Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ivan the Terrible

Fig.1: If anything's terrible,
it's that robe.
Back in the day, epithets really defined what people were all about. Sure, there have been plenty of "the Great"s, but let's not forget awesome ones like Richard the Lionheart, Suleiman the Magnificent, and the attractive uncle-nephew duo of Charles the Bald and Charles the Fat (until they morphed and became Charles the Danny-DeVito-Doppelganger). But my favorite epithet was given to Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich of Russia: the Terrible. Granted, the word terrible is being used here in its original sense (as in one who strikes terror in people, which can be seen as a good thing if you're always at war with your neighbors like Russia is), but its modern definition as bad, unpleasant, and just downright jerkish also would apply to Ivan. Examples of his terribleness include imprisoning people for no reason, destroying cities within his own kingdom, taking over indigenous peoples in Siberia, and killing his own successor so that his kingdom would fall into chaos within 15 years of his own death. If anything, maybe Ivan should be called something worse than "terrible," since that merely puts him on par with your average Adam Sandler movie.

Ivan was born to Vasili III, Grand Prince of Moscow, in the grand year of 1530, emerging from the womb with a grand fanfare and an equally grand placenta. Moscow was just one of many principalities that emerged after Kievan Rus', the first Russian state, got their Rus' kicked by the Mongols in the 13th century (it's okay, Kievan Rus', you're not alone). However, Moscow slowly but surely grew in size and prominence in Eastern Europe, increasing its territory by 10,000% between 1300 and Ivan's birth. Vasili III died in 1533, making Ivan the ruling Grand Prince at the age of three. As he was not considered old enough to take power himself (lazy kids these days), members of the Russian nobility, known as boyars, effectively ruled in his name. Ivan's mother, Elena Glinskaya, attempted to take control of the government, and succeeded in imprisoning many of the boyar regents for being unruly as they ruled. Unfortunately, Elena died suddenly in 1538, most likely after being poisoned by some ambitious boyars who were sick of asking her if Ivan could come out to play. Losing both his parents at a young age seemed to create some psychological issues for Ivan, and taking out his grumpiness on the boyars would become his favorite stress-relieving activity once he got older.

Fig.2: Unfortunately, Saint Basil's
Cathedral is not as tasty as it looks.
In 1547 at the age of 16, Ivan's position was elevated from a puny Grand Prince to the Tsar of all the Russias (every single one of them!). This solidified the idea that Moscow was the successor state to Kievan Rus', and that other principalities within Russia better fall in line behind them. The beginning of Ivan the Terrible's reign actually wasn't all that terrible. Following the Fire of Moscow in 1547, Ivan helped to rebuild the city and didn't just sit around playing a lyre like Nero. He strengthened the religious ties to the state, hoping to establish Moscow as the center of Eastern Orthodoxy a hundred years after Constantinople was a long time gone. He lessened the control of the boyars and gave more power to the everyday Ruskies, giving them more equality in the law, the army, and in self-government (as long as they did their farming chores everyday). The printing press made its way to Russia during Ivan's reign, eventually making possible the printing of comic books about a time-traveling monk (which really is a thing). In 1552, Ivan led an army to attack the Kazan Khanate, a Mongol leftover in Central Asia who constantly bothered Moscow with their raids and sieges and refrigerator salesmen. Ivan was successful and claimed the land for Russia, and then celebrated by building the famous Saint Basil's Cathedral (fig.2). By 1558, Ivan seemed anything but Terrible, and it might have been more prudent to give him the epithet of "the Terrific."

But then the Livonian War happened. Ivan wished to gain an outlet to the Baltic Sea, and taking over their weak western neighbor of Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) seemed like the way to do it that involved the least amount of paperwork. The Russian invasion did pretty well at first, mostly because Livonia's allies of Denmark and Sweden were too busy fighting each other (talk about bad timing). However, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (formed when Poland and Lithuania were caught sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G) stepped up to challenge Russia's claim to the region in 1562, halting their advance. Russia took care of the lovey-dovey couple by 1570, only to have Sweden and Denmark put their differences aside to team up and join the war. The alliance not only kicked the Russians out of Livonia, but attacked cities that had been under Moscow's control for decades (such as Pskov, which really could have bought a vowel). A truce was signed in 1582, and Livonia was split between Denmark, Sweden, and Poland-Lithuania, with Russia being forced to watch with grumbling bellies and smacking lips. The 24-year war devastated Russia's economy and population, and they didn't even get anything out of it. (Sounds like a college-degree nowadays...)

Ivan became more and more...well...terrible as the war dragged on. It didn't help that his boyars were still acting like they owned the place, and used the Tsardom's money and power to suit their own needs. On top of that, Ivan's beautiful wife, Anastasia Romanovna, died of an illness which resembled Ivan's mother's own demise by way of poisoning. The ice finally cracked when Ivan's most trusted advisor, Andrey Kurbsky, bolted to Poland-Lithuania after his military victories were not celebrated enough. Ivan responded to all these pressures by holing himself up in a palace outside of Moscow and threatening to abdicate the throne. Fearful of what would happen without a strong, demanding ruler always telling them what to do (Russians have grown accustomed to that sort of thing), the boyars and the clergy begged Ivan to come back to Moscow. Ivan coyly put fingers on his lips and said, "Hmmm, lemme think about it," before demanding that he be given absolute control over Russian affairs. The boyars said, "What's the worst that could happen?" Ivan was going to show them the worst that could happen.

Fig.3: When Ivan says, "Have a seat," RUN!
This period in Russian history is known as the Oprichnina, which is as terrible as my pronunciation of the word.  With Ivan exerting direct control over Russia, he used this opportunity to get rid of any boyar who particularly bothered him. One famous scene (fig.3) shows Ivan punishing a boyar who he believed was going to overthrow him by placing him on his throne, bowing to him sarcastically, and then personally stabbing him to death (at least he didn't drink his blood like another Eastern European ruler with a scary epithet). In order to maintain control, Ivan established a group of loyal bodyguards called the oprichniki to do his bidding. They essentially became the KGB before the KGB, and used their powers to terrorize boyars and peasants alike into thinking Ivan was the good kind of terrible. The most notorious example was the Sack of Novgorod in 1570: fearing that the population of the city was about to rebel and join the nearby love-fest that was Poland-Lithuania, Ivan ordered the oprichniki to oprich all over the town. Novgorod was burned down, its goods and valuables looted, around two to three thousand of its population was killed, and worst of all, they ate all of the khvorost. Such monsters!

The Oprichnina finally ended in 1571 after the oprichniki lost the ability to play their intimidation card; they lost to an invading force of Tatars from Crimea, and then allowed them to set Moscow on fire again. Ivan decided to raise a regular army to defend Russia, doing so the next year when a Crimean-Ottoman army of 120,000 men was stopped dead in their tracks (literally) at the Battle of Molodi. This convinced Russia's enemies to the south and west to lay off for a little while, giving Ivan time to pick on the folks to the east. It was during Ivan's reign that Russia started to become the behemoth it is today. Ivan hired the Stroganov family, already renowned for their creamy beef dish, to explore and settle in the lands across the Ural Mountains into what is known as Siberia. In 1582, they allowed a Cossack named Vasiliy Timofeyevich (known by his lovely nickname, Yermak) to lead an army in order to conquer the region. After the victory that year at the Battle of Chuvash Cape over a local khan, Yermak reported to Ivan that all of Siberia was now his, which was an equivalent to saying you're the biggest Quentin Tarantino fan when you've really only seen Pulp Fiction (you poser). Nonetheless, the eastward momentum of the Russians would only get stronger, eventually reaching all the way to Sarah Palin's doorstep.

Fig.4: At least they're finally spending
some father-son time together!
Now much of Ivan's terribleness might have been offset if perhaps he had a colorful personality that earned him the respect and admiration of his contemporaries. Yeah, that didn't happen. Many people who knew Ivan personally have described him using terms like "cold," "aloof," "insensitive," and "clammy hands." The most oft-told story of Ivan's personal life came in 1581, when he beat up his pregnant daughter-in-law for donning a slightly-revealing outfit, yelling, "Does this look like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleading camp?" She suffered a miscarriage shortly thereafter, causing Ivan's son and heir, Prince Ivan (the Less-Terrible) to confront him about it. Soon the conversation shifted from punching pregnant women to how the Tsar was losing the ongoing Livonian War. The Tsar took this as an insult of his management abilities, so he responded by smacking his son over his head with his scepter. Prince Ivan fell unconscious and died four days later, much to the immediate regret of his father (fig.4). With the death of his heir, the future of Ivan's Rurik Dynasty suddenly came into doubt as his next son, Feodor, was considered intellectually disabled and didn't have enough of a penchant for blindly killing his subjects. That's just no way to run a place like Russia.

On March 28, 1584, Ivan suffered a stroke while playing a game of chess, and died shortly thereafter (talk about a terribly boring way to go). Once tsar, Feodor lost more and more control over those pesky boyars, who then went crazy like it was Winter Break (there's no Spring in Russia, remember) once Feodor died in 1598. In this period, understatedly known as the "Time of Troubles" (which totally isn't what I call the time after I ate that expired frozen burrito), boyars fought each other to become tsar, Russia's neighbors invaded her borders, and a famine killed nearly two million people. This sort of thing proves that Ivan the Terrible's terribleness didn't merely stop at his death. Yes, he solidified Russia's territory, developed it into an imperial power, created one of Moscow's most famous landmarks, and perfected the scowl grumpy people still use today. But at what cost, man? The countless people who died in his wars, oppressions, and drunken tirades would all say there was nothing good about being terrible. Maybe someone should make a new, less confusing epithet for Tsar Ivan (I would, but my mama warned me about using such language).

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