadistic streak, not to mention a tendency toward excess in general and possibly homosexuality. Yet at the same time he thought of himself as a very devout Christian and bound by the most perfectionist of ethical principles. So he was constantly bouncing back and forth between horrific cruelty and abject remorse. He would fly into a rage and kill someone or order him killed (generally preceded by some form of torture), but as often as not would later acknowledge his sin, compensate the victim’s family financially, make a donation in his name to a monastery, order prayers to be said for him, etc.

He was constantly at war or preparing for war. That just seemed to be the way of life in that part of the world in that period of history; everyone jockeying for position, trying to grab a little more territory from this neighbor while trying to hold off this other neighbor with a temporary truce, etc. There were periodic ceasefires, but no peace. He was always fighting with, or threatening, or being threatened by, some country or other—Poland-Lithuania (they were a confederation during his time), Livonia, Sweden, Turks and Tartars to the south (the Tartars had until quite recently been in control of what was now Russia), etc.

Succession was invariably uncertain in most or all of these countries, and thus their domestic situation at the top was perpetually unstable. (There was even a period where the nobles of Poland-Lithuania, which is the country Ivan warred with the most, seriously considered picking Ivan himself or someone from his family as their next king.)

In some ways the worst position to be in was to be a relative of the current or last king, because then those who wanted to depose the current king could most logically rally around you, whether you were interested in taking over for him or not. So if you were a cousin, uncle, nephew, etc. of Ivan, you were a threat to him, and he either had you killed, or you had to live with the knowledge that that could happen at any time.

Ivan engaged in interesting political philosophy debates, especially in extended correspondence with a nobleman named General Kurbsky who had fled the country and then written about what an awful tyrant Ivan was.

Kurbsky opined that when a Christian ruler violates Christian principles in how he governs his country, he no longer exercises legitimate authority. Ivan conceded, one, that he was not above the law (or in this case above Christianity), and two, that he violated those principles he was bound by (as noted he was fiercely religious and periodically wracked by guilt about all the sins he’d committed).

But his position was that his authority was absolute in a different sense. It’s not that he was infallible, or that whatever he decreed thereby became right—he freely admitted that there were standards outside of him that he was obligated to abide by and that he sometimes failed to abide by them—but that the tsar was to be obeyed in spite of his imperfections, for a nation had to have some authority or other to follow.

It would be kind of like saying the Supreme Court has the last say on legality in the United States, and that whatever they say goes, even though as fallible people it’s entirely possible for them to be wrong. He didn’t think he should be obeyed because he was always right, but because someone had to have the last word, and whoever else you might posit for that role—a legislature, courts, each individual citizen, whatever—would also be fallible or prone to abuse power.

For all the wars he was involved in, he only infrequently could be found anywhere near the front. When he was more personally involved in the fighting like that, he made some peculiar decisions and ill-considered retreats and such that strongly suggest panic and/or cowardice.

At one point he set up some odd sort of government within the government, or new shadow government. It’s hard to say exactly what his motive was—the author says the motive and a lot of the details of this new quasi-government are among the things the very limited evidence doesn’t tell us clearly—but it ended up being a vehicle for some of his worst murderous rampages.

There was a lot of Stalin in him. He was crazy to at least some degree, and paranoid, and a lot of his more bizarre and cruel behavior seemed to be a way of keeping things as unpredictable and unstable as possible, so no plot could really get off the ground. Alliances against him couldn’t form, because people were so frequently and unpredictably moved around or killed. It was like he wanted to be a political moving target.

Later in his reign he even pseudo-abdicated. He changed his title and tried to put someone else nominally in charge, while apparently wanting to continue pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Here again the author admits there’s a lack of evidence of what exactly he did or thought he was doing in this period, but in any case the idea seems to have fizzled out pretty quickly and he went back to being the regular tsar.

He was so obsessed with Russia being conquered, or more likely his being overthrown from within, that he was always making plans for any such contingency, like how to get out of the country as quickly as possible to avoid capture. He engaged in a peculiar correspondence with Queen Elizabeth where he multiple times more or less asked if she would take him in if it were ever necessary for him to go into exile in a hurry, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to ask for that simply and directly. He insisted it be reciprocal, that she simultaneously request his assurance that she could flee to Russia if she ever needed to. She always responded ambiguously, which frustrated him greatly, but in any case she never made that kind of request of him.

He didn’t always think in terms of fleeing the country; at least as often he speculated about relinquishing the throne voluntarily and spending the rest of his life in a monastery. He seems to have been at least semi-serious at least some of the times he proposed this idea. He was very serious about religion in his own peculiar way after all, and convinced he had a lot to atone for.

He killed his own son. Again the details are fuzzy, but it doesn’t appear to have been anything premeditated. They disagreed about something—possibly Ivan’s ill treatment of his son’s wife, possibly Ivan’s weakness and indecision as a military commander—and Ivan lost his temper and whacked him in the head with his staff, killing him.

That seems to have been what did Ivan in. He lived a few more years, but evidently mostly in a state of depression or apathy.

There are a lot of claims, a lot of theories, about how Ivan sided with the common people against the nobles, or sided with certain lesser nobles against more powerful nobles, or strengthened the monarchy by remaking institutions in such a way as to check the power of other entities, and on and on. I’m in no position really to judge such claims, but my impression from reading about Ivan’s life in this book, including the author’s analysis of his life, is that most or all of that constitutes retrospectively reading a lot more into events than was really there.

To me he was a violent kook, responding impulsively to whatever he perceived as the current crisis, which often existed only in his imagination. Whatever results that might have had for strengthening this group or weakening that one, or changing this or that institution, was not part of some grand strategy, but just the random, accidental consequences of a madman doing mad things. There was no rhyme or reason to most of it.

I think he was in way over his head, and responded to the frustration that that caused with rage and violence.

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