Written by Vladimir Moss



     In the Moscow Patriarchate today there is a movement to canonize Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Many are puzzled and alarmed by this complete reversal of the generally accepted picture of the famous tsar. Let us look at some of the relevant facts.

Early Years

     The circumstances of Ivan’s birth were not auspicious. His father, Great Prince Basil III, put away his lawful wife Solomonia because of her barrenness, and with the blessing of Metropolitan Daniel of Moscow (whose predecessor, Barlaam, had been unlawfully removed from his see) married Helen Glinskaya. (Solomonia was forcibly tonsured in Suzdal and was later canonised under her monastic name of Sophia.) The famous monk St. Maximus the Greek immediately rebuked the Great Prince. He wrote him an extensive work: Instructive chapters for Right-Believing Rulers, which began: “O most devout Tsar, he is honoured as a true ruler who seeks to establish the life of his subjects in righteousness and justice, and endeavours always to overcome the lusts and dumb passions of his soul. For he who is overcome by them is not the living image of the Heavenly Master, but only an anthropomorphic likeness of dumb nature.”

     Also, Patriarch Mark of Jerusalem, wrote prophetically to the Great Prince: “If you do this wicked thing, you will have an evil son. Your estate will become prey to terrors and tears. Rivers of blood will flow; the heads of the mighty will fall; your cities will be devoured by flames.” The prophecy was fulfilled with exactitude in the reign of his son, Ivan IV, better known as “the Terrible”…

     Ivan’s childhood was very troubled. As Nicholas Riasanovsky writes, he “was only three years old in 1533 when his father, Basil III, died, leaving the government of Russia to his wife… and the boyar duma. The new regent acted in a haughty and arbitrary manner, disregarding the boyars and relying first on her uncle, the experienced Prince Michael Glinsky, and after his death on her lover, the youthful Prince Telepnev-Obolensky. In 1538 she died suddenly, possibly of poison. Boyar rule – if this phrase can be used to characterize the strife and misrule which ensued – followed her demise…

    “All evidence suggests that Ivan IV was a sensitive, intelligent, and precocious boy. He learned to read early and read everything that he could find, especially Muscovite Church literature. He became of necessity painfully aware of the struggle and intrigues around him and also of the ambivalence of his own position. The same boyars who formally paid obeisance to him as autocrat and treated him with utmost respect on ceremonial occasions, neglected, insulted, and injured him in private life. In fact, they deprived him at will of his favourite servants and companions and ran the palace, as well as Russia, as they pleased. Bitterness and cruelty, expressed, for instance, in his torture of animals, became fundamental traits of the young ruler’s character.”

     In the opinion of some, Ivan’s later cruelties can be explained, at least in part, by mental illness induced by the extreme insecurity of his upbringing…

The Orthodox Tsar

     On January 16, 1547 Ivan was anointed and crowned with the Cap of Vladimir Monomakh by Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow. 

     In view of the fearsome reputation Ivan has acquired, not without reason, it is worth reminding ourselves of the great achievements of the first half of his reign. He vastly increased the territory of the Muscovite kingdom, neutralizing the Tatar threat and bringing Kazan and the whole of the Volga under Orthodox control; he began the exploration and conquest of Siberia; he strengthened the army and local administration; he introduced the Zemskie Sobory, “Councils of the Land”, in which he sought the advice of different classes of the people; he subdued the boyars who had nearly destroyed the monarchy in his childhood; he rejected Jesuit attempts to bring Russia into communion with Rome; he convened Church Councils that condemned heresies (e.g. the Arianism of Bashkin) and removed many abuses in ecclesiastical and monastic life. Even the Tsar’s fiercest critic, Prince Andrew Kurbsky, had to admit that he had formerly been “radiant in Orthodoxy”.

     As Riasanovsky writes, in 1551 Ivan “presented to the [Stoglav, “Hundred Chapters”] Church council his new legal code, the Sudebnik of 1550, and the local government reform, and received its approval. Both measures became law. The institution of a novel scheme of local government deserves special attention as one of the more daring attempts in Russian history to resolve this perennially difficult problem. The new system aimed at the elimination of corruption and oppression on the part of centrally appointed officials by means of popular participation in local affairs. Various localities had already received permission to elect their own judicial authorities to deal, drastically if need be, with crime. Now, in areas whose population guaranteed a certain amount of dues to the treasury, other locally elected officials replaced the centrally appointed governors. And even where the governors remained, the people could elect assessors to check closely on their activities and, indeed, impeach them when necessary…”

     The only major mistake of this part of his reign was the decision of the Stoglav Council of 1551 that, in all cases where Russian Church ritual differed from Greek, the Russian version was correct. “This unilateral decision shocked many of the Orthodox. The monks of Athos protested and the Russian monks there regarded the decisions of the synod as invalid.” 

     In retrospect, we can see that the nationalist attitude of the Stoglav council laid the foundations of the Old Ritualist schism in the next century…

     Nevertheless, Ivan’s respect for the Church prevented him from becoming, in the first half of his reign, an absolutist ruler in the sense that he admitted no power higher than his own. This is illustrated by his behaviour in the Stoglav Council, which was conducted by the Tsar putting forward questions to which the hierarchy replied. The hierarchy was quite happy to support the tsar in extirpating certain abuses within the Church, but when the tsar raised the question of the sequestration of Church lands for the sake of the strengthening of the State, the hierarchs showed their independence and refused. The tsar sufficiently respected the independence of the hierarchy to yield to its will on this matter, and in general the sixteenth-century Councils were true images of sobornost’.

    As Metropolitan Macarius (Bulgakov) writes: “At most of the Councils there were present, besides the hierarchs, the superiors of the monasteries – archimandrites, igumens, builders, also protopriests, priests, monks and the lower clergy generally. Often his Majesty himself was present, sometimes with his children, brothers and all the boyars… It goes without saying that the right to vote at the Councils belonged first of all to the metropolitan and the other hierarchs… But it was offered to other clergy present at the Councils to express their opinions. Their voice could even have a dominant significance at the Council, as, for example, the voice of St. Joseph of Volokolamsk at the Councils of 1503-1504… The conciliar decisions and decrees were signed only by the hierarchs, others – by lower clergy: archimandrites and igumens. And they were confirmed by the agreement of his Majesty…”

     The tsar’s Zemskie Sobory, or “Land Councils” all took place in the decade 1547-1556. This was also the decade of his great victories over the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan, when the State began to spread from Europe into Asia, and change from a racially fairly homogeneous state into a multi-national empire, “the Third Rome”. The famous cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed – originally dedicated to the Protecting Veil of the Virgin – was built to celebrate the conquest of Kazan.

Ivan’s Political Ideology

     In Russia, unlike most West European countries, the Great Prince or Tsar was not seen as simply the most powerful member of the noble class, but as standing above all the classes, including the nobility. Therefore the lower classes as often as not looked to the Great Prince or Tsar to protect them from the nobility, and often intervened to raise him to power or protect him from attempted coups by the nobility. There are many examples of this in Russian history, from Andrew of Bogolyubovo to the Time of Troubles to the Decembrist conspiracy in 1825. Thus Pokrovsky wrote of the failed Decembrist conspiracy: “The autocracy was saved by the Russian peasant in a guard’s uniform.” And in fact the tsars, when allowed to rule with truly autocratic authority, were much better for the peasants than the nobles, passing laws that surpassed contemporary European practice in their humaneness. Thus Solonevich points out that in Ivan’s Sudebnik, “the administration did not have the right to arrest a man without presenting him to the representatives of the local self-government…, otherwise the latter on the demand of the relatives could free the arrested man and exact from the representative of the administration a corresponding fine ‘for dishonour’. But guarantees of security for person and possessions were not restricted to the habeas corpus act. Klyuchevsky writes about ‘the old right of the ruled to complain to the highest authority against the lawless acts of the subject rulers’.”

    Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that sixteenth-century Russia was in many ways a less free State than in the 11th or 14th centuries. The reason lay in the task imposed by Divine Providence on Russia of defending the last independent outpost of Orthodoxy in the world, which required, in view of the threat posed by Counter-Reformation Catholicism, an ever-increasing centralization and militarization of society, and therefore great sacrifices from all classes of the population.

     This included the boyars, of course. Would they rebel against the tsar? Probably some wanted to. But the boyar class a whole did not want to abolish the autocracy. For, as Archpriest Lev Lebedev writes, “Russia without the Tsar was inconceivable to it; the Tsar was even necessary to it (otherwise the princes would simple have fought against each other, as in the time of the appanage wars). The boyar opposition attained a relative independence, as it were autonomy, and, of course, it was not against ruling the Tsars, but this could never be fully realized because of the inevitable and constant quarrels within the princely boyar or court opposition itself, which consisted of various groupings around the most powerful families, which were doomed to an absence of unity because of the love of power and avarice of each of them. One can say that the princely-courtly opposition from time immemorial tried to weaken (and did weaken, did shake!) the Autocracy, while at the same time unfailingly wanting to preserve it! A shaky and inconsistent position…”

     The freest class was the clergy. As we have seen, Ivan respected the Church, and did not in general try to impose his will on her. And yet he liked to emphasize that the Church had no business interfering in affairs of State, constantly bringing the argument round to the quasi-absolute power of the tsar – and the insubordination of the boyars: “Remember, when God delivered the Jews from slavery, did he place above them a priest or many rulers? No, he placed above them a single tsar – Moses, while the affairs of the priesthood he ordered should be conducted, not by him, but by his brother Aaron, forbidding Aaron to be occupied with worldly matters. But when Aaron occupied himself with worldly affairs, he drew the people away from God. Do you see that it is not fitting for priests to do the work of tsars! Also, when Dathan and Abiron wanted to seize power, remember how they were punished for this by their destruction, to which destruction they led many sons of Israel? You, boyars, are worthy of the same!”

     The lower classes – that is, the peasants, shopkeepers and artisans, who paid taxes and services to the tsar and his servitors - were increasingly chained to the land that they worked. For in the century 1550-1650, the tsars gradually enserfed them in order to prevent them from simply disappearing into the woods or fleeing to the steppes in the south. They were not technically slaves (slaves at any rate have the privilege of not paying taxes); but a combination of political and economic factors (e.g. peasant indebtedness to landlords, landlords’ liability for collecting peasants’ taxes, the enormous demand for manpower as the state’s territory expanded) bonded them to the land; and the hereditary nature of social status in Muscovite Russia meant that they had little hope of rising up the social ladder.

     However, it was the boyars who lost most from the increasing power of the tsar. In medieval Russia, they had been theoretically free to join other princes; but by the 1550s there were no independent Russian princes – Orthodox ones, at any rate – outside Moscow. Moreover, they now held their lands, or votchiny, on condition they served the Great Prince, otherwise they became theoretically forfeit. Now the boyars traditionally served in the army or the administration. But the administration, being historically simply an extension of the prince’s private domain, was completely controlled by him. Moreover, his patrimony was greatly increased by his conquest of Novgorod in 1478, his appropriation of all the land of the local aristocratic and merchant elites, and, especially, by his conquest of the vast lands of the former Kazan and Astrakhan khanates in the 1550s and 1560s. This weakened the power of the boyars.

     However, the boyars with their clannish rivalries and habits of freedom were still a potential problem. For Ivan, their independent power was incompatible with his conception of the Russian autocracy. As he wrote to the rebellious boyar, Prince Kurbsky in 1564: “What can one say of the godless peoples? There, you know, the kings do not have control of their kingdoms, but rule as is indicated to them by their subjects. But from the beginning it is the Russian autocrats who have controlled their own state, and not their boyars and grandees!”

     Ivan was not in the least swayed by the ideology of democracy, being, as he wrote, “humble Ioann, Tsar and Great Prince of All Russia, by God’s will, and not by the multi-mutinous will of man…” On another occasion he wrote to King Sigismund Augustus of Poland, whose power was severely limited by his nobles, that the autocratic power of the Russian tsars was “not like your pitiful kingdom. For nobody gives orders to the great Sovereigns, while your Pans [nobles] tell you what they want”.

     Kurbsky defended the boyars on the grounds of their personal valour; they were “the best of the mighty ones of Israel”. In reply, Ivan pointed out that personal qualities do not help if there are no correct “structures”: “As a tree cannot flower if its roots dry up, so here: if there are no good structures in the kingdom, courage will not be revealed in war. But you, without paying attention to structures, are glorified only with courage.” 

     The idea that there can be more than one power in the land is Manichaeism, according to Ivan; for the Manichaeans taught that “Christ possesses only the heavens, while the earth is ruled independently by men, and the nether regions by the devil. But I believe that Christ possesses all: the heavens, the earth and the nether regions, and everything in the heavens, on the earth and in the nether regions subsists by His will, the counsel of the Father and the consent of the Holy Spirit.” And since the tsar is anointed of God, he rules in God’s place, and canconcede no part of what is in fact God’s power to anyone else.

     Although Ivan’s criticism of democracy is penetrating, his own rule was closer to the despotism of the Tatar khans (whose yoke had been thrown off not that long ago) than to the symphony of powers between Church and State that was the Byzantine and Orthodox ideal. This distortion in thinking soon led to deviancy in action…

The Bloodthirsty Tyrant

     Things began to go wrong from 1558, when Ivan began a campaign against the Livonian Knights that was to prove expensive and unsuccessful. Then, in 1560, his beloved first wife, Anastasia, died – killed, as he suspected and modern scientific research has confirmed - by the boyars. Now Ivan turned vengefully against the boyars… First, he designated the boyars’ lands as oprichnina, that is, his personal realm, and founded the oprichniki, a kind of secret police body sworn to obey him alone. They entered the boyars’ lands, killing, raping and pillaging at will and terrorizing and torturing thousands of people, and were rewarded with the expropriated lands of the men they had murdered. 

     The climax of the slaughter came with the unparalleled pogrom of the citizens of Novgorod in 1570. In recent years, supporters of the canonization of Ivan in Russia have tended to minimize the significance of this slaughter, and to justify it as a necessary measure to preserve the state against sedition. However, the foremost expert on the reign of Ivan, R.G. Skrynnikov, has cited data that decisively refutes this argument. His edition of the Synodicon of Those Disgraced by Ivan the Terrible reveals a list of thousands of names of those executed by Ivan, mainly in the period 1567-1570, that the tsar sent to the monasteries for commemoration. “All the lists of the period 1567- 1570 are inextricably linked with each other, since the court ‘cases’ of this period were parts of a single political process, the ‘case’ of the betrayal of the Staritskys, which lasted for several years, from 1567 to 1570. The ‘case’ was begun in the autumn of 1567 after the return of the Tsar from the Latvian expedition. In the course of it the boyars Fyodorov (1568) and Staritsky (1569) were executed, Novgorod was devastated (1570) and the leaders of the land offices in Moscow were killed (1570). ‘The Staritsky Case’ was the most important political trial in the reign of the Terrible one. The materials of this trial were preserved in the tsarist archives until the time of the composition of the Synodicon in relatively good order. On the basis of these materials the main part of the tsarist Synodicon was composed. This part comprises nine tenths of the whole volume of the Synodicon. In it are written about 3200 people disgraced by the tsar out of a combined total of about 3300 people…

     “Among the victims of the Novgorod devastation, about one fifth (455 people) were called by their names in the tsarist Synodicon. In the main these were representatives of the higher classes: landowners and officials (250-260 people) and the members of their families (140 people). The people indicated in the Synodicon without names (1725) were mainly from the lower classes.”

     These figures indicate that Ivan’s terror was by no means exclusively directed against the boyars. Moreover, the fact that such large numbers could not have been given a fair trial in the period indicated, and the extraordinary cruelty of the methods employed, show that this was not justified repression against a rebellion, but the manifestation of demonic psychopathology. By the end of his reign the boyars’ economic power had been in part destroyed, and a new class, the dvoriane, had taken their place. This term originally denoted domestic servitors, both freemen and slaves, who were employed by the appanage princes to administer their estates. Ivan now gave them titles previously reserved for the boyars, and lands in various parts of the country. However, these lands were pomestia, not votchiny – that is, they were not hereditary possessions and remained the legal property of the tsar, and could be taken back by him if he was dissatisfied with the servitors.

     Ivan justified his cruelties against the boyars on scriptural grounds: “See and understand: he who resists the power resists God; and he who resists God is called an apostate, and that is the worst sin. You know, this is said of every power, even of a power acquired by blood and war. But remember what was said above, that we have not seized the throne from anyone. He who resists such a power resists God even more!”

     The tsar’s power, he said, does not come from the people, but from God, by succession from the first Russian autocrat, St. Vladimir. So he is answerable, not to the people, but to God. And the people, being “not godless”, recognizes this. 

     Kurbsky, however, said Ivan, by his rebellion against the tsar has rebelled against God and so “destroyed his soul”. But many simple people, submitting humbly to the tsar’s unjust decrees, and to the apostolic command: “Servants be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the forward” (I Peter 2.18), received the crown of life in an innocent death. There was no organized mass movement against his power in the Russian land. Even when he expressed a desire to resign his power, the people completely sincerely begged him to return. 

     Although the tsar failed to justify his excessive cruelty, he was not completely wrong in his estimate of the people’s attitudes. For, in their understanding, Tsar Ivan may have been an evil man, but he was still a true authority. The fact that they revered and obeyed him as the anointed of God did not mean that they were not aware that many of his deeds were evil and inspired by the devil. But by obeying him in his capacity as the anointed of God, they believed that they were doing God’s will, while by patiently enduring his demonic assaults on them they believed that they received the forgiveness of their sins and thereby escaped the torments of hell, so far exceeding the worst torments that any earthly ruler could subject them to. As Heidenstein said: “They consider all those who depart from them in matters of the faith to be barbarians... In accordance with the resolutions of their religion, they consider faithfulness to the sovereign to be as obligatory as faithfulness to God. They exalt with praises those who have fulfilled their vow to their prince to their last breath, and say that their souls, on parting from their bodies, immediately go to heaven.”

     For according to Orthodox teaching, even if a ruler is unjust or cruel, he must be obeyed as long as he provides that freedom from anarchy, that minimum of law and order, that is the definition of God-established political authority (Romans 13.1-6). Thus St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes: “Some rulers are given by God with a view to the improvement and benefit of their subjects and the preservation of justice; others are given with a view to producing fear, punishment and reproof; yet others are given with a view to displaying mockery, insult and pride – in each case in accordance with the deserts of the subjects.” Again, St. Isidore of Pelusium writes that the evil ruler “has been allowed to spew out this evil, like Pharaoh, and, in such an instance, to carry out extreme punishment or to chastize those for whom great cruelty is required, as when the king of Babylon chastized the Jews.”

     But there is line beyond which an evil ruler ceases to be a ruler and becomes an anti-ruler, and not to be obeyed. Thus the Jews were commanded by God through the Prophet Jeremiah to submit to the king of Babylon, evil though he was; whereas they were commanded through another prophet, Moses, to resist and flee from Pharaoh. For in the one case the authority, though evil, was still an authority, which it was beneficial to obey; whereas in the other case the authority was in fact an anti-authority, obedience to which would have taken the people further away from God.

     The Orthodox tradition of obedience to legitimate authorities goes together with the tradition of protest against unrighteousness. And in this respect there was truth in Prince Kurbsky’s lament over the state of Russia in Ivan’s reign: “The authority which comes from God devises unprecedented pains of death for the virtuous. 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…”

St. Philip of Moscow

     St. Philip was the one man who, together with the fools-for-Christ Basil the Blessed and Nicholas Salos, did oppose the unrighteousness of the tsar. His ideas about the nature of tsarist power did not differ substantially from those of his predecessors, and especially St. Joseph of Volotsk. The tsar was complete master in his kingdom, and deserved the obedience of all, including churchmen, as long as he confessed the Orthodox faith. But he was bound by the ecclesiastical canons when acting in the ecclesiastical sphere.

     However, it was not clear, according to this Josephite theory, to what extent the tsar was also bound in the personal, moral sphere and could rightly be rebuked by the metropolitan for personal sins. St. Philip was notable for his combination, as it were, of the theories of St. Joseph with the practice of Saints Nilus and Maximus, recognizing the supremacy of the tsar while rebuking him for his personal sins. For this boldness he was killed…

     As a young man he was deeply struck on hearing the words of the Saviour: “No man can serve two masters”, and resolved to become a monk. Later, as metropolitan, at the height of the terror, he would put those words into practice, saying to the Tsar: “Sovereign, I cannot obey your command more than that of God.” 

     And again he said: “Ruling tsar, you have been vested by God with the highest rank, and for that reasons you should honour God above all. But the scepter of earthly power was given to so that you should foster justice among men and rule over them lawfully. By nature you are like every man, as by power you are like God. It is fitting for you, as a mortal, not to become arrogant, and as the image of God, not to become angry, for only he can justly be called a ruler who has control over himself and does not work for his shameful passions, but conquers them with the aid of his mind. Was it ever heard that the pious emperors disturbed their own dominion? Not only among your ancestors, but also among those of other races, nothing of the sort has ever been heard.”

     When the tsar angrily asked what business he had interfering in royal affairs, Philip replied: “By the grace of God, the election of the Holy Synod and your will, I am a pastor of the Church of Christ. You and I must care for the piety and peace of the Orthodox Christian kingdom.” 

     And when the tsar ordered him to keep silence, Philip replied: “Silence is not fitting now; it would increase sin and destruction. If we carry out the will of men, what answer will we have on the day of Christ’s Coming? The Lord said: ‘Love one another. Greater love hath no man than that a man should lay down his life for his friends. If you abide in My love, you will be My disciples indeed.’” 

     And again he said: “Throughout the world, transgressors who ask for clemency find it with the authorities, but in Russia there is not even clemency for the innocent and the righteous… Fear the judgement of God, your Majesty. How many innocent people are suffering! We, sovereign, offer to God the bloodless Sacrifice, while behind the altar the innocent blood of Christians is flowing! Robberies and murders are being carried out in the name of the Tsar…. What is our faith for? I do not sorrow for those who, in shedding their innocent blood, have been counted worthy of the lot of the saints; I suffer for your wretched soul: although you are honoured as the image of God, nevertheless, you are a man made of dust, and the Lord will require everything at your hands”.

     However, even if the tsar had agreed that his victims were martyrs, he would not have considered this a reason for not obeying him. As he wrote to Kurbsky: “If you are just and pious, why do you not permit yourself to accept suffering from me, your stubborn master, and so inherit the crown of life?…”

     Betrayed by his fellow-hierarchs at the false council of 1568, Philip was about to resign the metropolitanate, and said to the tsar: “It is better to die as an innocent martyr than to tolerate horrors and lawlessnesses silently in the rank of metropolitan. I leave you my metropolitan’s staff and mantia. But you all, hierarchs and servers of the altar, feed the flock of Christ faithfully; prepare to give your reply and fear the Heavenly King more than the earthly…”

     The tsar refused to accept his resignation, and cast him into prison. After having escaped the appetite of a hungry bear that had been sent to devour him, on December 23, 1569 the holy metropolitan was suffocated to death by the tsar’s servant after his refusal to bless his expedition against Novgorod. Metropolitan Philip saved the honour of the Russian episcopate in Ivan’s reign as Metropolitan Arsenius of Rostov was to save it in the reign of Catherine the Great…

Bishop Dionysius’ Thesis

     If Tsar Ivan had died in 1560, before the period of his terrible cruelties, he may well have gone down in history as one of the greatest of the Orthodox kings. His tragedy was that he lived so long…

     Bishop Dionysius (Alferov) has written: “The reign of Ivan the Terrible is divided by historians, following his contemporaries, into two periods. The first period (1547-1560) is evaluated positively by everyone. After his coronation and acceptance of the title of Tsar, and after his repentance for his aimless youth by subjecting his life to the rules of Orthodoxy piety, Ioann IV appears as an exemplary Christian Sovereign.

     “He convened the first Zemskie Sobory in the 1550s, kept counsel with the best men of the Russian Land, united the nation’s forces, improved the interior administration, economy, justice system and army. Together with Metropolitan Macarius he also presided at Church Councils, which introduced order into Church life. Under the influence of his spiritual father, Protopriest Sylvester, he repented deeply for the sins of his youth, and lived in the fear of God and in the Church, building a pious family together with his wife Anastasia Romanova. The enlivening of piety and the consolidation of the people also brought external successes to the Russian state in this period. By the good will of God the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan were crushed, and the Crimean khanate was pacified for the time being. The whole of the Volga region from Kazan to the Caspian and a part of the Northern Caucasus went to Moscow. Under the blows of the Russian armies the Livonian Order in the Baltic was crushed. A positive estimate of this period does not elicit disagreement among historians.

     “The second period begins after the expulsion of his spiritual father, Protopriest Sylvester and close friends of the Tsar, who were united into the ‘Chosen Assembly’ (the Adashevs, Prince Kurbsky and others). This period finally becomes well established by 1564, with the proclamation of the oprichnina. After the oprichnina’s great terror (1564-1572), the system of government created in this period, albeit in a ‘weakly flowing regime’, continued right to the death of the Terrible one in March, 1584. The negative consequences of this period completely blot out the attainments of the first period. All historians also agree on this. Let us note the main results of this period:

     “1. The liquidation of elementary justice and legality, mass repressions without trial or investigation of the suspects, and also of their relatives and house servants, of whole cities. The encouragement of denunciations created a whole system of mass terror and intimidation of people.

     “2. The destruction of national unity through an artificial division of the country into two parts (the zemschina and the oprichnina, then the system of ‘the Sovereign’s Court’) and the stirring up of enmity between them.

     “3. The destruction of the popular economy by means of the oprichnina’s depradations and the instilling of terror, the mass flight of people from Russia to Lithuania and to the borderlands. A great devastation of the central provinces of Russia, a sharp decline in the population (according to Skrynnikov’s data, from 8 to 5 million).

     “4. Massive repressions against the servants of the Church who spoke out against the oprichnina or those suspected of it, beginning with the killing of Metropolitan Philip and individual bishops (of Novgorod and Tver), and continuing with the executions of prominent church-servers (St. Cornelius of Pechersk), and ending with the massive slaughter of the clergy in certain cities (Novgorod, Tver, Torzhok, Volochek) and the expoliation of the churches.

     “5. As a consequence of the internal ravaging of the state – external defeats, both military and diplomatic: the complete loss of the conquests in Lithuania and the outlet to the Baltic sea, the loss of possessions in the Caucasus, international isolation, incapacity to defend even Moscow from the incursions of the Crimean Tatars.

     “All historians agree that the Terrible one left Russia after his death in an extremely sorry state: an economically ruined and devastated country, with its population reduced by one-and-a-half times, frightened and demoralized. But this does not exhaust the woes caused to Russia by the Terrible one. Perhaps the most tragic consequences of his reign consisted in the fact that he to a great extent prepared the ground for the Time of Troubles, which exploded 17 years after his death and placed the Russian state on the edge of complete annihilation. This was expressed concretely in the following.

     “1. A dynastic crisis – the destruction by the Terrible one of his closest relatives, the representatives of the Moscow house of the Riuriks. First of all this concerned the assassination of his cousin, Prince Vladimir Andreevich Staritsky with his mother, wife and children, and also with almost all his servants and many people close to him (in 1569). This was not execution following an investigation and trial, but precisely the repression of innocent people (some were poisoned, others were suffocated with smoke), carried out only out of suspicion and arbitrariness. Then it is necessary to note the killing of his son Ivan, the heir to the throne….

     “Thus Ivan the Terrible undoubtedly hewed down the dynasty with his own hands, destroying his son, grandson and cousin with all his house, and thereby prepared a dynastic crisis, which made itself sharply felt during the Time of Troubles.

    “2. The oprichnina and the consequent politics of ‘the Sovereign’s Court’ greatly reduced the aristocracy and service class. Under the axe of repressions there fell the best people morally speaking, those who were honourable, principled and independent in their judgements and behaviour, who were distinguished by their abilities, and for that reason were seen as potentially dangerous. In their place intriguers, careerists and informants were promoted, unprincipled and dishonourable time-servers. It was the Terrible one who nourished such people in his nearest entourage, people like Boris Godunov, Basil Shuisky, Bogdan Belsky, Ivan Mstislavsky and other leaders in the Time of Troubles, who were sufficiently clever to indulge in behind-the-scenes intrigues and ‘under the carpet struggle’, but who absolutely did not want to serve God and the fatherland, and for that reason were incapable of uniting the national forces and earning the trust of the people.

     “The moral rottenness of the boyars, their class and personal desires and their unscrupulousness are counted by historians as among the main causes of the Troubles. But the Moscow boyars had not always been like that. On the contrary, the Moscow boyars nourished by Kalita worked together with him to gather the Russian lands, perished in the ranks of the army of Demetrius Donskoj on Kulikovo polje, saved Basil the Dark in the troubles caused by Shemyaka, went on the expeditions of Ivan III and Basil III. It was the Terrible one who carried out a general purge in the ranks of the aristocracy, and the results of this purge could not fail to be felt in the Troubles.

     “3. The Terrible one’s repressions against honourable servers of the Church, especially against Metropolitan Philip, weakened the Russian Church, drowned in its representatives the voice of truth and a moral evaluation of what was happening. After the holy hierarch Philip, none of the Moscow metropolitans dared to intercede for the persecuted. ‘Sucking up’ to unrighteousness on the part of the hierarchs of course lowered their authority in the eyes of the people, which gave the pretenders the opportunity to introduce their undermining propaganda more successfully in the people.

     “We should note here that the defenders of the Terrible one deny his involvement in the killing of Metropolitan Philip in a rather naïve way: no written order, they say, has been discovered. Of course, the first hierarch of the Russian Church, who was beloved by the people for his righteous life, was not the kind of person whom even the Terrible tsar would dare to execute just like that on the square. But many of the Terrible one’s victims were destroyed by him by means of secret assassinations (as, for example, the family of the same Vladimir Andreyevich). It is reliably known that the holy hierarch Philip reproved the Terrible one for his cruelties not only in private, but also, finally, in public, and that the latter began to look for false witnesses against him. By means of bribes, threats and deceit he succeeded in involving Abbot Paisius of Solovki (a disciple of St. Philip) and some of the hierarchs in this. Materials have been preserved relating to this ‘Council of 1568, the most shameful in the history of the Russian Church’ (in the expression of Professor Kartashev), which condemned its own chief hierarch. The majority of the bishops did not decide to support the slanderers, but they also feared to defend the holy hierarch – and simply kept silent. During the Liturgy the oprichniki on the tsar’s orders seized the holy confessor, tore off his vestments, beat him up and took him away to prison. At the same time almost all the numerous relatives of St. Philip, the Kolychev boyars, were killed. They cast the amputated head of the hierarch’s favourite nephew into his cell. A year later, the legendary Maliuta came to the imprisoned Philip in the Otroch monastery, and the holy hierarch just died suddenly in his arms – the contemporary lovers of the oprichnina force us to believe in this fairy-tale!

     “Detailed material on this subject was collected in the book of Professor Fedotov, The Holy Hierarch Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow. Those descendants who lived nearest to those times also well remembered who was the main perpetrator of the death of St. Philip. For that reason Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich transferred the relics of the hieromartyr to Moscow, and wrote a penitent letter to him as if he were alive, asking forgiveness for the sin of his predecessor Ivan the Terrible (in imitation of the Emperor Theodosius the Younger, who repented for the sin of his mother, the Empress Eudoxia, against St. John Chrysostom). Therefore the apologists of the Terrible one, in denying his guilt against St. Philip, simply reject the tradition of the whole Russian Church as established in documents.

    “Besides St. Philip, on the orders of the Terrible during the devastation of Novgorod, one of those who envied and slandered St. Philip, Archbishop Pimen was killed. And if contemporary ‘oprichniki’ consider it to the credit of the Terrible one that he dealt with the false witnesses in the affair of the holy hierarch, then let them remember that a timely ‘clean-up’ of witnesses and agents who have done their work is a common phenomenon in the course of large-scale repressions. Only it is not a work of God. The unknown author of The Tale of the Devastation of Novgorod tells us that on the orders of the Terrible one up to three hundred abbots, hieromonks, priests and deacons in Novgorod itself and its environs, monasteries and villages were killed. Several tens of Church servers were killed in each of the cities of Tver, Torzhok, Volokolamsk and other places. One can argue about the accuracy of the numbers of victims cited, but one cannot doubt that the clergy slaughtered during the reign of the Terrible one numbered at least in the tens, but more likely in the hundreds. There is every reason to speak about a persecution of the clergy and the Church on the part of the Terrible one. The holy hierarch Philip and St. Cornelius of Pskov-Pechersk are only the leaders of a whole host of hieromartyrs, passion-bearers and confessors of that time. It is those whose glorification it is worth thinking about!

     “4. Finally, the Terrible one’s epoch shook the moral supports of the simple people, and undermined its healthy consciousness of right. Open theft and reprisals without trial or investigation, carried out in the name of the Sovereign on any one who was suspect, gave a very bad example, unleashing the base passions of envy, revenge and baseness. Participation in denunciations and cooperation in false witnesses involved very many in the sins of the oprichnina. Constant refined tortures and public executions taught people cruelty and inured them to compassion and mercy. Everyday animal fear for one’s life, a striving to survive at any cost, albeit at the cost of righteousness and conscience, at the cost of the good of one’s neighbours, turned those who survived into pitiful slaves, ready for any baseness. The enmity stirred up between the zemschina and the oprichnina, between ‘the Sovereign’s people’ and ‘the rebels’, undermined the feeling of popular unity among Russian people, sowing resentment and mistrust. The incitement of hatred for the boyars, who were identified with traitors, kindled class war. Let us add to this that the reign of the Terrible one, having laid waste to the country, tore many people away from their roots, deprived them of their house and land and turned them into thieves, into what Marxist language would call ‘declassified elements’. Robbed and embittered against the whole world, they were corrupted into robber bands and filled up the Cossack gangs on the border-lands of Russia. These were ready-made reserves for the armies of any pretenders and rebels.

     “And so, if we compare all this with the Leninist teaching on the preparation of revolution, we see a striking resemblance. The Terrible one truly did everything in order that ‘the uppers could not, and lowers would not’ live in a human way. The ground for civil war and the great Trouble had thus been fully prepared…”


     It has been argued that the victims of Ivan’s rule prefigure the Christian victims of Lenin and Stalin, while the oprichnina looks forward to Stalin’s Russia, the NKVD-KGB, dekulakization and the great terror of the 1930s. Indeed, it is tempting to see in Stalin’s terror simply the application of Ivan the Terrible’s methods on a grander scale, which theory is supported by the fact that Stalin called Ivan “my teacher”, and instructed Eisenstein, in his film, Ivan the Terrible, to emphasize the moral that cruelty is sometimes necessary to protect the State from its internal enemies. There is no question about it: Ivan was no saint, but was rather a persecutor of the saints…

     Michael Cherniavksy has pointed to the tension, and ultimate incompatibility, between two images of the kingship in the reign of Ivan the Terrible: that of the basileus and that of the khan – that is, of the Orthodox autocrat and of the pagan despot. “If the image of the basileus stood for the Orthodox and pious ruler, leading his Christian people towards salvation, then the image of the khan was perhaps preserved in the idea of the Russian ruler as the conqueror of Russia and of its people, responsible to no one. If the basileus signified the holy tsar, the ‘most gentle’ (tishaishii) tsar in spiritual union with his flock, then the khan, perhaps, stood for the absolutist secularised state, arbitrary through its separation from its subjects.”

     While we have asserted that Ivan was a true ruler, it must be admitted that his theory of government contained absolutist elements which were closer to the theories of Protestant Reformers such as Luther and contemporary Protestant monarchs such as Elizabeth I of England than to Orthodoxy. In fact, the nineteenth-century Slavophile Ivan Kireyevsky went so far as to call him a heretic, and attributed to his heretical view of Church-State relations all the woes of the later part of his reign: “The terrible one acted in a restrictive manner because he was a heretic; this is proved… by his striving to place Byzantinism [i.e. the absolutist ideas of some Byzantines] in a position of equal dignity with Orthodoxy. From this there came the oprichnina as a striving towards state heresy and ecclesiastical power. And that this concept of the limits or, more correctly, the lack of limits of his power and of its lack of connection with the people was not Christian, but heretical is witnessed publicly to this day by the holy relics of Metropolitan Philip.”

     If there was indeed something of eastern absolutism as well as purely Orthodox autocracy in Ivan’s rule, then this would explain, not only the cruelties of his own reign, but also why, only a few years after his death, Russia descended into civil war and the Time of Troubles. For eastern absolutism, unlike Orthodox autocracy, is a system that can command the fear and obedience, but not the love of the people, and is therefore unstable in essence. Hence the need to resist to it – but not out of considerations of democracy or the rights of man, but simply out of considerations of Christian love and justice. An Orthodox tsar has no authority higher than him in the secular sphere. And yet the Gospel is higher than everybody, and will judge everybody on the Day of Judgement; and in reminding Ivan of this both St. Philip and Kurbsky were doing both him and the State a true service…

     Ivan rejected this service to his own detriment. Although he showed great skill in defending Orthodoxy before emissaries from the Vatican, at the very end of his life, he destroyed even his reputation as a defender of Orthodoxy by encroaching on Church lands and delving into astrology. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that Ivan the Terrible was indeed terrible in his impiety, and must be numbered among the evil tyrants and persecutors of the Church. Indeed, Lebedev calls the latter part of his reign “not a struggle with rebellion, but the affirmation of his permission to do everything. So we are concerned here not with the affirmation of the Orthodox Autocracy of the Russian Tsars, but with a prefiguring of the authority of the Antichrist…”





Vladimir Moss.

December 10/23, 2010; revised August 27 / September 9, 2014.


[1] “Our Father among the Saints Maxim the Greek”, Living Orthodoxy, vol. XIII, № 1, January-February, 1991, p. 11.

[2] Francis Carr, Ivan the Terrible, London: David & Charles, 1981, pp. 61-62.

[3] Nicholas Riasanovsky, A History of Russia, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 146.

[4] Sir Steven Runciman, The GreatChurch in Captivity, Cambridge University Press, 1968, p. 329.

[5] Metropolitan Macarius, Istoria Russkoj Tserkvi (A History of the RussianChurch), Moscow, 1996, vol. 4, part 2, pp. 91, 93 (in Russian).

[6] For more details of Ivan’s ideology, see M.V. Zyzykin, Tsarskaia Vlast’ (Royal Power), Sophia, 1924; http://www.russia-talk.org/cd-history/zyzykin.htm, pp. 17-96 (in Russian).

[7] It should be remembered that the word groznij, which is translated “terrible” in the title “Ivan the Terrible”, should better be translated as “threatening”. And so Ivan IV was “Ivan the Threatening”, a title that sounded much less terrible to Russian ears. (V.M.)

[8] Ya.S. Lourié, “Perepiska Groznogo s Kurbskim v Obschestvennoj Mysli Drevnej Rusi” (“The Correspondence of the Terrible one with Kurbsky in the Political Thought of Ancient Rus’”), in Ya.S. Lourié and Yu.D. Rykov, Perepiska Ivana Groznogo s Andreem Kurbskim (The Correspondence of the Terrible one with Andrew Kurbsky), Моscow: “Nauka”, 1993, pp. 230-231 (in Russian).

[9] Hosking, Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917, London: Harper Collins, 1997, pp. 48-49.

[10] Khrapovitsky, in Archbishop Nicon (Rklitsky), Zhizneopisanie Blazhennejshago Antonia, Mitropolita Kievskago i Galitskago (Biography of his Beatitude Anthony, Metropolitan of Kiev and Galich),New York, 1971, volume 1, pp. 14-15 (in Russian).

[11] In fact, modern science has established the astonishing fact that Tsar Ivan, his mother, Great Princess Helena, his first wife Tsaritsa Anastasia, his daughter Maria, his son Ivan and his other son Tsar Theodore were all poisoned. See V. Manyagin, Apologia Groznogo Tsaria (An Apology for the Awesome Tsar), St. Petersburg, 2004, pp. 101-124 (in Russian).

[12] Pokrovsky, quoted in Solonevich, Narodnaia Monarkhia (Popular Monarchy), Minsk, 1998, p. 331 (in Russian).

[13] Solonevich, op. cit., p. 340.

[14] Lourié, op. cit., p. 232.

[15] Lebedev, Velikorossia (Great Russia), St. Petersburg, 1999, p. 392 (in Russian).

[16] Ivan IV, Sochinenia (Works), St. Petersburg: Azbuka, 2000, p. 49 (in Russian).

[17] One of the last to be absorbed by Moscow was Pskov, in 1509. The chronicler, mourning over his native city of Pskov, wrote that “the glory of the Pskovian land perished because of their self-will and refusal to submit to each other, for their evil slanders and evil ways, for shouting at veches. They were not able to rule their own homes, but wanted to rule the city”. As Lebedev rightly remarks: “A good denunciation of democracy!” (op. cit., p. 61).

[18] Ivan IV, op. cit., p. 40.

[19] Skrynnikov, Tsarstvo Terrora (The Kingdom of Terror), St. Petersburg, 1992, pp. 17, 104 (in Russian).

[20] Ivan IV, op. cit., p. 37.

[21] See Peter Budzilovich, “O vozmozhnosti vosstanovlenia monarkhii v Rossii” (“On the Possibility of the Restoration of the Monarchy in Russia”), Russkoe Vozrozhdenie (Russian Regeneration), 1986, № 34, http://www.russia.talk.com/monarchy.htm (in Russian).

[22] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, v, 24, 3; translated in Maurice Wiles & Mark Santer, Documents in Early Christian Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 226.

[23] St. Isidore, Letter 6, quoted in Selected Letters of Archbishop Theophan of Poltava, Liberty, TN: St. John of Kronstadt Press, 1989, p. 36.

[24] Kurbsky, letter to Monk Vassian of the Pskov Caves monastery; translated in Wil van den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe, London: SCM Press, 1999, pp. 157-158.

[25] “Sviatoj Filipp Mitropolit” (“The Holy Metropolitan Philip”),in Troitsky Paterik (Trinity Patericon), Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, 1896; reprinted in Nadezhda, 14, Frankfurt: Possev-Verlag, 1988, p. 66 (in Russian).

[26] van den Bercken, op. cit., p. 153.

[27] Zhitia Russkikh Sviatykh (Lives of the Russian Saints), Таtaev, 2000, vol. 2, pp. 695, 696 (in Russian).

[28] Ivan IV, op. cit., p. 37.

[29] Alferov, “Monarkhia i Khristianskoe Soznanie” (“The Monarchy and Christian Consciousness”), http://catacomb.org.ua/rubr10/R10_11.htm, pp. 8-13 (in Russian). See also Georgij Korobyn, “Traktovka lichnosti Ioanna Groznogo v knige mitr. Ioanna (Snycheva), ‘Samoderzhavie Dukha’” (The Interpretation of the Personality of Ivan the Terrible in the Book of Metropolitan Ioann (Snychev), ‘The Autocracy of the Spirit’), http://catacomb.org.ua/modules.php?name=Pages&go=print_page&pid=1389 (in Russian).

[30] Cherniavsky, “Khan or basileus: an aspect of Russian medieval political theory”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 10, No. 4, October-December, 1950, p. 476; quoted in Hosking, op. cit., p. 7.

[31] See Hierodeacon James (Tislenko), “Nekotorie zamechania na knigu V.G. Manyagina ‘Apologia Groznogo Tsaria’” (Some Remarks on the Book of V.G. Manyagin, ‘An Apology for the Awesome Tsar’), Pravoslavnaia Moskva, NN 13 -14 (295-296), July, 2003; in Manyagin, op. cit., pp. 228-242.

[32] Kireevsky, “Pis’mo k A.I. Koshelevu” (“Letter to A.I. Koshelev”), Razum na puit k istine (Reason on the Way to Truth), St. Petersburg, 2000, p. 107 (in Russian).

[33] Lebedev has even suggested that that the half-military, half-monastic nature of Ivan’s oprichina was modelled on the Templars, and that the terrible change in his appearance that took place after his return to Moscow from Alexandrov in 1564 was the result of “a terrible inner upheaval”, his initiation into a satanic, masonic-like sect (op. cit., p. 97).

[34] Lebedev, op. cit., p. 90.

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