The enigmas of Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible tests the limits of historical understanding. All that we know of him we only seem to know of him. All the stories we tell of him we can narrate only with difficulty separate from legend. His experience of the world, to the extent that we can reach that interpretation beneath other interpretations, is of a reality that many of us are troubled to accept: borderline madness; a belief in an idea of sovereignty, which was in turn consecrated by a Byzantine political tradition that has now disappeared from the world; an intimate familiarity with violence, complex trauma, and their effect on the disassociation of memory, image and culture.

Here are seven enigmas of Ivan Groznyi, fourth of his name, Tsar of Holy mother Russia:

  1. How did he die? The English commercial agent, Jerome Horsey, leaves the only account. With Bogdan Belsky and Boris Godunov – the two principal counsellors and rivals in the court – in his room, Ivan was anticipating death, calling for gemstones and magic. He called for apothecaries and his confessor, and then, Horsey writes, “In the mean he was strangled and stark dead.” Was Ivan then murdered, and if so by whom and why?
  2. Was he mad and if so how? It is difficult to account for the savagery of his fits and turns of violence, the spectacular cruelty of his revenge against the loyal diaks and priests who served him, or the accounts of debauchery and ritualistic violence without believing there was some kind of derangement in his mind. Yet at the same time he may be seen as ruthlessly if violently imposing his will on the world. My theory is that he suffered what we would today call borderline personality disorder.
  3. What purpose was served by the creation of the oprichniki? The old Marxist histories of course see it as an attack on the feudal boyars. It seems in some ways consistent with the formation of stronger states by sovereigns across Europe. Was this creation of a warrior band and personal estate of the ruler also an imaginative development of themes of Mongol and Byzantine traditions of governing that Ivan was an heir to?
  4. What were the reasons for his feigning abdication? Before the creation of the oprichniki he feigned abdication, taking himself on a pilgrimage? Was it only an act, which worked strategically in forcing loyalty to a ruler among quarrelsome boyars? Or was there a psychological discomfort with sovereignty – especially when his concept of sovereignty brooked no opposition to his will? What are we to make of the alter episode when he gave the crown to a Tatar prince, and with dramatic revenge took it away, so creating through his personal execution of this prince a theatrical symbol of his absolute power?
  5. What was the nature of his religious belief, especially his belief that he was a dread angel? Deep religiosity pervades his life – day long sessions of prayer, his taking of a monastic name on his deathbed, his early fidelity to the Priest Sylvester and the Metropolitan Filip, his strange poems that expressed his belief that he was an incarnation of a Dread Angel. Yet magic, debauchery, ritualistic and sacrificial violence haunt him, alongside perhaps a chiliastic belief that he was living hell on earth and the end of days before the judgement of God. How do such strange and powerful currents of good and evil inhabit the same mind?
  6. Are the stories of his traumatic childhood later dissociation and reconstruction? The rage and violence in his descriptions of his treatment by the boyars after his mother and nurse were killed and taken from him ring true. But are they screen memories? Are they justifications of a sulking anger, an indulged bloodlust? Are they indeed the later fabulations of the myth of the cruel tyrant who pulls wings off flies as a child?
  7. Is his famous correspondence with Prince Kurbsky a later forgery? Is indeed anything that we say we know of him reliably true or available for extrapolation from a true primary source. Edward Keenan, who died only in the last year or so, made this argument, and it may be true. But if it is, then how are we to speak of this character, whose life is too real, too implausible to be mere invention, forgery and fiction?  Surely whereof this life of which we must speak, we must not be silent.

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