III. IVAN THE TERRIBLE: 1533–84

Vasili III Ivanovitch (1505–33) continued the integration of Russia. He brought Smolensk within his realm, and compelled the principalities of Ryazan and Novgorod-Severski to acknowledge his sovereignty. “Only the infants at the breast,” said a Russian annalist, “could refrain from tears” when the once proud republic of Pskov submitted to Vasili’s rule (1510). Russia was now a major European power; Vasili corresponded on equal terms with Maximilian I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Leo X. When some boyars tried to limit his autocracy he checked them with a contemptuous word—“Peasants! “—and had one noble head cut off. Getting no children from his wife, he divorced her and married the accomplished and masterful Helena Glinski. After his death she took the regency for her three-year-old son Ivan IV Vasilievitch. The boyars resumed their turbulence when she died; their rival factions controlled the government in turn; they disordered the cities with their violence, and spilled the blood of their helpless muzhiks in civil war.

Amid these struggles the young Sovereign of All the Russias was almost ignored, even at times left destitute. Seeing brutality everywhere around him, he took it as an accepted mode of behavior, adopted the most cruel sports, and grew into a moody and suspicious youth. Suddenly, while still a boy of thirteen (1544), he threw to his dogs Andrei Shuiski, leader of a boyar faction, and seized command of the state. Three years later he had himself crowned czar by the metropolitan of Moscow. Then he ordered a selection of noble virgins to be sent to him from divers parts of his realm; from them he chose and married Anastasia Romanovna, whose family name would soon designate a dynasty.

In 1550 he summoned the first national assembly (Zemski Sobor) of all Russia. He confessed to it the errors of his youth, and promised a just and merciful government. Perhaps influenced by the Reformation in Germany and Scandinavia, the assembly considered a motion to confiscate ecclesiastical wealth for the support of the state. The proposal was rejected, but a related motion was passed by which all alodial lands—those free from liens—deeded to the Church were to be restored, all gifts made to the Church during Ivan’s minority were canceled, and monasteries were no longer to acquire certain kinds of property without the czar’s consent. The clergy were partly appeased when Ivan took the priest Sylvester as his spiritual director and made him and Alexis Adashef his chief ministers. Supported by these able aides, Ivan at twenty-one was master of a realm reaching from Smolensk to the Urals, and from the Arctic Ocean almost to the Caspian Sea.

His first care was to strengthen the army, and to balance the forces provided by the unfriendly nobles with two organizations responsible directly to himself: Cossack cavalry and Strieltsi infantry armed with harquebusesmatchlock firearms invented in the fifteenth century.* The Cossacks originated in that century as peasants whose position in South Russia, between Moslems and Muscovites, obliged them to be ready to fight at short notice, but gave them irresistible opportunities to rob the caravans that carried tradebetween north and south. The main Cossack “hosts”—the Don Cossacks in southeast Russia and the Zaporogue Cossacks in the southwest—were semi-independent republics, strangely democratic; male householders chose a hetmán (German Hauptmann, head man) as executive officer of a popularly elected assembly. All land was owned in common, but was leased to individual families for temporary use; and all classes were equal before the law.8 Famous for their dashing courage, the Cossack horsemen became the main support of Ivan IV at home and in war.

His foreign policy was simple: he wanted Russia to connect the Baltic Sea with the Caspian. The Tatars still held Kazan, Astrakhan, and the Crimea, and still demanded tribute from Moscow, though in vain. Ivan was sure that Russia’s security and unity required its possession of these khanates, and control of the Volga to its outlet. In 1552 the young Czar led 150,000 men against the gates of Kazan in a siege that lasted fifty days. The 30,000 Moslems resisted with religious pertinacity; they sallied out in repeated sorties; and when some of them were captured and hanged on gibbets before the walls, the defenders shot them with arrows, saying that “it was better for these captives to receive death from the clean hands of their countrymen than to perish by the impure hands of Christians.”9When the besiegers lost heart after a month of failure, Ivan sent to Moscow for a miraculous cross; this, displayed to them, reanimated his men; on both sides God was conscripted into military service. A German engineer mined the walls; they collapsed; the Russians poured into the city, crying “God with us!”—and massacred all who could not be sold as slaves. Ivan, we are told, wept with pity for the defeated; “they are not Christians,” he said, “but they are men.” He repeopled the ruins with Christians. Russia acclaimed him as the first Slav to take a Tatar stronghold, and celebrated the victory as France had hailed the check of the Moslems at Tours (732). In 1554 Ivan took Astrakhan, and the Volga became a completely Russian stream. The Crimea remained Moslem till 1774, but the Cossacks of the Don now bowed to Moscow’s rule.

Having cleared his frontier in the east, Ivan looked longingly toward the west. He dreamed of Russian commerce flowing west and north along great rivers into the Baltic. He envied the industrial and commercial expansion of Western Europe, and looked for any opening by which the Russian economy might attach itself to that development. In 1553 Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor were commissioned by London merchants to find an Arctic route around Scandinavia to China. They sailed from Harwich in three vessels; two crews perished in a Lapland winter, but Chancellor reached the site of Arkhangelsk—which the British so named after the archangel Michael. Chancellor made his way through a hundred perils and hardships to Moscow. With him, and later with Anthony Jenkinson, Ivan signed treaties giving “The London and Muscovite Company” special trading privileges in Russia.

But to Ivan these treaties were knotholes, not a door or window, into the West. He tried to import German technicians; 123 were gathered for him at Lübeck, but Charles V refused to let them go. A great river, the Southern Dvina, flowed from the heart of Russia into the Baltic near Riga, but through hostile Livonia. The headwaters of the Dvina and the Volga were not far apart; the two rivers could be connected by canals; here, by “manifest destiny,” was the water route that might atone for the disproportion of Russia’s enormous land mass to her coasts and ports; so the Baltic would mingle with the Caspian and the Black Sea, East and West would meet, and amid the interchange of goods and ideas the West could repay some of its ancient cultural debt to the East.

So in 1557 Ivan invented a casus belli—usually a case of the belly—with Livonia. He sent against it an army under Shah-Ali, lately Tatar Khan of Kazan; it ravaged the country brutally, burning houses and crops, enslaving men, raping women till they died. In 1558 another Russian army captured Narva, only eight miles from the Baltic. Desperate Livonia appealed to Poland. Denmark, Sweden, Germany, all Central Europe trembled at the prospect of a Slav inundation reaching westward, as in the sixth century, to the Elbe. Stephen Báthory roused the Poles, and led them to victory over the Russians at Polotsk (1582). Ivan, defeated, yielded Livonia to Poland.

Long before this decisive setback the failure of his campaigns had led to revolt at home. The merchants whom Ivan had thought to enrich with new avenues of trade lost stomach for the costly and disruptive war. The nobles had opposed it as bound to unite the Baltic powers, with their superior armament, against a Russia still feudal in political and military organization. During and before the war Ivan had suspected the boyars of conspiracies against his throne. In a nearly fatal illness (1553) he learned that a powerful group of nobles was planning, when he died, to repudiate his son Dmitri and crown Prince Vladimir, whose mother was disbursing large gifts to the army. His closest advisers, Sylvester and Adashef, were flirting with treasonable boyars. For seven years after suspecting them Ivan kept these officials in power; then (1560) he dismissed them, but without violence; Sylvester died in a monastery, Adashef in one of the Livonian campaigns. Several of the boyars deserted to Poland and took up arms against Russia; in 1564 Ivan’s bosom friend and leading general, Prince Andrei Kurbski, joined this flight, alleging that the Czar was planning to kill him. From Poland Kurbski sent to Ivan what amounted to a declaration of war, denouncing him as a leprous criminal. Tradition claims that Ivan, when this letter was read to him, nailed a foot of the bearer to the floor with a blow of the royal staff. But the Czar condescended to reply to Kurbski in a rebuttal sixty-two pages long, eloquent and chaotic, passionate and Biblical, recounting the intrigues of the boyars to depose him. Believing that they had poisoned Anastasia, he asked, “Why did you divide me from my wife? Had you not taken from me my young heifer, never had there been the slayings of the boyars.... In vain I have looked for some man to have pity on me, but I have found none.”10 Kurbski, in the evening of his life, wrote a relentlessly hostile History of Ivan, which is our chief source for Ivan’s terribilità.

These plots and desertions illuminate the most famous and peculiar event of the reign. On December 13, 1564, Ivan left Moscow with his family, his icons, his treasury, and a small force of soldiery, withdrew to his summer home at Alexandrovsk, and sent to Moscow two proclamations. One alleged that the boyars, the bureaucracy, and the Church had conspired against him and the state; therefore “with great sorrow” he now resigned his throne, and would henceforth live in retirement. The other assured the people of Moscow that he loved them, and that they might rest assured of his lasting good will. In fact he had consistently favored the commons and merchants against the aristocracy, and the present action of the middle and lower classes attested it. They broke out in threatening cries against the nobility and the clergy, and demanded that a deputation of bishops and boyars should go to the Czar and beg him to resume his throne. It was done, and Ivan agreed to “take unto him his state anew,” on conditions that he would later specify.

He returned to Moscow (February 1565), and summoned the national assembly of clergy and boyars. He announced that he would execute the leaders of the opposition, and confiscate their property; he would henceforth assume full power, without consulting the nobles or assembly, and he would banish all who should disobey his edicts. The assembly, fearing a revolt of the masses, yielded and dissolved. Ivan decreed that in the future Russia should be divided into two parts: one, the Zemstchina or assemblage of provinces, was to remain under the government of the boyars and their duma; it was to be taxable in gross by the Czar, and be subject to him in military and foreign affairs, but would otherwise be self-governed and free; the other part, the Oprichnina, or “separate estate,” was to be ruled by him, and was to be composed of lands assigned by him to the oprichniki or separate class, chosen by the Czar to police and administer this half-realm, to guard it from sedition, and to give him personal protection and special military service. The new officials—at first a thousand, ultimately six thousand—were selected chiefly from the younger sons of the nobility, who, being landless, were ready to support Ivan in return for the estates now conferred upon them. These lands were taken partly from the possessions of the Crown, largely from the confiscated properties of rebellious boyars. By the end of the reign the Oprichnina included nearly half of Russia, much of Moscow, and the most important trade routes. The revolution was akin to that which Peter the Great attempted 150 years later—the elevation of a new class to political power, and the promotion of Russian commerce and industry. In a century when practically all the military power was held by the aristocracy, the enterprise required a wild courage in a Czar armed only with his personal soldiery and the unreliable support of the merchants and the populace. Some contemporaries assure us that in this critical period Ivan, then thirty-five, aged twenty years.11

Ivan now made Alexandrovsk his regular residence, and transformed it into a fortified citadel. The strain of his revolt against the boyars, added to the failure of the long war against Livonia, may have disordered a never quite balanced mind. He clothed his guardsmen like monks in black cassocks and skull caps, called himself their abbot, sang in their choir, attended Mass with them daily, and so fervently prostrated himself before the altar that his forehead was repeatedly bruised. This added to the awe that he inspired; Russia began to mingle reverence with the fear it felt for him; and even the armed oprichniki were so abject before him that they came to be called his dvor or court.

Ivan’s revolution, like others, had its terror. Those who opposed it and were caught were executed without mercy. A monastic chronicle, presumably hostile to him, reckoned the casualties of his wrath in those years (1560–70) at 3,470; often, it reports, the victim was executed “with his wife,” or “with his wife and children,” and, in one case, “with ten men who came to his help.”12 Prince Vladimir and his mother were put to death, but his children were spared and provided for. The Czar, we are told, asked the monks to pray for the repose of his victims’ souls. He defended the executions as the usual punishment for treason, especially in time of war; an agent of Poland conceded the argument; and an Englishman who witnessed some of the butchery prayed, “Would to God our own stiff-necked rebels could be taught their duty to their prince after the same fashion! “13

The climax of the terror came in Novgorod. Ivan had recently given its archbishop a large sum to repair churches, and thought himself popular with at least the clergy there. But he was informed that a document—not indisputably genuine—had been found behind a picture of the Virgin in a Novgorod monastery, pledging the co-operation of Novgorod and Pskov with Poland in an attempt to overthrow the Czar. On January 2, 1570, a strong military force led by oprichniki pounced upon Novgorod, sacked its monasteries, and arrested 500 monks and priests. Arriving in person on January 6, Ivan ordered those clerics who could not pay fifty rubles’ ransom to be flogged to death. The archbishop was unfrocked and jailed. According to the Third Chronicle of Novgoroda massacre of the population ensued for five weeks; sometimes 500 persons were slain in a day; the official records number 2,770 dead; Ivan Drotested they were only 1,502. Since many merchants, eager for the reopening of trade with the West, were believed to have shared in the conspiracy, the soldiers of the Czar burned all the shops in the city, and the homes of the merchants in the suburbs; even the farmhouses in the environs were destroyed. Unless unfriendly monastic chroniclers have exaggerated the carnage, we must go back to the punishment of rebellious Liège by Charles the Bold (1468), or the Sack of Rome by the troops of Charles V (1527) to find analogies for Ivan’s savage revenge. Novgorod never recovered its old prominence in the commercial life of Russia. Ivan passed on to Pskov, where he restricted his soldiers to pillage. Then he returned to Moscow and celebrated with a royal masquerade ball his escape from a dangerous conspiracy.

So turbulent a reign hardly favored economic progress or cultural pursuits. Commerce was favored in peace and wounded in war. In the lands allotted to the oprichniki, and then on other lands as well, the peasant was legally attached to the soil as a means of promoting continuous cultivation (1581); serfdom, rare in Russia before 1500, became by 1600 the law of the land. Taxation was predatory, inflation was precipitous. The ruble in 1500 was worth ninety-four, in 1600 twenty-four, times the ruble of 1910;14 we need not follow the decline further, except to note, as one of the lessons of history, that money is the last thing that a man should save.

The improvident fertility of families and exhaustion of soils compelled a restless migration to fresh terrain. When this passed the Urals it found a Tatar khanate established over a population of Bashkirs and Ostyaks, around a capital known by the Cossack wordSibir. In 1581 Semen Stroganov enlisted 600 Cossacks and sent them under Ermak Timofeevitch to conquer these tribes. It was done; western Siberia became part of the swelling Russian realm; and Ermak, who had been a brigand chief, was canonized by the Orthodox Church.

The Church remained the real ruler of Russia, for the fear of God was everywhere, while Ivan’s reach was limited. Strict rules of ritual, if not of morality, bound even the Czar; the priests saw to it that he washed his hands after giving audience to ambassadors from outside the Orthodox pale. No Roman Catholic worship was allowed, but Protestants were tolerated as fellow foes of the Roman pope. Ivan IV, like Henry VIII, prided himself on his knowledge of theology. He indulged in a public debate in the Kremlin with a Bohemian Lutheran divine, and it must be admitted that the most violent of the Czars conducted the discussion with more courtesy than appeared in the religious disputes of contemporary Germany.15 He did not come off so well with another theologian. At a Sunday service in the Cathedral of the Assumption (1568) Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow, conspicuously refused the blessing that Ivan solicited. Thrice the Czar asked for it in vain. When his attendants demanded reason for the refusal, Philip began to list Ivan’s crimes and debaucheries. “Hold thy peace,” cried the Czar, “and give me thy blessing!” “My silence,” answered the prelate, “lays a sin upon thy soul, and calls down thy death.” Ivan departed unblessed, and for a wondering month Philip remained unhurt. Then a servitor of the Czar entered the cathedral, seized the Metropolitan, and dragged him to a prison in Tver. His fate is debated; the account accepted by the Russian Church is that he was burned alive. In 1652 he was canonized, and his relics remained till 1917 an object of reverence in the Uspenskiy Sobor.

The Church still produced most of the literature and art of Russia. Printing arrived about 1491, but the only books printed during this reign were manuals of prayer. The leading scholar was the metropolitan Macarius; in 1529, aided by secretaries, he began to compile the surviving literature of his country in twelve huge volumes, which again were almost entirely religious, mostly monkish, chronicles. Ivan’s confessor Sylvester composed a famous Domostroi, or Household Book, as a guide to domestic economy, manners, and eternal salvation; we note in it the admonition to the husband to beat his wife lovingly, and precise instructions for spitting and for blowing the nose.16 Ivan himself, in his letters, was not the least vigorous writer of his time.

The most brilliant product of Russian art under his rule was the Church of Basil the Blessed (Khram Vasilia Blajennoi), which still stands aloof from the Kremlin at one end of the Red Square. On returning from his triumphant campaigns against Kazan and Astrakhan (1554) Ivan began what he called Pokrovski Sobor—the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin, to whom he judiciously ascribed his victories. Around this central shrine of stone there later rose seven chapels in wood, dedicated to saints on whose festivals Ivan had overcome his foes. Each chapel was crowned with a graceful painted cupola, each bulbous but varying from the others in ornament. The final chapel, raised to St. Basil in 1588, gave its name in time to the whole charming ensemble. Inevitable legend credited the architecture to an Italian, and told how Ivan had gouged out his eyes lest he should ever rival this masterpiece; but it was two Russians, Barma and Postnikov, who designed it, merely adopting some Renaissance motives in its decoration.17Every year, on Palm Sunday, as part of the wisdom of government, the lords and clergy of Moscow walked in awesome procession to this cathedral; the metropolitan rode sideways on a horse equipped with artificial ears to simulate the ass on which Christ was described as entering Jerusalem; and the Czar, on foot, humbly led the horse by the bridle; banners, crosses, icons, and censers flourished, and children raised hosannas of praise and gratitude to inclement skies for the blessings of Russian life.

By 1580 Ivan seemed to have triumphed over all his enemies. He had survived several wives, was married to a sixth, and thought of adding another in friendly bigamy.18 He had four children: the first died in infancy, the third, Feodor, was a half-wit; the fourth, Dmitri, was alleged to have epileptic fits. One day in November 1580, the Czar, seeing the wife of his second son, Ivan, in what seemed to him immodest attire, reproved and struck her; she miscarried; the Czarevitch reproached his father; the Czar, in unpremeditated rage, struck him on the head with the imperial staff; the son died from the blow. The Czar went insane with remorse; he spent his days and nights crying aloud with grief; each morning he offered his resignation; but even the boyars now preferred him to his sons. He survived three years more. Then a strange disease attacked him, which made his body swell and emit an unbearable stench. On March 18, 1584, he died while playing chess with Boris Godunov. Gossip accused Boris of poisoning him, and the stage was set for grand opera in the history of the czars.

We must not think of Ivan IV as merely an ogre of brutality. Tall and strong, he would have been handsome but for a broad flat nose that overlay a spreading mustache and a heavy auburn beard. The appellation Groznyi is mistranslated Terrible; it meant, rather, awesome, like the Augustus that was applied to the Caesars; Ivan III had also received the name. To our minds, and even to his cruel contemporaries, he was repulsively cruel and vengeful, and he was a merciless judge. He lived in the age of the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of Servetus, the decapitating habits of Henry VIII, the Marian persecution, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew; when he heard of this holocaust (which a pope welcomed with praise) he denounced the barbarism of the West.19 He had some provocations, which set on fire a readily combustible temper made violent by heredity or environment; sometimes, says a witness, a small annoyance made him “foam at the mouth like a horse.” 20 He confessed and at times exaggerated his sins and crimes, so that his enemies could only plagiarize him in their accusations. He studied zealously, and made himself the best-educated layman of his land and time. He had a sense of humor, and could roar with Jovian laughter, but a sinister cunning showed often in his smile. He paved his hell with wonderful intentions: he would protect the poor and the weak against the rich and the strong; he would favor commerce and the middle classes as checks on the feudal and quarrelsome aristocracy; he would open a door of trade in goods and ideas to the West; he would give Russia a new administrative class not bound, like the boyars, to ancient and stagnant ways; he would free Russia from the Tatars, and raise her out of chaos into unity. He was a barbarian barbarously struggling to be civilized.

He failed because he never matured to self-mastery. The reforms that he had planned were half forgotten in the excitement of revolution. He left the peasants more bitterly subject to the landlords than before; he clogged the avenues of trade with war; he drove able men into the arms of the enemy; he divided Russia into hostile halves, and guided her into anarchy. He gave his people a demoralizing example of pious cruelty and uncontrolled passion. He killed his ablest son, and bequeathed his throne to a weakling whose incapacity invited civil war. He was one of the many men of his time of whom it might be said that it would have been better for their country and humanity if they had never been born.

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