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Ivan the Terrible in Russian history and literature


Ivan the Terrible. The role of Ivan the Terrible, son of Basil III, in Russian history and literature is a complex and contradictory one. The first tsar of All Russia, Ivan IV, was one of the most terrifying figures in the country’s history. His tyrannical features affected his writing also: the strings of clearly fantastic accusations against his opponents and growing fury of his tirades are typical of a ruler dictating to scribes (Ivan appears to have dictated, not written, his works). The constant repetition of the same idea was noticed by the tsar himself who agreed that he used “the same word” “all over the place”. But he invariably blamed this on his enemies, whose “evil-spirited machinations” forced him to return to the same questions time and time again.

Portrait of Ivan the Terrible. Woodcut by an unknown West-European master. 16th century. State Public Library, Leningrad

Portrait of Ivan the Terrible. Woodcut by an unknown West-European master. 16th century. State Public Library, Leningrad

However, Ivan’s works do not only reveal the absolute monarch with a persecution complex. Ivan IV had an artistic nature of a kind and was fairly well educated for his day: his younger contemporaries referred to him as a “man of wondrous reasoning”. In spite of his Josephite education and participation in the activity of the Hundred Chapters Council, which attacked “mockers” and “gibers”, the tsar permitted the buffoonery of the skomorokhs (as he himself admits in one of his epistles) and was evidently fond of them. Ivan’s “buffoon-like” tastes and predilec­tion for biting and occasionally coarse ridicule, are also found in his writings.

Ivan tried his hand at various types of literature: we have his “speeches”—a dispute with the Protestant preacher Jan Rokita32 and talks with foreign diplomats; and it is likely that a religious work, the canon to the Terrible Angel, signed by the name of Parfeny Yurodivy (Parthenius the Fool-in-Christ)33 also belonged to Ivan IV. But the main genre in which Ivan IV wrote was the epistle. We have his polemic epistles, including those to Kurbsky and the White Lake Monastery of St Cyril, and his diplomatic epistles.34 But even in the latter (which have survived in the sixteenth-century Diplomatic Records) one constantly finds polemics (for example, the epistles to King Johann III of Sweden and Stephen Bathory, the epistles sent to Sigismund Augustus II on behalf of the boyars, etc.) and features of his distinctive style—lively argument with his oppopent, rhetorical questions, ridiculing of his opponent’s arguments, and frequent appeals to his reason (“judge for yourself”). These features are characteristic of the tsar’s early and later epistles (from the 1550s to the 1580s), yet we cannot name a single person close to Ivan who retained his favour throughout his reign. Evidently they are features of Ivan’s style as a writer.

The Epistle to the White Lake Monastery of St Cyril. The Epistle to the White Lake Monastery of St Cyril was written by Ivan IV in 1573 in reply to a document sent to the tsar by the abbot of the monastery. A dispute had arisen within the monastery between two influential monks: Sheremetev, a former Moscow boyar, and Sobakin, a member of one of the families that had risen to power during the Oprichnina (thanks to the tsar’s marriage to Martha Sobakina). The tsar pretended that the dispute was above him—he began his epistle with a humble refusal to aspire to such “heights” as monastery affairs. “Alas, sinner that I am! Woe is me, accursed one! Oh, base wretch! Who am I to brave such heights?” But as the tsar’s strong temperament gets the upper hand over his “humble” pose, the letter becomes more and more threatening. Ivan IV is deeply angered by the fact that the monastery is “cajoling the boyars” and trying to please the boyar-monk Sheremetev who has incurred the tsar’s disfavour. Do not tell me “those shameful words”, the tsar declares. “If we wish to have nothing to do with the boyars, the monastery will receive no endowments.” The “humble” epistle ends with a strict reprimand to the monks and an order not to trouble the tsar with “trifles”. “Decide yourselves, how you wish to treat him, it is no business of mine! And in future do not trouble me with it; verily, I will not answer any more of your questions.”

The Epistle to Vasily Gryaznoy. Unlike the epistle to the White Lake Monastery of St Cyril and the epistles to Kurbsky, Ivan IV’s epistle to Vasily Gryaznoy, who was captured by the Crimean Tartars, has survived in one copy only, in the Crimean Records of diplomatic correspondence with the Crimean Khanate. Obviously this epistle was not intended for circulation, but only for the person to whom it was addressed. In 1574 Vasily Gryaznoy, an Oprichnik and favourite of the tsar, was captured by the Crimean Tartars. He wrote to the tsar from captivity asking him to pay his ransom, but Ivan IV considered the sum asked by the Crimean Tartars to be excessively high. “You write that you were captured for your sins, Vasyushka. Well, you should not have gone off to the Crimean nomads so recklessly. You thought you were going out with the hounds to hunt hares, but the Tartars tied you to the saddle…” During the Crimean campaign of 1571-1572 the Oprichnina had proved ineffective and been abolished. The tsar’s displeasure with the Oprichniks is reflected in the epistle. Ivan writes that he promoted “slaves” such as Gryaznoy only because “the princes and boyars of my father and me began to betray me”. For the sake of his former favourite the tsar agrees to pay a ransom, but fifty times less than what the Tartars want. The style of the epistle, its somewhat coarse humour, is very reminiscent of the skomorokh traditions popular during the Oprichnina. “Or did you think that it was the same in the Crimea as joking at dinner with me,” asked the tsar. In his reply (also in the Crimean Records) Gryaznoy declares that he is a complete nonentity. “If it were not for Your Majesty’s favour, what sort of a man would I be? You, Sire, are as God—you make all things, great and small.”

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