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. ((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.)) 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. ((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.)) Promulgating an account of the Tsar’s autocracy actually helped maintain peace among the boyars: the Tsar’s administrative resources. ((Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 156.)) Kollmann even references Ivan IV and his expressed desire for peace among the boyars and their help in maintaining order. ((Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 155.))

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”?

State-Building in Post-Kievan Rus’

These readings illustrate the diverging types of states that developed after the fall of Kiev, and geography is a main factor in the separation of different governments.  Novgorod and the north attempted to establish restrictions to princely power and set up a system of elections and assemblies to limit the influence of the elites.  In the southwest, the elites had more power than the prince, who was subject to the will of the boyars.  Finally, in Moscow and the northeast, princely power grew and became more entrenched as land rights were transformed into personal property.  These documents demonstrate the way in which each area was reevaluating their relationship with the state, and this was responsible for bringing about new requirements for good rulers that protected the new form of government.

On thing that stood out in all three readings was the relationship of Christianity to the state.  In the Treaty of Novgorod, the document protecting property rights had to be sealed with a kiss to the cross so that the prince would be held accountable to God if he broke the treaty.  In the Galician Chronicle, the underlying message was that good rulers are Christian because God favored the devout and helped them to achieve their status.  Finally, in the will of Dmitrii Donskoi, he condemned any that violated the testament to be judged and punished by God.  Because Christianity had already spread throughout Rus by the time of the fall of Kiev, it seems that it played a much larger role in the state than it had at the beginning of the Kievan state.  Whereas princely law and church law were once separate, now we seem them becoming combined.  The separation between church and state jurisdiction is now blurred as things once under state jurisdiction, like private property, are now answerable to God.