Portrait of Muscovy in Peril5 min read

As we learn in the first few pages of Ivan the Terrible: Free to Reward & Free to Punish by Charles J. Halperin, most of what we think we know about 16th-century Tsar Ivan the Terrible is based on dubious scholarship. Popular images such as Ivan the Madman and Ivan the Scholar come mainly from legends and folk tales, some of which have been in circulation since the days of Ivan himself, when he was a frequent target of propaganda by enemy states. In actuality, there is very little material record of the Tsar’s temperament or mental state, nor are there reliable sources to account for most of his day-to-day activities. 

Halperin’s solution to this problem is a kind of structural synthesis. He draws on his vast expertise of the social, political, and religious structures of Muscovy in the time of Ivan to speculate on the life of the principality’s ruler. As a consequence, Halperin’s book is arguably the most reliable secondary source available on the topic in English. Having done away with the apocrypha and more artistic renderings of Ivan, and relying only on firm evidence to support his synthesis, the soundness of Halperin’s account is difficult to challenge. However, Halperin’s reliance on analysis from a distance means that his book feels less like the biography of a man and more like a wide-angle snapshot of 16th-century Muscovy as a whole. It is decidedly impersonal, distant.

Many of the stories most closely associated with Ivan are given minimal treatment. The Tsar’s accidental murder of his son and heir apparent (and the subject of Ilya Repin’s iconic 1885 painting, below) is tucked away at the end of a late chapter: “In 1581 Ivan supposedly accidentally killed his elder son, Tsarevich Ivan, whose death, regardless of its cause, cast a pall over his declining years.” Likewise, Halperin affords the infamous Massacre of Novgorod, in which Ivan’s forces slaughtered tens of thousands of his own subjects in retribution for their city’s alleged treachery, only scattered references here in there, instead of the serious attention one might expect for such a defining moment in the Tsar’s reign. Halperin’s reasoning is understandable: we don’t have the evidence to conjecture exactly what happened with the Tsarevich or in Novgorod, so we shouldn’t try. The consequence, however, is the feeling that Halperin refused to cast an actor to star in his film. 

"Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581" by Ilya Repin, 1885. Historian Charles J. Halperin
“Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581” by Ilya Repin, 1885. Historian Charles J. Halperin pays little attention to the death of the Tsarevich in his latest book.

Much attention is given to the various political, social, and religious bodies which governed daily life and high-level leadership in Muscovy in the 16th century. Readers who approach this book with an image of Muscovy as being undeveloped politically, or else crudely dominated by a single ruler, will be surprised by the sophistication of the nation’s decision-making processes. While Ivan was unquestionably the most powerful man in Muscovy, he spent much of his life negotiating control with the Church and aristocracy. Halperin is at his best when describing these institutions, drawing on contemporary political theory, when relevant, to explain how they interacted with each other, and when those interactions turned contentious. What emerges is a picture of Muscovy in peril, a nation constantly gripped by power struggles which often turned violent.

One interesting quirk of Ivan the Terrible: Free to Reward & Free to Punish is the author’s surprising defensiveness of his subject. Comparisons to various rulers of Britain and France pop up unexpectedly, usually only to make the point that Russians were not alone in behaving badly. When Ivan’s mother, Elena Glinskaya, “disposed permanently of Ivan’s uncles” to secure power, Halperin rushes in to point out that Elena’s European contemporary, Catherine de’ Medici, did more or less the same. When pondering how the aristocracy of Muscovy had failed to prevent Ivan from massacring his own subjects, Halperin digresses to England circa 1216 to remind us that even King John eventually dismissed the Magna Carta. Literacy rates in 16th century Muscovy are compared favourably to England in the same era, as are rates of religious persecution. Perhaps the most amusing comparison – but the least useful, from a scholarly perspective – comes early in the book:

“The evidence of Ivan’s putative homosexuality consists only of unsubstantiated innuendo during the oprichnina, minuscule compared to the abundant evidence of the lifestyle of James I/VI of England/Scotland or the supposedly bisexually depraved Henri III of France.”

Halperin’s comparisons would be less suspicious if at least some of them cast Ivan or Muscovy in a negative light. But they appear almost invariably to adorn their subject, never to disfigure him. Halperin’s haste to contextualise Tsarist Russia (‘defend’ would be too strong a word) puts him in the company of scores of scholars – too many to name – who do the same with contemporary Russia, responding to criticism not with justification, but by finding parallel faults in Western states. 

Charles J. Halperin’s Ivan the Terrible: Free to Reward & Free to Punish was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in 2019. It is available on Amazon.

Louis Train holds a master’s degree in international relations from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (МГИМО) and a master’s in international security studies from the University of Reading. He does research on Russian foreign policy, diplomacy, and the intersection between culture and international relations. Follow him on Twitter at @LouisTrain.