December 27, 2006

Isabel De Madariaga Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible's reign over Russia has become notorious- whether through Eisenstein's films or a simpler pop-culture knowledge, most of us know his name as a feared Eastern tyrant, like a Russian Genghis Khan. His life has been reduced to a series of massacres, the killing of his own son foremost amongst them and Russia in his reign to a barbaric autocracy sitting outside the norms of civilised humanity. We read Ivan's character and his nationality through the propaganda distributed by Poles and Germans who opposed his policies in central Europe particularly in Lithuania.

Its worth though thinking about Ivan in a more historical vein and reinterpreting his world in that light. Firstly its worth doing a bit of reorientation- the world we know and the world Ivan knew are very different- throughout Ivan's writings religion emerges as a vastly more important and more current form of thought than it does for any of us today. Simply put, like other figures around his own time (Oliver Cromwell for one) Ivan may never have read a book that was not related in some way to either the bible or Church Fathers. His entire world was moulded by the thinking and imagery of the Old and New Testaments. Secondly its worth understanding and just pausing to look at the geography of Eastern Europe in the period we are concerned with- I have here an imperfect map of Europe in 1600 which may help us understand how things have changed since the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

This map obviously only covers the Western borders of Russia but to the East in Ivan's reign lay the remnants of the Khanate of the Golden Horde of Mongols- the Khanates of Kazan, of the Crimea and others and to the South lay the Ottoman Empire and Persia. Ivan's Russia was a place just emerging from two kinds of suzereignity- during his predecessor's reigns the power of the Mongols had evaporated and Russia had become independent of them- Ivan consolidated this conquering Khanates in the early part of his reign. In 1453 Russia's ecclesiastical dominance by Byzantium ended when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans- Ivan's reign sees the full emergeance of Russian declared leadership over the Orthodox world- symbolised by Ivan's claim to equality with the Western Roman Emperor in Vienna.

These shifts in Russia's position over the longue duree are obvious to any casual observer. Bring the focus in closer and Ivan's reign becomes much less easy to understand and describe. De Madariaga has in writing this biography done any student of his reign a great service. She is fully aware of the limitations of her study- we don't have particularly good sources for Ivan's reign in Russia- most of them were composed by foreigners. We are also in a very different mental world and often epithets from Ivan's world have altered in meaning very slightly over the succeeding centuries. Take the description 'terrible', in Russian grozny is a very different term to our understanding of the word terrible, rather than meaning bad it means a ruler who inspired terror, who inspired fear, a ruler cruel in the administration of justice and so cruel that justice itself was feared. In a curious way what seems to us a criticism is actually a compliment. Similarly De Madariaga sketches out the way in which Russia was not a political community during Ivan's reign- you can't compare across from the Boyar Council to the English House of Lords. There were no representative institutions- its a bit like going back to the Saxon witangemot and seeing the origins of the English Parliament, one was an adhoc assembly of notables to council the king, the other an institution with from its earliest days procedure and judicial power.

So there are difficulties in understanding Ivan. There is also a much greater difficulty. Ivan was a man, like say Tiberius, of great power who was also possibly mentally unbalanced. De Madariaga hypothesizes that he was paranoid, and his paranoia resulted in violent swings of policy towards individuals. Ivan's punishments for what he saw as treason were terrible in a modern sense, he impaled members of his court on sticks, he thrust citizens of Novgorod through the icy waters of lakes and rivers, he licensed and witnessed horrendous tortures from which no member of society, even ecclesiastical figures, were immune. He even killed his own son, Ivan as well, a murder which led to huge instability after Ivan died because he had no competent male heir to continue the Riurikid line. Explaining his cruelty is something that historians find hard to do- like De Madariaga we are all forced back to the Tacitean imagery of tyranny. But his cruelty becomes a wider problem because it allows us the convenient explanation of madness for the other things that he did.

Ivan had a profound leglislative agenda. He at one point attempted to create what De Madariaga beleives was a parallel state- the Oprichnina- an experiment which lasted for barely five years. Ivan also resigned his own kingdom in a curious way by which he kept the title of Tsar but delinked it from his position as Grand Duke of Muscovy- a position that he gave to a Mongol in his service. Historians have also credited him with the invention of serfdom, in the later years of his reign he began the practice of forbidden years when serfs were forbidden from moving round the country, in truth this looks like an adhoc policy which became over time a foundation of serfdom- as with everything concerning Ivan, we must be wary of looking at him through later Russian history.

Furthermore he had a particularly aggressive foreign policy, attempting to coerce other monarchs into the acceptance of his suzereignity and equality to the Imperial throne in the West. De Madariaga gives us an interesting sidelight on this, arguing that there was a clash of languages between Western and Russian interpretations of imperial status, for the Westerners Emperors presided over Kings (look for instance at the ancient English iconography whereby Edgar the peaceful is rowed by seven other Kings down the Thames), for the Russian an emperor was a dynastic successor to the true Imperial house, of Augustus, Honorius and Arcadius (the history is a little garbled on both sides here- Augustus wasn't related to Honorius or Arcadius). De Madariaga is insistant and is right that Ivan was attempting to solidify a notion of Russian Imperial rulership, and his letters are full of ideas about service and sovereignty, but beyond that its difficult to go. Ivan was probably rational in seeking to perform these actions but as De Madariaga suggests we can't get to his motivation in doing so.

Influences upon the Russian ruler are equally difficult to perceive. Its worth stressing though that as the map above suggests Russia did not merely react to and import from the West. In military, cultural and governmental forms the Russians also looked Eastward and Southward. De Madariaga finds much that is Mongol in Ivan's court and governmental style- she even attributes the invention of the Oprichnina to Ivan's second wife, a Mongol princess, and to emulation of the Mongol elites surrounding Genghis Khan. She also shows that Russia looked south, through say the writings of Maxim Grek to the evaporating world of the Orthodox East Roman imperium and to the Ottoman empire. Much that was Muscovite was transmitted from Moldova or up the Black Sea. She is aware of the geopolitical importance of Russia- the desire to provide one power who controlled the trade route from the Baltic sea to the Caspian, a trade route vital throughout history from the time of the Vikings onwards and one that the English Russia Company hoped to establish.

She also manages to place Ivan's reign in a larger context. We can see how Ivan managed to control and militarily acheive various aims- the conquest of the Khanates to the south was a vital moment in Russian history. He also stripped the economy bare, by constant changes in the patterns of landholding, vast taxation and also the devestation of war. His cruelty she posits was a result of a fusion of a concept of Kingship which gave Ivan responsibility for the Russian people in the eyes of God and a particular personality, psychologically damaged and paranoid, which led to Ivan purging the country of traiters with an almost religious zeal. In truth we can't really say more than De Madariaga says and even what she says rests upon tenuous foundations, like all historians of Ivan's reign or all historians we come in the end to the frailties of our own evidence, we just don't know. Ivan's reign is fascinating and the shadows it throws forward on Russian history profound, but the enigmas are just as profound and as interesting. Its to De Madariaga's credit that she allows us to realise the importance of what we don't know and makes a convincing thesis at the same time to explain what we do know.


james higham said...

Ah, now you're in my field. I drive past Ivan Grozny island every day. You know, of course, that Grozny does not translate as 'terrible' but as 'awesome' and when, in 1552, he popped over this way for a spot of raping, pillaging and annexation, he took a fancy, according to legend, to the Princess of the time who responded by throwing her off the top of a tower. Nice man, Ivan.

Actually, she'd have to have been about 60 years old at the time in reality.

Gracchi said...

Yeah the fables about him are really impressive- bestiality, rape and homosexuality sometimes all together were alleged against him by sources at the time. There was so much in the biography that I could have put in. Yes grozny- I like your awesome (though not the awesome of US teenagers) I suppose its closer to the English terrible in its older sense of inspiring terror but that's a better transalation- cheers for that. Its interesting that I think Vasily III but I can't remember if that's right was also called grozny. Thanks for the informed comment.

Ian said...

One of my Russian lecturers used to favour "Ivan the Dread" as a more suitable translation, which does have a certain something. Of course, Martin Amis used the same adjective for his study of Stalin; I have to assume this was a deliberate allusion, but wonder how many readers realised?

Saying that, the parallels between Stalin and the Ivan that emerges from your posting seem compelling: obvious cruelty, suggestions of paranoia, the struggle to establish Russian (for Ivan) or Soviet (for Stalin) power and legitimacy.

You opened with Eisenstein - do I recollect correctly that he never got to complete his film on Ivan because it was too transparent a parable on Stalin?

Gracchi said...

There are some simularities in character- though Ivan is so impenetrable and I think what I perhaps didn't stress enough was the religious angle- one of the things that De Madariaga really stresses is that angle. The evidence is so poor that its difficult to be exact.

Dread sounds good. I don't know if Amis was making that point.

The Eisenstein point is good- I'm going to review those films here soon. You are right in what you say- actually it wasn't that he made one film and wasn't able to finish it. He made two complete films about Ivan- and there was supposed to be a third in the trilogy but it was destroyed by the Soviet censor.

Cheers for yet another good comment.

Not Saussure said...

Thanks for yet another fascinating historical article. I've heard Ivan Grozny translated as 'John the Severe' by a Russian, but I'm not sure the chap's English was as colloquial as he thought it was.

One of the great historical might-have-beens is that when the Livonian War was going badly for Ivan, in 1567, he apparently not only sounded out Elizabeth I about the prospects of political asylum in England but also about the possibility of marriage.

Now those two really would have made quite a fearsome pair!

Gracchi said...

Yes and he also kept offering Elizabeth asylum in Russia should the plots against her succeed and kept requesting asylum in England. De Madariaga argues that the English were basically after commercial concessions from Ivan, what they didn't want was any diversion of their overpressed resources in the West.