Truly Terrible

Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, 1885; painting by Ilya Repin
Tretyakov Gallery
Ilya Repin: Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, 1885

Writing to his cousin Olga Freidenberg in 1941, Boris Pasternak remarked on Stalin’s unexpected glorification of Tsar Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible:

To our benefactor it seems that up until now we have been too sentimental…. The new enthusiasm, openly professed, is for the Terrible Tsar, the oprichnina [reign of terror], and cruelty. New operas, plays, and film scripts are being written on this topic. No joke.

It might have seemed a joke because Ivan’s name had long been synonymous with sadism and pointless destruction. As Charles J. Halperin remarks in his new book, Ivan the Terrible: Free to Reward and Free to Punish, Ivan is “a card-carrying member of the Historical Hall of Shame—a dubious pantheon of mostly rulers…that includes Nero, Caligula, Attila the Hun, Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, Vlad the Impaler (Dracula), Caesare Borgia, and the Marquis de Sade.”

Was Ivan an appropriate object of Stalin’s enthusiasm? Was he really so terrible? Russian nationalists, who routinely accuse Western historians of “Russophobia,” claim Ivan has been slandered, and Halperin, for different reasons, agrees that “Ivan’s evil reputation…prejudices scholarship, and distorts history.” All those descriptions of “the putative homicidal maniac” in literature, film, and historical scholarship simply “enshrine the myth.” In Halperin’s view, Ivan was bad, but no worse than other rulers of his time.

Who was Ivan? To begin with, he was one of the century’s best-read Russians and a prolific author. Students of early Russian literature know his fascinating correspondence with Prince Andrey Kurbsky, who defected to Poland-Lithuania in 1564. When Kurbsky wrote a letter denouncing Ivan’s brutalities, Ivan responded at length in his distinctive style: filled with digressions, pious quotations, displays of temper, and rapid alternations between mockery and fake humility. The correspondence, which continued until 1579, exhibits Ivan’s wrath and Kurbsky’s gradual acquisition of Western ideas. Kurbsky claims that people should value most highly “pure conscience…put into every man by God,” whereas Ivan insists that God demands humans be absolutely obedient to existing authority, however it is exercised. “Think on this and reflect,” writes Ivan, “that he who resists power, resists God,” even if the power is illegitimate—and all the more so if the power is legitimate, like Ivan’s. Ivan reasons that Kurbsky, regardless of whether he has sinned, should “accept suffering from me…and [so] to inherit the crown of [eternal] life.” Kurbsky, with his appeals to natural law, human freedom, and the rights of conscience, now appears as Russia’s first dissident, émigré author, and Westernizer. In his repeated descriptions of Ivan’s Russia as laughably ignorant in the eyes of Westerners, Kurbsky can also be seen as looking forward to Russia’s ever-present inferiority complex with regard to the rest of Europe.*

Ivan began his reign as Grand Prince…


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