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”?

Mongol Cultural Influence

Perhaps this will be an overly and overtly charged blog; however, the two readings from Reinterpreting Russian History: Reading 860s-1860s present an excellent example of how historians can use the same sources but generate two very different narratives. In his article, “Interpreting the Mongol Yoke: The Ideology of Silence” Charles Halperin examines the variety of influences that the Mongol empire had on Russian society: its culture, politics, and economy. He challenges the popular notion that Mongol control only resulted in negative impacts on Russian culture. ((Kaiser, Daniel H., and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings 860-1860s. New York: Oxford, 1994. 105.)) While he does not deny that the invasion and occupation had its set of drawbacks – mainly economic – he also highlights some of the militaristic, political, and economic gains. ((Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 105.)) Furthermore, he argues against the popular historical narrative on the Mongol empire, a narrative upheld by A.M. Sakharov in his article “The Mongols and Cultural Change.” Drawing from the chronicles, Sakharov argues that the Mongol invasion crippled Russian culture and set it back hundreds of years. ((Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 138.)) However, Sakharov makes exceptionally broad an sweeping statements that at many points seem to contradict themselves. In any article, one should be healthily skeptical when an author writes that something “is an indisputable historical fact” as Sakharov does in his argument that “The Mongol-Tartar invasion was a terrible calamity for Russian culture.” ((Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 138.)) Very few historical facts exist outside of the date and place of an event, and discrepancies often surround those as well. Furthermore, Sakharov recognizes the continued prosperity of northern cities such as Novgorod while arguing that all of Russian culture suffered under Mongolian rule. ((Kaiser, Reinterpreting, 139.)) His mention of the development of Russian culture and its apparent refinement (i.e. actually gaining a collective identity) at the end of the 14th century also contradicts his argument that the Mongol rule was entire detrimental to Russian culture.

How and why do you think historians – these two in particular – draw create such different narratives on the same event?