TBR’s own Andrew Hitchcock had Matthew Raphael Johnson on his show to talk about Russia’s medieval past. In this case, on the controversy of Ivan the Terrible, or Ivan IV, the longest reigning monarch in European history (reigned from 1543-1584, born in 1530, declared himself of majority at 13). The Barnes review has featured several articles on the past by Johnson on this topic of the medieval Russian oligarchy and its negation, Ivan.
Even his title, “the Terrible” means something different in English than it did even a few decades ago. “Terrible” never meant “evil.” Rather, it referred to something powerful. In Russian, he was Ivan Groznyi (the Awe-Inspiring) in the sense of manifesting extraordinary power under God’s law. It is not a pejorative in any sense. “Terrible,” even in English, meant something like “awesome” not too long ago.
As Johnson has argued for decades, Ivan IV was a strong, moral monarch and was no mass killer. The British empire and the German propagandists created an image of a bloodthirsty tyrant in Ivan. This began the European anti-Russian obsession that will not go away. Russia, from here on, was seen as a dark place filled with ignorant, violent people.
During the Livonian War, German writers, especially the infamous Johann Taube and Elbert Kruse Livonian nobles taken as POWs by Ivan’s men. Jodocus Crull wrote a lengthy, ponderous book called The Ancient and Present State of Muscovy which was published in London in 1698. He never stepped foot in Russia. He knew nothing about the area. Rather, he was used for propaganda purposes. They all depicted a violent, sadistic despot. The resulting books came from almost no direct observation. They are universally regarded as mere propaganda, but the image remains nonetheless.
On the other hand, the Jesuit Antonio Possevino saw Ivan in a positive light. This is remarkable because the Jesuit was sent to convert the “schismatic Tartars” to the Roman Church and had every reason to depict Moscow in vile terms. Rather, he saw Ivan as the most educated man of his age and his society as highly civilized. Many other works can be mentioned in this regard, yet it was the work of Taube and Kruze that got the world’s attention.
The truth is quite different from the world created by Ivan’s many enemies. Ivan was responding to extreme domestic political unrest unrelated to him personally. Ivan IV was faced with powerful noble families that wanted to divide the country among them. Some wanted to go over to Poland to ensure their privileges. To maintain an integral and unified Russia, they needed to go. The result was the Oprichnina — a specialized corps of royalists that were used to intimidate the elite nobility. These noble clans had large standing armies, their own economies, diplomatic service and even intelligence. There could not be a unified Russian until they were neutralized.
This radio broadcast is also about oligarchy in general. One thing Johnson has maintained throughout his career: the world has a single choice, either monarchy or oligarchy. Either a strong state, an ethno-state, dedicated to the common good, or an oligarchy, where only the wealthy rule. These are not just forms of government, but lifestyles and ideologies.