Written by Vladimir Moss



     Ladies and Gentlemen,


     I feel very honoured to speak today to you on the subject of Ivan the Terrible: Church and State. But I am also somewhat shamefaced. Because I am only an amateur historian of Russia – and I see in my audience some real, professional historians, whose knowledge of Russia is, I am sure, much greater than mine. However, this does have the major advantage that if I make some big howlers in my talk, the real historians here will be able to correct them in the Q & A session.


     You may well ask: Do I have any qualifications at all to talk about Ivan the Terrible? Well, I do have some training in psychology – and Ivan was definitely a terrible nutcase.


     But one of the reasons why I left psychology for the study of Orthodox history is that in my view psychology rarely provides anything but superficial explanations of the people and events that interest me.


     Take the question: “Why did Brutus kill Caesar?” Is this a psychological or a historical question? It is of course both. But does it really help us to know that, for the sake of argument, Brutus hated his father or was in love with his mother, and therefore wanted to take it out on his surrogate father, Julius Caesar? I don’t think so. I think it is much more useful to explain his behaviour in terms of his fundamental beliefs about Rome and republicanism, which is of course what most historians do.


     In other words, I think it makes sense to attribute as much importance to a man’s conscious beliefs as to his subconscious motivation, even if he is mentally ill.


     I think the same is true with the question that interests me: “Why did Ivan kill so many thousands of innocent men, women and children who were no conceivable threat to him?” The psychological answer would be: he was a paranoid schizophrenic, or he was reliving the trauma of his insecure childhood. So, as Ivan’s biographer Benson Bodrick puts it, he was “Ivan the Terrible” because he was also “Ivan the Terrified”. There may be some limited truth in this explanation, but I think it is rather superficial. A more satisfactory answer, in my view, would be in terms of Ivan’s fundamental beliefs, his views about Russia and the role of the Russian autocrat.


     That is what I shall try to do in this lecture. Briefly my thesis is as follows:- Ivan, for reasons I will go into, had a distorted view of the relationship of the Church and the State in Russia, and in particular of the rights and duties of the tsar, on the one hand, and of the metropolitan or patriarch on the other. When he discovered that several leading boyars did not want his infant son to succeed him, and when the one churchman whom he admired and who had exalted his authority, Metropolitan Makary, died, he lost all restraint. The rest is history.



     Now Ivan was a very intelligent man with an almost photographic memory who was extremely well-educated in the Holy Scriptures and Fathers of the Orthodox Church. As he revealed particularly in his correspondence with the rebel Prince Kurbsky, he was able to quote at length from the Orthodox teaching on his own and his subjects’ respective rights and duties. So what was this teaching? At this point I must launch into a necessary excursus on what I may call the Orthodox “Theology of Politics” in the Byzantine and Kievan and early Muscovite periods. Then I will return to Ivan’s own highly selective interpretation of this teaching.


     In Byzantium there was a dominant, official theory of politics, which I shall call the symphonic theory, and a minor, unofficial theory, which I shall call the pagan or absolutist theory that became important in times of crises in the Church and State.


     The symphonic theory stated that Church and State are independent authorities and institutions, both of which are derived from God, not men. Although independent, they are called by God to work together in “symphony” or harmony, for the sake of the salvation of the Christian race and the spreading of the Gospel to non-Christian peoples. Each had its own hierarchy, headed by the Patriarch in the Church and the Emperor in the State. The Patriarch was autonomous in the sphere of the Church and in all spiritual matters, and the Emperor was autonomous in the sphere of the State and in all secular matters. The Patriarch had the right to advise the Emperor on all legislation that affected faith and morality, and could object to any law that in his opinion violated any dogma of the faith or principle of morality. He also had the right to intercede for prisoners, widows and orphans, and in general for anyone whom he believed to have been wronged by the State. This right of intercession, Pechalovanie in Russian, became, as we shall see, very important in the reign of Ivan the Terrible. The Emperor, on his part, had the right to make his wishes known with regard to the appointment of bishops and patriarchs (in late Byzantium he could choose between a list of three candidates for the patriarchate presented to him by the Holy Synod). He also had the right to convene Church Councils (all seven of the Ecumenical Councils were convened by Byzantine Emperors, as well as all the important Local Councils convened in the Middle and Late Byzantine periods).


     The symphonic theory worked pretty well and for a very long period of time not only in Byzantium, but also in many independent Christian states formed on the model of Byzantium: from Anglo-Saxon England in the West to Georgia in the East, from Kiev and Moldavia in the north to Ethiopia and Yemen in the south. In the medieval period Serbia and Bulgaria were also what we may call “symphonic” States.


     Let us now turn to the unofficial, rebel or heretical theory of politics. This was essentially a hangover from the period of the pagan Roman emperors before Constantine, who exercised supreme authority over both politics and religion in the Roman empire. The pagan emperors had the title of Pontifex Maximus, “Greatest Priest”, a title first assumed by Julius Caesar and then by Augustus and all subsequent Emperors. The early Christians, as is well known, in accord with the teaching of Christ, were quite prepared to obey the Emperors in all political matters – taxes, military service, etc. – but categorically refused to obey him in religious matters, and particularly in offering worship to the pagan gods, including those Emperors who proclaimed themselves to be gods. 


     However, the Christian Emperors, from the Emperor Gratian onwards, rejected the title Pontifex Maximus and confined themselves to political matters. Nevertheless, some of the heretical emperors continued to try and impose their will on the Church, and even to call themselves “priests”, to which the Church leaders, such as Saints Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom, responded very strongly and defiantly. There is a famous case when the Emperor Julian the Apostate tried to turn the whole empire back to paganism, and Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian, who knew him from university days in Athens, flatly refused to recognize his authority and even prayed for his overthrow. He did not last long, being pierced through by a mysterious warrior in the sands of Mesopotamia…


     But the pagan, absolutist tradition stubbornly refused to die completely. Thus Justinian’s juridical corpus contains the words: “what has pleased the prince has the force of law” (quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem). This was a fatal phrase which, if applied consistently, would have completed undermined the Byzantine symphony of powers that was also officially proclaimed in Justinian’s laws. And some emperors did try to use it in this way, for example the iconoclast emperors in the eighth and ninth centuries. Moreover, as the centuries passed the pagan, absolutist tradition gradually came to suppress the symphonic theory and dominate Byzantium, as the Emperors came to control the Church in what western scholars call “caesaropapism”. Thus by the late fourteenth century the Church showed itself voiceless and powerless when the Emperor John VIII travelled to Rome and quite openly became a Roman Catholic! In the old days, the Church would have excommunicated him on the spot as a heretic and the people of Byzantium would have rioted against him and kicked him out. But not now. And the very last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI, was in fact a uniate Roman Catholic.




     Let us now turn to Russia. Russia had, of course, received its Orthodoxy from Byzantium in the time of St. Vladimir, and for the next 500-600 years remained remarkably faithful to her spiritual mother. As Byzantium declined in strength, and Russia increased, the Russians never tried – unlike the Bulgarians – to free themselves from Byzantine tutelage and dominion. The Russian Church, in spite of its vast size, remained a junior metropolitan district of the Byzantine Church, ruled (usually) by a Greek metropolitan appointed by the Patriarch of Constantinople; and the Russian Great Prince, though far more powerful than the Byzantine Emperor, remained in theory his younger brother and far inferior in status. 


     For the whole of the Kievan period, as well as during the Mongol yoke, Church-State relations were good. None of the Great Princes ruled despotically; for the Church enjoyed spiritual strength and prestige, and its leaders continued to exert a powerful beneficial influence on the rulers.


     But then, in 1438-39, came an earth-shaking event: the Council of Florence. This was convened by the Pope of Rome and attended by the Byzantine Emperor and Patriarch together with many metropolitans and bishops. Its aim was to subordinate the Byzantine Church to Rome, in exchange for which the Pope would appeal to the western rulers to send military help to save Constantinople from the Turks. But the Greek Metropolitan Mark of Ephesus refused to sign the unia – as did the Russian and Georgian Churches. In fact, the Russian Great Prince Vassily II, Ivan the Terrible’s great-grandfather, imprisoned the uniate Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev, who was sent to take control of the Russian Church (he then allowed him to escape to Rome, where he became a cardinal). Only a few years later, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks – which the Russians (and many Greeks) saw as God’s retribution on the old Empire for its apostasy.


     These events had three very important consequences. First, the Russian Church and State was forced to break communion with the Byzantine Church and State, which had become heretical, and became de facto autocephalous, that is, independent. Russia had come of age; she was no longer tied to the apron-strings of Byzantium in either Church or State.


     Secondly, the Russian Great Prince had played an important role in rejecting the uniate metropolitan, thereby preserving Russia in Orthodoxy. Therefore the prestige of the State went up, while that of the Church went down. Caesar had shown himself more zealous in giving the things of God to God than the Church. Ivan the Terrible took this lesson to heart…


     Thirdly, the Russians experienced a burst of pride in their own state and nation, and began to lose their reverence for the Greeks. The influence of Byzantinism, the dominant theological and cultural influence in Russia for 500 years, began to decline. This was one of the motives of the development of the Third Rome ideology. The essential idea was that the Second Rome, Byzantium, had fallen, and Russia was left as the only independent Orthodox state and therefore the only possible successor of the Second Rome as the main defender of Orthodoxy throughout the world. Again, Ivan took this lesson to heart, as did the Old Believers in the seventeenth century. 


     As we come towards the end of the fifteenth century, and the beginning of the sixteenth, we witness the beginning of a deterioration in Church-State relations. 


     First of all, a very serious heresy, that of the Judaizers, made serious inroads into both Church and State. The rot went to the very top. Thus in 1492, the new Metropolitan of Moscow, Zossima, turned out to be a Judaizer. It was a bit like discovering that the Archbishop of Canterbury is in fact a Hindu or a Jehovah’s Witness. The shock was great. The heresy was successfully ejected, but the leaders of society were very alarmed.


     Then a serious quarrel broke out between the so-called Possessors and Non-Possessors, that is, between those who believed that the Church should own large landed estates and serfs, so as to be able to help the poor and the State, and those who believed that possessing such riches was spiritually harmful to the Church. The Possessors won the argument, but the Non-Possessors continued to be influential.


     Then there arrived in Russia from Mount Athos in Greece a remarkable monk known as St. Maxim the Greek. He had been summoned to Moscow to work in the monastic libraries where there were many Greek manuscripts. As he got to know Russia and the Slavonic language better, St. Maxim noticed many mis-translations from Greek originals into Slavonic, and with the blessing of Metropolitan Varlaam, who valued his talents, he began to correct the texts. At the same time, he began to point out to the Russians that they should return to communion with Constantinople because while the Greeks had definitely fallen away at the Council of Florence, they had repented of their error and were now Orthodox again. As if that were not provocative enough for the incipient nationalism of the Russians, Maxim also began to upbraid Great Prince Vassily for his sins in the tradition of the bold confessor-hierarchs of the Byzantine Church. When a new metropolitan, Daniel, was appointed who was less sympathetic to Maxim and more fearful of the Great Prince, Maxim was thrown into prison, where he suffered for the next twenty years until released by Ivan the Terrible…




     And so we come to the reign of Ivan the Terrible. The real question was: which part of his education would he act upon? The symphonic theory of Church-State relations, the traditional system of governance m which allowed churchmen to rebuke Great Princes and Emperors, or the pagan, absolutist theory which put all power, in both Church and State, into the hands of the secular ruler?


   For the first half of his reign it looked as if he would hold to the symphonic theory. Under the direction of an exceptionally capable and astute Church leader, Metropolitan Makary, who crowned and anointed him with the title of “tsar” in 1547, the Church recovered some of its damaged reputation and worked well with the Tsar in a series of Zemskie Sobory, or “Councils of the Land”. In the whole of this first part of his reign, Ivan showed respect for Makary and the Church, and even, at the Stoglav Council of 1551, humbly declared that the hierarchs could and should rebuke him for his sins. It looked as if the traditional symphonic theory was firmly re-established.


     However, there were some straws in the wind to indicate that there might be trouble ahead…


     First, early in 1553, Ivan fell ill, seriously ill, so that it was thought that he might die. One of his most trusted advisers, Viskovaty, then suggested that he draw up a will and get the leading boyars to sign it. The will was drawn up making Ivan’s infant son Dmitri his heir, and the boyars were now asked to pledge their allegiance to Ivan and his son before the Holy Cross. To Ivan’s astonishment and rage, a significant faction of boyars refused to make the oath. They thought it foolish to swear an oath to a baby boy, which would necessitate a long period of regency with all its attendant instability. The favoured candidate of the boyars was Prince Vladimir Staritsky. This reactivated in Ivan his childhood memories of how he had been ill-treated by the boyars during the regency of his mother, Elena Glinskaya. To make matters worse, Vladimir Staritsky was defended by Protopriest Sylvester, who had been a very influential and trusted adviser of Ivan’s,. In punishment for having spoken up in defence of Staritsky, Sylvester was banished to the northern island fortress of Solovki…


     Then Ivan suffered what must have looked like a serious insult to him from another ungrateful churchman. In 1552 he had scored a great victory over the Tartar khanate of Kazan. On his return to Moscow, he planned to go with his wife Anastasia on a pilgrimage to the Holy Trinity – Saint Sergei monastery in order to give thanks for his victory. However, the battle for Kazan had produced many casualties, and St. Maxim the Greek, recently released from prison by Ivan but undimmed in his zeal for righteousness, told Ivan that he must not go on pilgrimage now but attend to the needs of the widows and orphans of the soldiers killed. If he did not, warned Maxim, his baby son Dmitri would die. Ivan rejected the warning, and went on pilgrimage. The baby died…


     Throughout the 1550s whatever incipient leanings towards absolutism Ivan may have had were restrained by two good angels at his side. The first was his wife Anastasia, whom he loved and who was, by all accounts, a beautiful, kind and pious woman. The other was Metropolitan Makary, whom Ivan trusted, and who exalted the tsar’s power and glory without allowing his own authority to be diminished.


     The turning point came when these two good angels in the life of Ivan died. First Anastasia died on August 7, 1560. Ivan suspected her of having been poisoned by the boyars who did not like her family’s influence in the Kremlin. And then, on December 31, 1563,  Metropolitan Makary died. Grief, suspicion, even paranoia began to grip Ivan’s heart against both boyars and churchmen.




     So the terrible year of 1564 dawned.


     Ivan began to persecute the boyars, Prince Dmitri Obolensky was killed, and several others fled abroad, usually to Poland or Lithuania. One of those was Prince Andrei Kurbsky, who had been an important general of Ivan’s in the Livonian war. There then began a fascinating correspondence between Ivan and Kurbsky.


     What was this correspondence about?


     First, it must be understood that the differences between the two men had nothing to do with democracy or human rights. Such ideas had not yet penetrated into Russia from the West, and would not do so until the last years of the reign of Catherine the Great.


     Kurbsky lambasted Ivan for his cruelty to the boyars and generals. But underlying this complaint was the more fundamental complaint that the symphony between Church and State had broken down. This was partly Ivan’s fault. But Kurbsky also laid into the Church for not upholding the Church’s privileges in that symphonic relationship. Indeed, in a letter to a monk called Vassian, who was a Non-Possessor, he waxed very eloquent against the Church: “The clergy – we will not judge them, far be that from us, but bewail their wretchedness – are ashamed to bear witness to God before the tsar; rather they endorse the sin. They do not make themselves advocates of widows and orphans, the poor, the oppressed and the prisoners, but grab villages and churches and riches for themselves. Where is Elijah, who was concerned for the blood of Naboth and confronted the king? Where are the host of prophets who gave the unjust kings proof of their guilt? Who speaks now without being embarrassed by the words of Holy Scripture and gives his soul as a ransom for his brothers? I do not know one. Who will extinguish the fire that is blazing in our land? No-one. Really, our hope is still only with God…”


     Ivan, by contrast, upheld the essentially pagan, absolutist theory that the king or emperor has total power over both Church and State in his dominion. If the tsar sometimes executed innocent people, that was not the business of Kurbsky or anyone else, including the Church. He, the tsar, would have to answer for that before God. In any case, those who suffered innocently and patiently were martyrs for Christ, as St. Peter taught in his first epistle. The essential point was that the tsar held his authority from God, not men, and therefore, as St. Paul put it, he wielded his sword not in vain (Romans 13). 




     We now come to what was, in my opinion, the decisive event in the whole of Ivan’s reign. On December 3, 1564, Ivan abdicated from the throne – an absolutely unprecedented act which shocked and horrified the populace. For what would they do without a tsar? Russia had never been without a tsar or Great Prince. And now there were enemies on all sides: the Poles, the Swedes and the Lithuanians in the West, the Crimean Tatars in the South, and the resurgent Tartars of the Volga region in the East. How could they survive against these ruthless enemies without a tsar to lead them into battle? Actually, Ivan had shown himself to be a poor, even a cowardly military leader. But there was nobody to replace him, and several of the generals had already been executed or forced into exile.


     Ivan withdrew with his “Chosen Thousand” supporters to the village of Kolomenskoye. He stirred up the people still more by specifically blaming not only the boyars for their ambition, but also the Church for interceding on behalf of his enemies. In order to prevent a people’s uprising, in a scene immortalized by Eisenstein’s cinematography, “Pimen, archbishop of Novgorod, was dispatched at the head of a delegation to plead with Ivan for forgiveness, and to beg him to return to Moscow ‘to govern as he pleased, and to punish traitors at his discretion’.


     “’We are but poor and inconsolable sheep,’ Pimen told him, ‘We are now without a shepherd, and the wolves of our enemies, surround us… In the past nations have been conquered and left without rulers; but that a mighty sovereign and abandon his loyal subjects and his tsardom – such things are unheard of, and not to be read in books. Let the Tsar proclaim the names of those whom he knows to be traitors, and let him punish them as he likes.’


     The historian Benson Bobrick has very justly remarked on this petition: “This momentous concession struck at the very heart of the Orthodox Church, for it abolished what was most precious in its advisory role to the tsar: the voice of mercy.” Metropolitan Afanasy of Moscow, would have nothing to do with it and adamantly remained in Moscow…”[1] Afanasy maintained his oppositional stance, and thereby the honour of the Church, until May 19, 1566, when he resigned in protest at Ivan’s evildoing and withdrew to the Chudov monastery. His successor, Archbishop German of Kazan, also rebuked Ivan for his sins and was therefore dismissed.


     In this period, Ivan did something unprecedented in the history of Russia and, I think, of Europe. He divided up the whole of Russia into two zones. In one, the so-called Oprichnina, he ruled as an absolute monarch, a new Genghis Khan. In the other, the Zemshchina, life went on in accordance with traditional norms. However, ilife could not really go on as usual in the Zemshchina, because Ivan sent his “oprichniki”, a band of weirdly dressed thugs, all over the towns and countryside, raping and killing and pillaging at will. 


     In the capital of his Oprichnina state within a state, Ivan would force his thugs to dress in monastic gear and attend long services in church. Ivan, too, would demonstrate great zeal for prayer in church, while at the same time drawing up lists of victims and popping downstairs for a bit of bloody torture at intervals. This of course was a blasphemous mockery of Orthodoxy.


     In 1566 a genuinely holy man, Philip, abbot of the monastery of Solovki in the far north, was summoned to Moscow and made metropolitan. He pleaded with Ivan to abolish the Oprichnina. Ivan ignored him. He pleaded with Ivan to stop killing people. Ivan ignored him. Finally, the tsar got so tired of Philip’s rebukes that he got him deposed and eventually, murdered.


     After the death of St. Philip, Ivan’s despotism and cruelty went into overdrive. In 1570 he marched to Novgorod, Russia’s second city, and in the course of a few weeks killed and tortured thousands of people of all classes, ages, sex and rank. Among the victims was Archbishop Poemen, who had abandoned the Church’s right of intercession some years before. So perhaps there was some Divine or poetic justice in the fact that nobody interceded for him now. 


     In fact, the only people of any class left who still resisted Ivan were the so-called “fools for Christ”, poor men of no fixed abode who went about the cities and towns behaving in strange ways, sometimes completely naked even in winter, but often with the gift of prophecy and miracles. Two fools for Christ confronted Ivan during his reign. One was Basil the Blessed of Moscow, after whom St. Basil’s cathedral on Red Square is named. And the other was St. Nikola of Pskov, who so frightened Ivan that he abandoned Pskov before he could make it into the kind of desert filled with corpses that Novgorod had already become.


     The Church remained supine and servile for the rest of Ivan’s reign. Perhaps the most egregious example was its cooperation in the enthronement of a Tatar prince, Sain-Bulat, who had been baptized Simeon Bekhulatovich in 1573 and had served successfully as a general in Ivan’s armies. In 1575 Ivan abdicated (for the second time) and ordered Simeon to be anointed by the metropolitan. Since the real tsar was still alive and very much in control, for the metropolitan to take part in such a pantomime was sacrilegious, to say the least.


     And here, I believe, we find the key to the understanding of Ivan’s behaviour. He knew, as a well-trained Orthodox, that the only limit on the tsar’s power in an Orthodox state is not constitutional checks and balances, but the Church, and in particular the leader of the Church, the patriarch or metropolitan. In a truly religious people the voice of the patriarch is as the voice of God, and can be just as powerful a check and balance on the king’s power as any laws or parliamentary institutions. We see this in the early Soviet period, when the only really independent voice in Russia was that of Patriarch Tikhon, whom the believing people venerated and obeyed until the was murdered in 1925, after which the way was open for Stalin to destroy the Church’s leadership. So in his pathological drive for supreme and absolute power, Ivan had to destroy the Church’s power. 


     Now that drive could manifest itself in killing members of the Church en masse. But, as history proves – and Ivan knew his Church history well – the Church actually increases in strength when its members are tortured and martyred for the faith. Indeed, as the old saying from the early Church went: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. What weakens the Church is when it is shown to violate its own principles and trample on its own holiness. That is why Ivan the Terrible – and after him Peter the Great – sought to mock the Church and force it to defile itself. The lily-livered metropolitans who flattered and obeyed him, and even created a pseudo-tsar for his pleasure, served that purpose well. For Ivan would attain supreme power, not when he tortured and subdued the bodies of his subjects, but when he poisoned their minds against their great hope and the other pillar of the symphony of powers – the Orthodox Church…


     So by the end of Ivan’s reign, Russia was devastated not only economically and demographically and militarily, but also spiritually. The path to recovery was long and difficult. But eventually, in 1612, the enemies of Russia, the Swedes and the Poles, were driven out, and in February, 1613, the first member of a new ruling dynasty, that of the Romanovs, was enthroned.


     But let us note one vitally important fact about the establishment of the Romanov dynasty. It was not the State that took the initiative in driving the Poles and the Swedes out of Russia, but the Church – in the person of Patriarch Hermogen. And it was not the State, or even the Tsar, Mikhail Romanov, who was the most powerful person in early seventeenth-century Russia, but the Tsar’s father, Patriarch Philaret. 


Talk given on May 12/25, 2021 at the Turf Club, London before the Romanov Foundation.














[1] Bobrick, Ivan the Terrible, p. 196.

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