Ivan the Terrible.
Emeritus professor of Russian Studies at the University of London, Isabel de Madariaga is renowned for writing large, densely packed volumes with original insights and argumentation. Her publication of just two major works prior to this one--Britain, Russia, and the Armed Neutrality of 1780 (New Haven, 1962); and Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (New Haven, 1981)--suggests the time-consuming scrupulousness with which she approaches her projects. For the volume under review she carried out no original archival research, but instead relied upon published sources and historical works. This renders her study as much a discussion of historiography as "an attempt, on the evidence at present available, to understand and explain Ivan the man and the ruler, whose personal reign, lasting from 1547 to 1584, had such a devastating impact on his people and his expanding country" (p. xiv). Often drawing upon the work of Nikolai Karamzin, "the first professional Russian historian" (p. 367), she cites the tsar's psychology--a psychology sickened, she argues, by the death of both parents at a tender age, childhood illnesses, the premature death of his beloved first wife Anastasia, and Ivan's own murder of his eponymously-named son and heir--to account for the majority of his decisions. But what really destroyed Ivan was the corrupting influence of his position as anointed ruler of a state promoting itself as the Third Rome. A sense of divine mission so permeated Ivan that "he tried to be God" (p. 381), dispensing both punishment and mercy on an epic scale. De Madariaga's descriptions of the executions and tortures carried out during the oprichnina, when Ivan divided Muscovy into two realms, accordingly make for compelling, if somewhat, unsettling reading.
Since Karamzin, most historians have not given much merit to psychological explanations for Ivan's actions. For example, in their recent study Andrei Pavlov and Maureen Petrie develop a rational-political model because, they argue, his mental state cannot be empirically determined. But de Madariaga's extensive attention to those few documents the tsar is believed to have authored casts doubt on a purely rational explanation. Whereas it is true that the Livonian War and the initiation of a commercial relationship with England reflect statist motives to expand and to increase trade, Ivan's specific actions within these and other contexts suggest an individual who was nearly always struggling to maintain equilibrium. In his famous letters to Prince Kurbsky (which de Madariaga, like Pavlov and Perrie, conditionally accept as genuine), Ivan boasts of his supposed lineage to Prus, the brother of Caesar Augustus, and pontificates on his rights over his subjects; yet, in letters to his confessor and monastic leaders he berates himself as a sinner and begs forgiveness for committing murder, adultery, and sodomy, among other things. Ivan led and participated in gang-rapes and slaughters directed against Russian women and children, but also sent considerable sums to monasteries to atone for his routine murder of courtiers. In describing these and other examples of the tsar's dichotomous behaviour, de Madariaga conjures up the medieval mentality that prevailed in Russia much longer than in western Europe, a mentality constantly buffeted by the epic battle between good and evil; one that noted signs and omens, and appealed to witches and potions.
De Madariaga seems to have trawled available sources for every detail she could find, and the sum total is impressive given her claims that little evidence on Ivan actually exists. While it may be true that we have no verifiable likeness of the man, sufficient information remains to fill nearly four hundred pages of text. Yet, as with her previous book on Catherine the Great, de Madariaga tends to wallow in detail at the expense of narration and clarity, thereby making this somewhat of a trying read. Had the larger themes she discusses in both the introduction and conclusion been more consistently interwoven into the body of the text, digressions on Ivan's multiple canvassings for brides, for example, might have proved easier to digest. In stark contrast to the attention paid Ivan's personal life is a chapter entitled "The Conquest of Kazan'" which virtually ignores the details of this pivotal military campaign. Similarly, while de Madariaga can be an engaging and witty raconteur, her style is generally turgid and larded with subordinate clauses, sometimes at the expense of grammar as on page 282: "Back in Novgorod, where Ivan now stayed more frequently, since Moscow, after the fire, was unliveable in, he had to reconstruct his court." Combined with numerous missing periods (chapter XXI disappointingly ends without one), inconsistent transliteration of Russian words, unsourced illustrations, and an incorrectly shaded map on page 190, this points to the need for better editing. Indeed, the book seems to have been hurried onto publication. The index includes few conceptual nouns and is absent kholopy, strel'tsy, "and many other terms repeated throughout the text are absent. As well, the metropolitan Makarii, who early in Ivan's life played such a key role, fails to appear in the index.
These shortcomings aside, Ivan the Terrible is a work of encyclopedic scope which should serve to resuscitate questions not only about the impact Ivan's psychology made upon Russia, but also about the role of individuals in shaping history. Despite many professional historians' disdain for biographies of "great" men and women, they continue to attract readers. De Madariaga's Ivan the Terrible addresses this readership, but is also of great scholarly value.
University of Queensland
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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