It is no easy task to write the life of Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), tsar of all the Russias from 1547 to 1584. The figure of the tsar towers over Russian history, and divides historians. For some he was the founder of the modern Russian state and even the empire; for others, a cruel tyrant who set Russia on the path of despotism and terror. But for all the historical controversy that Ivan generates, there is very little evidence about his life. Most of the Kremlin’s medieval archives had been destroyed by fires by the time Nikolai Karamzin, the first serious historian of Russia, began working on his twelve-volume History of the Russian State (published between 1818 and 1826).
The historiography of Ivan’s reign has been built on very little concrete evidence. There is a contemporary History of Ivan IV by Prince Andrei Kurbsky, one of the tsar’s protégés who became critical of his sovereign’s despotism and defected to Lithuania in 1564. At some point in the early 1570s, Kurbsky wrote his History as part of his campaign against Ivan, who was then trying to get himself elected king of Poland-Lithuania. How far one can rely on this account is a contentious point: the distinguished historian Professor Edward Keenan of Harvard University has maintained that Kurbsky’s History is a forgery (or “apocrypha”) which was in fact produced in the seventeenth century. Historians have also used the correspondence between Kurbsky and Ivan (another forgery in Keenan’s view) in which the tsar replied to Kurbsky’s criticisms with a self-justifying history of his reign.
Much of the surviving evidence is semi-mythical. There is a rich folklore about the tsar which dates back to the early seventeenth century, when Ivan was first described as “the Terrible” (grozny)—a description which was largely positive (closer to the sense of “awe-inspiring” and “formidable” than “cruel” or “harsh”) in the imagination of the common people, who associated his severity with the repression of the aristocracy. Perhaps we should call him “Ivan the Dread.” But leaving aside the formal records of administrative bodies and foreign diplomats, there are few reliable historical sources about Ivan’s life. There is no surviving letter or decree written in Ivan’s own hand (he may well have been illiterate); no trace of his personal relationship with any of his seven wives or his children; no account of life at Ivan’s court; and no authentic portrait of the tsar—for all such images in Ivan’s lifetime were iconic and imaginary (Tsar Alexei, who reigned from 1645 to 1676, is the first Russian ruler for whom we have anything remotely resembling a reliable likeness). In 1963, Ivan’s bones were exhumed from sarcophagi in the Kremlin’s Archangel Cathedral and used to reconstruct a “virtual” bust, which confirms contemporary descriptions of the tsar as tall and strong with a high forehead, looking like an “angry warrior.”
Historians have filled the empty space with inventions …