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Ivan the Terrible by Henri Troyat

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

1982, Flammarion

Around the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I saw Ivan the Terrible staring out at me ominously from the cover of a book in the free book box near my train station. Ivan ruled Russia from 1533 to his death in 1584; naming himself Czar in 1547. He was both extremely pious and horrifically cruel, attending church and torture chamber with equal relish. Considering himself hardly below God, he demanded total obedience from his subjects, and even killed his own son and heir in a fit of anger. Ambitious, he wanted to extend the territory of Russia as far as possible, killing (or in an occasional show of mercy, banishing), anyone who got in his way. Nevertheless, when he fake-abdicated and went into hiding for a few weeks in 1565, the Russian people begged him to come back, feeling lost without their ruler. Ivan's belief in his own omnipotence thus reinforced, he became even crueler to imagined traitors, exterminating much of the nobility, and massacring civilians along the way from Moscow to the city of Novgorod, which he completely destroyed amidst massive violence and more killing. Nearing the end of his life, Ivan decided to "atone" by making a list of all the victims he'd sent to cruel, torture-filled ends, and asked the church to pray for their souls. Not 100% sure of his memory, he called for help, "Only you, God, know all their names..." (242)

While the death of Ivan surely brought sighs of relief across the land, many remained in awe of their Czar, remembering his military victories instead of his cruelty. In Russia, the favor of the oppressed masses always goes to the strongest. The fear of the whip does not exclude love, and sometime contributes to it; by the very terror he inspires, the tyrant keeps his hold on the people's hearts. (249 or, Ivan the Terrible)

History is divided in its judgement of Ivan the Terrible, some lauding a political genius, others deriding a cruel fanatic. Karl Marx admired his organization and diplomatic skills, while Lenin and Stalin saw him as the founder of the centralized Russian State. After Stalin's death, a movement against the idealisation of Ivan the Terrible gained some momentum in Russia. (Intro to Bibliography)

The life of Ivan the Terrible is a fascinating historical and psychological study, if only we could learn from it. Current wars and political problems sadly confirm our continuing acceptance of and even desire for violence, and the glorification of war and one-sided national victories.


Ivan the Terrible, S.M. Eisenstein

Coronation of Ivan the Terrible in the film by Eisenstein

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1 Comment

It’s hard not be overwhelmed by the cruelty of this man and see why he was admired and loved by his people. I presume his victories made his people proud of his conquests and made them feel strong too

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