Ivan IV, not yet known as the Terrible, ascended to the throne as Grand Prince of Muscovy at the tender age of three. His father, Vasily III, “was a mild-mannered prince, well-liked by the people. Unlike his more famous father, Ivan III, known to history as Ivan the Great, who conquered large territories and fought the Tatrs, Vasily III possessed none of the gifts of a conqueror. He had fought desultory wars against Lithuania, drawn Pskov, Smolensk, and Ryazan into his kingdom, and shown himself to be a cautious and sensible man who rarely permitted himself the luxury of showing his full strength.” (p. 1) Vasily died of a saddle sore, acquired on the first stage of a pilgrimage to pray for young Ivan’s recovery from a boil on his neck. The saddle sore grew, over some days of riding and hunting, into a huge abscess. Poultices and purgatives were of no avail, and the sickness became systemic. Vasily survived long enough to make a new will and be transported back to Moscow, but no more.
Ivan grew up in a court of powerful nobles intent on using their guardianship of the Grand Prince to advance their families’ fortunes and who might not have been above shoving him off the throne to put forth their own claims. The succession and the will of Vasily III were clear, but surely — so the argument ran — Muscovy should not be left in the hands of a child. As Payne and Romanoff put it, “Ivan was now ten years old. From his childhood he had known nothing but coups and countercoups, intrigues, treachery, the great princes continually attempting to seize power by surprise attacks on the Kremlin, by murder or by stealth. Sensitive, widely read, with a knowledge of political affairs far in advance of his years, Ivan was well aware of the dangers of his high position. Many of the tragedies of his reign have their source in his childhood fears and childhood terrors.” (p. 43)
Tragedies there were aplenty, and even more terrors. Payne and Romanoff (who was a grand-nephew of Nicholas II) write that Ivan committed his first murder at age 13 by ordering his Regent, Prince Andrey Shuisky, arrested and given to the keepers of the hounds, who promptly clubbed him to death and threw the body outside the Kremlin. “[Ivan] would learn that murder was an effective weapon, wonderfully satisfying in its speed and finality. … Machiavelli had observed that when a man seizes power, it is incumbent on him to be cruel, for otherwise the people will not grant him their untrammelled respect. Ivan had learned his lesson. Henceforth he would be murderous whenever he pleased.” (p. 58)
Payne and Romanoff show that Ivan held his worse impulses mostly at bay during the early years of his reign, years that shaped Russian history. In 1552, the year that Ivan turned 22, his armies first turned aside an attack by the Crimean khan and then marched to conquer Kazan. Now a typical Russian city, Kazan had been the principal seat of the Tatar khans, descendants of the Mongolian hordes who had put together history’s largest land empire. For centuries, the khans had levied tribute from the Russian princes and prevented and kept their ambitions in check. By capturing Kazan, Ivan set the stage for Muscovy’s supremacy among the Russian principalities and the Tsars’ eventual claim to rule “all the Russias.”
As Payne and Romanoff tell it, the conquest of Kazan was the high point of Ivan’s reign. Though he had not led troops himself, he had been present at the siege and given overall direction. He was married, and Anastasia bore him a son — their third child — not long after Kazan’s surrender. She managed Ivan well. Ivan also remained respectful of Sylvester, the Metropolitan of Moscow’s Orthodox Church. Sylvester was stern, both “a practical man of the world, and a mystic; and he convinced Ivan that he knew the answers to many mysteries.” (p. 78)
Before too many years had passed, the promise of a good Tsar began to unravel, and Ivan went down a much darker path. He fell gravely ill in early 1553. Believing himself close to death, he drew up papers for the succession and noted very carefully who was swift to pledge fealty to his son and who took their time. Ivan marked well who might be a usurper. He recovered, and insisted on making a pilgrimage to the far north to give thanks. During that journey, the baby prince Dmitry drowned in a tragic and bizarre accident. Another heir was born in the next year, but suspicion and tragedy gathered around Ivan and his court.
Payne and Romanoff argue that Anastasia’s death in 1560 changed Ivan irretrievably. “Grief, which had struck him so hard, loosened the bonds. Henceforth violence became a way of life; murder was his companion; to see the dead around him was his solace. In his rage he attempted to destroy everything he could lay his hands on—the state, the boyars, his friends. … After the death of Anastasia the story of Ivan is one of unrelieved tragedy. … His character seemed to change overnight. The man who had been deeply religious and conscientious in his duties, acting for the most part mildly and judicially, rarely giving way to the cruelty that lay just below the surface, suddenly showed himself to be a harsh and tyrannical voluptuary.” (p. 198)
The authors do not stint on descriptions of Ivan’s misdeeds, both personal acts and the things he encouraged his underlings to do. Many thousands of deaths, vast massacres of his own people, are on Ivan’s account. The authors also convey a sense of how very strange he was. For a few years, he divided Russia into two parts: a separate domain that was his personal realm, and a more regular one that the nobility mostly ran with Ivan as a figurehead. During this time, he withdrew from the Kremlin and lived on a new estate north of Moscow, where he gave free rein to all of his worst impulses. Eventually he saw how much chaos this arrangement was producing and dissolved the separate domain as impetuously as he had set it up. Somehow, though, the lesson did not take, and late in his rule he made as if he had abdicated and set a Tatar khan upon the throne. Ivan no longer called himself Tsar, and pretended to have to ask permission for various things from the Grand Prince whom he had installed. This, too, was eventually set aside, and Ivan returned as Tsar for the rest of his life.
This biography was published in 1975, and even then was aimed at a general audience. I am sure it has been superseded by more recent scholarship, but it remains a readable account of a pivotal figure in European history. The authors are good at conveying how faith moved Ivan, and later how his furies consumed him and so many around him. I found some of the editorial choices a little odd: the story of the conquest of Siberia is more of an after-thought; there is a great deal of emphasis on the embassies of England to the court in Moscow; Ivan’s wives after Anastasia are given short shrift. The authors have generously illustrated their work, and they also quote extensively from letters and other primary documents, giving readers first-hand glimpses of how people of Ivan’s time thought and expressed themselves. It offers some very dark reading, but provides a good framework for understanding Ivan and his pivotal role in Russian history.