By M. Raphael Johnson, Ph.D.
Should Russia’s famous or infamous Czar Ivan the Terrible really be known as Ivan the Terrific (as in “Awesome”)? A closer look at the man shows he was certainly not a monster like Josef Stalin or Vladimir Lenin. While some executions did take place under his rulership, it was by no means a reign of terror, as the liberal establishment would like you to believe.
There are two countries where officially propagated mythology has held sway over Anglo-American historical writing for centuries, and these are Germany and Russia. Now, as the Revisionist movement has attempted to set the record straight as concerns the former, this writer turns his guns on the latter.
For generations, the Anglo-American establishment referred to Russia as that “backward Oriental despotate,” worthy only of contempt. Presently, despite much improved methods of historical analysis, nothing has changed concerning this officially sponsored myopia and ideological arrogance. History from the jaded and corrupt Anglo-American historical establishment is far too often the domain of liberal prejudice and justifications of the social, cultural and political power of the leftist and cosmopolitan elite.
Few other nations have received the dishonest and contemptful treatment as has imperial and Orthodox Russia. The major contributions in the contemporary field from Russian scholars James Billing ton, Michael Florinsky, Joel Carmichael, Basil Dmytryshyn and Richard Pipes do little to combat the stereotypical and bigoted depictions of pre-Marxist Russia. In fact, most of them happily regurgitate identical myths and venom against her.
The causes of this myopia are rather simple. The Russian nation, for various reasons, has simply refused to replicate the famous Anglo-American model of “development” that has been taken as normative for “civilized society.” Such a model is simply that “traditional” forms of government and religion must develop into “modern” modes of government and religion. Thus, feudalism, monarchy and natural law ethics gradually come to reflect an “enlightened” consciousness by evolving in to utilitarianism, bureaucrat ism and capitalism. Out side of this development, Anglo-Americans have claimed for years, there is no civilization: goodness, progress, happiness, enlightenment and justice have been consistently identified with this theory of development (which is liberalism’s philosophy of his tory), and such claims have been made by nearly all Western theorists of the political system, excluding Burke and de Maistre.
Outside of this model of development, which has completely become part of the subconscious apparatus of the Anglo-American historical, social scientific and political establishment, “backwardness” and “boorishness” results. Up on and from this series of assumptions is most contemporary history written. This ideological backdrop must be kept in mind when reading establishment histories of Eastern Europe and, specifically, imperial Russia. In fact, this backdrop is nearly omnipresent in all areas of inquiry currently coming out of the court flatterers of the liberal elite, including a major prop in their ideological hegemony—modern, tenured academics.
When viewing imperial Russia, then, the Anglo-American establishment is nothing other than appalled. It cannot fathom the institutionalization of the agrarian life rather than the life of the cities, factories and mental health clinics. It cannot fathom, and is rather threatened by, an entire national ethic that maintains its roots to Orthodoxy, monarchy and agrarian simplicity, and thus re fuses to accept the dominant Western ethical systems of emotivism, relativism and utilitarianism. The An glo-American establishment is appalled by anyone so “boorish” as to reject the idea of liberal democracy and serve instead a representative monarchy.
Some of the most contemptible commentary on Russian history derives from James Billington, the former librarian of Congress, whose contempt for Russian institutions is made manifest by such unreasonable and prejudiced passages such as this, reflecting faithfully the cosmopolitan liberal ideology which is a priori built into the present method of writing history:
There was so much activity in and around churches that one might have had the impression of an unprecedented blossoming of religious ardor. In truth, however, it represented more the sagging overgrowth of Indian summer than the freshness of springtime. The ornate brick churches with Dutch and Persian features, which sprang up at the rate of one every two years in Yaroslavl, appear today as a kind of unreal interlude between the Byzantine and Baroque styles: heavy fruit languishing in the hazy warmth of October, unaware that the stem linking them with the earth had withered and that the killing frost was about to descend. Innumerable icons of local prophets [sic] and saints clustered on the lower tier of the iconostases, rather like overripe grapes begging to be picked; and the rapid simultaneous singing of paid memorial services . . . resembled the agitated murmur of autumn flies just before their death. (The Icon and the Axe, 126).
Such severe prejudice against a Russia that Billington despises—Orthodox imperial Russia—serves as an excellent example of how not to write history, if this can even be considered history. The clumsy attempt at poetry simply masks an unreasonable prejudice against the institutions of Russia unanimously shared amongst the bulk of Anglo-American commentators. Further more, the passage, much like the bulk of Billington’s rather famous book, deals with imperial Russian history as a horrifically alien organization of human beings, understood only through the comfortable prism of a smug, contemporary bourgeois Anglo liberalism. It is a classic example of the modern academic condemning “conformity” and “authoritarianism” while slavishly following every accepted ideological and pedagogical bias and convention of the day; the jaded urban intellectual viewing country living as the life fit only for bumpkins and ignoramuses.
Now, of course, there is far more at work here than mere abstract and ideological historical theorizing. There are political and class-related reasons as to why the Anglo-American establishment has developed the bitter and hate-filled view for all that does not follow its idiosyncratic mode of development, leading, of course, to the enlightened oasis of liberal democracy and moral emotivism. A nation governed by a powerful monarch and church is not ripe for colonial domination or capitalist exploitation, either directly or indirectly. Many in the Jewish-dominated finance establishments hated the imperial Russian czar for refusing to set up a central bank (the only powerful state in Europe to so re fuse; it took the Marxists to set up a banking system). Thus, an agrarian, traditionalist, monarchical, Christian Rus sia faces a decadent, urbanized, alienated, relativistic and meddlesome West. It is from this dichotomy, and the ideological gulf it creates, that the overwhelming preponderance of Western “history” de rives as to pre-revolutionary Russia.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the institution of monarchy. For the relativistic West, any institution that supports moral and social absolutes as found in the nation’s tradition is automatically suspect, and likely to be oppressive, violent and certainly anti-Semitic (certainly the worst epithet, as well as the last, of liberal history). Specifically, the lengthy reign of Ivan IV (1533-84)—erroneously called “the Terrible”—the longest in Russian history—is treated with the absolutely minimal grasp of reality, and manifesting a deep seated psychological hatred of national custom, tradition and religion. If rumors exist, for example, that a traditionalist, Orthodox monarch is “psychotic,” “murderous” or just plain “evil,” then it must be true, because such “backward, Oriental despotates” are based on such things, as every good liberal knows. Suddenly, all relativism and utilitarianism disappears, and one of the few absolutes the West believes in—the dominance of liberal ideology—comes to the forefront, informing all research, thought and writing on the subject. Without exception, the major works on Russian history refer to Ivan IV as “enjoying perverse acts” (Dmytryshyn), cruel and ruthless (Billington), “mentally ill” (Pipes), and a host of epithets by Carmichael (though Ivan IV is not the only target of this particular author’s venom).
Largely, Ivan IV is a target because, not only was he one of the more traditional Orthodox and absolutist monarchs of Russian history, but he was also an enemy of the West, despising its “rationalism” and “relativism” throughout his long reign. Due to his battles against the Poles and Swedes as well as the Livonian Knights, and additionally his successful campaigns to expand the Russian kingdom to the east and south, Ivan IV immeasurably strengthened the Russian nation. Western politicians and intellectuals were quite willing to believe more or less anything negative about imperial Russia and specifically Ivan IV. One of the most obvious signs of this prejudice is the translation of Ivan IV’s title as “the Terrible.” Simply put, the Russian word “grozny” is far more often translated in English as “awesome” rather than “terrible.”
This essay, then, seeks to provide a Revisionist analysis of Ivan’s reign, one considered by Western historians (particularly the avowed Russia-hater, Joel Carmichael) as merely one long “bloodbath” or “orgy,” in the common insults of Western historical research. Ivan’s reign most certainly was not any of these things, particularly when compared with the standards of the time, and compared with the historical record of the Anglo-American political system in particular, whose blood lust is legendary. The historical record shows Ivan IV to be rather stable, a good statesman, and one who sought to centralize power for his most vulnerable and exposed country, and who eliminated much of the aristocracy, which sought to divide and weaken the country in the process. Indeed his methods were not always pretty, but were certainly nothing spectacular when compared to the mass murders that defined the history of the 20th century and the triumph of liberalism and utilitarianism. Ivan IV’s political reign was rather moderate given the time period and the historical circumstances in which Russia found herself.
If one was to go through all the major works in Russian history considered standard, only in a single work, written in 1884 by a Frenchman named Alfred Rambaud (History of Russia, translated by L.B. Lang, three vols., Boston: Estes and Lauriat), chief of the cabinet of the minister of public instruction and fine arts in Paris and a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, posits a different understanding of Ivan’s time period. This three volume set contains a radically differing view from the mainstream on most things, but most striking is his treatment of Ivan IV, a treatment almost completely ignored by the establishment.
This essay does not, of course, seek to sanction every single policy or individual act of Ivan IV’s extremely long reign. It is true that the mysterious death of the saintly Metropolitan Philip of Moscow, for example, was a crime of which Ivan IV bears much of the responsibility, and such things this essay shall in no way defend. However, the commonplace idea of the “bloodbath” that allegedly was Ivan IV’s reign is pure fiction and desperately requires Revisionist analysis.
For instance, the enigmatic death of Ivan’s son has always bedeviled historians. No one saw his death, and whether he was killed by his father or it was an accident is unknown. The putative Ivan V was healthy in mind and body, and there is no known reason for his father to have murdered him.
Rambaud’s understanding of Ivan IV’s reign begins, properly, with an understanding of Moscow herself, a provincial town just recently crowned as the centerpiece of Russian life and her political capital. Previously, Kiev, Vladimir and Novgorod held this title at one time or another. Russia, one of the world’s most vulnerable and militarily exposed countries, fresh from a two-century occupation by the Mongol hordes, was slowly coming to realize that a tight, centralized monarchy was the only rational means of defending the nation from further attacks from both East and West. Beginning a century earlier with Basil II (the prince of Moscow was not at that time calling himself “czar”), Moscow was warring on and off with the greater landowners (the major Boyars) so as to centralize taxing and military power in Moscow, rather than revert to the decentralized system of noble land holders (the “apanage” system) that had failed so miserably to defend Russia against the Mongols three centuries before. How ever, as Russia became more centralized, the forces against that centralization (centering around the land-owning nobility of significance) became more powerful and focused.
Such is the general political backdrop of Ivan IV’s reign. By the time of Basil III’s death (Ivan was only four years old and was Basil’s son), large and powerful groups of land owners had continued to conspire against Moscow, setting the stage for a major confrontation that no doubt would simply have given a green light for Russia’s enemies to divide her up (the Swedes tried something like this during the early stages of the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, but they were defeated by the famed St. Alexander Nevesky). The major conspirators were from the most powerful noble families of Russia: the Shuiskys (the most powerful), the Belskis, the Kurb skis, the Vorotinskis and a gaggle of others, who, normally fighting each other, found a common enemy in Moscow and her centralizing tendencies.
Thus the historian finds Russia surrounded by enemies (the Mongols, Sweden, Poland and Turkey), having just recovered from a grueling occupation by the Mongol hordes, and driven to near ruin by the profound internal divisions in Russian society. Into this Ivan IV was born and came to the throne. As a boy, the czar apparent was placed in what was essentially solitary confinement. The scions of the noble families of Russia would come to his room and mock him, taunting him with the power they had and were soon to acquire at the expense of his family; such was their contempt for the monarchy and Moscow in general (Rambaud, 247).
During this time and after, Ivan showed an extraordinary love of learning, and became the best educated monarch of Russia up until that time. Specifically, Ivan developed a rather exalted idea of monarchy and its function in a fragile society such as 16th-century Moscow (Rambaud, 249). Such a view be came necessary as the state system in Western Europe became more centralized, secular and belligerent, and Russia, since at least the time of Ivan III and Basil III, found herself required to justify her own unique institutions to the world. As it turned out, Ivan IV was perfectly placed and educated to do this properly for the first time.
At the age of 13, Ivan took the throne and immediately executed one of his chief tormentors and subversives, the scion of the extremely powerful Shuiski family, Andrei. For four years, however, Ivan ruled Russia in tranquillity and peace, until a major event in Ivan’s life took place: the famous Moscow fires of 1547. After much destruction and death, the noble and now outright subversive families began to blame one another, in the hopes of placing a stigma upon their rivals.
Thinking the fires were from sabotage (a question we as yet do not have the answer for), the Muscovite citizenry rioted. Ivan realized that the situation within the Muscovite political class was becoming intolerable.
From this, Ivan took on a spiritual advisor, the priest Sylvester. Ivan wished to continue to improve his life and personal morals after realizing his survival had been in danger after the riots subsequent to the fires. Unfortunately, with his duplicitous and trusted confidant Adashef, many of Ivan’s intimates were to desert him when the winds seemed favorable to aristocratic agitation and fragmentation. This is the true genesis of Ivan’s “paranoia” that was to stay with him for the remainder of his reign.
Under Ivan, the Russian empire grew, fueled by many factors, the chief of which was security from foreign invasion, a daily reality of Russian life. Further, the expansion east and south was also fueled by the need to reward brave and powerful soldiers with land grants, in exchange for which the recipient was required to perform various services to the state, largely of a military nature. One must keep in mind that the desperate need for manpower against Russia’s endless list of enemies made this sort of arrangement, and later, serfdom, imperative). During the siege of Kazan (a Mongol holdout), Ivan IV offered the fortified city generous terms for surrender (far less than the Mongols had offered the Russians two centuries before), which were rejected. After the battle and the carnage that followed, Ivan was heard to utter in remorse, “they were not Christians, but they were still men” (Rambaud, 254).
In searching for ports and trade with Germany, Ivan fought the Livonian wars for access to the Baltic Sea. Ivan’s victories convinced much of the West that Russia had arrived on the European scene, and the Livonian Knights had made certain none of the goods in trade, nor German tradesmen, ever made it to Moscow. However, at home, the noble families, many members of which had become intimate advisors of Ivan’s (as they were the most knowledgeable men in Russia at the time on political matters, specifically the West) were found bribing army officers to participate in Ivan’s overthrow. Around this time Ivan fell sick, which meant little more than that the noble families of Moscow came to his bedside to provoke him, explicitly stating that they had no loyalty to him or his son, and that they would divide up the country among themselves (Ram baud, 258-259). When Ivan unexpectedly recovered, he set about to gradually eliminate these aristocratic families which he now knew were a direct threat to his dynasty and the Russian state.
One must understand the transformation that occurred a century earlier in Russian history before going any further. Previous to the centralization within Moscow, the political system revolved around land being granted to sons of powerful princes, leading to a highly decentralized political system, one particularly vulnerable to attack. This is part of the reason why the Mongols were so successful in occupying al most the entire country. Such a system of land holding was the genesis of the families Ivan had to contend with, and they were jealous of their inherited prerogatives. Russia’s political and military situation at the time, however, made it imperative that this system be overthrown. A fractured country simply could not fight the centralized and powerful kingships of Sweden and Poland. Thus, the idea of the resurrection of the apanage system of land holding was considered, reasonably, by Ivan to be a direct threat to the state. The result was the absolute military imperative of tying the land owning families to the office of the czar, their land and to Moscow. Many within the nobility were exiled. Ram baud explains the situation after many of the scions were driven out:
They left behind a complete administration, a perfect army of clients. They had peopled the court, the governments and the “voievodies”1 with their creatures. Their partisans were certain to agitate and plot for the return of their chiefs. Who knew how far these plots might go? [It was a] short time after Adashef’s disgrace that Anastasia [Ivan’s daughter] died suddenly. Ivan alleged she was poisoned. Since the publication of M. Zabielin’s careful studies on the “Private Life of the Czaristas of Russia,” this allegation and others like it do not appear as inconceivable as they seemed to [N.M.] Karamsin. The intrigues of Adashef’s friends forced Ivan the Fourth many times to have recourse to severity, but at this point, he was comparatively merciful.(260)
At any rate, the daughter of Ivan died under mysterious circumstances, nearly immediately after the various threats given to Ivan while he lay on his sickbed. Here is what that “murderous psychotic” wrote after the fact in his journal:
When the treachery of that dog Alexis Adashef and his accomplices was discovered, we let our anger be tempered with mercy; we did not condemn the guilty to capital punishments, but only banished them our different towns. . . . Then we put no one to death. Those who belonged to the party of Sylvester and Adashef we commanded to separate from them, and no longer to recognize them as chiefs. This promise we made them confirm by a vow, but they paid no heed to our injunction, and trampled their oath under foot. Not only did they not separate from the traitors, but they aided them by all possible means, and schemed to render them back their ancient power, and to set on foot against us a perfidious plot. (260, quoted in Rambaud.)
Few realize that capital punishment was relatively rare in Russia (Rambaud, 261); though this fact is universally acknowledged in the literature, the au thors refuse to even ask the question of how a society allegedly so “backward” and “ignorant” as Russia would have re fused to implement the death penalty for capital crimes. But both military de feat and revolutionary agitation in the 19th century made it an unpleasant necessity.
Ivan began the process of long overdue purges of the Moscow “political class.” One of the strongest reasons for Ivan’s “exhibition of murderous brutality” was the defection of the famed Andrei Kurbski, another scion of a family descended from Rurik the Viking, who founded the first Russian dynasty. Kurb ski was a distinguished military leader against the Tartars years before. He was close with Adashev and Sylvester and was irritated by their fall from power (Rambaud, 261).
In a battle against the Poles during the Livonian wars, Kurbski outnumbered his enemy 15,000 versus 4,000. Somehow, this distinguished military commander lost that battle, and, of course, Ivan claimed (as any of the reasonable observer would claim) he “threw” the fight. Afterward, it was discovered that he was in negotiations with the Poles during the battle itself to form an alliance against Ivan. Later, according to Rambaud, he left his wife and children to Ivan’s mercy and crossed over into Poland, officially becoming a traitor. He additionally had the gall to blame Ivan for his defeat.
The defection of a top Russian commander was a bit too much for the czar, already abandoned by many of his former “friends.” Ivan would have rather abandoned his throne than have to deal with characters like these. This is precisely what he did. In letters written justifying his abdication, he, of course, blamed the noble land owning classes, but, in a true populist spirit, Ivan vindicated and defended the plight of the commoner, the worker and farmer. These were some of his most powerful supporters. Ivan had proven an excellent counterweight to some of the exploitation of the peasantry from the noble families. From then on, the czar was looked upon by the peasantry as the “Little Father.” To this day, Russian peasants carry with them a picture of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, and he is referred to by the same phrase of endearment. It is shocking to what extent the establishment historians are baffled by this incredible loyalty. Carmichael and Pipes, among others, simply chalk it up to peasant “backwardness” and “ignorance.”
The purges against the aristocratic families began. Of course, part of the reforms put in place was the infamous “oprichina” (meaning “separate estate”), a means by which much land was placed in the hands of the czar himself, taking them away from the noble families that had time and again proved that they would turn traitor if it was in their personal interest. Ivan worried quite significantly about his life and throne. During a particularly heinous bout with the traditional aristocracy, he had written Queen Elizabeth of England to secure safe haven if he was overthrown. His will, additionally, shows some worry about this possibility. Certainly, it was far from “paranoia,” but rather a dispassionate understanding of the forces arrayed against him (Rambaud, 266-267).
Almost universally in the literature, the institution of the oprichina is treated in about the same tone as the SS or the Khmer Rouge. Of course, much of pure fiction has been written about this institution and accepted uncritically as fact. The same might also be said about every single other institution in Russian society. What makes matters worse is that our sources on Ivan’s “crimes” derive from sources positively hostile to Ivan: Kurbski himself, the Italian Guag nini (at that time in the service of the Polish crown) and German refugees fleeing Russian victories in the Livonian War, specifically the refugees Taube and Kruse. According to Rambaud’s research with primary data, these “sources,” were not only biased, but also highly inconsistent concerning the alleged “crimes” of the oprichina system and Ivan’s purges.
Given Ivan’s interest in opening trade with Germany and the Netherlands, as well as the English (who still have yet to get over the idea that Russia is anything more than a society in need of English en lightenment), Ivan showed a tolerance to foreigners un heard of in Russia at that time. Pro tes tant churches were permitted in Moscow (but at the displeasure of the population, these were forced to move out into the countryside a bit). After several defeats from a Tran sylvanian warlord, Stepan Batory (or Bathory), Ivan called for the mediation of Pope Gregory XIII and even considered another at tempt at the reunification of Ortho doxy and Catholicism. The pope sent the Je suit Antonia Possevino. According to Rambaud:
Possevino’s account shows us Ivan the Terrible in his true light; almost free-thinking, inquisitive and sometimes disposed to see the humorous side of things, with idea of tolerance remarkable for his time. If the pope’s envoy failed in the religious part of his mission, he at least succeeded in concluding a truce between the two sovereigns in 1582, by which Ivan had to cede Polotsk [in Lithuania] and all Livonia. (271-272)
Now, there is no question that this time was not one of perfect justice, calm and political reform. Rambaud himself claims that a “reign of terror” hung over the aristocratic houses. How ever, the alleged crimes of Ivan are highly exaggerated in the literature. The principle episodes in the “reign of terror” that we know of for sure were (again quoting from Rambaud):
The deposition and perhaps murder of St. Philip, archbishop of Moscow, who was guilty of having nobly interceded for the condemned and of hating Ivan’s bodyguard.
The execution of Alexandra, widow of Iuri and sister-in-law of Ivan; of Prince Vladimir and his mother, the ambitions Evfrosinia, who thus expiated their intrigues of 1553. We must remark that Ivan, whatever Kurbski may say, spared Vladimir’s children, and largely provided for them.
The chastisement of Novgorod, where, it seemed to Ivan, the aristocratic party had entertained the project of opening the gates to the king of Poland, and where the czar, according to his own testimony, put to death 1,505 persons.
The great execution in the Red Place in 1571, where a certain number of Muscovites and Novgorodians were slain. . . . (265-266)
Rambaud goes on to explain that, at the monastery of St. Cyril, a memorial to those slain existed, which listed the exact number of those slain as 3,470 (266). It needs to be noted that Kurbski’s propaganda claimed that this number included “women and children” murdered. This is based on the misunderstanding of the inscriptions on the memorial, which state that such and such noble was killed “with his entire family.” This, however, does not necessarily mean that Ivan actually killed the entire family, but simply refers to the Russian understanding of the time that when the head of a household dies, the entire household is, in a symbolic sense, “killed” (266). One must understand further that Ivan’s reign lasted nearly a half-century, and thus, when compared with the 20th century with tens of millions of anti-communists killed, Ivan’s reign was far from “terrible.”
However, his attacks on the corrupt aristocracy (more accurately, oligarchy), his concerns with the security of the Russian nation (the Livonian Order was eventually dissolved after many defeats at the hands of the “backward” Russians, though, it is true, Russia eventually lost the war against numerous opponents), his popularity with the peasantry and the commoner, the expansion of the Russian empire, the realization in Europe that Russia was a force to be dealt with, Ivan’s rather advanced literacy and understanding of history and theology, his actual construction of the concept of Russian czardom that was to be more or less accepted until the communist revolution and his securing of German and Dutch trade and tolerance toward their tradesmen who eventually settled in Moscow, showed that he clearly deserved his real title, “Ivan the Awesome.”
1 Voievodies are regional governors.