Maniacal or Misunderstood?

No one likes to be misunderstood; however, sometimes we cannot control how people perceive our actions. The two short readings on Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) present two contrasting narratives about his character and manner of rule. The first document is the account of Heinrich von Staden – a foreigner who served Ivan IV. The account describes Ivan’s seemingly unrelenting and unrestrained violence. He sacked prosperous cities, burned and looted churches, let his henchmen run wild, and killed countless kin.1 According to this account, Ivan IV lived up to his epithet: a man of terrible, unchecked violence. However, Russian History Nancy Shields Kollmann depicts the power structure between the Grand Prince and the boyars as much more intricate. Accounts, according to Kollmann, of a Grand Prince or Tsar’s autocratic rule result from a conscious, collective decision to maintain an image of autocracy.2 Promulgating an account of the Tsar’s autocracy actually helped maintain peace among the boyars: the Tsar’s administrative resources.3 Kollmann even references Ivan IV and his expressed desire for peace among the boyars and their help in maintaining order.4

In a sense, the dog’s bark is worse than it’s bite. Perhaps the stories about Ivan are embellished to instill fear and respect throughout the population. Perhaps, a middle ground is also acceptable. Ivan IV committed atrocious violent acts on those who challenged his rule. I do not doubt that he committed terrible acts of violence against members of the church, against cities such as Novgorod, his own family, etc. which extended beyond the precedent established by his predecessors. However, violence stood the keystone of effective rule throughout the world during the 15th and 16th centuries. This was the period of Machiavelli and murderous popes of “Bloody” Mary I of England and her unrelenting persecution of Protestants. Ivan’s actions fit the norms of a very violent period in history.

Wednesday we discussed how Ivan reformed several aspects of his administration. Under these reforms, do you feel that his violent actions were excessive and earn him the title of “Ivan the Terrible”?

  1. Heinrich von Staden, “A Foreigner Describes the Oprichnina of Tsar Ivan the Terrible,” in Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings 860s-1860s, ed. Daniel H. Kaiser and Gary Marker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 152-153. []
  2. Nancy Shields Kollmann “The Facade of Autocracy,” in Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings 860s-1860s, ed. Daniel H. Kaiser and Gary Marker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 155. []
  3. Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 156. []
  4. Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 155. []

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