Painting depicting Ivan the Terrible after he murdered his own son
Why Mao? Why Hitler? Why Stalin? Each of the last century's greatest mass murderers had a similar origin, and historians have often peered into the darkest history of each country from the Middle Ages to find precedents in an attempt to explain the 20th century descent into barbarism. One of these historians was Henri Troyat, born Lev Aslanovich Tarasov to an Armenian Jewish family in 1911. Like so many others drawn to Paris at the height of France's Third Republic, Henri Troyat was a refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution and the titanic upheaval in Eastern Europe that followed World War I. In Ivan IV, Troyat saw a forerunner to the absolute power that would be wielded in Russia by Stalin.
Troyat writes more as a historical storyteller than as a strict conventional historian. In particular, Troyat felt free to go beyond the written record and speculate about Ivan's internal thought process. Ivan IV (the Russian word, grozny, is better translated as "fearsome" or "dangerous" rather than "terrible") was born to Vasili III, the Grand Prince of Muscovy, at a time when Russia was just starting to emerge from its precarious position between European Christendom and the Islamic world.
Portrait of Ivan the Terrible
In the year 1526, Muscovy was the most powerful of several Russian Orthodox Christian principalities ("the Russias"). Even combined, these "Russias" were less powerful than the vast Muslim Khanates of the Don and Volga regions to the south and the Catholic Kingdoms of Poland and Livonia (Lithuania) to the West. Like most of Eurasia at that time, Russia was still recovering from being ravaged by the Mongol hordes and their fierce descendants the Tartars, who had converted to Islam.
Troyat portrays Ivan's father, Vasili III, as a vain monarch. In Troyat's tale, Vasili ignores the warning from the Greek Orthodox Metropole of Jerusalem that if he divorces his infertile first wife and marries again to produce an heir, that this original sin will bring disaster on his kingdom. Instead of heeding the warning, Vasili seeks out the Metropole of Moscow who is willing to bless the Grand Prince's divorce and remarriage to a younger bride.
From this ominous start, Troyat emphasizes two themes that are repeated throughout the book: the prostitution of clerical authority to the absolute power of the monarch, and the court intrigues of Russia's hereditary nobility, the boyars. The chaos and national weakness created by the constant jostling for money and power among the boyars, according to Troyat, explained the medieval Russian desire for centralized power and for a good Czar who could restore order.
It was the boyars' schemes and arrogance that infuriated the young Ivan IV, as he watched the nobles mistreat his family. Troyat imagines that the humiliations Ivan suffered as a boy contributed to the endless capacity for cruelty he displayed as an adult. While his reign began with state-building reforms of the law code and the creation of a standing army, Ivan soon turned his energies to war and consolidating absolute power. Ivan's armies besieged and plundered the Tartar city of Kazan, and then destroyed the Khanate of Astrakhan to extend his realm all the way to the Caspian Sea. But after this flurry of expansion, years of devastating wars with Poland and Sweden over Livonia left Moscow undefended when the Khan of Crimea exacted revenge eighteen years later, by burning the capitol.
Along with these military disasters, the defection of a handful of previously trusted advisors to Poland, and the refusal of some boyars to pledge allegiance to his heir during a nearly fatal illness, led Ivan to see enemies everywhere. To carry out his purges and to terrorize the nobility into submission, Ivan created his own secret police, the oprichniki. The oprichniks enjoyed raping peasant girls and shooting peasants with arrows for fun, and Ivan established their leaders as a profane "order" of monks. Like Hitler's SS or Stalin's NKVD, they proved fanatically loyal to their patron.
In 1570, the oprichniki slaughtered tens of thousands in Novgorod, simply because Ivan imagined that the town might open its gates to his invading enemies. Troyat describes how the mighty Volga River became choked with bodies and turned red for several days. More than ten years later, in 1581, Ivan beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for allegedly wearing immodest clothing, causing her to miscarry. When Ivan's son confronted his father about this, the Czar flew into a rage and killed him.
Finally, in 1584, Ivan succumbed to mercury poisoning, before he could carry out another deadly purge of the royal court. Ivan's convenient death was very similar to that of Stalin, who mysteriously did not receive medical treatment until several hours after his stroke in March 1953.
Stalin: The Red Czar
Shortly before his death, Stalin had planned a massive anti-Semitic campaign to deport Soviet Jews to Siberia. The Czech historian Karel Bartosek, writing in The Black Book of Communism, goes even further. In The Black Book, Bartosek implies that Stalin's inner circle wanted him to die, because they knew that the Soviet dictator was planning to launch the USSR into World War III against the nuclear-armed West.
Troyat's closing passage, describing the feelings of the Russian people in 1584, invokes the widespread public tears that accompanied the news of Stalin's death in 1953:
To the Russian people, whom he had terrorized for nearly forty years, Ivan IV, despite his crimes and mistakes, had been the representative on earth of the Almighty. He could not be judged anymore than God could be judged. He was the father of the nation and had all rights over it. Besides, it was chiefly the detested boyars who had endured his blows. Pitiless toward traitors, be they aristocrats or refractory monks, he had only very rarely struck the common folk. Who could tell whether in losing this fearsome Czar the humble people had not lost their best defender? Forgetting the murder of the Czarevich, the public tortures, the disastrous war in Livonia, the abysmal poverty of the Russian nation, they remembered only the conquests of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia. The Czar's very excesses guaranteed his survival in the popular imagination: In Russia the favor of the oppressed masses has always gone to the strongest personalities. The fear of the whip does not exclude love, and sometimes contributes to it; by the very terror he inspires, the tyrant keeps hold on his people's hearts.