Russia’s Shame and Misfortune: Ivan the Terrible Monument Is Sacrilege
October 16, 2016
The undertaking by the Oryol authorities has left me, a historian of ancient Russia and a citizen of modern Russia, in a state of shock and amazement. Erecting a monument to Ivan the Terrible violates every conceivable ethical norm and Russian tradition.
In the 1850s, during the reign of Alexander II, a heated debate erupted among the intelligentsia and court circles over many of the historical figures proposed for inclusion on the monument The Millennium of Russia, which was to be erected in Novgorod the Great. They were unanimous on only one point. Ivan the Terrible should not be depicted on the monument in any way, for his reign had been Russia’s shame and misfortune. There had never been such a hideous villain in Russia’s history as its first tsar. And this opinion was voiced under an autocracy!
You can talk about the rivers of blood that Ivan spilled in his own country, the monstrous, cruel reprisals that he visited on his own subjects. We are talking about thousands and thousands of people. I will recall only one absolutely true story, the story of what happened to the highly respected boyar Ivan Petrovich Fyodorov-Chelyadnin, head of the Boyar Duma. Ivan accused him of a nonexistent conspiracy to seize power. He forced the boyar to don the tsar’s cloths, seated him on his throne, mocked the old man, and cut out his heart with a knife. The poor man’s body was tossed onto a pile of manure, where it was ripped to shreds by stray dogs.
But that was not enough for the tsar. He carried out a savage reprisal against Fyodorov’s relatives and servants.
As a contemporary wrote, “Having thus murdered [Ivan], his family, and all his people, the tyrant mounted a horse and for nearly a year made the rounds of his estates and villages (Fyodorov was wealthy) with a mob of murderers, sowing destruction, devastation, and murder everywhere. When he captured his soldiers and payers of tribute, the tyrant would order them stripped naked and locked in a cage. Sulfur and gunpowder would be poured into the cage and ignited so that the corpses of the poor men, lifted by the force of the explosion, seemed to fly in the air. The tyrant found this circumstance quite amusing. All the large and small animals and horses were gathered in one place, and the tyrant ordered them hacked to pieces, and some of them pierced with arrows, since he did not wish to leave even the smallest beast alive anywhere. He torched his estates and stacks of wheat, turning them to ash. He would order the murderers to rape the wives and children of those he killed as he watched, and do with them as they willed before exterminating them. As for the wives of the peasants, he ordered them stripped naked and driven into the woods like animals. However, the murders secretly waited in ambush there to torture, kill, and hack to pieces these women wandering the woods. He thus destroyed the clan and entire family of this great man, leaving not a single survivor among his in-laws and relatives.”
The tsar especially tormented women during the atrocities on Fyodorov’s estates: “The women and girls were stripped naked and in this state would be forced to catch chickens in the field.”
These recollections are confirmed by Ivan’s own written records. In later years, to beg God for forgiveness, he kept a “Synodicon of the Disgraced,” a book commemorating the people he had killed and tortured personally over a lifetime. He used a curious verb to describe the cruelest reprisals, otdelat’, “finish off.” This is how he describes Fyodorov’s people in the “Synodicon”: “In Bezhetsky Verkh, 65 of Ivan’s men were finished off, and 12 were chopped to pieces by hand.” So these last twelve people had relatively easy deaths by sword or ax, compared with the first sixty-five, who were “finished off” in some way—burned, drowned, sawed, and so on. Over three hundred of Fyodorov’s men were executed in this way.
The “Synodicon of the Disgraced,” which Ivan the Terrible kept himself, included around three and half thousand victims in one five-year period alone, including the tsar’s close relatives, famous generals, church leaders, simple peasants, and men taken captive in the fortresses taken by his army. The tsar himself conceived the brutal methods of execution and enjoyed watching as people were boiled alive, blown up on barrels of gunpowder, turned over a slow fire like kebabs, skinned alive, and impaled. Moreover, to exacerbate their torments, Ivan’s oprichniki raped the wives, daughters, and mothers in front of the men as they slowly died. None of these are fables and fairy tales, but real stories, recorded in numerous documents and the confessions of the tsar himself, who was sometimes given to bouts of remorse.
It is no wonder the Russian Orthodox Church did not even consider a recent proposal to canonize Ivan the Terrible: he mercilessly ordered the killing of hundreds of monks and priests. Look on the Internet for information about the tragic fate of Philip Kolychev, then head of the church, strangled by the tsar’s minion Malyuta Skuratov. The tsar ordered the Archbishop of Novgorod sewn up in a bearskin and baited by dogs.
Novgorod the Great suffered especially badly at the hands of the villain in 1570. Thousands of its residents, including women and children, were put to death in terrible ways. Some were drowned in the Volkhov River; Ivan’s oprichniki patrolled the river in boats and finished off anyone who floated to the surface with axes. Ivan committed a terrible sacrilege by pillaging the holiest place in Russia, St. Sophia Cathedral, a church that had stood untouched for five hundred years. The next people to rob the cathedral were German and Spanish fascists in 1941.
Ivan the Terrible was a genuine rapist and sadist. He himself bragged that he had raped a thousand girls in his life. It is important to note that he was not ill or insane. He was well aware of what he was doing. Sometimes, fear of divine punishment would scare him into repenting and writing down his sins and crimes, but then he would kill and rape again.
If everything I have written above means little to statist readers, I would underscore the fact that Ivan was a complete failure as a statesman. He botched all the good undertakings at the outset of his reign, lost all the wars he fought, forfeited all his initial conquests, and was incompetent and cowardly as a military commander, but he enjoyed finishing off captured prisoners with a spear. Ultimately, he brought Russia to the brink of ruin. His reign ended in complete failure: military, political, and economic failure. The once-flourishing country was desolated. In Northwest Russia, archaeologists are still finding numerous villages and new settlements that perished forever during Ivan’s reign.
What we know as the Time of Troubles, when Russia was invaded by enemies and plunged into civil war, was a direct outcome of Ivan’s reign. Russia sunk into oblivion for a time then, and even vanished from the map of the world, and only common folk, who had survived the hell of Ivan’s reign, saved Russia under the banner of Minin and Pozharsky. They saved Russia for us, too.
We can be amazed at the humility and patience of the martyr-like Russian people. As early nineteenth-century historian Nikolay Karamzin wrote, Russia “endured the destroyer for twenty-four years, armed only with prayer and patience. […] Generous in their humility, the sufferers died at the Lobnoye Mesto, like the Greeks at Thermopylae, for Faith and Faithfulness, having no thought of rebellion. […] The tiger reveled in the blood of lambs, and the victims, dying the deaths of innocents, demanded justice and touching commemoration from contemporaries and descendants as they took their final gaze at the pitiable country.”
We are their descendants. Was their sacrifice in vain? Was their blood not like ours, but water?
If we are alive, it means that the chain of our ancestors leads back to the time of Ivan. How many such chains the murderous tsar sundered! The people slain by Ivan the Terrible were people just like us, and we must honor their memory. The monument to Ivan the Terrible is a sacrilege against their nameless graves. All those innocent victims will no doubt someday demand a reckoning from us for this sacrilege, for erecting a monument to Russian history’s greatest villain. Oryol will pay a price for this.
At the end of his life, the tsar rotted alive, emitting a foul odor. Undoubtedly, the Lord did not let Ivan the Terrible escape hell. At the last minute, he tried to take monastic vows, which were then believed to be a sure way to save the soul. But no! The monastic dress had been laid out on the villain’s stiffening corpse, but there is no doubt he is in hell, where he belongs, not on a square in one of Russia’s wonderful, radiant cities.
Dr. Evgeny Anisimov is a full professor at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, and chief researcher at the St. Petersburg Institute of History (Russian Academy of Sciences). Translated by the Russian Reader