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The Diplomatic Epistles of Ivan the Terrible


Of Ivan IV’s diplomatic epistles the most interesting as literary works are those to King Johann III of Sweden and the epistle to King Stephen Bathory of Poland.

The epistles to Johann III were written after unsuccessful attempts to conclude a military alliance between Ivan the Terrible and King Eric XIV of Sweden. In 1568, when the Russian envoys who had come to conclude the alliance were staying in Stockholm, Eric XIV was deposed and his brother Johann III, who supported an alliance with Poland and was the sworn enemy of Moscow, came to the throne. “Robbed and dishonoured”, the Russian envoys were first imprisoned for several months, then sent back to Russia; there could, of course, be no question of an alliance now. The First Epistle to Johann III, written in 1572, reflects Ivan the Terrible’s anger at the change in Swedish foreign policy and the robbing of his envoys. The tsar points out that originally he had no intention of negotiating with Johann, and wanted to fight, but then decided to give the king time to think the matter over. But the king had made no moves. “There is no word of your envoys even now, whether you are to send any or not.” Making no distinction between the deposed Eric and the new king Johann, the tsar declares all Swedish kings to be deceivers who use the pretext of a coup d’etat to avoid the performance of their duties: “In autumn they said that you had died, in spring they said that you had been banished from the state… Now your deception is revealed: like a reptile, you don different guises.” Johann Ill’s reply to this was equally sharp: “most unbecoming” was the comment in the Diplomatic Records. In 1573 Ivan the Terrible sent Johann III a second epistle, one of his most outspoken works. He declared the whole line of Swedish kings to be a “line of peasants”. As proof he recalled that when “our traders came with bacon fat and wax to Sweden” Johann’s father, Gustav Vaza, “put on gloves” and tested the quality of the bacon fat and wax. In contrast the tsar referred proudly to the descent of his ancestors “from Augustus Caesar”, quoting from The Tale of the Princes of Vladimir. This epistle too ended most acerbically: “And now about your barking at us … if you wish to take a dog’s mouth and bark for your amusement, such is your base custom … but if you want someone to bark with, find a slave like yourself … and bark at him.”

In 1581 Ivan the Terrible wrote another diplomatic epistle, The Epistle to King Stephen Bathory of Poland. It was written in entirely different circumstances. Elected to the Polish throne in 1576 Stephen Bathory radically changed the military state of affairs in the Livonian war; nearly all the Russian conquests in Western Russia and southern Livonia were lost. Consequently Ivan the Terrible could not address the Polish King as arrogantly as he addressed the King of Sweden a few years earlier. He intended to write “humbly”, but did not manage this very well. Already in his opening title, after listing all his possessions, he called himself a ruler “by the will of God, and not by the much-rebellious will of mankind”. This was an allusion to the fact that, unlike Bathory, he was an hereditary ruler, not an elected monarch. The main theme of the epistle was the need for peace and the impermissibility of “shedding Christian blood”, which benefited only the Moslems. Here too there is a somewhat insulting allusion to the fact that Bathory enjoyed the support of the Sultan of Turkey in his election to the throne. Accusing Bathory of aiding and abetting Mohammedanism was particularly significant because the tsar was negotiating with the Pope about Papal mediation in the conclusion of a peace “for the good of Christendom”. This accusation emerges gradually at the beginning of the epistle: by constantly referring to the “Christian customs” that he observes Ivan contrasts them with the customs of the Moslems. At the end, as if forgetting about his peaceful intentions, Ivan declares outright: “It is clear what you are doing, betraying Christianity to the Moslems!.. You call yourself a Christian, and utter the name of Christ, yet you wish to overthrow Christianity!”