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Ivan the Terrible: Profiles in Power.

Ivan the Terrible: Profiles in Power, by Andrei Pavlov and Maureen Perrie. New York, Pearson-Longman, 2003. ix, 234 pp. $16.95 US (paper).

Andrei Pavlov and Maureen Perrie have produced an excellent and very welcome biography of the fascinating and elusive Ivan the Terrible. The work maintains the reader's interest in the horror and sensational cruelty of Ivan's reign, while adhering to rigorously scholarly standards and advancing an original argument of its own. This balance of titillation and academic stringency is a difficult one to achieve, and they have done an admirable job. The book is well-written and readable. It conveys the complexities of the issues and some of the difficulties of using the sources at the same time that it tells a coherent and compelling story. The authors' Anglo-Russian partnership, moreover, lends confidence that the work draws on the most up-to-date findings in both Western and Russian research. Particularly valuably for an English-speaking audience, they draw on Russian publications that have not yet received much notice in the West.

Eschewing the psychological for the political and ideological, Pavlov and Perrie argue that the first half of Ivan's reign saw the consolidation of a law-governed, procedurally-based system. In this period, well-considered reforms, inspired by the wise advice of the Chosen Council, effected the first steps toward the coalescence of unified social estates and an estate-representative political system similar to those developing in the west. Ideologically, these early years taught Ivan that he ruled by the will of God and therefore held a divine mandate to rule sternly and wisely.

The second half of Ivan's reign saw the devastating division of the country into a subordinate land, called the Zemshchina, and a predatory, dominant inner circle of chosen men, called the Oprichnina. Pavlov and Perrie navigate their way through the many competing explanations that historians have proposed for Ivan IV's erratic behavior during the Oprichnina. Various theories propose that it was the product of paranoid madness, the involuted working of kinship-based rivalries, or a reasoned, rational punishment of treachery. On a more systematic level, it has been explained as an attack on feudal, princely, or regional opponents of Ivan's project of state centralization, or as an alliance of the crown with the petty gentry against the privileged aristocracy. Pavlov and Perrie conclude that the Oprichnina was an ideologically motivated attack on the forming social estates, which Ivan thought threatened his absolute authority as God's envoy on earth. Following Boris Uspenskii, the authors argue persuasively that Ivan's use of highly theatrical punishments and tortures derived from his unswerving commitment to his duty as divine representative on earth. The Oprichnina itself, then, was consistent with Ivan's political theology and deliberately drew on the fearsome, punitive imagery of the Last Judgment.

The two-fold argument of the book rests on Ivan's understanding that the forming social estates and legal system would hamper his ability to act unilaterally, and his ideological commitment to crushing "all those who could actually or potentially limit the power which he had been given by God" (p. 124). Overall, the argument is coherent and well presented, but in places not fully supported or explained. First, in its assertion that prior to 1565 Muscovy was developing on a course parallel to its western contemporaries, the argument relies heavily on the assumption that pre-Oprichnina Muscovy observed legal niceties and encouraged estate representation to a somewhat implausible degree. Second, in its fine-tuning of the arguments among specialists about what groups or what kinds of people formed the target of the Oprichnina and bore the brunt of its assaults, the authors do not clearly explain the stakes or significance of the delicate distinctions among these theories. Pavlov and Perrie's own position inclines toward R. G. Skrynnikov's schema, whereby the Oprichnina began as an assault on regional princely corporations but then, after a hiatus, turned and devoured its own. This stance comes across somewhat murkily because the meaning of these "regional princely associations" is not explored, and different kinds of privileged elites and "politicized estates" (p. 131) blur in the course of the narrative.

The authors deserve recognition for their courage in breaking the long silence in Ivan the Terrible studies that followed Edward Keenan's 1971 assertion that the richest set of sources about Ivan, a series of letters exchanged between Ivan and Prince Andrei Kurbskii, was a forgery. While Soviet scholars by and large took Keenan's provocation as a challenge to delve more deeply into the archives for evidence of the letters' authenticity, Western scholars have been more or less immobilized by the uncertainty. With few exceptions, western historians of Muscovy have avoided the subject for the past thirty years. Pavlov and Perrie are to be commended for breaking the silence. Still, thirty years of suspicion leaves indelible traces, and I for one, while enjoying the book's confident story line, had difficulty accepting the confessions and assertions of the correspondence so unproblematically. Similarly, in their enthusiasm for re-introducing previously suspect sources, Pavlov and Perrie reproduce the sensational reports of European travelers and participants without questioning their veracity. Europeans had their own reasons for spicing up their accounts of Ivan's atrocities and for reading in their own explanations for his motivations. The book's lively narrative benefits from its straightforward use of sources, but a tinge of suspicion would have strengthened its case.

In historiographic terms, this is an enormously significant book. It marks not only an important and productive breakthrough in mending the academic rifts of the Cold War, but also a bold step forward in re-asserting the power of the individual actor and biographical narrative in the wake of social historical and post-structural assaults. Finally, it responds to the growing interest in and emphasis on religious, cultural, and ideological contributions to shaping political events. In taking seriously the spiritual world and ideological structures that shaped Russia in the mid-sixteenth century and weaving them into an explanation of diplomacy and high politics, this book sets a new standard for the study of Muscovy.

Valerie A. Kivelson

University of Michigan
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Author:Kivelson, Valerie A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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