Ivan wasn’t terrible at all

So says Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Security Council, displaying the kind of sensitivity to historical truth we’ve learned to expect from Russian security services.

Actually, ‘Terrible’, though it describes Ivan IV accurately, is a mistranslation of the Russian Grozny. The nickname is closer in meaning to Wrathful or Fearsome. Yet Patrushev, a career KGB officer, was making a point of substance, not semantics.

For him and his lifelong friend and colleague Putin, there was nothing terrible about Ivan. All Russian bloodthirsty tyrants, from Ivan to Stalin, are making a PR comeback there because the present rulers see them as their role models.

When the news broke yesterday of Patrushev explaining that it’s only Russia’s enemies, namely all Westerners, who regard Ivan as terrible, I sat down to write about that. But then I realised that doing so would be a case of self-plagiarism, for I had already written that piece – five years ago.

So I’ve decided to rerun the same article, putting my faith in Marie Antoinette’s adage “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten”.

Every country honours its iconic personages, those seen to have served the nation particularly well. And the choice of icons is telling.

The English erect statues to Nelson. The French, to Louis XIV. The Italians, to Garibaldi. Acting in the same spirit, Putin’s government has unveiled a statue to Ivan the Terrible. That’s like Boris Johnson honouring Jack the Ripper.

Vlad obviously traces his geopolitical and spiritual lineage back to the first Russian tsar, as did Stalin. Yet even Stalin never went so far as to commission a statue to the crazed monster.

Though later known for rabid attacks on Russia’s neighbours, Ivan began his reign by declaring war on his own people: “From time immemorial, the Russian people [wanted] to wipe out our whole dynasty…” To preempt that calamity, Ivan launched a punitive campaign against the perfidious culprits, the Russian people.

Before striking, he had presciently tried to secure a fall-back position. To that end Ivan had his shaggy-bearded emissaries approach Queen Elizabeth of England to propose marriage or, barring that, a mutual guarantee of haven if their respective subjects rebelled.

Her putative virginity must have been a factor in Ivan’s proposal, for he prized chastity in his brides. In fact, when on their wedding night his fifth wife turned out to be not quite virginal, Ivan had her drowned in a pond, as one did.

Elizabeth wasn’t so much reluctant to accept the proposal as perplexed: she had only a vague idea of Ivan or indeed Tartary, as contemporaneous English maps identified Russia. Hence she didn’t let Ivan’s wooing succeed where Leicester’s had failed.

(Giles Fletcher, Elizabethan traveller to Russia, renders this offer more eloquently, if a bit archaically: “Further, the Emperor requireth earnestly that there may be assurance made by oath and faith betwixt the Queen’s Majestie and him, that yf any misfortune might fall or chance upon ether of them to go out of their countries, that it might be lawful for ether of them to come into the other countrey for the safeguard of themselves and theyr lives…”)

Undeterred by amorous rejection, Ivan pressed on with his campaign regardless. To begin with, he created the first oppressive institution in Russia: oprichnina, the somewhat more liberal precursor of Putin’s own KGB.

The oprichniks ransacked the land, torturing and murdering anyone who offended against the tsar’s ‘word and deed.’ In fact, those became the magic words that opened the doors of oprichnina barracks to any snitch willing to denounce anyone he wished.

Those denounced would be first tortured and then, with few exceptions, cut to pieces or broken on the wheel – this even if their crime was only to have uttered a sentence beginning with “If I were tsar…” The just punishment would ensue inexorably even if the sentence then said “…I’d be even tougher on treason.”

However, the oprichniks were more even-handed than the KGB: they tortured not only the accused but also the accuser, to make sure he hadn’t borne false witness – biblical commandments had to be enforced.

Ivan, after all, was a pious man who knew the Scripture by heart. Nevertheless he murdered priests wholesale and practised rituals that openly mocked Christianity.

For example, Ivan set up a sham monastery for his cronies, in which they impersonated monks, with him as the abbot. There they alternated religious rituals with massacres, tortures of prisoners and orgies (the tsar boasted of having raped a thousand girls, many of whom he then killed in a fit of post-coital aggression).

The new statue appropriately shows Ivan raising the Orthodox cross – by serving as an extension of Putin’s (and before him Soviet) oprichnina, the hierarchy of today’s Russian church lives off Ivan’s blasphemous legacy.

Ivan also had a heightened aesthetic sense. He especially enjoyed the spectacle of his victims being sautéed in oil, to which end giant frying pans were erected in Red Square. As people were being evenly browned on all sides, the tsar would laugh and applaud whenever the executioners displayed more than average creativity.

Having thus hardened himself, Ivan opened large-scale hostilities. First he struck out in a north-westerly direction, systematically sacking every Russian town in his path.

The oprichniks murdered all prominent citizens, robbed everyone else and, as a final touch later duplicated by Lenin and Stalin, either confiscated or destroyed all grain. This worked by delayed action: those spared the oprichniks’ axes would succumb to starvation during the winter.

After capturing Tver, the oprichniks first robbed and murdered all the clergy, including the bishop. Over the next two days they sacked every house, looting what appealed to them and burning everything else.

Finally, the oprichniks rampaged through the streets, murdering everyone they could seize, including women and children. This they replicated in their subsequent conquests: 1,500 people were massacred in Torzhok alone, and it was a small town.

In January, 1570, Ivan captured Novgorod. That Hanseatic city with parliamentary traditions had always irritated Ivan, and finally he had had enough.

By way of a warm-up, all Novgorod monks were clubbed to death. Then Ivan summoned the city’s aristocracy and trading elite, accompanied by their wives and children. They were all tortured ‘unimaginably’, as a contemporary described it.

Many were burnt with a chemical compound personally developed by the talented tsar, who had an aptitude for science too. Those men who were still alive were then drowned in the Volkhov river, followed by their wives, tied to their babies and pushed under the ice.

Then Ivan had all food in the city destroyed, along with all grain silos, fowl and cattle. Consequently, on top of the 60,000 corpses already swelling the Volkhov, the denizens had to suffer horrendous famines. Cannibalism was rife. Corpses were dug out of their graves and devoured.

A true pioneer, Ivan can also be credited with one of the first Jewish pogroms in Russia. When in 1563 he captured Polotsk, he massacred all the Jews living there.

Countries are like people: whatever they learn in their youth stays with them for ever. Ivan’s lesson on government has since entered the nation’s viscera. Rather than trying to expunge it, Putin gleefully shows it’s there to stay.

6 thoughts on “Ivan wasn’t terrible at all”

  1. Two Russian [Soviet] rulers among the ten worst dictators of the last thousand years and listed in 2000. Ivan and Stalin. Russians like a firm hand from a leader is what the experts always say. Sadism a primary factor for inclusion onto the list.

  2. Whenever I read such horrific accounts, my first thought is fear, my second is the state of the perpetrators soul. This may well be recondite, but why would anyone behave like this? We’ve all got evil in us, but why such a large portion for old Ivan? Obviously such rumination does not help us oppose the threat posed by todays tyrants, but surely there is a time to contemplate why they exist?

  3. In recently researching the deaths of Ivan’s many wives, and even the strong suspicion he may have had a hand in poisoning some of them — you should note that he never drowned one.

    That is apocryphal and likely introduced several centuries after his death. Serious scholars of the subject have proven relatively conclusively that Dolgorukaya is based on a forgery, see : Russell E. Martin, A Bride for the Tsar: Bride-Shows and Marriage Politics in Early Modern Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012).

    I don’t object to the content of your article or the point you’re trying to make; but claims like that about the drowning will be non-starters for any serious historian I’ve chatted with. I would find it very convenient if that were true for my own theories, but unfortunately it isn’t. You may as well steer clear of misinformation to better prove your point.

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