Ivan IV, the Confused Puppy

The regime of Ivan IV was not terrible as his epithet might scream. Ivan’s reign was filled with rather level-headed ideas of the time such as more control over your kingdom and personal safety from enemy assassins. His creation of the district elders in cities and later other parts of the country made complete sense. Criminals needed to be punished without every petty crime involving the Prince. Ivan increased the amount of justice served in Rus’ and the communities in which these elders resided were happy to be rid of crime.

To protect his person from bodily harm, Ivan instituted a body of government to weed out those who were against him, publicly or  not. It was here that Ivan received his title of “the terrible” because of how this institution, the oprichnina, operated and more so because of Ivan’s mental disability that impaired his judgement on who was actually out to get him. He was so paranoid that everyone was inherently against him that there were seven “[y]ears of absurd denunciation, sudden arrests, and horrifying executions”1 carried out by the oprichnina.

Ivan IV was not a ruthless leader who would stop at nothing to harm innocent citizens in a sadistic type of way. Ivan simply wanted a guarantee that no one would hurt him. He was an important Grand Prince and world leader of orthodoxy; there’s a price to pay for that kind of power and Ivan thought it was in his safety. But, he was not “the terrible”. He was more like a wayward puppy, confused as to who was friend or foe, and not being able to see the difference between the two.

1Crummey, Robert O. Ivan IV: Reformer or Tyrant? in Daniel H. Kaiser, and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860’s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. p 162.

Serfdom and American Slavery

There are interesting parallels between Russian serfdom and the form of slavery found in the Americas. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Russian serfdom changed dramatically. The beginning of the 16th century brought economic prosperity to Russia, but from the 1560’s into the early 1600’s Russia was struck by many brutal periods of chaos that combined to cause large reforms in serfdom. These reforms drastically restricted the movement of the serfs and turned serfs from peasants into property.

In the second half of the 16th century, Russia was affected by regime changes, instability, revolts, foreign interventions, crop failure and famine, and a government that didn’t have the strength or organization to provide for or protect the peasantry. The combination of these factors led to a steep decline in living conditions and prosperity for the peasants. Many of the peasants became slaves or criminals, but the majority packed up and left their homes to try and find better living conditions. The mass migrations of agricultural workers caused a great strain on the nation as a whole, as it could barely support the needs of the population.

Serfdom in Russia had become necessary due to the lack of labor and the Russian government instituted laws that rapidly took away the remaining freedom of the serfs. Slavery in the American colonies was used because of a lack of sufficient population for the necessary agricultural work. Both American slavery and Russian serfdom were used to compensate for an insufficient population of agricultural workers, but they also were similarly maintained by the respective governments for a time. The American government allowed slaves to be owned by specific people or households that typically required them to be stationary and work on farms and orchards, and the Russian government created laws that prevented serfs from leaving the land that they worked.

Russian serfdom and American slavery had some key similarities. Primarily, the usage of slaves/serfs to perform agricultural work, rather than work in secondary or tertiary industries. The main difference between them comes from the necessity of their existence. Slavery in the Americas was important because of economic reasons, but serfdom in Russia was necessary at the time in order to keep the nation functioning and stable.