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.1 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 and ideologies. For Karamzin, who relied on Kurbsky, Ivan was a tragic character, whose progressive statesmanship during the first half of his reign was undone by the violence of his later years, when he became unbalanced psychologically. This dramatic view was very influential in the nineteenth century. It also lay behind the tragic conception of Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part film Ivan the Terrible, a commentary on the human costs of tyranny which Eisenstein intended as a moral lesson to Stalin. In the first part of the film Eisenstein depicts the heroic aspects of Ivan: his vision of a unified state; his fearless struggle against the scheming boyars; his strong authority and leadership in the war against the Tatars of Kazan. But in the second part the action switches from the public sphere to Ivan’s inner world. The tsar now emerges as a tormented figure, haunted by the terror to which he is driven by his paranoia and isolation from society.

The tragic conception of Ivan drawn from Karamzin was challenged by the so-called “statist” school of historians, such as S.M. Soloviev and K.D. Kavelin, who dominated the Russian historical profession in the second half of the nineteenth century. They gave a more positive assessment of Ivan’s statesmanship. To put Russia on a par with Europe and invent a “modern” past, they even argued that the ad hoc boyar councils and noble assemblies appointed by Ivan were embryos of modern government institutions. In fact, as Isabel de Madariaga demonstrates, under Ivan the Terrible these occasional gatherings were nothing of the sort. In her view, the first genuinely political institution of the state did not emerge until 1598, fourteen years after Ivan’s death, when a land assembly (Zemskii sobor) of noblemen, clergymen, and boyars (higher-ranking noblemen appointed by the tsar) elected Boris Godunov to the Russian throne. Because Russia was developing political institutions that were similar to Europe’s in the nineteenth century, these historians imagined that it had similar institutions to the rest of Europe three hundred years before.


The image of the sixteenth-century tsar as a progressive “state-builder”—driven to use terror to force his reforms through against the opposition of the aristocracy—underpinned the cult of Ivan the Terrible during Stalin’s reign. As Stalin explained to Eisenstein,

You have to show why he had to be cruel. One of Ivan the Terrible’s mistakes was to stop short of cutting up the five feudal clans. Had he destroyed these five clans, there would have been no Time of Troubles [the civil wars that followed Ivan’s death]. When Ivan the Terrible had someone executed, he would spend a long time in repentance and prayer. God was a hindrance to him in this respect. He should have been more decisive.2

After Stalin’s death, when the “cult of personality” was discredited in the USSR, Soviet historians moved toward a broader Marxist view of “class interests” during Ivan’s reign. But the idea of a powerful and reactionary aristocracy continued to be used to justify the despotism of the tsar.

Isabel de Madariaga rejects all such ideological interpretations of Ivan. One of the many virtues of her book is its common-sense approach to the evidence. Drawing on a wide range of published sources, de Madariaga, emeritus professor of Russian studies at London University, evaluates the evidence strictly on the basis of historical probabilities. Her straightforward empirical approach is as refreshing as her no-nonsense prose (though both at times sound somewhat superior in tone). Thus, for example, she rejects the proposition (advanced by Keenan) that Ivan was illiterate:

There may be no evidence that Ivan was literate, but there is also no evidence that he was not….It is in my view quite probable that Ivan had learnt to read (it is after all not so difficult).

Unlike de Madariaga’s earlier work, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (1981), Ivan the Terrible is about “the man and the ruler,” not about Russia in his reign. At times one misses her previous attention to Russian society. There is very little here about the conditions of the peasantry, or the imposition of serfdom, which was arguably the single most important legacy of Ivan’s reign. Very little, too, about the Cossack Ermak and his so-called “conquest of Siberia” in the 1580s, although this was to be recalled as the principal achievement of Ivan’s reign in popular tales from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. However, a great strength of de Madariaga’s book is that it views Ivan, in her words, “standing in Moscow and looking out over the walls of the Kremlin towards the rest of Europe, and not looking in—and down—into Russia, over its Western border, from outside.” Almost every page of her magnificent biography is illuminated by the wisdom gained by its author from a lifetime of learning and reflection about the place of Russia in the wider world.


The main account of Ivan’s early years comes from the tsar’s long letter to Prince Kurbsky written on July 5, 1564. Ivan claims that he had a miserable childhood. This account has led historians to conclude that the origins of the tsar’s pathological behavior in later life can be traced back to these early years. Ivan was born in 1530. Having lost his father Vasily IV at the age of two, followed by his mother when he was eight, Ivan says that he was “left to the tender mer-cies of uncaring boyars”—particularly the princes of the Shuisky clan who neglected him and treated him with disrespect.

Ivan’s account is obviously colored by the wounded pride which he came to feel in later years, when he recalled the way he had been treated by the Shuisky princes. It was colored too by his need to justify the revenge which he had taken against the Shuisky clan in 1543, when Ivan, at the age of just thirteen, had ordered the brutal killing of Prince Andrei Shuisky, the last of the Shuisky clan at his court. It was the first of many killings ordered by Ivan.

According to de Madariaga, historians should be careful about accepting Ivan’s version of events, and even more so about concluding that these early years can explain his cruelty. From other Russian sources, all we know about his childhood “is that he was a rackety young man, and that there are tales of an early taste for torturing birds and animals and a tendency to abuse his power in dealing with adults.” De Madariaga gives more significance to the education of the young tsar. She constructs a fascinating picture of the literature that influenced his outlook on the world, from the Bible and Apocrypha to medieval ballads and romances and the tales of Dracula, which were brought to Russia by Orthodox monks fleeing from the Turks in Wallachia at the end of the fifteenth century. In Russia the tales were recast to portray Dracula not as a cruel invader, as he was portrayed in Transylvania, but as a warrior king who was severe and cruel “for the sake of his subjects.”


The elderly Metropolitan Makary was a major influence on the young tsar, de Madariaga argues. A fervent believer in the holy mission of Moscow to become the capital of Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Makary was probably behind the decision to crown Ivan as tsar rather than as grand prince of Moscow, as previous rulers of Russia had been called (Ivan III and Vasily III had used the title “tsar” on occasions). By calling himself “tsar” (which derived from “Caesar”), Ivan advanced his claim to be the secular head of the Christian world in the East—a counterbalance to the Holy Roman Emperor as the secular leader of the Western Christian world. Nothing spoke more loudly of Ivan’s ambitions for Russia in Europe. As an autocratic sovereign, Ivan was increasingly contemptuous of Europe’s elected rulers, such as the kings of Sweden and Denmark, and of monarchs, like Queen Elizabeth of England, whose sovereignty was limited by the rights of her subjects.

In the early years of Ivan’s reign, the tsar was guided by the priest Sylvester and by Alexei Aldashev, Ivan’s favorite at the court. Like all the monarchs of sixteenth-century Europe, Ivan set out with the aim of building up his power in his realm. He wanted to extend his sovereignty to the corners of his land and roll back the powers of those princes and boyars who stood in the way of a unified authority. The central legal system was introduced to new territories. Property rights were linked more closely to the performance of military service. The army was reformed, and a new personal guard of musketeers (strel’tsy) was organized to protect the tsar, who suspected a “boyar plot” in 1553 after he had fallen seriously ill and several boyars were reluctant to swear allegiance to Ivan’s infant son, the tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich.

Ivan’s realm expanded in the east with the conquest of Kazan (in 1552) and Astrakhan (in 1554), two khanates established in the fifteenth century by descendants of the Mongol hordes, which had invaded Russia in the middle of the thirteenth century and ruled it indirectly for the next two hundred years. To commemorate the defeat of the Mongol khanates Ivan ordered the construction of a new cathedral on Red Square in Moscow. With its showy colors, playful ornament, and outrageous onion domes, St. Basil’s was intended as a joyful celebration of the Byzantine traditions that had proved victorious against the Tatar infidels. As de Madariaga rightly emphasizes, it was this religious mission, an Orthodox crusade, that lay behind the conquest of the Asiatic steppe, rather than any “ideology of imperialism” (whatever that could mean in the sixteenth century). But the military campaigns against the Tatars of the Crimea (the last surviving khanate of the Mongol hordes) and the long and ultimately unsuccessful wars against the Swedes and Poland-Lithuania, when the tsar tried to extend his domain to the Baltic region, also show that Ivan viewed it as his mission to make Russia the dominant power on the Eurasian continent.

The death of the tsar’s wife, Anastasia, in 1560, was the major turning point in Ivan’s reign, de Madariaga believes. Here she follows Karamzin in seeing this event as the catalyst for a sudden change in Ivan’s character. Ivan appears to have loved his wife, and the thirteen years of their marriage were “the most peaceful and harmonious in his life,” according to de Madariaga. Anastasia’s death unhinged Ivan, who suspected the boyars of having poisoned her. He reacted in a frenzy of violence against the boyar clans, which led several of his closest allies, including Kurbsky and Prince I.D. Bel’sky, to flee to Lithuania. The death of Ivan’s brother, the deaf and dumb Yury, for whom Ivan displayed a tender affection, followed by the death of the Metropolitan Makary in 1563, left the tsar even more lonely.

It was at this point that Ivan set up the oprichnina—a separate domain of the tsar’s realm which was carved out of lands that were confiscated from the princes and boyars, who were then expelled from the new territory. The new holders of the land were the oprichniki, a new class of loyal servitors, many of them from quite humble origins, who formed Ivan’s private guard. Eisenstein compared them to the NKVD, Stalin’s policemen. The oprichniki dressed in long black cloaks, perhaps in imitation of a monk’s habit, and rode around the country on black horses, de Madariaga informs us,

with the head of a dog attached to their bridle and a brush fastened to their whip, to symbolize their function: first they barked and bit the enemies of the Tsar and then they swept them out of the country.

Ivan called them his “brothers.”

No one knows where the idea of the oprichnina came from. Other European rulers instituted reigns of terror to enforce their will against the feudal barons or extort taxes from the peasantry. But as de Madariaga notes, Ivan was alone in his attempt to solve these problems by creating, in the oprichnina, a “duplicate state” which he allowed to prey on the rest of his domain. De Madariaga suggests that the idea may have come from Genghis Khan, who had organized his imperial guards on a similar principle, and that it may have been suggested to Ivan by his second wife, Maria Temriukovna, the daughter of the Karbadian Khan. Certainly, there were many Tatar princes among the oprichniki. But it may be that the Russians came to see their savage terror as “Asiatic” in its character (in the same way as Stalin became known as “Genghis Khan with a telephone”) and from this view the theory of its Mongol origins took root.

The tortures carried out by the oprichniki were legendary. In 1567 and 1568, after Ivan received reports of a boyar-Polish plot to unseat him from his throne, hundreds of princes and their families were brutally killed by the oprichniki. When the Lithuanians captured the town of Izborsk, in 1569, Ivan saw treason everywhere, and sent in the oprichniki to terrorize the citizens of Tver, Pskov, and Novgorod. Churches were looted, houses burned, and 30,000 people perished by the sword or died from hunger and disease, which took hold of these towns once the raiders left.

The final scene of reckoning with the “boyar traitors” took place on the Poganaya meadow in Moscow on July 25, 1570. The tsar appeared on horseback dressed in black, fully armed, and accompanied by 1,500 mounted musketeers. Three hundred noblemen, “in various stages of disintegration, prostration and decrepitude, crawling on their broken legs, were brought before Ivan and his sixteen-year-old son,” de Madariaga tells us. As an act of mercy, Ivan released 184 prisoners, and then proceeded to supervise the torture of the rest. Some were tied to stakes and cut to pieces; others were immersed in boiling and then freezing water, until they slowly died. The tortures continued:

Some [had] their ribs torn out, others [were] flayed alive or impaled until finally an old man who could barely walk tottered up. Ivan ran him through with a spear, then stabbed him sixteen times and had him beheaded, before at the end of four hours, he had had enough and withdrew to his palace.

Eventually, the terror swallowed the oprichniki themselves, as Ivan, like Stalin in 1937, became afraid of “enemies” and “traitors” among his most loyal supporters. The tsar blamed the oprichniki for failing to prevent the raid on Moscow by the Crimean Tatars in 1571, when hundreds of Muscovites were killed and many more were taken off as slaves by the horsemen. Ivan instructed Maliuta Skuratov to carry out a purge of the oprichnik generals, and effectively promoted him to become the head of his “secret intelligence.” Eisenstein portrayed Skuratov as a sixteenth-century NKVD chief—the “eye of the sovereign” (oko gosudarevo)—in Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan’s final act of violence was the tragic murder of his son—an episode that captured the Russian historical imagination through Ilia Repin’s famous painting of the scene, Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581 (1885). It was a senseless killing that had its origins in a domestic fight, according to de Madariaga, although, she concedes, it is possible that the tsar was angered by his son’s criticisms of his war campaigns when he struck the fatal blow against his temple with his heavy staff. “The Tsar was overwhelmed with grief,” she writes. After the funeral “he could not sleep and got up at night, scratching the walls of his chamber with his nails.”


Was Ivan remorseful in his final years? There is evidence that he tried to redress the injuries which he had caused, forgiving many people in disgrace, endowing monasteries, and praying for the dead. In one draft of his will, probably dictated while seriously ill in 1579, the tsar described himself as the “worst sinner on earth,…corrupt of reason and bestial of mind.” But much of this may well have been religious rhetoric. Throughout his reign, Ivan’s moods swung between fits of temper and remorseful prayer. Sometimes he withdrew from public life and retreated to a monastery. He often spoke of his desire to become a monk. In 1573, at the height of his campaign of terror against the oprichniki, Ivan wrote to Abbot Koz’ma at the Beloozero monastery begging for forgiveness for his sins. As de Madariaga notes, the letter’s eloquence is formulaic, much of it in phrases taken straight from the Bible, but that does not mean that Ivan did not feel the emotions he expressed:

Alas for me a sinner, woe to me in my despair…. It behooves you, our masters to illuminate us who have lost our way in the darkness of pride, who are mired in sinful vanity, gluttony and intemperance. And I, a stinking hound, whom can I teach, what can I preach, and with what can I enlighten others? Myself always wallowing in drunkenness, fornication, adultery, filth, murders, rapine, despoliation, hatred and all sorts of evil-doing.

The tsar’s remorse was the central theme of the third (unfinished) part of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. The film was meant to end with a confession scene in which Ivan kneels beneath the fresco of the Last Judgment in the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Assumption and offers his repentance for the evils of his reign while a monk reads out an endless list of people executed on the tsar’s command. Ivan bangs his forehead against the flagstones; his eyes and ears are filled with blood, and he sees and hears nothing. The scene of course was meant to convey not just Ivan’s tragedy, but the greater political tragedy of violence by the Russian state. “Stalin has killed more people [than Ivan],” Eisenstein explained to the actor Mikhail Kuznetsov, “and he does not repent. Let him see this and then he will repent.”3

In his film Eisenstein invites us to judge the tsar’s actions as a human being. But it is doubtful whether Ivan was repentant on this account. As de Madariaga argues (borrowing from the important work of Priscilla Hunt4 ), Ivan saw himself as a god on earth, half divine and half human, who was responsible “for the eternal salvation of his people, for which he would be called upon to answer at the Last Judgment.” This idea of sacred kingship, which had been developed by Makary, authorized Ivan to punish his people, because he was engaged in purging them from sin. Repentance was a necessary precondition for the tsar to administer this “divine violence.” But this meant repentance for what the Church considered to be sins (“drunkenness, fornication, adultery…”) rather than for the atrocities committed by these violent punishments. Indeed, as Ivan saw it, the religious duty of the tsar’s subjects was to submit to his divine justice and accept their punishment: resistance was a sign of treason and therefore a sin. Ivan wrote to Kurbsky that the only way for him to die a “holy death” was to sacrifice his life in order to fulfill his sacred oath of allegiance to the tsar: “If you are so righteous…why do you not permit yourself to accept suffering from me, your…master, and so inherit the crown of life?”

The idea of the ruler as a demigod purifying the world of sin linked the tsars with the Soviet regime. Stalin’s tyranny rested on a system of Party faith that was not very different from the ideology of Ivan the Terrible. Bolsheviks accused of crimes against the Party were expected to repent, to go down on their knees before the Party and accept its judgment, just as Kurbsky was. For a Party member to defend himself was to show dissent from the Party line, the final arbiter of truth and justice, and this was another sin.

This is where Ivan the Terrible left his dark shadow on Russian history. In his reign Russia first emerged as a major power on the Eurasian continent. It became more unified and expanded greatly in the East—less so in the West (from which, in its cultural life, it remained cut off until the second half of the seventeenth century). But Ivan’s biggest legacy was the despotism of the “holy Russian tsar.” The violence the tsars used to root out sin and treason was sporadic and unpredictable. It kept the population in a state of constant fear of all authority. But when it struck it had devastating consequences for society. As de Madariaga wonders in the final pages of her spine-chilling book, one can barely imagine what this terror meant for the shattered Russia that emerged from Ivan’s bloody reign:

Men killed in battle or in the torture chamber, or executed, women dishonoured, many struck down without religious rites, left unburied, their bodies thrown to the dogs, children massacred we know not how—what hatreds must have consumed a society in which the executioners and the executed were bound so closely to one another and in which surviving depended on stepping on the bodies of one’s friends and relatives.

This Issue

September 22, 2005