Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

Ivan the Terrible

In seeking examples of the excesses to which absolute power may lead, we usually name the wicked emperors of Rome, among whom Nero stands most notorious as a monster of cruelty. Modern history has but one Nero in its long lines of kings and emperors, and him we find in Ivan IV. of Russia, surnamed the Terrible.

This cruel czar succeeded to the throne when but three years of age. In his early years he lived in a state of terror, being insulted and despised by the powerful nobles who controlled the power of the throne. At fourteen years of age his enemies were driven out and his kinsmen came into power. They, caring only for blood and plunder, prompted the boy to cruelty, teaching him to rob, to torture, to massacre. They applauded him when he amused himself by tormenting animals; and when, riding furiously through the streets of Moscow, he dashed all before him to the ground and trampled women and children under his horses' feet, they praised him for spirit and energy.

This was an education fitted to make a Nero. But, happily for Russia, for thirteen years the tiger was chained. Ivan was seventeen years of age when a frightful conflagration which broke out in Moscow gave rise to a revolt against the Glinski, his wicked kinsmen. They were torn to pieces by the furious multitude, while terror rent his youthful soul. Amid the horror of flames, cries of vengeance, and groans of the dying, a monk appeared before the trembling boy, and with menacing looks and upraised hand bade him shrink from the wrath of Heaven, which his cruelty had aroused.

Certain appearances which appeared supernatural aided the effect of these words, the nature of Ivan seemed changed as by a miracle, dread of Heaven's vengeance controlled his nature, and he yielded himself to the influence of the wise and good. Pious priests and prudent boyars became his advisers, Anastasia, his young and virtuous bride, gained an influence over him, and Russia enjoyed justice and felicity.

During the succeeding thirteen years the country was ably and wisely governed, order was everywhere established, the army was strengthened, fortresses were built, enemies were defeated, the morals of the clergy were improved, a new rode of laws was formed, arts were introduced from Europe, a printing-office was opened, the city of Archangel was built, and the north of the empire was thrown open to commerce.

All this was the work of Adashef, Ivan's wise prime minister, aided by the influence of the noble-hearted Anastasia. In 1560, at the end of this period of mild and able administration, a sudden change took place and the tiger was set free. Anastasia died. A disease seized Ivan which seemed to affect his brain. The remainder of his life was marked by paroxysms of frightful barbarity.

A new terror seized him, that of a vast conspiracy of the nobles against his power, and for safety he retired to Alexandrovsky, a fortress in the midst of a gloomy forest. Here be assumed the monkish dress with three hundred of his minions, abandoning to the boyars the government of the empire, but keeping the military power in his own hands.

On all sides Russia now suffered from its enemies. Moscow, with several hundred thousand Muscovites, was burned by the Tartars in 1571. Disaster followed disaster, which Ivan was too cowardly and weak to avert. Trusting to incompetent generals abroad, he surrounded himself at home with a guard of six thousand chosen men, who were hired to play the part of spies and assassins. They carried as emblems of office a dog's head and a broom, the first to indicate that they worried the enemies of the czar, the second that they swept them from the face of the earth. They were chosen from the lowest class of the people, and to them was given the property of their victims, that they might murder without mercy.

The excesses of Ivan are almost too horrible to tell. He began by putting to death several great boyars of the family of Rurik, while their wives and children were driven naked into the forests, where they died under the scourge. Novgorod had been ruined by his grandfather. He marched against it, in a freak of madness, gathered a throng of the helpless people within a great enclosure, and butchered them with his own hand. When worn out with these labors of death, he turned on them his guard, his slaves, and his dogs, while for a month afterwards hundreds of them were flung daily into the waters of the river, through the broken ice. What little vitality Ivan III. had left in the republican city was stamped out under the feet of this insensate brute.

Tver and Pskov, two others of the free cities of the empire, suffered from his frightful presence. Then returning to Moscow, he filled the public square with red-hot brasiers, great brass caldrons, and eighty gibbets, and here five hundred of the leading nobles were slain by his orders, after being subjected to terrible tortures.

Women were treated as barbarously as men. Ivan, with a cruelty never before matched, ordered many of them to be hanged at their own doors, and forced the husbands to go in and out under the swinging and festering corpses of those they had loved and cherished. In other cases husbands or children were fastened, dead, in their seats at table, and the family forced to sit at meals, for days, opposite these terrifying objects.

Seeking daily for new conceits of cruelty, he forced one lord to kill his father and another his brother, while it was his delight to let loose his dogs and bears upon the people in the public square, the animals being left to devour the mutilated bodies of those they killed. Eight hundred women were drowned in one frightful mass, and their relatives were forced under torture to point out where their wealth lay hidden.

Church of Ivan the Great


It is said that sixty thousand people were slain by Ivan's orders in Novgorod alone; how many perished in the whole realm history does not relate. His only warlike campaign was against the Livonians. These he failed to conquer, but held their resistance as a rebellion, and ordered his prisoners to be thrown into boiling caldrons, spitted on lances, or roasted at fires which he stirred up with his own hands.

This monster of iniquity married in all, seven wives. He sought for an eighth from the court of Queen Elizabeth of England, and the daughter of the Earl of Huntington was offered him as a victim,—a willing one, it seems, influenced by the glamour which power exerts over the mind; but before the match was concluded the intended bride took fright, and begged to be spared the terrible honor of wedding the Russian czar.

Yet all the excesses of Ivan did not turn the people against him. He assumed the manner of one inspired, claiming divine powers, and all the injuries and degradation which he inflicted upon the people were accepted not only with resignation but with adoration. The Russians of that age of ignorance seem to have looked upon God and the czar as one, and submitted to blows, wounds, and insults with a blind servility to which only abject superstition could have led.

The end came at last, in a final freak of madness. An humble supplication, coming from the most faithful of his subjects, was made to him; but in his distorted brain it indicated a new conspiracy of the boyars, of which his eldest and ablest son was to be the leader. In a transport of insane rage the frenzied emperor raised his iron-bound staff and struck up the earth with a mortal blow this hope of his race.

This was his last excess. Regret for his hasty act, though not remorse for his murders, assailed him, and he soon after died, after twenty-six years of insane cruelties, ordering new executions almost with his latest breath.