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Ivan Peresvetov


The writer to break most sharply with the traditions of earlier writing was the West Russian voinnik (professional soldier) Ivan Peresvetov.31 He was a completely secular writer. Arriving in Russia in the late 1530s (he had previously lived and served in Poland, Hungary and Moldavia), when Ivan IV was still a child and the boyars were ruling for him, Peresvetov became a firm opponent of the arbitrary rule of the boyars. All his works denounce the “idle rich” and eulogise the poor, but brave voinniki. Peresvetov’s writings include works of various genres, ranging from petitions to the tsar containing predictions by “Latin philosophers and doctors” about the glorious future of Ivan IV to tales about the rulers of Greece and Turkey. Peresvetov’s works written in the form of epistles, his Lesser and Greater petitions, differed greatly from each other. The Lesser Petition was a typical petition of the time. It was a request from Peresvetov to the tsar to defend him from the arbitrariness of his neighbours and permit him to set up the shield-making workshop that Peresvetov wanted to open in the 1530s, but could not due to the unrest in the period of boyar rule. The Greater Petition is a petition in form only. In content it is a publicistic work in which Peresvetov suggests that Ivan IV should introduce some major political reforms (the creation of a standing army, the abolition of the lieutenants, the abolition of debt-servitude, and the conquest of Kazan). Ideas similar to those in The Greater Petition were expressed in two tales by Peresvetov: The Tale of Magnet and The Tale of the Emperor Constantine; a collection of Peresvetov’s works also included The Tale of Constantinople by Nestor-Iskander, slightly revised by Peresvetov and used by him as a foreword to a collection of his writings.

Peresvetov’s ideology was somewhat complex. A professional soldier, Peresvetov can in many respects be regarded as a member of the service gentry. He hated the rich boyars and dreamed of a “terrible” strong tsar. But in Peresvetov’s writings we also find bold ideas that are unlikely to have occurred to most members of the sixteenth-century service gentry. He condemns debt-servitude and enslavement; declares that all debt-servitude comes from the devil; believes that truth (justice) is higher than faith, and states that there is still no truth in the tsardom of Muscovy, “and if there is no truth, then there is nothing at all”.

Many of the features of Peresvetov’s work remind one of the fifteenth-century Tale of Dracula. Like the author of The Tale of Dracula, Peresvetov believed in the merits of “terrible” power and its ability to destroy “evil”: “A king cannot be without terror. A kingdom without terror is like a king’s horse without a bridle.” Like the author of The Tale of Dracula, Peresvetov did not regard “true faith” as an absolute condition of “truth” in a state. (There was no “truth” in the empire of Constantine, in spite of the “Christian faith”. It was the “Anti-Christ” Magmet who succeeded in introducing “truth”.) But The Tale of Dracula was a fictional work, whose author left it to his readers to draw their own conclusions from the stories, and these conclusions could vary. Peresvetov was, first and foremost, a publicist. He did not doubt the value of “terrible” power and expressed this idea directly.

The influence of folklore and oral speech can be seen clearly in Peresvetov’s works. His aphorisms are constructed like pro­verbs: “A kingdom without terror is like a king’s horse without a bridle”; “God loves not faith, but truth”, “A soldier is like a falcon. You must look after him well and keep him cheerful.” There is a macabre humour in Peresvetov’s writings (which also reminds one of The Tale of Dracula). When the wise ruler Magmet finds out that his judges are taking bribes, he does not rebuke them, but orders them to be flayed alive, saying: “If their flesh grow round them again, their guilt shall be forgiven.” And he orders their skins to be stuffed and the following words to be written on them: “Without such terror it is impossible to bring truth into the kingdom.”

The fate of Peresvetov’s proposals is rather interesting. The programme of this publicist who valued truth more than faith and condemned debt-servitude was not accepted by autocracy. Peres­vetov himself soon disappeared without trace from the historical scene. Judging from a reference to “Peresvetov’s black record” in the tsar’s archives (a common way of referring to records of court proceedings), Peresvetov may have been subjected to repressions. His idea of royal terror was realised in the sixteenth century, although probably not quite as its author had assumed it would be.

This idea was taken up by Tsar Ivan IV, to whom Peresvetov addressed himself and who was to go down in history as Ivan the Terrible.