Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) was a very bad person. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when a review (behind a paywall) of a new biography reminded me of another cruel, mentally ill ruler whose behavior is often rationalized by people who should know better (such as reporters for The New York Times):
Ivan complains that as a boy he was treated as a sovereign only on ceremonial occasions, but that otherwise there was no “element of servility to be found” in those looking after him. “How can I enumerate such countless sore sufferings as I put up with in my youth?” he asks….. “Many a time did I eat late, not in accordance with my will.” Even when he was old enough to understand, others presumed to instruct him. “And so neither in external [state] affairs, nor in internal [personal] affairs, nor in the smallest and pettiest things (and [I refer to such things as] footwear and sleeping)—was anything according to my will…while we remained, as it were, a child.” Ivan also complains that [Prince Andrei Kurbsky] once hurt his feelings by giving presents to a nobleman’s daughters while forgetting to give any to Ivan’s. The childhood hurt, and the child’s whining response, can still be heard in the thirty-four-year-old ruler….
Around 1560 he began seizing property and ordering executions….[He demanded] that he receive a free hand to punish anyone in any way he chose without delay, legal process, the traditional consent of the boyars [aristocrats], or the clergy’s right of intercession on behalf of the accused. As he later explained … although he had always felt he should be “free to reward and punish,” he had to follow judicial procedures and endure the clergy’s interference. That was all very well for lesser rulers, like Elizabeth I, whose power was limited, or the Holy Roman Emperor, who was elected, but Ivan found it infuriating that his power, while absolute in theory, was not unlimited in practice. He insisted not on the power to do anything specific but on the absolute freedom to exert his untrammeled will….
Ivan’s oprichniki—a terrifying army … —dressed in black and wore a uniform featuring a dog’s head and a broom, to show they would sniff out treason and sweep it away…. noble ladies were forced to give birth in the snow, and “any peasant who attempted to assist them on the way was promptly executed.” The dead were left unburied, a special horror at a time when Christian burial was supremely important.
…. there followed “a veritable orgy of arrests and killings, in which it is difficult to detect a specific policy.” Historians have struggled to find a rationale for Ivan’s [behavior]. If his goal was to plunder in order to finance his war on Livonia, as some have suggested, then why the wanton destruction of taxable assets? Why the indiscriminate killing of servitors when soldiers were needed? Some have argued that Ivan’s actions resemble those taken by contemporaneous Western rulers consolidating central power, and that his repression of the boyars was “progressive.” But no Western ruler ever thought of dividing his realm in half so that one part could prey on the other….
…. historians seem to have combed the evidence for support for their belief that Ivan must have acted in a rational way: “Hence theories had to be devised, according to the intellectual fashions current at the time, which made it possible to interpret events as having been planned with a view to well defined and positive outcomes.” In the twentieth century, that meant describing a struggle with the tsar and lower-ranking gentry on one side and the “reactionary” upper nobility on the other. When explanatory fashion shifts, some other narrative will doubtless be found to explain what happened.
Russians were especially shocked that along with massacring the elite, Ivan executed their families and followers. For the first time in Russia, it became common to kill a condemned man’s wife and small children—as well as his peasants—and to devise imaginative forms of torture…. Entire families were summarily killed, some by Ivan himself. “Even the wives of the peasants were stripped naked and driven ‘like beasts’ into the forests, where they were cut to pieces…
The oprichniki were free to do anything they liked. Courts were instructed to find them not guilty of any charges. Pillage, rape, and seizure of property were the obvious consequences….
Heinrich von Staden, a repulsive foreign adventurer who joined the oprichniki, describes in his memoir one of his plundering expeditions. Staden explains matter-of-factly that “if a prisoner did not want to respond nicely” by revealing the location of his wealth, men “held him and tortured him until he told.” Running up some stairs during a raid, Staden was “met by a princess who wanted to throw herself at my feet. Seeing my angry face, she turned to go back into the room. I struck her in the back with the axe and she fell through the doorway.” He boasts that he set off on Ivan’s expedition against Novgorod in 1570 sharing a horse with two other men but returned with forty-nine horses and twenty-two wagonloads of goods.
The attack on Novgorod began by devastating towns on the way. Ivan’s men sacked Tver for five days. Arriving in Novgorod, Ivan piously attended the Epiphany service before resuming the mayhem. Humiliation was a crucial part of his repertoire: he married Archbishop Pimen to a mare and drove him out of town seated backward on the animal. Then Ivan conducted treason hearings. The population of Novgorod, the realm’s second-largest city, was about 30,000; Ivan’s hearings led to the executions of some 2,200 people, but that number includes neither the oprichniki’s own victims nor deaths from starvation and freezing occasioned by the destruction.
Worse soon followed. On July 25, 1570, Ivan began his executions on Moscow’s Pagan Square. He appeared, armed and dressed in black, as the public looked on at huge stakes in the ground and cauldrons of cold and boiling water that had been set up in the plaza. Three hundred people crawled forward on broken limbs to hear their fate. Ivan pardoned 184. The rest suffered the tortures of the damned…. Nothing of this kind had ever happened in Russia. As a display of Ivan’s arbitrary will and his ability to do anything imaginable, nothing better could have been devised.
Much as Stalin concluded the Terror of 1936–1938 by purging the purgers, Ivan next turned on the leading oprichniki. Then, in 1572, he abolished the oprichnina—indeed, he forbade anyone ever to use the word. Again, no one knows why. He sprang his next surprise three years later by pretending to abdicate in favor of a baptized Tatar, Semyon Bekbulatovich. Needless to say, Ivan kept the treasury and all real power in his hands, but his humble, self-denigrating, and obviously insincere petitions to the ostensible new ruler have come down to us. Even historians ingenious enough to discover a rationale for the oprichnina have admitted defeat in accounting for this episode….
Perhaps historians have failed to understand Ivan’s purposes because they look for a certain kind of purpose, like creating a centralized state, building a modern economy, or some other recognizable political objective. Any other purpose, even if Ivan stated it explicitly, would not look like a purpose at all…. Ivan writes [to Kurbsky], “You began still more to revolt against me…and I therefore began to stand up against you still more harshly. I wanted to subdue you to my will”—volya, a word that … can denote “total freedom to pursue one’s arbitrary will …” Could it be that Ivan’s main purpose was simply the ability to exercise his will without restraint? That would explain why he demanded not specific reforms but the right to act outside all law and tradition. If his actions seem arbitrary, it may be because arbitrariness was his primary goal.
Stalin, too, used arbitrary terror, with people arrested by quota, and achieved the ability to do anything he liked. But, unlike Ivan, he did so to accomplish ideologically driven goals. Ivan wanted unlimited power for its own sake, perhaps, so that he would never again experience anything like his childhood frustration of will—regardless of whether the object of his will was a pair of shoes or the suffering of another person. If so, the best preparation for understanding him may be Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Dostoevsky’s other great explorations of the state of mind in which “all is permitted.” Several Dostoevsky characters strive to become what Ivan Karamazov calls “the man-god,” a being whose will encounters absolutely no restraint: “There is no law for God. Where God stands the place is holy.” That was the condition to which Ivan the Terrible aspired, not to realize any specific goal but as the supreme goal in itself.