Ivan Vasilievich Historiography

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Richard Hellie


This page contains the introduction and chapter one to a translation of S. F. Platonov’s 1923 work on Ivan Vasilievcih, originally published under the title Ivan Groznyi.  Edited by Joseph L. Wieczynski and published  in this English version by the Academic International Press, 1974. This is not the complete replication of the book, nor is it intended to pursue any final assessment on the tsar. This page is solely for the purpose of readers to fact check quotes given both by the Soviet and Post-Soviet authors contained in their versions on the historiography of Ivan Vasilievich. This page will attend to references purposes for my work on the tsar, as only a cross-reference for readers to view in context quotes made by each author.   

S.F. Platonov Chapter I



An entire book would be needed to review in detail what has been written about Ivan the Terrible by historians and poets. From Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov’s History of Russia to R.Yu. Wipper’s Ivan Grozny, our knowledge of Ivan and his times has passed through a number of stages and has realized great success. It can be said that this success marks one of the brightest pages in the history of our scholarship and stands as one of the decisive victories of the scientific method. The author hopes that the following pages will make this statement sufficiently evident.

The main difficulty one faces when studying the era of Ivan the Terrible and his personal character and significance is not the complexity of the period and that of its central figure, but the great lack of material needed for such study. The turbulence of the Time of Troubles and the famous Moscow fire of 1626 destroyed so many Muscovite archives and ancient documents that the events of the sixteenth century must be studied from odd remnants and scraps of written material. Those not conversant with the methods of historical work probably would be amazed if told that a biography of Ivan the Terrible cannot be written, for we know extraordinarily little of the man himself. Biographies and descriptions of Peter the Great and his father, Tsar Alexis, can be written because these interesting individuals have left us their manuscripts: their official papers, notes, correspondence—in a word, their archives.


But nothing of the sort has come down to us from Ivan. We do not know his handwriting, nor do we have so much as a scrap of paper written by him. All the efforts of the eminent archaeographer, N.P. Likhachev, to discover such a fragment and to identify a single line of his writing came to nothing. This careful researcher limited himself to publishing two brief inscriptions “without making assumptions,” as he put it, and let it be known that he was willin1 to regard one of them a facsimile of Ivan’s handwriting.

We have none of the original texts of the literary works attributed to Ivan, only their copies; arid from these we cannot reconstruct exactly the author’s own text. Tsar Ivan’s famous “Epistle” to Prince Andrei Kurbsky in 1564 reads differently in its various editions and copies, and we cannot be certain which edition and which copy must be considered the original. The same can be said of all the other “works” attributed to Ivan. Even Ivan’s “Testament” of 1572, which is an official document, is not extant in its original form but has been reprinted from an incomplete and defective copy of the eighteenth century. If a learned skeptic were to appear and contend that all of Ivan’s “works” were spurious, it would be difficult to argue with him. We would have to prove Ivan’s authorship through internal evidence, for the documents themselves fail to confirm it. The sole exception is Ivan’s correspondence with one of his favorites, Vasily Grigorievich Griazny-Il’in. When Griazny was captured by the Crimean Tatars, Ivan “graciously” began to correspond with him concerning his ransom. In time the texts of the Tsar’s letters and those of Griazny were included in the official record of “Crimean Affairs” and can therefore be regarded as true documents, an exact and authentic copy of their correspondence. For this reason the Tsar’s exchange of letters with Griazny has been accorded unusual historical significance, as the most recent scholar to study these matters, P.A. Sadikov, has correctly concluded.

So it is with Ivan’s personal writings and letters. Yet little more can be said for the entire body of chronicle material dealing with this era. In the sixteenth century the writing of chronicles in Russia came under official control; for this reason the chronicles become reserved and biased. The official chroniclers either depersonalized the particular archival records that they used or else altered them to suit their needs. They strictly adhered to the government’s point of view when recording events that occurred in their day. Often these chronicles were somewhat revised to reflect Tsar Ivan’s attitudes, as can be seen from the so-called Litsei’oi svod. The thirteenth volume of the Complete Collection of Russian chronicles contains fragments from several pages of this collection that apparently have been revised and augmented at Ivan’s personal command. Clearly the historian who uses such a source must be extremely cautious, lest he fall victim to a one-sided interpretation of events. But the same danger threatens the historian from the other side as well. The Tsar and his official chroniclers described events in Moscow in their own fashion. But so, too, did Ivan the Terrible’s political enemies.

The notorious Prince A.M. Kurbsky fled to Lithuania to escape the terror in Moscow and there composed his History of the Grand Prince of Moscow. This work, a very learned lampoon, was intended to influence public opinion in Lithuania. It contains much historical material that is valuable and exact; therefore all of Kurbsky’s biased attacks upon Ivan acquire special force. Yet for all that it remains a lampoon, not history, and we cannot accept the word of its author.

The accounts of Ivan provided by foreigners are yet more biased. The clearest example of this is the “epistle” written by the Livonians, Taube and Kruse, on the “unprecedented tyranny of the Grand Prince of Moscow.” Even that learned and discreet Englishman, Giles Fletcher,10 in Moscow five years after Ivan’s death, did not escape the general mood of the times, which attributed to the dead Muscovite tyrant personal guilt for all the disorder in Russian life at that time.

The historian who works with the chronicle material and literary accounts from Ivan’s era must exercise special caution and should be prepared not only for pure subjectivity but for passionate bias in every source that he consults. Even when working with the literature of those times he finds himself on uncertain ground. Bitter social and political strife set its stamp upon everything. Ivan’s contemporaries directed their literary efforts toward the urgent problems of the moment; but the primitive state of their political consciousness prevented them from understanding and passing firm and clear judgments on these matters. In all the “debates,” “epistles,” “denunciations,” “petitions” and “tales” of the period the scholar searches in vain for definite conceptions and programs. He encounters only a vague babble and obscure allusions to reality, allusions made still more incomprehensible and suspect by the ignorance of the copyists of these works. The literature of this era, like the historical sources, fails to offer the historian much in the way of interpretation, nor does it provide him the purely objective facts he needs to create his own interpretation of the times.

Since this is the state of the historical materials, it is clearly impossible to compose a serious and factually complete biography of Ivan the Terrible. It is worth our while to recall what we actually do know of the various years of Ivan’s life. We shall remember that there are a number of years of Ivan’s life for which we have no information at all. For example, there are no data concerning the earliest years of his life, except for three or four references in the letters of Ivan’s father, Grand Prince Vasily, written to Ivan’s mother, Elena Vasilievna, in 1530-1533. The Grand Prince was away and was concerned about the health of his first-born, “because about Friday Ivan became ill:” that is, “there appeared on his son Ivan’s neck, right under the back of his head, a large, hard spot.” The infant’s abscess healed safely, and thereafter until the thirteenth year of his life we know nothing of his health or of his life in general.

At the end of 1543 the orphaned thirteen-year old sovereign first displayed his temper. He arrested one of the most distinguished boyars, Prince Andrei Shuisky, and “ordered him to be turned over to the kennel keepers, and the kennel keepers seized and killed him.” “And from that time,” the chronicle observes, “the boyars began to fear the Sovereign.” Yet nothing further is known of the doings of the young Grand Prince until 1547. During that year Ivan married and exchanged the title of Grand Prince for that of Tsar. Then another dark interval follows until 1549. During the years 1549-1552 Ivan passed laws and waged war. In 1553 he fell gravely ill and quarreled with his boyars and “from that time there was enmity between the Sovereign and his people.” The second half of the 1550s again grows dark, and we know nothing of Ivan’s personal life. We know a little only about his policy toward Livonia and of the beginning of war with that country. In 1560 Ivan’s first wife died, and Ivan himself underwent something of a change in personality.

Accounts of the last years of Ivan’s life are filled with tales of his atrocities and of the terror of the oprichnina. But these accounts are almost exclusively the work of foreigners and Kurbsky. Russian sources remain silent and limit themselves to brief observations, such as that in 1574  “the Tsar put to death in Moscow, on the Prechistaia Square in the Kremlin, many boyars, the archimandrite of the Chudov Monastery, an archpriest and many peo- pie of various ranks, and cast their heads into the court of Mstislavsky.” But all these tales and references are contradictory and quite imprecise. It is difficult to date them, and they give rise to many misunderstandings, such as those of which one reads in the works of Karamzin and later historians. And there are few documents. Even the decree on the founding of the oprichnina has not come down to us in its original form. Thus it is impossible to reconstruct an exact chronology or an authentic, factual account of the activities and personal life of Ivan the Terrible. The historian encounters series of years without a single reliable reference to Ivan himself. What sort of “biography” can be written under such circumstances? Where does one find the material for a proper evaluation of his character? Under such circumstances one can only venture conjectures that are more or less plausible and that more or less conform to the testimony of the meagre material that has survived.


An eighteenth-century historian, Prince M.M. Shcherbatov, in his History of Russia, “having studied the history of this sovereign,” came to the conclusion that Ivan “seems to have so many sides that he often appears to have been more than one man.” Captivated by the contradictions of his sources, this historian transferred those contradictions to the character of his hero. He found it impossible to refrain from guesses and deductions in his attempt to explain some of Ivan’s personal qualities. He remarked of Ivan, not without wit, that “he who bears autocratic power and yet is also timid and base in character necessarily breeds anger, distrust and grim vengeance.” Beyond this Shcherbatov would not venture. Having indicated Ivan’s shortcomings, he contrasted them with his “shrewd and far-seeing intelligence” and saw in this anomaly the internal contradiction and duality of Ivan’s character.

In his History of the Russian State Karamzin expressed the same view of Ivan, albeit with greater literary skill. He was fascinated by the idea of describing the age in which Ivan lived. “What a glorious character for an historical portrait!” he wrote of Ivan to Nikolai Turgenev. The somber drama of those times struck Karamzin as entertaining from the literary point of view, and he depicted it with great artistic effect. But, like Shcherbatov, he failed to capture Ivan’s character, even though he, too, tried to understand him “through speculation.” “Despite all attempts at speculation,” Karamzin wrote in his History, “the character of Ivan, who was a model of virtue in his youth and a vicious blood-sucker during the years of his manhood and old age, is a riddle to the mind.”

Karamzin attempted to solve this riddle by relying upon Kurbsky’s interpretation that Ivan always lacked intellectual independence and surrendered to the influence of those around him. He was virtuous when “he was guided by his pair of chosen favorites—-Silvester and Adashev,” but declined morally when he drew closer to depraved favorites. He appears to have been “a mixture of good and evil” and combined seemingly incompatible qualities: “a first-rate intellect” and a “rare memory” with the savageness “of a tiger” and “shameless slavishness toward the most vile lusts.” Although Karamzin constantly lashes out at the contradictions in Ivan’s nature, he nevertheless fails to supply the key to explaining these contradictions and leaves the riddle unsolved in his own mind. His portrayal of a subservient sovereign who was susceptible to outside influences would have been complete, had Karamzin admitted in his work that Ivan had been an intellectual non-entity. But this he could not do, for Ivan always impressed him as “the phantom of a great monarch” who was “energetic,” “untiring” and “often shrewd.”


Karamzin set forth his “riddle” with remarkable picturesqueness and eloquence. Under his artistic pen Ivan’s era came to life and was read with great enthusiasm. It was natural that others, using the material presented in Kararnzin’s History, should attempt to construct an even more realistic and subtle depiction of Ivan than that prescnted by Karamzin himself. The Moscow Slavophiles made such an attempt during their discussions of Ivan’s character within their literary circle. The fruit of their judgments Konstantin Aksakov and Yury Samarin cornmitted to print.’ In his work on Stefan Yavorsky and Feofan Prokopovich, Samarin summarized it in a few words: Ivan’s “mystery lies within his soul, which marvelously mixed vital consciousness of all the shortcomings, evils and vices of that century with impotence and inconstancy of will.” Ivan’s “terrible contradiction” between his superior intellect and his weak will is the basic characteristic that explains his entire nature.

Aksakov made a more complete evaluation of Ivan, although he began from the same viewpoint as had Samarin. “Lack of will and an unbridled will are one and the same,” he said of Ivan and pointed out that “Ivan’s ruin” and moral downfall occurred when he “cast off from himself the moral bridle of shame” and became addicted to capriciousness, thereby exposing himself to evil influences. Weakness of will, coupled with the strength of a sharp intellect, was one of Ivan’s basic features. But another trait was just as fundamental to him. “Ivan IV was the very nature of art, come to life,” Aksakov said. Ivan’s soul was dominated by images and conceptions that attracted him by their beauty and compelled him to love them and to translate them into reality in his own life. Not cold, sober thought but the quest for beauty and  lofty artistic meaning dominated Ivan and drove him to commit the most savage and meanest of his deeds. There tisti fore we find in Ivan that “there were many motivations in his soul,” and these complicated his spiritual nature.

The attempts by the Slavophile school to develop Karamzin’s view and to give it greater integrity marked the beginning of a long line of artistic reproductions of Ivan’s character. After the Slavophiles we encounter Kostomarov, who dealt with Ivan more than once in his popular works. Then came Count Aleksei Tolstoi, with his The Silver Prince and The Death of Ivan the Terrible. The impressions they created became popular. And when Antokoisky, Repin and Vasnetsov embodied this view in precise portraits, everyone began to feel that Ivan had be come understandable and obvious, that everything about him could be understood through psychology and pathology Ivan’s extraordinary refinement of cruelty, the fickleness of his moods, his wedding of a sharp intellect to an obviously weak will and his inclination to succumb to outside influences—all these traits attracted pathologists to Ivan. As a result, a sizable medical literature dealing with Ivan was gradually created. N.P. Likhachev has attentively studied and interpreted this literature. To the historian using the scientific critical method all of this literature seems unscientific, its diagnoses capricious and based on facile and completely groundless conjecture. There is no reason to believe these doctors who, three hundred years after the death of their patient and on the basis of unverified hearsay and opinions, diagnose him as “paranoid,” “a degenerative psychopath” possessed of “violent mental derangement” (mania furibunda) and “delirious notions” and who generally lead us to pronounce Ivan a sick and completely irresponsible individual.


A conclusion of this sort is the natural conclusion of the scientific-literary school which, in studying Ivan’s era, restricts its concern to the central figure of that period and seeks in the character of its central figure the key to understanding that historical moment in all its complexity. Men are generally inclined to declare meaningless that which they cannot understand and to consider abnormal whatever strikes them as strange. Cognizant of this human weakness, Kostomarov wrote of Ivan that “he assuredly was not stupid,” at a time when his contemporaries were considering Ivan “a man of miraculous intelligence.” Although physicians have regarded Ivan a mad degenerate, Ivan’s fellow Russians considered him a great political force, even during the last years of his life. A sensible historical method patiently seeks clues to the incomprehensible and explanations of that which is strange; without forming hasty and irrevocable conclusions, it searches for new ways to interpret phenomena that do not yield readily to research.

The Russian public was first exposed to a correct historical method by the representatives of the so-called “historical-juridical” school, led by S.M. Soloviev. Soloviev brought to the study of Ivan’s activities his own basic idea that the historical life of the Russian people follows a continuous line of development in which the historical life of the Russian people embodied the entire process of the development of the patriarchal form of life into state forms. Soloviev wished to determine the role played by Ivan in this process. Soloviev saw Ivan as a positive figure who was the bearer of the state “principle” in the life of his people and the opponent of the obsolete “appanage and veche” system.22 Ivan grasped the problems of his times ‘, better than did those contemporaries who were more conservative. He forged ahead, while those around him were stifled by old traditions. He had a state program and —- sought broad political goals. One need not hide Ivan’s personal weaknesses, shortcomings and vices; but it must be remembered that these do not constitute his historical significance. Ivan’s domestic reforms and foreign policy make him a great figure in history. The historian cannot understand him otherwise.

Soloviev’s viewpoint was adopted by his entire schoobTh An extreme, artificial idealization of Ivan was perpetrated in an article by Soloviev’s contemporary, K.D. Kavelin.23 i Kavelin depicted Ivan as “great,” considered him a precursor of Peter the Great and lamented that Ivan had been ruined by his environment, which was “dull,” “inane,” “indifferent and apathetic” and devoid of “any spiritual concern.” In his fruitless struggle against this environment Ivan perverted his “grand designs,” while he declined in his personal morals because of his fatal failure to change this environment.

Kavelin’s hyperboles, of course, were not accepted by the entire historical-juridical school, but the notion that Ivan could be compared to Peter the Great was developed further. In his detailed article, “Some Comments on the Poetic Representations of the Character of Ivan the Terrible,” K.N. Bestuzhev-Riumin resolutely promoted this comparison and drew a parallel between “our two great historical characters: Peter the Great and Ivan Vasilievich the Terrible.” According to Bestuzhev-Riumin’s view, they were “two men of identical character, identical goals and almost identical ways of achieving those goals.” The main difference between them was that one succeeded in realizing his aspirations, while the other failed. Bestuzhev also saw a parallel between their respective foreign policies, and especially compared their striving for the Baltic Sea. Bestuzhev, like other historians of this school, paid scant attention to Ivan’s personal characteristics and vices. These traits should be mentioned but should not be allowed to determine the portrayal of an epoch of history or the evaluation of the central figure of that age.


Thus by the 1880s there were two schools of thought concerning Ivan and two ways of evaluating him. The subsequent development of historiography has not abolished either school of thought but has obviously exalted the one that neglected the personal characterization of Ivan and strove to evaluate him as a statesman and as a political force.


The scientific method employed by the historical- juridical school exercised a powerful influence upon the development of the science of Russian history. Works by Russian historians began to grow in quality, as well as in volume. For the first time direct use was made of archival materials, especially those dealing with the Muscovite period. During the last decades of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth a number of themes dealing with events at the time of Ivan the Terrible were taken up and were developed scientifically. Personal appraisals of Ivan were not allowed to influence the investi- gation of these themes. Such studies sought to reach an understanding of the governmental mechanism and social structure of Russia in the sixteenth century and to gain a clear appreciation of the domestic crisis which the Great Russian people had recently survived, This scientific work was successful. The main historical sources of the period were studied—collections of chronicles, cadasters and official material that had survived fires and other catastrophes. The renowned “reforms of local government” [zemskie reformy] that took place during the 1550s, it was learned, had been launched gradually, and their mutual connections and consequences were discover- ed. The financial system of the Muscovite state during the sixteenth century was revealed. The true nature of the oprichnina was determined. The activities of Muscovite authorities in defense of the southern boundaries of the state were studied, as well as the related question of the colonization of the “Wild Field.” The composition, structure and way of life of the service class’ were clarified. Much was explained concerning the process by which the peasantry was bound to the land and by which various categories of slavery developed. The real dimensions of the disorder that affected the populace were clarified, as well as the outcome of that disorder—the depopulation of the center of the state. Moreover, the entire “Baltic Question” was studied, as well as all the peripeties of the international struggle for Livonia and the Finnish coast.

Our knowledge of the historical material of this period became so much more complete and certain that the entire history of the reign of Ivan the Terrible had to be reconstructed. One can only be amazed at the vast difference that appeared, in the span of a single generation, in the treatment of this era in the universities. How little the lecturer of the nineteenth century (or, to be more precise, of the 1870s and I880s) could offer his audience concerning Ivan the Terrible can be seen in the History of Russia of N.K. Bestuzhev-Riumin, who was, in his day, a first-rate professor. How the same material is presented today can be seen by comparing any academic textbook of Russian history, such as V.0. Kliuchevsky’s Course of Russian History. 2 The enrichment of this era by new and valuable material cannot help but affect our understanding of Ivan himself, his personal role and his personal capabilities.

There is no longer the slightest doubt that Ivan, who received his education and developed his intellectual interests  in the company of the Metropolitan Macarius was one of the best educated men of his age. Nor can there be any doubt the 1550s were a complete system of measures that encompassed many sides of Muscovite life: local administration, including diversification of the forms of self-government and regulation of the service class and of service tenure landholding; the organization of taxation, along with better maintenance of the service people and improvement of the service they rendered; military organization; ecclesiastical and social concern; the production of books and much more. Today no one disagrees that Ivan’s Livonian War was a well-timed intervention into the international struggle for the right to use the Baltic sea lanes, which were of paramount importance to Russia. We no longer hold the old view of the oprichnina, that it had been the senseless venture of a haif-witted tyrant. We now see that it was the application to the great landed Muscovite aristocracy of the same kind of “removal” that the Muscovite authorities often used against the ruling classes of lands they had conquered. The removal of these great landowners from their “patrimonies”31 was accompanied by fragmentation of their holdings and reassignment of their lands to the conditional use of petty service people. Thus the old nobility were destroyed and a new social stratum was developed, the deti boiarskie,32 who were oprichniki in the service of the Great Sovereign.

Moreover, there has come to light an important and interesting aspect of the work carried on by the Muscovite government during the most dismal and darkest period of Ivan’s life, the years of his political reverses and domestic terror. This was the concern of the government to strengthen the southern border of the state and to settle the “Wild Field.” Under pressure from many sides, Ivan’s government initiated a series of coordinated efforts aimed at defending its southern frontier and, as always, showed broad initiative, business-like energy and the ability to coordinate the efforts of the administration with the assistance rendered by local authorities. The old notion that the last years of Ivan’s life marked a period of despondent inertia and mindless savagery faded away, as there unfolded before historians the picture of Ivan pursuing his customary wide-ranging activities.

Finally, when the causes and course of the social crisis that led to the devastation of the center of the Muscovite state by the 1 580s were explained, Ivan personally was cleared of the charge that, because of his alleged cowardice and worthlessness, he allowed his gifted enemy, Stefan Bathory, to triumph over him. It happens that the crisis developed so rapidly that Ivan was deprived of all the resources needed to continue the struggle and that in this instance Ivan hardly could have exerted personal influence over the course of events.

In short, every success, however limited, in studying this era has tended to enhance Ivan’s stature as a politician and a ruler, while the question of his personal traits and shortcomings has grown less important for a general understanding of his times. Study of Ivan’s governmental activity presents the historian with a broad and complex picture that has the same features for the beginning and the end of Ivan’s reign. The men around Ivan changed and their influence upon him may have changed, and Ivan himself may have lived virtuously or viciously. Yet for all this the characteristics of Muscovite policy during his reign remained constant. That policy was always broad in its dimensions and was distinguished for its daring initiatwe, broad conceptions and energetic implementation of planned measures. Clearly Ivan himself was responsible for these features; they did not originate with Silvester, nor did they pass away with Basmanov and Maliuta Skuratov.33 And Ivan was the same person during the second period of his reforms, when the oprichnina destroyed the agrarian-class structure, as he had been during the earlier period, when hehad reformed the Church and local administration. Ivan was a powerful force in Russian politics.

Everyone who familiarizes himself with the entire body of new research on the history of the sixteenth century in Russia gains this same impression. The latest historian of Ivan the Terrible, Professor R. Yu. Wipper, begins his work on Ivan with precisely this attitude toward his subject. But having used everything that recent Russian historiography has to offer him, Wipper adds something of his own. At the beginning of his study he presents a general characterization of the sixteenth century as a turning-point in the eternal struggle between “nomadic Asia” and “the Europeans,” a point when the latter began to realize success in this world-wide struggle. From this universal historical viewpoint Professor Wipper offers an appreciation not only of Muscovite policy in the sixteenth century but specifically of Ivan himself. “As part of the new political world of Europe, he wrote, “the Muscovite government had to develop military and administrative skills, as well as dexterity in strategic warfare. Tsar Ivan, his collaborators and his followers continued to play their difficult role with dignity.” In recording the activity of sixteenth-century Russia against the background of the general course of political life in Europe and Asia, Wipper is not chary in his praise of Russian political and military expertise of this time and regards Ivan a major historical figure. Professor Wipper’s book can be called not only Ivan’s apology, but his apotheosis. Even when Ivan is appraised apart from his own national history and is set against an international backdrop, Wipper shows that he was an extremely important figure.

            This is the latest word that our historical literature has to offer concerning Ivan. We can no longer regard Ivan’s character with contempt. But perhaps the scales have shifted somewhat in the opposite direction; scholars now face the task of striking an exact balance between the extremes of the subjective evaluations portrayed above. The present study will not presume to play the role of umpire between these various opinions of Ivan the Terrible.


Its objective is to present the “image” of Ivan that was formed in the author’s mind during his study of the most significant historical material of the period under discussion. In a brief essay many things must he stated superficially or even passed over in silence. But the author will be gratified if his reader derives from this work a firm appreciation of the great moments of the life and work of Ivan the Terrible, as well as of certain undeniable and verified features of his character and his mind. The author has no pretention [ sic. Engl. styl.] of recreating a complete characterization of Ivan or a finished likeness of the man, for he believes it quite impossible to do so.[1]


[1] Platonov, S. F., Ivan the Terrible, trans. & ed., Joseph L. Wieczynski (Gulf Breeze, Florida: Academic International Press, 1974), pp. 1-17.


Richard Hellie, “In Serch of Ivan the Terrible” ( Introduction to S. F. Platonov’s main work on Ivan Vasilievich, Ivan the Terrible, 1974)


The reign of Ivan the Terrible has proved to be one of the most enduringly fascinating periods of Russian history. Relatively little documentary evidence survives from the years of Ivan’s life—he was born in 1530 and reigned between 1547 and 1584—but enough is extant to permit the creation of an interesting narrative. S.F. Platonov’s study sums up the pre-revolutionary knowledge of that era and represents a superb attempt to offer a rational explanation of the policies and actions of Ivan the Terrible.

Sergei Fedorovich Platonov (1860-1933) was the representative par excellence of the St. Petersburg school of Russian historiography. The members of this school based their historical interpretations on “facts” rather than on a broad understanding of the nature of the historical process. This school, some of whose other members were K.N. Bestushev-Riumin (1829-97), A.S. Lappo-Danilevsky (1863- 1919), V.1. Sergeevich (1835-1911), A.E. Presniakov (18711929) and N.I. Kostomarov (1817-85), stands in contrast to the Moscow “state” historical school represented by K.D. Kavelin (1818-85) and B.N. Chicherin (1825-1904), and their successors S.M. Soloviev (1820-1879), V.0. Kliuchevsky (1841-1911) and P.N. Miliukov (1859-1943). The historians of the Moscow school tended to fit the facts to a broad framework of historical development initially derived from the theories of the German philosopher, G.F. Hegel. The latter approach to the writing of history was rejected by the members of the St. Petersburg school, who refused to fill in factual lacunae with guesses, and abstained from the elaboration of grandiose historical schemes.

Sergei Platonov is perhaps most noted for two things:  his supervision of the publication of vast numbers of documents on early modern Russia, particularly in the Russian Historical Library, and his monumental study, published in 1899, of the Time of Troubles. This turbulent period of Russian history Platonov dated from the death of Ivan IV in 1584 to the inauguration of the Romanov dynasty in 1613. Consequently his present study of Ivan the Terrible serves as an historical prelude to his survey of the Time of Troubles.

Platonov, the grandson of a serf, was born on June 16 (28) 1860. He completed studies at St. Petersburg University in 1882, and after 1889 he was a professor at this institution. There he directed the department of Russian history, succeeding his mentor, K.N. Bestuzhev-Riumin, an historian with a positivist outlook, who had died two years earlier. Although he was to become a leading light in the St. Petersburg school of history, Platonov acknowledged the influence of both Soloviev and Kliuchevsky in the formation of his own historical perceptions. Thus, like Soloviev
and Kliuchevsky, Platonov underscored the role of material forces, geography and climate, in history and he also stressed the military role of the state.

On the other hand, he was not a determinist. Rather he tended to de-emphasize the place of moral forces in history. Himself fundamentally a positivist, he showed little interest in philosophies of history and found no interpretive role for the writer of history. Instead he was concerned with determination of the scientific laws or regularities responsible for historical events. Like the members of the state historical school, Platonov inclined to view power, in this instance the monarchy, as the primary agent in the constitution of society.  When he set about studying the late sixteenth century, an era when various social classes appeared to prompt the state power, this orientation generated difficulties for him. It was also typical of Platonov that, while he accorded considerable attention to the personalities of rulers, he nonetheless joined many other Russian historians in taking little account of the complexities and subtitles of international relations. 

In 1888 Platonov defended his master’s dissertation, “Old Russian Tales and Stories about the Time of Troubles of the Seventeenth Century as an Historical Source.” This work was published for the first time that same year. As his doctoral dissertation, Platonov in 1899 presented his magnificent “Essays on the History of the Time of Troubles in the Muscovite State in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” which appeared in three editions prior to the Revolution, and again in 1937 in the Soviet Union. Platonov’s major shorter but important historical writings were anthologized in Articles on Russian History (1883-1912). The most singular achievement of Platonov’s career  was his account of the Time of Troubles. The volume treating this era published in 1899 will remain a classic work of history. To contemporaries, however, perhaps Platonov was better known and more influential because of his textbooks. His Textbook of Russian History, used in secondary schools in Russia, saw many printings, and remained in use among Russian emigrés after the author’s death. I myself have an edition published in Buenos Aires in 1945. An abridged English translation of this textbook was published in 1928, and reissued in 1964 by University Prints and Reprints (now Academic International Press). At present it continues in use at several American colleges and universities. Equally influential was Lectures on Russian History, read for a quarter century at St. Petersburg University and published in ten editions between 1899 and 1917. These popular textbooks, notwithstanding their strongly monarchist bent, helped to shape the outlooks of two generations of Russian students.Perhaps the influence of Platonov’s propensity for factual presentation survives among the Leningrad historians of today. Their work remains notably less schematic and dogmatic than that of their Moscow counterparts, the successors of the ideological “state” historical school.

Platonov was honored by two Festschrifts: To Sergei Fedorovich Platonov: Pupils, Friends, and Admirers (1911, reprinted 1970) and Collection of Articles on Russian Dedicated to S.F. Platonov (1922), which begins a list of 98 of Platonov’s works.

After the Revolution Platonov published a number of shorter works. Besides the work presented in translation here, issued in 1923, in 1921 he published a short biography, Boris Godunov (published 1973 in English translation by Academic International Press), treating a central figure in the Time of Troubles. Next, he wrote a transitional article on the development of serfdom with the title “On the easily convey Time and Measures of the Binding of Peasants to the Land more varied in Muscovite Russia” (Archive of the History of Labor in Russia, 1922, Book 3). In this essay he attempted to reconcile  the old “nondecree interpretation” of enserfment with and phrases recently discovered evidence pointing to active state involvement in this process. Then, in 1925, he published Moscow and the West (printed in English translation in 1972 by Academic International Press) wherein he discussed Russia’s return to Western civilization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, after the “detour to the East” during the Mongol conquest.

Even though he was a conservative monarchist, Platonov continued to hold important posts under the new Soviet government. He was head of the Archaeographic Commission (1918-1929), director of the prestigious Push- kin House of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Russian Literature (1925-29), and director of the library of the Academy of Sciences (1925-28). Ultimately these positions contributed to his downfall. Notwithstanding his prestige, Platonov was removed from his posts at the beginning of the Stalin Revolution. He was accused of illegally keeping archival materials of great state importance, including the Abdication Act of Nicholas II. Subsequently it was alleged that he had been part of a monarchist plot to overthrow Soviet power and place Grand Duke Andrei Viadimirovich on the Russian throne. The great literary critic and genius, R.I. Ivanov-Razumnik, reported seeing Platonov after his arrest. The dean of pre-Soviet historiography had been subjected to utter humiliation. Thereafter Platonov was exiled to Samara (now Kuibyshev) on the Volga, where he died.

It should be mentioned that Platonov, while not considering himself a great literateur, was a master of the Russian language. The art of Platonov’s writing style is not easily conveyed in translation. His lexicon was far richer, more varied and more specific than that of any Soviet historian of whom I am aware. In addition, his writing is distinguished by the frequent and telling inclusion of terms and phrases drawn from the period under examination. These are extremely difficult to render into modern Russian, not to say English. That the translator has succeeded so well in this treacherous task is a tribute to his skill.

In writing Ivan the Terrible, Platonov made exemplary use of the documentary evidence then available, and he relied heavily on primary sources. One of the major documents he employed was the “correspondence” between Tsar Ivan and a renegade military deserter, Prince Andrei Kurbsky. Platonov’s text carries recurrent quotations from this exchange. Therefore the reader should be aware that Edward Keenan of Harvard University, in his recent The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha, has endeavored to demonstrate that the “correspondence” between Ivan and Kurbsky is a forgery contrived between approximately 1623 and 1675 by several authors. If Keenan is right (according to R.G. Skrynnikov, a prominent student of Ivan’s rule, the Keenan thesis lacks scientific substantiation), Platonov’s extracts from the ‘correspondence” do not serve to illus- trate what he thought they did. However, while Keenan seems to be on solid ground (although a computer study of the language of these materials would be desirable), as I have argued in a review in the Journal of Modern History, the exchange in question is not an essential source for Ivan IV’s reign. To be sure, this correspondence brilliantly illuminated a dramatic conflict at a rich historical moment. But our image of that time and place will not be significantly altered by the demise of the correspondence. Most of what was cast into sharp relief by the fire of the ex- change is still there, but is simply more troublesome to find without its light. Moreover, the “letters” of Ivan and Kurbsky ultimately may prove to be helpful secondary sources. Others, of course, may disagree with these judgments. Because of the sparseness of primary sources, Ivan’s reign always has been the object of diverse and essentially incompatible interpretations. All readers of Russian history should be aware of the varying conceptual approaches to this era of Russia’s development, for interpretation is the essence of history. The rationality of Ivan’s actions, particularly during his later life, and the role of his reign in Russian history, are the basic interpretive issues involved, Arguments for the rationality of Ivan’s actions were first advanced in the eighteenth century by V.N. Tatishchev (1686-1 750). In scattered remarks that partially pre-modern Russian historian drew parallels between Ivan and his own contemporary, Peter the Great. Tatishchev justified Ivan’s policies on grounds that they strengthened monarchical rule. Furthermore, he condemned as treason the actions of some dissipated aristocratic magnates. The Oprichnina, which began in 1565 as a separate court for Ivan IV with its own army-sized palace guard and in time encompassed half of the Muscovite state, Tatishchev viewed as a proper instrument of state policy. Another historian, I.N. Boltin (1735-92), noted that Ivan utilized the Oprichnina to liquidate the magnates’ economic and political sources of power. Writing in the nineteenth century, K.D. Kavelin perceived Ivan’s actions as having clearly objective causes. The Oprichnina, a corps of 6000 men, entailed an effort by the tsar to create, on the basis of meritorious service and without regard for social status by birth, a group of servitors loyal to him. This new group would replace the hereditary aristocracy as the major political force in the Muscovite state. The formation of the Oprichnina, according to Kavelin, completed a cycle in the Hegelian struggle between the aristocracy and the state. Similarly, S.M. Soloviev observed the Oprichnina as a necessary stage in the process of the long struggle between the clan, personified by the aristocratic boyars, and the state, which, in the sixteenth century, finally triumphed. Adhering to Hegel’s principle that all that is real is rational, Soloviev endorsed the despotism of Ivan’s reign, particularly the struggle of the tsar to strengthen the new middle service class at the expense of the old boyar class. Platonov’s teacher, K.N. BestuzhevRiumin, upheld views similar to those of Soloviev when analyzing the role of the Oprichnina in the development of state power.

The first historian to find feudalism in Russia was N.P. Pavlov-Silvansky (1869-1907), who observed that the creation of the Oprichnina involved large-scale confiscations of the remnants of princely hereditary appanages. The political influence of the princes, as a consequence, was effectively undermined. Accordingly, Russia experienced an era of transition, moving away from feudal political fragmentation originating in the thirteenth century toward the formation of a state structured along class lines, beginning around the middle of the sixteenth century.

The appearance of Marxist historians in Russia in the years before the Revolution injected a newer although no less rationalist viewpoint into the study of sixteenth century Muscovy. N.A. Rozhkov (1868-1927), despite his shift of analytical focus away from what Marxists call the political superstructure toward the economic base, arrived nonetheless at views somewhat analogous to those of Paylov-Silvansky. In Rozhkov’s reckoning, there occurred during the second half of the sixteenth century the onset of the “gentry revolution,” a transfer of power from the appanage nobility of princes and boyars to the mass of gentry. The Oprichnina comprised one of the episodes of this revolution, the origin of which was an economic crisis wherein a money economy crowded out the natural economy practised by the princes and boyars, and forced an end to feudal relationships.

The first dean of Soviet historical studies, M.N. Pokrovsky (1863-1932), proclaimed an even more startling thesis. He maintained that the natural economy supporting feudalism yielded to merchant capitalism, the political expression of which was autocracy. Accordingly, the Oprichnina was nothing less than an alliance of the bourgeoisie and the middle service class landholders. The alliance was the end product of a socio-political process begun long before ivan, a process so mechanically inevitable and irresistible that the play of personalities and moralities as agents of history pale in comparison. Regrettably, the simplicities of this historical interpretation conceal a certain internal inconsistency. Were it true that the agrarian revolution, the destruction of large patrimonial or manorial estates, was completed in the first half of the sixteenth century, then the Oprichnina was senseless, for it was assaulting an already powerless enemy. Pokrovsky further insisted that the Oprichnina represented a gesture of self-defense by Tsar Ivan, an interpretation which violated the author’s Marxist understanding of the impersonal causation of the historical process. Trying to salvage something of his thesis by grasping at straws, Pokrovsky also attributed the Oprichnina to Russia’s failure in the Livonian War. The middle service class (dvoriane), thwarted in its attempts to grab new lands in the Baltic area, turned to the seizure of boyar lands. Finally, echoing one of Platonov’s ideas, Pokrovsky suggested that the Oprichnina also represented an endeavor by the other partner in the alliance, the merchant bourgeoisie, to seize control of the trade routes to the West.

Soviet historians have continued to explain Ivan the Terrible’s policies and actions as rationally motivated, although with less elan than Pokrovsky. S.V. Bakhrushin (1882-1 950), 1.!. Smirnov (1909-65), and R.I. Wipper (1859-1954) all idealized Ivan and found in most of his measures thoughtful steps necessary to the modernization of Russia. A Soviet scholar writing today, A.A. Zimin, continues this tradition in Reforms of Ivan Groznyi (1960) and The Oprichnina of Ivan Groznyi (1964). The latter work pictures the Oprichnina as needed to reinforce the state against the threats to it posed by the appanage princes, Novgorod (an independent republic until the 1470’s, brutally sacked by Moscow’s troops in 1 570), and the Church (many of whose leaders were executed).



Sergei Platonov’s Ivan the Terrible should be read as part of this established and continuing tradition attributing rational causality and deliberate intent to Ivan’s measures and their consequences. For Platonov, the Oprichnina represented a state reform coldly calculated to demolish the economic and political might of the descendants of the appanage princes (the hereditary rulers of what often amounted to no more than huge estates) and the boyars (the chief counsellors and agents of the monarch). Both of these groups formed a potential opposition to the centralizing propensities exhibited by Moscow and its autocrat, Ivan IV. To replace the old aristocracy as the beneficiaries and pillars on which to rest the new unitary state, the monarch relied upon the new middle service class, which provided most of the cavalry archers, the mainstay of the Muscovite army at this time, and the towns. The purpose of the Oprichnina was the political annihilation of the dangerous princely class by shattering its landholding, by replacing patrimonial forms of landownership (votchina) with land- holding in return for state service (pomestie) as the primary means of supporting the expanding middle service class. Another aspect of this political reconstruction involved the secularization of church lands and their inclusion in the 0 richnina. Yet an added reason for the creation of the Oprichnina may be found in Platonov’s portrayal of the times of Ivan the Terrible. He accounted for this strange institution in part as Ivan’s reaction to the usurpation of his rightful authority by the “chosen council” (izbrannaia rada). Pla- tonov did not think that the “chosen council” was a regu- lar institution, but rather the private circle of Ivan’s well- wishers. Other historians have converted the “chosen coun- cil” into a formal institution, an unwarranted assumption, as has been shown by the American scholar A.M. Grobovsky.



In this instance the desire to invent an institution where none existed is similar to the attempt to create a “Boyar Council.” The term “chosen council” is found only in Andrei Kurbsky’s History of Ivan IV, a work which Edward Keenan is convinced is another seventeenth-century forgery. Be that as it may—the term is not necessary for Platonov it was these people, Ivan’s chosen advisers, who “set Ivan off” by their betrayal during his illness in 1553 when they swore fealty to his cousin, the appanage prince Vladimir A. Staritsky, instead of to his own infant son, Ivan. Yet, for Platonov, the entire matter of the “chosen council” was troublesome. Because he could not define precisely the aspirations of the members of the “chosen council,” his analysis lacked complete scientific veracity. Dealing with imponderables such as the “chosen council” was nothing like confronting indisputable historical facts—the executions of princes and transfers of land to new holders. Despite such problems, the present translation is the most persuasive presentation available in English representing the rationalist interpretation of the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

But isn’t it also possible that the tyrant Ivan was in actuality a madman whose actions defy any rational accounting? Because of this very real possibility, some historians have pictured the actions and reign of Ivan the Terrible as the irrational, erratic rule of a pathologically afflicted individual. Always the positivist, Platonov in this late work remained convinced of Ivan’s rationality. Still, the attentive reader will notice that he was at least modestly seduced by the pathological explanation.

The pathological interpretation of much of Ivan’s behavior also originated in the eighteenth century. M.M. Shcherbatov (1733-90), an ardent defender of the gentry, condemned Ivan’s autocracy and his replacement of the boyars in state administration by officials of non-noble descent. Shcherbatov looked upon Tsar Ivan’s oppression of the boyars as a product of his unfounded suspicion of the nobility. Similar views were held by N.M. Karamzin (1766-1826), who observed that Ivan cut down boyars who did not oppose him and who always had been allied with the monarch. There were no plots against Ivan, and there could not have been, for they existed solely in the confused mind of the tsar.

Vasily 0. Kliuchevsky (1841-19 11), the best known nineteenth-century Russian historian, shared the pathological view of Ivan. He believed that the ruler, acting in the context of tensions between the autocracy and the aristocracy, had torn apart a social fabric which was becoming rewoven. The boyars did not threaten Ivan. Yet, acting like an obsessively frightened man, he destroyed the individuals he suspected of opposing him. In Kliuchevsky’s reckoning, the Oprichnina was directed against men, not against the prevailing system, and consequently it was politically aimless. Nonetheless, the Oprichnina introduced anarchy and shook the very foundations of the Muscovite state.

For purposes of discussion and comparison, I shall try here to make an abbreviated but convincing case for the “pathological” interpretation. While Ivan’s reign consisted of considerably more than the Oprichnina, I wish to focus mainly on that because it has become the axis of historiographic interest. Again, the reader will decide which interpretation is more tenable.

The Oprichnina was one of the most bizarre episodes in Russia’s entire history. Created in 1 565, within seven years it encompassed half of the territory of the Muscovite state, and included a palace guard of 6000 debauched adventurers who massacred thousands of people. In 1571 the Oprichnina army failed to prevent the Crimean Tatars from burning Moscow, while the following year the army of the Zemshchina (that part of Muscovy not a part of the Oprichnina) defeated the Tatars. Thereupon Ivan closed down the Oprichnina. Platonov, it should be mentioned, thought the Oprichnina was not closed until 1584, when Ivan died. In the observation of the Soviet historian S.B. Veselovsky (1876-1952), Platonov was misled by the fact that the records of the Oprichnina and Zemshchina were not integrated after the split ceased to exist in 1572.

Ivan’s true interest in launching the Oprichnina remains obscure. If indeed this measure helped to consolidate the autocracy, it did so, according to R.G. Skrynnikov, the author of The Beginning of the Oprichnina (1966), The Oprichnina Terror (1 969) and other studies, in ways which could not have been anticipated or planned. When initiatives are inserted into a functionally integrated national system, they often produce systemic consequences other than those immediately intended. So it was with the Oprichnina. It is difficult to understand why Ivan feared the old magnates. Institutionally, the officials were appointed by the ruler and served at his pleasure. They enjoyed only that official identity which the sovereign conferred upon them. Nor did they possess an organization of their own. The oft-cited “Boyar Council” (Duma) is the figment of the imagination of the nineteenth-century historians K.A. Nevolin (1806-55), N.P. Zagoskin (1851-1912), and V.0. Kliuchevsky, a myth still being perpetuated. As for the provincial princes, they were too busy struggling for place (mestnichestvo), power, and personal enrichment in Moscow to pose any collective threat to the monarch. Even during the political chaos of Ivan’s minority (1533-47) no group or individual ventured to decentralize Muscovy or to diminish the institutional power of the monarchy. Moreover, it has been shown that neither the boyars nor the princes were attacked as a class. Instead, only individuals and families suffered at the hands of the oprichniki, and some were themselves Oprichnina members. Survivors, when there were any, recovered family properties after 1572. In addition, the Oprichnina seems not to have been intended to create an autocratic monarchy based on the middle service class cavalry archers. The evidence available indicates that more of the pomestie (service holding) lands were confiscated for inclusion in the Oprichnina than were votchina (patrimonial) estates belonging to the boyars and princes. Moreover, many members of the middle service class were physically exterminated. As for the Church, data now available show that Church landholding increased in the years 1565-72.

In brief, that the Oprichnina was fundamentally a product of Ivan’s warped mind is a thesis for which sufficient evidence now exists. This offended Platonov’s positivist outlook, as it does even some historians today. The present work is replete with phrases hinting that Platonov himself was not fully convinced by his own theory. He noted that Ivan exhibited the attitude of a man in danger, one who feared an imagined menace. There was no potential opposition to Ivan; as Platonov put it, his power was not endangered. Ivan was suspicious, he surrendered to fear and suspicion, and struck out at all who seemed hostile and dangerous—nobles, ordinary servicemen, churchmen, menials. His unceasing hunt for enemies who were not resisting him inspired insane, unnecessary terror. Typically, in his testament of 1572, Ivan presented himself as persecuted. Yet, notwithstanding these statements, Platonov went no further than to declare that Ivan’s condition did not develop into a clearly defined mental illness, that he was not insane.



Presumably, this attitude was based on Platonov’s unwillingness to grant the irrational full entry into history. It  rested also on what must have been a definition of insanity  considerably different from what would be countenanced today. Platonov insisted that Ivan was capable of feeling sincerely and of functioning physically. By insanity, therefore, he apparently meant a state of derangement in which the afflicted foams at the mouth and is perpetually violent. By more recent definitions of insanity, Ivan would appear to have been a paranoid. The paranoid’s basic processing rule of thought is that whatever threat can be conceived is to be believed. Given the facts, it would be reasonable to characterize the Oprichnina as a madman’s debauch. In this light the following behavior of Ivan the Terrible is more intelligible.  In December 1564, Ivan left Moscow for Aleksandrova, where he ordered an enormous fortress built. Threatening to abdicate, he refrained from doing so when the capital townsmen, agitated by Ivan’s agents, vowed to aid him in liquidating his enemies. When the tsar returned to Moscow in February of 1565, there to proclaim the Oprichnina and to execute and deport his “enemies,” his beard and hair had fallen out. [ Note there is no difference to what Platonov describes is happening in his text]

R.G. Skrynnikov’s works delineate the ever-widening circles of Ivan the Terrible’s suspicions and liquidations, as one “case” led to another. Prior to the launching of the Oprichnina at the beginning of the 1560’s, Ivan’s disgrace had fallen on Silvester and Adashev. Before 1560 these men had been leading members of the “chosen council.” They were replaced by members of the Zakharin family of boyars, who soon lost Ivan’s favor, and were followed by Boyarin A.D. Basmanov, an old Moscow noble, who launched a reign of terror against those Ivan suspected of disloyalty. The old Moscow nobility, under Basmanov, were Ivan’s tools at the outset of the Oprichnina, when the surviving members of the “chosen council” and the descendants of the princes of Vladimir-Suzdal were executed or exiled to Kazan province, a region on the Volga recently conquered from the Tatars. The leading member of the Vladimir-Suzdal nobility, A.B. Gorbatyi, had defended Silvester, as had other members of these ancient princely families. One of Gorbatyi’s younger relatives, Prince A.I. Nokhtev, went to serve in the Staritsky appanage, perhaps to escape from the oprichniki. Although, in 1566, those who had survived exile to Kazan were allowed to return and given back their now irretrievably devastated estates, the economic power of these princes was effectively undercut.

When the Assembly of the Land, a parliament-like body, was convoked in summer 1566 to discuss the seemingly endless Livonian War (1558-1 583), some of its members demanded an end also to the Oprichnina and to its terrorism. For their trouble, some of the protestors were executed. Evidently this and other protests heightened Ivan’s suspicions, provoking him to set in motion a second phase of the Oprichnina. The landed areas of this state within a state were expanded and so was the size of the corps of oprichniki. Ivan built for himself a new castle in Moscow in 1 567 and took residence there. Simultaneously, should his new keep fail him, Ivan ordered over ten thousand workmen to build a stone fortress in remote Vologda, where five hundred arquebusiers stood guard day and night. He relocated his treasury there. Obviously influenced by the Varangian legend of the origin of the Riurikid dynasty told in the earliest chronicles, Ivan related to foreign visitors that he was a stranger ruling subject peoples and might be forced to flee. For that eventuality, he directed the construction of a fleet of boats in Vologda as a means of escaping to England. On the other hand, like the Russian he was, Ivan also bestowed the large sum of 200 rubles on the Monastery of St. Cyril in Beloozero to pay for the building of a private cell for himself should he desire to become a monk. In aggregate, these acts hardly seem those of a person in full possession of his faculties. Perhaps Ivan’s talk of abdicating led to discussion of a successor. This was the background against which the “Staritsky plot” evolved. Prince V.A. Staritsky had been the candidate chosen to succeed Ivan during the latter’s illness in 1 553. Staritsky remained a logical choice during the era of the Oprichnina. For whatever reason, the unfortunate Staritsky was arrested, and later executed with other members of his family in October 1 569. (The prince himself was compelled to drink poison.) Apparently, while in custody, he denounced 1.P. Fedorov, a powerful personage with the high rank of Equerry, who had befriended early victims of the Oprichnina by providing bail for them. Fedorov was murdered by the Oprichnina in September 1568.


Somewhat earlier, in a sermon delivered in March 1 568, Metropolitan Filipp Kolychev, who had been advanced to his post as head of the Russian Orthodox Church thanks to the support of his relatives, the Zakharms, called for the curtailment of repressions. In return, he was tried on fabricated charges, removed from his post, and incarcerated in a monastery. Then came the turn of Novgorod. In this “case” the central figure, Boyarin V.N. Danilov, had been an associate of Equerry I.P. Fedorov. The oprichniki descended on Novgorod in 1570 to execute Danilov and all linked to him. As many as 4000 perished in this pogrom alone. Disturbed, Archbishop Pimen of Novgorod, who had collaborated with the authorities earlier in the trial of the Metropolitan Filipp, made his feelings known, and was repaid with accusations of treason. The Oprichnina leader, Basmanov, refused to participate in the Novgorod terror, for which indiscretion he was denounced for complicity with Pimen. Other prominent individuals, including most of the previous leaders of the Oprichnina, were linked to the “Novgorod treason case,” and executed in July 1 570. The purging of the purgers in summer 1 570 signalled the third and last phase of the Oprichnina, which was closed two years later, after the 1571 failure of the Oprichnina army to defend Moscow from a Tatar sacking, and in the following year the defeat of the Tatars on the Molody river by the Zemshchina army, evidently induced Ivan to terminate it. But the riot of bloodletting had not run its full course. Later Ivan resumed his antics, and in September or October 1575 temporarily renounced the throne in favor of a Tatar of Kasimov, Simeon Bekbulatovich. and himself became, nominally, a mere appanage prince of Moscow. This farce, replete with executions as Ivan again feared for his life, lasted eleven months. The last victim of the killing can be considered to be Ivan’s own son, the seventeen-year-old Tsarevich, Ivan Ivanovich. His principal adviser had been a Zakharin, who may have planted discord between father and son and, wittingly or not, brought on the murder in 1581 of the son by the father.

Like Stalin’s terrorism and purges, the Oprichnina was a product of a tyrant’s paranoia. It destroyed individuals feared by the ruler but only incidentally changed, and then in unintended and relatively minor ways, established political institutions. Although the investigation department of the Oprichnina, under Maliuta Skuratov and V. Griaznoi, manufactured the later and most heinous “cases,” it was Ivan who ordered the investigations, believed the results, and took vengeance on the accused. It was he who ordered entire families exterminated, knowing that more than death itself Muscovites feared not having anyone to offer prayers for the dead. Thereupon Ivan sent to monasteries lists of thousands of victims, together with cash offerings for the saying of the prayers for the souls of the deceased.

From available evidence it is reasonable to conclude that Ivan was a classic paranoid. That the “correspondence” between Ivan and Kurbsky possibly no longer can be considered a primary source is unfortunate, for it is heavy with relevant testimony. Even so, as a secondary source, it serves to illustrate what the seventeenth century considered to be a plausible portrait of Ivan. The evidence cited here, together with that on record elsewhere, demonstrates that Ivan made erroneous judgments about threats to him posed by others, dangers which did not correlate to experience. This is the basic feature of paranoia, a disorder of middle age (3 5-50). Ivan was 35 to 42 years of age at the time of the Oprichnina. Paranoia frequently occurs after the death of a spouse, as seems true in Ivan’s case. The sadism, debauchery, and sexual abuse institutionalized in the years 1565-1572 suggest erotomaniac expressions of paranoia. Today the disorder seems to afflict particularly the more intelligent, more educated elements of society. .‘ The impressions of Ivan gained by numerous foreigners picture a highly intelligent, knowledgeable individual. Obviously, Tsar Ivan suffered most severe delusions of persecutions and, correspondingly, he was intensely hostile, vigilant, and suspicious.

It is a matter of record that Ivan repeatedly accused of treason men to whom once he had been very attached. These he attacked in anticipation that they might strike at him. Furthermore, the tsar’s condemnation of the refusal of the magnates to swear fealty to his infant son during his illness in 1 553, a rational decision from their point of view, might be termed a disordered retrospective falsification. To these paranoid characteristics should be added the clear signs that Ivan suffered delusions of grandeur (per- haps not always of his own making). These he displayed af-ter his coronation in 1547. They ranged from willing inheritance of the mantle of God’s earthly viceregent to his claim in diplomatic exchanges of descent from the mythical Prus. The centralizing of all of Russia’s cultural traditions in Moscow certainly must have fed these aspects of Ivan’s paranoid tendencies. Equally indicative of his infirm mental state was his craving of praise and recognition (for example, his threatened abdication) and his hypersensitivity to criticism (execution of critics of the Oprichnina). Together these psychological characteristics strongly suggest profound feelings of inadequacy, which came out in Ivan’s apparently sincere thoughts of becoming a monk. Finally, like the typical paranoid, Ivan utilized the devices and institutions of his day in achieving his bizarre wishes. Some examples of this were his abdication, the establishment of a state within a state, his playing on the popular image of the monarch, his temporal role and popular authority.


To turn for a moment to the operation of the Oprichnina, headed by Ivan as its lord, it should be understood that this institution did not in reality supplant or even du- plicate the state administrative network. It did include certain  administrative bodies and officials: palace court offices and their administrators, a treasury, a keeper of the seal, and regional tax chancelleries (cheti) for revenue gathering, P.A. Sadikov (1891-1942) showed that the cheti were organized to collect the old “feeding” (kormienie) revenues which had been paid to the centrally-appointed provincial governors (namestniki) until abolished in 1555-1556. Then, for a brief interval, according to the Leningrad historian N.E. Nosov, the right, to collect these monies was sold for a flat fee to the provincial taxpayers themselves. The creation of the regional tax chancelleries was one of many steps in the second half of the sixteenth century in the direction of the establishment of central, specialized bureaux in Moscow, and was in accord with the historical development of the period. Thus there was nothing extraordinary in this innovation. In fact, given the generally predatory nature of the Oprichnina, it is hardly surprising that its sole institutional innovation was connected with a form of popular exploitation, taxation. With this exception, few if any administrative reforms were introduced by the Oprichnina, nor were changes made in the order or manner of government, diplomacy, or foreign policy. Using primarily medieval forms, the Oprichnina may be understood as a state within, or over, a state, at the beginning of the early modern era.

In contrast, senior boyars headed the Zemshchina and inherited, or rather continued, most of Muscovy’s regular administrative machinery as it existed in 1 564. These offices and officials, all directly subservient to the monarch, comprised the Treasury, the Keeper of the Seal, the Moscow Administrative-Judicial Chancellery, the Service Land Chancellery, the Robbery Chancellery, the Great Revenue Chancellery. The existing Foreign Affairs and Military chancelleries continued to function, in the Zemshchina, for both segments of Muscovy. Apparently a single Post Chancellery, the marvel of Western visitors to Muscovy, operated as usual. A joint Robbery Chancellery existed to prosecute felons when one party was subject to Zemshchina administration, the other to the Oprichnina.


There were several important ways in which this incredible product of Ivan’s diseased imagination sapped the strength of Muscovy. It is clear that the Oprichnina debauch contributed to Moscow’s conspicuous lack of success in the Livonian War. More telling was the blow the Oprichnina (in conjunction with the Livonian War) delivered to Muscovy’s productive capacities and general level of economic development, which the late Soviet historian D.P. Makovsky termed, perhaps with some exaggeration, “pre-capitalism.” Furthermore, enserfment advanced both during and as a consequence of the Oprichnina. The last remaining peasant free holdings (“black lands”) in the Moscow region were assigned to oprichniki as service land grants, abasing the affected peasant. Worse, the oprichniki were granted, or perhaps usurped, the right to treat and tax peasants in any way they pleased. This contributed further to their abasement. The dislocations produced by Oprichnina depredations caused crop failures and epidemics, and stimulated peasant flight. [ Actually that was the Tatar 1571-2 attacks in Platonov’s narrative]  Engendered thereby was the intense competition for peasant tenants that marked the last years of Ivan’s reign. This scarcity of labor was a primary cause of the introduction in 1581 of the “Forbidden Years,” a restriction which abrogated the long- established right of peasants to leave the service of a landholder or owner on St. George’s Day. These developments, accelerating markedly the progress of enserfment, flowed from the Oprichnina, even though they were by no means what Ivan had intended in January of 1565.

Still a further result of the Oprichnina was the extermination of many princes and boyars, fated to be included among Ivan’s “enemies.” [ of course, this is the weakening of the elite, the rational thought Hellie depicts as Platonov’s weakness) Their already quite limited influence now further diminished. Such collective power as they had exerted institutionally as nearly exclusive counsellors of the ruler was undermined as well by the elevation of a few lowly-born state secretaries (diaki) to the rank of counsellor state secretaries (dumnye diaki). The withering of the power of the princes and boyars may have been counterbalanced by a slight rise of that of the cavalry archers of the middle service class (see my Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy for greater detail).

Central to the pathological interpretation of Ivan the Terrible’s reign is a full appreciation of the milieu which permitted the flowering of so many bizarre happenings. First, there were few other than certain natural restraints, such as geography, tradition, and perhaps kinship structure, on the Muscovite monarch. Continuing to use the terminology of political science, there were almost no direct restraints on the Russian monarchy: there was no constitution, no tradition of the rule of law. One may attempt to explain this, and particularly the seemingly total absence of indirect, or institutional, restraints, by noting that Russia did not experience those aspects of feudalism which in the West gave birth to ideas about the pluralistic and autonomous access of different groups to the major attributes of social, cultural, and political life. In Muscovy there were no city states, and the Russian medieval political tradition did not bequeath to the sixteenth century a feeling of dichotomy between state and society. Early Russia did not develop notions of an autonomous class society or the class consciousness characteristic of Western Europe. The state tended to dominate society. These factors contributed to and were expressed in the absence of indirect restraints on Ivan the Terrible.

The Church could not restrain the monarch, for it had been the state’s handmaiden for most of the time since its introduction in 988, the date of the conversion of Russia to Christianity. Ivan removed with ease any clergyman, including the head of the Church himself, the metropolitan, who opposed his actions.

The nobility was incapable of uniting to resist the undertakings of the ruler. Professor Gustave Alef has demonstrated that a population explosion had so swelled the number of aristocrats and, because of the practice of dividing inheritances equally, had so reduced their estates in size that, hat in hand, as a matter of survival they besieged Moscow, begging posts. The system of places according to birth and rank (mestnichestvo) kept the nobles at each other’s throats, fighting for place, post, and spoils. It is nearly certain that no “Boyar Council” existed which might have checked the monarch. The boyars themselves were no more than the tsar’s creatures. The administration of the Muscovite state, which incorporated executive, legislative, and judicial functions in one organization with one head, while just emerging from and still retaining many characteristics of a palace household, naturally was a malleable tool in the hand of its head, the tsar.

It should be remembered also that there was no gentry which could coalesce against autocratic caprice. The middle service class was not a gentry in the conventional understanding of that term, but rather a group of 17,500 men of varying and often indifferent social origin who served at the behest of the monarch. Only so long as they served did they hold their service lands (pomestie). Moreover, this group of cavalry militia was of comparatively recent origin, forming at the end of the fifteenth century. Reforms adopted during Ivan’s reign allotted to them considerable authority in local provincial administration. But little glory for these servitors from the periphery and even less influence on the center derived from this authority. Prior to Ivan’s new arrangements, local administration was the province of centrally directed provincial officials (volosteli, tiuny). Nearly all of these officers were slaves belonging to the governors (namestniki) appointed from Moscow. Consequently, the middle service class dvoriane and deti boyarskie assumed posts recently held by slaves. Although it is true that these had been slaves with comparatively high prestige, nevertheless they cannot have bequeathed to their successors a tradition of standing up to the central authority. Not until the middle service class acquired some of the status and prerogatives once limited to the upper service class boyars and princes did it dare attempt to improve its standing. But this did not take place until the first half of the seventeenth century when the monarchy was shaken by a vast social crisis. In Ivan’s day the middle servitors lacked status and power, and their loyalties were well enough known by the Oprichnina investigation chancellery that they could be sorted out for service as oprichniki or in the Zemshchina.

Apart from the absence of direct and indirect restraints on his will, Ivan the Terrible possessed another source of power. This was the grip he had on the popular imagination of Muscovy. As monarch he enjoyed among the Russian people the sacred image of God’s earthly regent, one who spoke with divine authority. And on this theme Ivan played brilliantly. For example, when he journeyed to Aleksandrova to begin the Oprichnina, ostensibly Muscovy was left without government. Contrary to custom, a group of boyars was not named to govern in the absence of the sovereign. The people of Russia, awed by the image of the Muscovite sovereigns built up by certain church officials since 1 500, cowed in terror and, in the words of a chronicler, pleaded: “How can sheep be without a shepherd?” The establishment of the Oprichnina remedied this want. The popular notion of the autocrat as the wise and protective shepherd rendered Muscovy’s population inert and passive, and allowed Ivan to practice unprecedented official barbarism. He, like his modern counterpart, Stalin, experienced little difficulty in finding a handful of savages Basmanov, Skuratov and Griaznoi, the Muscovite counterparts of Yezhov, Yagoda, Beria and Poskrebyshev of the 1930s and I 940s—who organized thugs and cutthroats (Stallin’s NKVD cannibals were nicknamed oprichniki) to terrorize and brutalize all suspected of disloyalty by their paranoid master.

The pathological interpretation here argued should be compared with Platonov’s claim that the Oprichnina was not “a senseless venture of a half-witted tyrant.” By carefully reading this excellent translation the student of history can gain stimulating insights into the relative significance of geographical, institutional, and personal factors in the pageant of sixteenth-century Muscovy.

Ivan has been of recent interest not only to historians. The Soviet Ministry of Health publication Forensic Medicine (Sudebno-,neditsiFlSkaia ekspertiza, 1969, No. 1; 1970, No. 2) reported on a recent temporary exhumation of Ivan’s body from its limestone coffin in the Cathedral of the Archangel in the Moscow Kremlin by a special commission of the USSR Ministry of Culture to conduct anthropological and chemical- toxicological, as well as historical, studies. Ivan had been buried in the woollen garb of a monk. His skull was small, with a strongly developed relief, a low brow and significantly projecting eyebrow region and chin. Judging by the skeleton, Ivan the Terrible was about five feet ten inches tall and must have possessed great physical strength. With the exception of a strongly pronounced proliferation of osteophytes, no pathological changes were manifested in Ivan’s bones. The arsenic level was very low in Ivan’s bones, so obviously he had never been poisoned with that. The amount of lead was relatively high, probably due to natural accumulation in the course of aging. The level of mercury was also comparatively high, perhaps connected with the use of medicines containing it; the possibility of acute and chronic mercury poisoning from the use of these preparations cannot be ruled out, the commission decided.

University of Chicago


  1.  Richard Hellie, in Platonov, S. F., Ivan the Terrible, trans. & ed., Joseph L. Wieczynski (Gulf Breeze, Florida: Academic International Press, 1974), pp. iv-xxxiv.








The system of transliteration is basically that of the Library of Congress, with modifications. Ligatures are omitted. The initial Russian diphthongs are rendered as “ya” and “yu,” not as “ia” and “iu.” Usually the Russian soft sign is omitted when it precedes a vowel (e.g., diaki) or changed to “i” (e.g., pomestie). The endings of proper Russian names are given as “y,” not as “i” or "ii" PREFACE:  JOSEPH L. WIECZYNSKI.









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