Story type: Literature
Precisely at what time the faithful and affectionate subjects of his Majesty Ivan IV., Czar of all the Russias, conferred upon him his pet name, “The Terrible,” history neglects to inform us, but we are left in no uncertainty as to the entire appropriateness of the title, which is now inseparably linked with his baptismal name. He inherited the throne at the age of three years, and his early education was carefully attended to by his faithful guardians, who snubbed and scared him, in the hope that they might so far weaken his intellect as to secure a permanent control over him, and through him govern Russia as they pleased. They made a footstool of him sometimes, and a football at others, and, under their system of training, the development of those qualities of mind and heart for which he is celebrated was remarkably rapid. He was always Ivan the Terrified, and he became Ivan the Terrible before he was old enough to have played a reasonably good game of marbles, or to have become tolerably expert in the art of mumbling the peg. Indeed, it seems that the young grand-prince was wholly insensible to the joys of these and the other excellent sports in which ordinary youths delight, and being of an ingenious turn of mind, he invented others better suited to his tastes and character. One of these pastimes–perhaps the first and simplest one devised by the youthful genius–consisted in the dropping of cats, dogs, and other domestic animals from the top of the palace to the pavement below, and sentimental historians have construed these interesting experiments in the law of gravitation into acts of wanton cruelty. Another of the young czar’s amusements was to turn half-famished pet bears loose upon passing pedestrians, and it is the part of charity to suppose that his purpose in this was to study the psychological and physiognomical phenomena of fear. A less profitable way he had of accomplishing the same thing was by throwing, or, as youthful Americans phrase it, “shying,” stones at passers-by, concealing himself meanwhile behind a screen. He cultivated his skill in horsemanship by riding over elderly people, cripples, and children. In short, his boyish sports were all of an original and highly interesting sort.
Up to the age of thirteen Ivan was under the tutelage of a council, of which the Prince Shnisky was chief, and it was this prince who domineered over the boy and made a footstool and a football of his body. At that age Ivan asserted his independence in a very positive and emphatic way, which even the Prince Shnisky could not misapprehend. The young czar was out hunting, accompanied by Shnisky and other princes and boyards, among whom was Prince Gluisky, a rival of Shnisky’s, who was prejudiced against that excellent gentleman. At his suggestion, Ivan addressed his guardian Shnisky in language which the latter deemed insolent. Shnisky replied angrily, and Ivan requested his dogs to remonstrate with the prince, which they did by tearing him limb from limb.
Having thus silenced the dictation of Shnisky, the young prince became the ward of the no less excellent Gluisky, and was carefully taught that the only way in which he could effectually assert authority was by punishment. It was made clear to his budding intellect, too, that the shortest, simplest, and altogether the best way to get rid of disagreeable persons was to put them to death, and throughout his life Ivan never forgot this lesson for a single moment. Power, he was told, was worthless unless it was used, and the only way in which it could be really used was by oppression. For three years no pains were spared to teach him this system of ethics and politics, and the young prince, in his anxiety to perfect himself in the art of governing, diligently practised all these precepts.
When he was seventeen years of age he was formally crowned czar. The citizens, ignorant of the truths of political economy and the principles of governmental science underlying the young Czar’s system, became alarmed, and fired the city one night. When Ivan awoke, he was terrified, being of an abnormally nervous temperament, and the apparition of a warning monk, together with the influence of Anastasia, the young czarina, led the czar to abandon the simple and straightforward methods of government in which he had been bred, and for thirteen years, under the dictation of Alexis Adascheff and the monk Sylvester, Ivan devoted himself to the commonplace employments of developing Russia politically and socially. He dismissed his ministers and put others in their places. He reorganized the army; revised the code, in the interest of abstract justice; equalized assessments; subdued the Tartars; established forts for the protection of the frontiers; laid the foundation for the future greatness of his empire; began the work which was completed so grandly under Peter the Great; introduced printing into Russia; added greatly to her possessions; checked the abuses of the clergy; brought artists from western Europe, and in a hundred ways made himself famous by doing those things which historians love to chronicle.
Meanwhile, his genius for governing upon the Gluiskian system lay dormant. It was not dead, but slept, and after its nap of thirteen years it awoke one day, refreshed. Anastasia, the beautiful queen whose influence had been supreme for so long a time, died, and Ivan was free again. He recalled an old bishop who had been banished for his crimes, and consulted him as to his future course.
“If you wish to be truly a sovereign,” said this eminent prelate, “never seek a counsellor wiser than yourself; never receive advice from any man. Command, but never obey; and you will be a terror to the boyards. Remember that he who is permitted to begin by advising is certain to end by ruling his sovereign.”
Here was advice of a sort suited to Ivan’s taste and education, and for reply he kissed the good bishop’s hand, saying:
“My own father could not have spoken more wisely.”
That the czar spoke sincerely, his faithfulness in following the bishop’s precepts abundantly attests.
His ministers and advisers being manifestly wiser than he, and therefore not at all the proper kind of people to have about, he straightway banished them. He then began a diligent search for their partisans, some of whom he put to death, condemning others to imprisonment and torture. He next turned his attention to his own household, which he was resolved upon ruling absolutely, at least, if not well. One of the princes made himself disagreeable by declining to participate freely in the pleasures of the palace, and, for the sake of domestic harmony, Ivan had him poniarded while he was at his prayers. Another so far overstepped the bounds of courtesy and propriety as to remonstrate with one of the new favorites upon his improper conduct, and Ivan, in order that there might be no bickerings and hard feelings in his family, slew the discourteous prince with his own hand.
He was in the habit of carrying an iron rod about with him, and he had a playful way of striking his friends with it now and then, merely for his amusement. His pleasantries of this and like sorts were endless. One day Prince Boris, a boyard, came to pay his respects to the czar, and as he bowed to the ground, according to custom, Ivan, seizing a knife, said, “God bless thee, my dear Boris; thou deservest a proof of my favor,” and with that he kindly cut the nobleman’s ear off.
When Prince Kurbsky, whom he had threatened with death, fled to Poland and wrote him a letter thence, telling him pretty plainly what he thought of him, the czar playfully struck the bearer of the missive with his iron rod, as a preliminary to the reading of the letter, and the blood flowed copiously from the man’s wounds while Ivan pondered the words of his rebellious subject. He then became convinced that the boyards generally sympathized with Kurbsky, and to teach them better he put a good many of them to death by torture, and deprived many others of their estates. His alarm was very real, however, for he was a phenomenon of abject cowardice. He therefore fled to a fortified place in the midst of a dense forest, where he remained a month, writing letters to the Russians, telling them that he had abdicated and left them to their fate as a punishment for their disloyalty and their crimes. Singularly enough, his flight terrified the people. He had taught them that he was their god as God was his, and his flight to Alexandrovsky seemed to them a withdrawal of the protection of Providence itself. Business was suspended. The courts ceased to sit. The country was in an agony of terror. A large deputation of boyards and priests journeyed to Alexandrovsky, and besought the sovereign to return and resume his holy functions as the head of the church, that the souls of so many millions might not perish. Exacting of clergy and nobles an admission of his absolute right to do as he pleased, and a promise that they would in no way interfere with or resist his authority, he returned to Moscow. Here he surrounded himself with a body-guard of desperadoes, one thousand strong at first, and afterwards increased to six thousand, whose duty it was to discover the czar’s enemies and to sweep them from the face of the earth. As emblems of these their functions, each member of the guard carried at his saddle-bow a dog’s head and a broom. As the punishment of the czar’s enemies included the confiscation of their property, a large part of which was given to the guards themselves, these were always singularly successful in discovering the disaffection of wealthy nobles, finding it out oftentimes before the nobles themselves were aware of their own treasonable sentiments.
Feeling unsafe still, Ivan built for himself a new palace, outside the walls of the Kremlin, making it an impregnable castle. Then, finding that even this did not lull his shaken nerves to rest, he proceeded to put danger afar off by dispossessing the twelve thousand rich nobles whose estates lay nearest the palace, and giving their property to his personal followers, so that the head which wore the crown might lie easy in the conviction that there were no possible enemies near on the other side of the impregnable walls which shut him in. But even then he could not sleep easily, and so he repaired again to his forest stronghold at Alexandrovsky, where he surrounded himself with guards and ramparts. Here he converted the palace into a monastery, made himself abbot, and his rascally followers monks. He rigorously enforced monastic observances of the severest sort, and no doubt became a saint, in his own estimation. He spent most of his time at prayers, allowing himself no recreation except a daily sight of the torture of the prisoners who were confined in the dungeons of the fortress. His guards were allowed rather a larger share of amusement, and they wandered from street to street during the day, punishing, with their hatchets, such disloyal persons as they encountered. They were very moderate in their indulgences, however, in imitation of their sovereign, doubtless, and it is recorded to their credit, that, at this time, they rarely killed more than twenty people in one day, while sometimes the number was as low as five.
But a quiet life of this kind could not always content the czar. Naturally, he grew tired of individual killings, and began to long for some more exciting sport. When, one day, a quarrel arose between some of his guards and a few of the people of Torjek, Ivan saw at a glance that all the inhabitants of Torjek were mutinous rebels, and of course it became his duty to put them all to death, which he straightway did.
Up to this time the genius of Ivan seems to have been cautiously feeling its way, and so the part of his history already sketched may be regarded as a mere preliminary to his real career. His extraordinary capacity for ruling an empire upon the principles taught him by the Prince Gluisky was now about to show itself in all its greatness. A criminal of Novgorod, feeling himself aggrieved by the authorities of that city, who had incarcerated him for a time, wrote a letter offering to place the city under Polish protection. This letter he signed, not with his own name, but with that of the archbishop, and, instead of sending it to the King of Poland, to whom it was addressed, he secreted it in the church of St. Sophia. Then, going to Alexandrovsky, he told Ivan that treason was contemplated by the Novgorodians, and that the treasonable letter would be found behind the statue of the Virgin in the church. Ivan sent a messenger to find the letter, and upon his return the czar began his march upon the doomed city. Happening to pass through the town of Khur, on his way to Novgorod, he put all its inhabitants to death, with the purpose, doubtless, of training his troops in the art of wholesale massacre, before requiring them to practise it upon the people of Novgorod. Finding this system of drill an agreeable pastime, he repeated it upon his arrival at the city of Twer, and then, in order that the other towns along his route might have no reason to complain of partiality, he bestowed upon all of them a like manifestation of his imperial regard.
It is not my purpose to describe in detail the elaborate and ingenious cruelty practised in the massacre of the Novgorodians. The story is sickening. Ivan first heard mass, and then began the butchery, which lasted for many days, was conducted with the utmost deliberation and most ingenious cruelty, and ended in the slaughter of sixty thousand people. Ivan had selected certain prominent citizens, to the number of several hundred, whom he reserved for public and particularly cruel execution at Moscow. Summoning the small and wretched remnant of the population to his presence, he besought their prayers for the continuance and prosperity of his reign, and with gracious words of farewell took his departure from the city.
The execution in Moscow of the reserved victims was a scene too horrible to be described in these pages. Indeed, the half of Ivan’s enormities may not be told here at all, and even the historians content themselves with the barest outlines of many parts of his career. He thought himself in some sense a deity, and blasphemously asserted that his throne was surrounded by archangels precisely as God’s is. Identifying himself with the Almighty, he claimed exemption from the observance of God’s laws, and, in defiance of the fundamental principles of the Greek Church, of which he was the head, he married seven wives. Believing that he might with equal impunity insult the moral sense of other nations, he actually sought to add England’s queen, Elizabeth, to the list of his spouses. And he was so far right in his estimate of his power to do as he pleased, that the Virgin Queen, head of the English Church, while she would not herself become one of his wives, consented to assist him, and selected for his eighth consort Mary Hastings, the daughter of the Earl of Huntingdon. She came near bringing about a marriage between the two, in face of the fact that the two churches of which Ivan and she were respectively the heads were agreed in condemning polygamy as a heinous crime.
For one only of all his crimes Ivan showed regret, if not remorse. His oldest and favorite son, when the city of Pskof was besieged by the Poles, asked that he might be intrusted with the command of a body of troops with which to assist the beleaguered place. Ivan was so great a coward that he dared not trust the affection and loyalty of even his own favorite child, and in a fit of mingled fear and rage he beat the young man to death with his iron staff, saying, “Rebel, you are leagued with the boyards in a conspiracy to dethrone me.”
Remorse seized upon him at once, and his sufferings and his fears of retribution were terrible. Finally he determined to abandon the throne and seek peace in a convent, but the infatuated Russians entreated him not to desert them. He died at last, in 1580.
Did Scheherazade herself ever imagine a stranger story than this? And yet it is plain history, and is only a fragment of the truth.