Ivan the Terrible

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

According to the publisher, Isabel de Madariaga’s biography of Ivan the Terrible is the first to cover the events of the czar’s life from his birth to his death, to describe his policies, his marriages, and the atrocities he committed. Most readers associate Ivan’s name with his cruelty; he is noted for his reign of terror and for killing his own son. Fewer readers are acquainted with the specifics of his reign. In 1626, fire destroyed much of Ivan’s archive, but he also remains an obscure figure to Western readers because of his remoteness from Western Europe.

De Madariaga, a professor of Russian studies, examines in her first chapter medieval Russia, split by the Mongol conquest of 1238-1242, before taking the reader to the sixteenth century and the reign of Vasily III, Ivan’s father. Such historical background goes a long way to tie together details vaguely recalled from history courses and whets the appetite of the reader.

In her third chapter, de Madariaga presents the circumstances immediately preceding Ivan’s rule. Before Vasily III died in February, 1533, he provided for a Regency Council to eliminate rivals of his son, the three-year-old Grand Prince Ivan. On the council were Ivan’s mother, the Grand Princess Elena Glinskaia, and Elena’s uncle Mikhail Lvovich Glinsky. The death of Elena enabled one Prince Vasily Vasilevich Shuisky to dominate the council, and his mistreatment of young Ivan ended only with the Shuisky brothers’ deaths.

At Ivan’s coronation in the Church of the Metropolitan in January, 1547, he took the titles not only of Grand Duke of Vladimir, Novgorod, and Moscow but also of czar, meaning either a king or an emperor. As de Madariaga relates, while the customary understanding of the czar’s functions was covered by legal ordinance, “in Russia they were accepted as the manifestation of a specific charisma, the charisma of power.” Even before his coronation, Ivan demonstrated his charisma by arranging for a bride show, and in February, 1547, he married Anastasia Romanovna Iurieva Zakharina and moved into the Kremlin residence with her.

Ivan’s tendency to cruelty is thought to have been controlled somewhat in his early years through the influence of his personal servant Aleksei Adashev and the priest Sylvester. Adashev, especially, mediated the struggle for land between the aristocratic boyars and their descendents, the service gentry. In the Assembly of 1549, a large public gathering, Ivan admonished the boyars about oppressing the service gentry and the peasants, and he removed the service gentry from the jurisdiction of provincial governors, making them subject to officials in the capital.

A year later Ivan revised the law code of Ivan III, trying to abolish the rampant maladministration and corruption. The new code dealt with brigandage and peasants’ rights but also instituted harsher punishments for crimes against the Crown. One important new article established the provisions for the repurchase of free land. “For the first time in Russia,” says de Madariaga, “law (pravo) in the sense of the norms to be followed in obtaining and dispensing justice was declared to proceed solely from law in the sense of legislation.”

In 1550 Ivan began reshaping the military and expanding his frontiers. One thousand cavalrymen from his three thousand private followers were given estates on which to live, generally near Moscow, where they could be mustered on short notice. He also formed a corps of infantry armed with muskets who, with the cavalrymen, became his personal guard. The young czar found his territories landlocked by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on the southwest, while to the north the Livonian Knights virtually blocked him from the Baltic Sea. The khanate of Crimea cramped Russia in the south, and along the Volga River to the east lay the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan and the Tatars of Kabarda, all remnants of the Mongol Golden Horde that broke up in 1502. When the khan of Kazan died in 1549, Ivan saw his chance to avenge the Russian people on their longtime oppressors, and in August, 1552, a seven-week siege of Kazan began that ended with a brutal Russian victory. Conquest of Astrakhan soon followed.

In March, 1553, Ivan fell gravelyand suspiciouslyill, precipitating a crisis over his anticipated succession. The czarina’s family, the Iurev Zakharins, wanted Ivan’s six-month-old son, Dmitri, to inherit the rule, but a group of powerful boyars pushed Ivan’s first cousin, Vladimir of Staritsa, as a candidate. The crisis passed when the czar recovered, but Dmitri’s accidental drowning soon afterward raised fears that were calmed only upon the birth of another son, Ivan Ivanovich, in March, 1554.

In the summer of 1553, an English sea captain, Richard Chancellor, landed unexpectedly on the shores of the White Sea, enabling a degree of Anglo-Russian trade. Four years later, when Livonia signed a treaty with Poland-Lithuania to defend against Russia, Ivan sent a large Tatar force into Livonia under the command of the former khan of Kazan, whose conquest of the Baltic city of Narva gave Ivan his...

(The entire section is 2112 words.)

Ivan the Terrible Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 17 (May 1, 2005): 1562.

Foreign Affairs 84, no. 3 (May/June, 2005): 145.

Library Journal 130, no. 10 (June 1, 2005): 141.

London Review of Books 27, no. 23 (December 1, 2005): 17-18.

The New York Review of Books 52, no. 14 (September 22, 2005): 34-36.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 15 (April 11, 2005): 40.

The Times Literary Supplement, May 6, 2005, pp. 6-7.