IVAN THE TERRIBLE
By Isabel de Madariaga
Yale University Press, $35,
416 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY WOODFORD MCCLELLAN
Russian Prosecutor-General Yuri Skuratov began investigating the financial shenanigans of Boris Yeltsin’s family and entourage in 1998. When the Duma (Parliament) rejected Yeltsin’s demand to
dismiss him, the Kremlin slipped the television networks a video of Skuratov cavorting with two young women in a sauna. Hundreds of showings only enhanced the prosecutor’s image, and an absurd attempt to cast him as a modern Maliuta Skuratov, chief executioner for Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), went nowhere.
Isabel de Madariaga, author of a splendid new study of Ivan, writes that Maliuta Skuratov exacted his master’s savage revenge on a few hundred real enemies and untold thousands of wholly imaginary ones, including women and infant children, in 16th-century Russia. Skuratov looms large in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film about Ivan: During production, de Madariaga notes, the director had before his eyes “images of the various heads of the OGPU, GPU, NKVD, the Yagodas, Yezhovs and Berias.” That was precisely what Stalin — who personally commissioned the film — wanted. God but surrounded by traitors, a ruler in need of merciless henchmen to carry out his — thus God’s — awful vengeance. The effort to rationalize and explain the Great Terror of the 1930s persuaded only that Terror’s architect; but then Stalin was the only moviegoer who counted.
Arguably the most intelligent of the czars, Ivan IV (1530-1584) suffered a childhood that would have made the most wretched Dickensian waif thankful for his own circumstances. His father, Vasili III, died before Ivan was three; his mother expired, possibly of poisoning, when he was eight. A Regency Council proceeded to ignore or mistreat the young prince.
The jockeying for power among the regents frequently involved violence; Ivan witnessed several murders and the hideous desecration of corpses. Small wonder, Ms. de Madariaga notes, that he threw cats and dogs off the high Kremlin walls to observe the results, and that as an adult he participated in unspeakable tortures. “What the young man had … seen,” she writes, “of the way people treated him, and each other,” produced “fear, suspicion, distrust, self-defensiveness and cruelty” in him.
Claiming — with some justification — dynastic descent from the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, in January 1547 Ivan became the first Russian ruler to be crowned “czar,” that is, “caesar.” (He also declared himself a descendant of Prus, mythical brother of the Roman Emperor Augustus.) Three weeks later Ivan married Anastasia Zakharina, and there ensued the 13 “most peaceful and harmonious years of his life.” The young czar established a “unified authority” with “one law … one currency, one religion, one set of weights and measures, one language, and a unified army command.”
He conquered Kazan and Astrakhan — but he also launched a protracted, costly and unwinnable war for control of the eastern Baltic region. Anastasia died suddenly in 1560 of deliberate poisoning. Ivan never recovered, and his paranoia took on extreme forms. Determined to combat treason on his own terms, he carved out a vast personal fief the size of several provinces where law, tradition and custom did not apply. Maliuta Skuratov led a corps of black-clad horsemen that enforced his will through terror and confiscatory taxation. Nature added “plague, drought … and famine;” huge areas were depopulated.
Nor was that all. Alarmed by the appearance on November 11, 1572, of a supernova in the constellation of Cassiopeia, and by a sorcerer’s prediction that a Russian grand prince would die in 1575 or 1576, in the fall of 1575 Ivan installed a Christianized Tatar Khan, Simeon Bekbulatovich, as Grand Prince of Russia — a farcical episode rooted, Ms. de Madariaga points out, in the old Buddhist legend of Barlaam and Josaphat.
(This nearly had a 20th-century sequel. In the mid-1920s, some Comintern [Communist International] officials discussed the possibility of placing a black communist from Guadeloupe, Joseph Lunion-Gothon, on the throne left vacant by the murder of Nicholas II and his family.)
Bekbulatovich and Ivan IV both survived the fateful year, but Ivan sank ever deeper into the demented depths. During an argument in 1581, he struck and killed his own son, Ivan Ivanovich, thus inflicting, Ms. de Madariaga observes, a final blow on Russia, the destruction of the dynasty.
Author of the justly acclaimed “Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great” (Yale), Ms. de Madariaga, who recently retired from London University, has given us perhaps the finest account in English of a czar who had “such a devastating impact on his people and his expanding country.” Stalin-era historians — and of course Stalin himself — tried to justify Ivan’s monstrous crimes as necessary to root out treason, but Ms. de Madariaga is having none of that. Ivan IV was, she writes (quoting from the Book of Isaiah), “Lucifer, the star of the morning, who wanted to be God, and was expelled from the Heavens.”
Woodford McClellan, emeritus professor of the University of Virginia, is working on a book about the Communist International (Comintern) 1919-1943.