Ivan the Terrible/Introduction


The work of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great show us modern Russia, armed already, cap-à-pie, for all the conquests, moral or material, gained then or since. But this work, as all men know, possessed certain antecedents, and Peter gave himself out to be a follower—of whom? His immediate predecessors we know—the earliest Romanoffs, obscure sovereigns of an Empire cut off from all European contact, closed to all external influence, and incapable of evolving even a rudimentary civilization from its own elements. Going back further, to the closing years of the sixteenth century, we see the sinoutnoié vrénica ('the troublous times')—that is to say, disorder, anarchy, barbarism, darkness. Yet, looking closely, the sudden brightness of the eighteenth century was no dawn. For a rising sun the light was all too brilliant. Peter the Great was not mistaken. The darkness out of which his vivid genius flashed was only an eclipse.

The internal and external development of the great Northern Empire seems to partake of the nature of the avalanche. At widely-parted intervals we have a sudden displacement of the centre of gravity, resulting in a swift movement forward, followed by a more or less lengthy period of immobility. This phenomenon has occurred several times already, and appearances are all in favour of its reproduction. The reason and the explanation are both very simple. The nation, in the performance of the mighty task laid upon it, was bound to meet with formidable obstacles, and consequently to make successive efforts. At this moment, and for the past twenty years, its progress has been apparently suspended internally, and checked on the lines it had previously pursued externally. This is because Russia's activity has been absorbed and diverted by the conquest of a new territory, destined to widen the field of her efforts yet further—to the Chinese Seas on one side, to the Persian Gulf on the other. But the problems momentarily put aside are ripening all the same, slowly but surely, and beware of the avalanche!

The predecessor whom Peter the Great invoked was a contemporary of the last Valois Kings, and to this period we must go back, indeed, to discover the reformer's political and intellectual origins. The task is a heavy one, but it is the price which must be paid for our comprehension of the final result, and it is the raison d'être of the volume I now place in my readers' hands. I shall be told, no doubt, that I ought to have begun with it; but in history, as in anatomy, it would be foolhardy to go, in the first place, to the very beginnings, to the embryo, to the cell-and in reality I am only following the regular order and method of every study.

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, then, Russia dwelt apart, or almost apart, from the European community and from civilization. But she had made a previous effort to enter both, and the work to which Voltaire lent his aid and gave his praise was begun when Charles IX. and Henri III. reigned over France. At that moment Muscovy, huge and barbarous, set forth to enter into contact with her Western neighbours. She found the road barred. Poland, with Sweden, threw herself athwart it, and the removal of the obstacle was the work of more than a hundred years. But, if it had not been for Batory, the hands of the clock which marks the hours of all great historical evolutions might have whirled round the dial a century before. Externally, the acquisition of the Baltic seaboard, the destruction of the last vestiges of the Tartar power, the conquest of Siberia, the opening up of political and commercial relations with all the European countries; internally, the introduction of the elements of foreign culture, the reorganization of the State on the very basis we see at the present day—all this, accomplished by Peter and Catherine, was undertaken, outlined, even partly realized, in the course of that first morning on which an all too speedy evening fell.

Who did it? The man of whom Custine wrote that he had, 'so to speak, outrun the limits of the sphere within which God permits His creature to work harm,' the tortures, whose figure is a nightmare, whose name is a terror, the emulation of Nero and Caligula—the Terrible!

Here we have one of the most curious instances of aberration to be found in legend, and even in critical history.

To begin with the name 'the Terrible,' with which, to insure the recognition of my personage, I have been forced to head my volume-the name is, I say, a misinterpretation. The Russians of the present day, deceived by a translation imposed on them by foreigners, do not recognise this themselves. The Germans hesitate between der Schreckliche (the Terrible) and der Grausame (the Cruel), and while both versions are incorrect, the second is the worst. Never did the Muscovites of his time call Ivan thus. He was the groznyï. Now hearken: In the course of an epistolary dispute which is one of the curiosities of the period, Batory having reproached his adversary with surrounding himself with battle-axe-men (ryndy) when he received the King's envoys, Ivan replies, 'Eto tchine gossoudarskii, da i Groza' 'Thus it must be, for my rank and the respect I must inspire').

The Groza has never meant any other thing. Consult the 'Domostroï,' the famous Muscovite household book of that epoch, as to the duties imposed on the father of the family; he is expected to be groznyï—that is to say, respected and worthy of respect. But what, then, of the tortures, the scaffolds, the hecatombs of human lives, whereof the chroniclers speak? That is another matter. Do you know, in any European country, a chapter of sixteenth-century history that reads like an idyll? In Poland, perhaps, where the szlachta, with the last of the Jagellons, was inaugurating the perilous experiment of the noli me tangere. And there, again. Batory set things in order for a time. But from this point of view Poland and Russia were the very antipodes, and if the latter has succeeded where the former failed it is just because she has not been too dainty as to her methods. Look into the huge crucible in which this people has laboured, from the Ural to the Carpathians, the White Sea to the Black; it is not gentleness, politeness, consideration, that made it possible to mingle, and bray, and melt twenty diverse races into the compact block which is the Russia of to-day! That Ivan IV., in the course of his work, may have gone somewhat beyond the atrocity usual in his century, may be. We will go back to that. But both in legendary and in critical history the surname of 'the Terrible' has become synonymous with an unreasonable and inexcusable ferocity, purely barbarous in its origin, and carried to madness in its manifestations. To anybody who knows the power there is in words the consequence cannot be doubted: the word has set its false hallmark on the thing.

The evocation of the man and his surroundings cannot, indeed, be parted from some hideous sights and my readers must brace their nerves to meet some severe shocks. Yet athwart these gloomy visions they will perceive that of which I have spoken—the sunrise. The bright sun, the red sun, of the rhapsodists: in their tongue the two adjectives are one and the same. A blood-stained sun, lighting up a gloomy landscape. That, again, is another matter. The ideal here sought and gained is not, perhaps, the most seductive in the world's history; but an ideal it is, and it gave, and still gives, the law to a great nation.

In the last Rurikovitchy who ruled—for Feodor was a mere shadow—Kaveline, one of the leaders of the Slavophil school, has already recognised 'the central figure' of his country's history. Since then attempts at posthumous rehabilitation and apotheosis have so multiplied as to reach a not less evidently excessive point in the other direction. I shall endeavour to determine, between these opposing currents, what is truth and what justice.

It has not appeared to me possible to begin this study without preceding it by a general view of the geography, political, social, and intellectual condition, and habits and customs of a country into which, even nowadays, the historian must penetrate in the guise of an explorer. To these subjects the first four chapters of the book are devoted. Their length and detail must be excused; without them I should have run the risk of failing to make myself understood, and of talking in perpetual riddles. To most of my readers, I believe, this key will be indispensable.

My authorities this time include few unpublished sources. Of the documents I might have utilized most have either been printed or continue inaccessible. The literature of the subject is exceedingly abundant, so much so that, to avoid overloading my pages, I have abstained, with very few exceptions, from direct references. I may add that this literature exists, as a whole, in the form of unworked materials, collections of documents, or monographs. The historical edifice has yet to be built up.

I beg my friend, I. Stchoukine, whose rich library and unwearying kindness have alone enabled me to begin and accomplish my task, to accept the expression of my deep gratitude.