Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

Russia Under Ivan the Terrible

The reign of Ivan the Terrible is remarkable, first, because it is the beginning of Russia as we know it in our time; and also because it occurred at a time when Great Britain was exploring the Atlantic, and preparing the way for the wonderful expansion of the English-speaking race, which culminated in the great North American Republic. It was under this reign, in 1558, that Russia's invasion of Asia began, and with it a movement eastward, which has not yet ceased.

It is interesting, therefore, to study the condition of the Russian people at this important period. Although, as we have seen, the Tartar yoke did not influence the people directly, because there was no intercourse between victor and vanquished, the indirect influence was great, owing to the adoption of Tartar habits or customs by the dukes and nobles, during their visits to the khan. During this time intercourse with Europe ceased; hence, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Russia was more Asiatic than European, although the Russians hated the victors. Who can say how much influence this has exerted upon Russia's conquests in Asia?

Among the old Slavs, the family was the unit from which the State was built up, and this was confirmed under the Tartar yoke. There is some similarity between the Empire of Russia and that of China, for there, too, the family is the unit. In both countries the Emperor is not only the master, he is also considered as the father and high priest of his people. Their persons and property are the emperor's, to do with as he pleases. But in Russia there was a nobility descended from the former dukes: in China there was none, except the descendant of Confucius. Yet in Russia these lords, many of whom traced their descent to Rurik, became in time the slaves of the czar. They prostrated themselves before him, as they had seen the courtiers of the khan do. When they presented a petition, they expressed it by the word tchélobitié, which means "beating of the forehead," showing that they performed what is known in China as the kowtow. In addressing the czar, they said, "Order me not to be chastised; order me to speak a word!" The Grand Dukes of Moscow considered their territory and the people on it, as their own private property. They had learned this from the khans. The palace, a mixture of oriental splendor and barbarism, showed the influence of the Tartars.

The people of Russia were divided into classes, the lowest of which were the slaves or kholop, prisoners of war, men who had sold themselves, or who were born in slavery. Above them were the peasants, born on the estate of a noble, but still known as free men. Then came the peasants who farmed the land of an owner, but these were few. Much of the land was owned by the several mirs or villages, but in the course of time they were assigned to gentlemen, who were able to serve in the army without pay, being supported by the revenues derived from these villages. Gradually these gentlemen looked upon the land of the mir as their own property, but the peasants never did lose the conviction that the mir was the real proprietor. In Ivan's time and later, the mir and not the individual, was held responsible for the tax to the czar, for the free labor furnished to the lord, and for his dues. The mir, therefore, was absolute master over every inhabitant of the village, and this power was vested in the starost. The peasant gradually descended into a beast of burden, who was not even a human being, but merely a productive force for the benefit of the State and of the lord.

A Russian town consisted, first of the kremlin, a fortress of wood which, when required, was defended by "men of the service"; then came the suburbs, built around the kremlin, and inhabited by the people. They were governed by a voïevod or governor, appointed by the czar, or by a starost or mayor, elected by the nobles, priests, and privileged citizens. The principal duty of the citizens was to pay the taxes, and therefore they were forbidden to leave the city. Under the Czar Alexis, the penalty for such offense was death.

The merchants did not form a separate class. They are known in Russian as gosti  or guests, thus showing that, notwithstanding the old and honorable record of Novgorod and Kief, the Tartar yoke and subsequent arbitrary rule of the grand dukes had ruined trade or left it in the hands of aliens. Ivan the Terrible called them the moujiks of commerce. Fletcher, an Englishman who spent many years in Moscow under Ivan IV, gives the following curious pen picture: "Often you will see them trembling with fear, lest a boyard should know what they have to sell. I have seen them at times, when they had spread out their wares so that you might make a better choice, look all around them,—as if they feared an enemy would surprise then and lay hands on them. If I asked them the cause, they would say to me, 'I was afraid that there might be a noble or one of the sons of boyards here: they would take away my merchandise by force.'"

The Russian women were kept secluded in women's quarters as they are in China, but they remained a member of their own family. A wife's duty was "to obey her husband as the slave obeys his master," and she was taught to think of herself as her master's property. He had the right to punish her as he did his children or his slaves. The priest Silvester advises the husband not to use sticks that are too thick or tipped with iron, nor to whip her before his men, but to correct her moderately and in private. No Russian woman dared object to being beaten. A Russian proverb says: "I love you like my soul, and I dust you like my jacket."

The men wore oriental tunics or robes, and a long beard; the women painted their faces. Ivan the Terrible said that to shave the beard was "a sin that the blood of all the martyrs could not cleanse. Was it not to defile the image of man created by God?"

There was a general belief in magic and witchcraft; sorcerers were burned alive in a cage. Ivan, although in advance of his age, was not free from superstition. The art of medicine was, of course, still in its infancy, and those who practiced it were in constant danger of their lives, because if they did not cure a patient, they might suffer for it.

Both the nobles and the people were addicted to the vice of drunkenness. No one paid any attention when a person, rich or poor, young or old, fell down in the street from the effects of drink. This is what the priests said of this vice: "My brethren, what is worse than drunkenness? You lose memory and reason like a madman who does not know what he is doing. The drunkard is senseless; he lies like a corpse. If you speak to him he does not answer. Think of his poor soul which grows foul in its vile body which is its prison. . . . To drink is lawful and is to the glory of God, who has given us wine to make us rejoice."

The Metropolitan of Moscow, until a Patriarch was appointed, was supposed to be the head of the Church, but the czar held the real power. There were two classes of priests: The Black Clergy lived as monks in monasteries, some of which were exceedingly wealthy; they were forbidden to marry, and the bishops were appointed from among them. The White Clergy lived among the people and were compelled to marry. Most of them were grossly ignorant. The same Englishman quoted before, Mr. Fletcher, says of these priests: "As for exhorting or instructing their flock, they have neither the habit of it nor the talent for it, for all the clergy are as profoundly ignorant of the Word of God as of all other learning."

The revenues of the Empire consisted of a tax on every sixty measures of corn; of a house-tax, or tax on every fire; the customhouse dues, and what remained of the municipal taxes after paying expenses; of a tax on public baths; the farming out of lands belonging to the crown; the fines and confiscations in the "Court of the Brigands;" and finally of the tribute paid by thirty-six towns and their landed possessions "belonging to the Crown."

The Courts of Justice belonged to the Middle Ages; tortures were applied similar to those employed by the Spanish Inquisition. A wife who murdered her husband "was buried alive up to her neck." Heretics were burned at the stake; sorcerers were burned in an iron cage, and coiners had liquid metal poured down their throats. A noble who killed a moujik was fined or sometimes whipped; but he might kill as many slaves as he pleased, because they were his property.

The Russian infantry, so famous under the early Norsemen, had given way to cavalry, in imitation of the Tartars. The Imperial Guard was composed of 8,000 young nobles. The "men-at-arms" were mounted, but received no pay beyond the revenue of their lands, which they held in return for their military service. The army numbered about 80,000, and, with a levy among the peasants, could be brought up to 300,000. There was, besides, the irregular cavalry of the Don Cossacks, and of the Tartars. Such infantry as there was, consisted of peasants from the crown lands, churches, and convents; the national guard, and foreign soldiers or officers.