Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan on Friday, November 16, 1581, 1870–1873 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

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At the Tretyakov Art Gallery in Moscow there is a painting by the famous Russian artist Ilya Repin «Ivan the Terrible killing his son». Repin first displayed this canvass, under a different title - «Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan, November 16th, 1581», at an exhibition in Petersburg in 1885. By then the painter was already very famous, and the admiring public was milling around the canvas, whispering excitedly. However, when the head of the Holy Synod and outstanding Russian statesman and thinker Konstantin Pobedonostsev approached it, his brow furrowed in anger, and he speedily left the exhibit.

The canvass depicts an old man in royal robes with a crazed expression glazing his eyes, cradling the lifeless body of a young man, with blood seeping out of a wound in his temple. A blood-spattered staff is lying nearby – the one apparently used by the Tsar in a fit of rage to kill the heir to the throne.

So what was it about the painting that so angered Pobedonostsev? It was not just the fact the Russian Tsar was depicted as a murderer. The outstanding statesman was incensed at this blatant distortion of Russian history. Which is why he at once expressed his outrage in a letter penned to Emperor Alexander III, where he remarked that «the painting could not be regarded as historical, since the scene portrayed in it was… purely imaginary». It’s not accidental that soon after the title of the painting was altered, and the date removed, to play down the historical associations. As Pobedonostsev was aware of at the time, and soon after – it was confirmed by historical scientists, Ivan the Terrible never killed his son in any fit of rage.

Ilya Repin (1844-1930) and Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907)

Moreover, in soviet times experts were able to prove that Tsarevitch Ivan had been poisoned. In 1963 at the Cathedral of the Archangel of the Moscow Kremlin they opened the tombs of the Tsarevitch and Ivan the Terrible himself to confirm the poisoning theory. Scientists discovered an above-norm presence of lead in the bones of both Father and son. Accordingly, Ivan the Terrible did not kill his son, and the latter, just as the Tsar himself, had been poisoned.

However, Repin’s painting, as it was clearly evident from its first title, aspired to a historical role. It is a known fact that the painter himself, when working on his canvasses, always studied the historical sources thoroughly. So the question arises: why did he paint something that never happened in reality?

One should seek the answer to that question in medieval times. Historians have long proven that Tsar Ivan was one of the most remarkable monarchs of Russia’s history.

Troubled times of turmoil and strife marked the beginning of his reign. Ivan ascended the throne after the demise of his father – Vasily III, Grand Prince of Muscovy, when he was only three years old, so it was his mother Elena who actually ruled the country. However, her brief 4-year rule was cut short – the young and healthy woman died a sudden death, and was rumored to have been poisoned.

Vasily III, Grand Prince of Muscovy(1479-1533) and Elena Vasilyevna Glinskaya (1510-1538)

Her death rekindled the boyars’ strife, when each of them placed their own interests and gains above those of the state and the people, rendering Russia impossible to govern altogether. It was in that kind of troublesome atmosphere that the future Tsar Ivan IV grew up.

Once, when he was 16, he stopped playing some childish game to discuss his marriage with the boyars. But first, he said, he wished to be crowned. He was still quite young when he began to think of himself as the ruler of Moscow and the power it represented. It is his early realization that he was an autocratic ruler that largely determined Ivan’s subsequent rule.

Ivan was crowned in 1547 at the age of 17, the first Russian Prince to take the title of a tsar, to receive the sacrament of anointment. He was anointed with the holy myrrh (a special fragrant oil), a procedure that, according to the Holy Scripture, grants the Tsars the Grace they need to cope with their burdensome royal performance. Ivan IV gave rise to the ceremony that all subsequent Russian Tsars and Tsarinas went through when being crowned for as long as Russia remained a monarchy.

The rule of the boyars ended when Ivan IV became Tsar. He shouldered the burden of responsibility for the people and the country and got down to organizing state management.

Medieval Russia probably knew no other ten-year period like the one between 1550 and 1560, of which the main development was the seizure of Kazan in 1552. The Kazan Tatar khanate, which had been making forays into Russian lands to plunder and ravage them, had long been the plague of Muscovy. It was after the capture of Kazan that Ivan IV came to be called “Grozny”, or Perilous to the adherents of different faiths, enemies and all those who hated Russia. In the English transcription it reads incorrectly as Terrible.

The capture of Kazan and then the Astrakhan khanates secured Muscovy’s eastern and southern borders against enemies and made it possible for Russians to assimilate the rich lands beyond the Volga, in Central Urals and Siberia.

But the Kazan campaign did not prevent Ivan IV from carrying out numerous reforms to improve the state administration system and the legislation. He founded a system of local self-government, a regular army, laid the foundation for book printing, ordered the construction of over a hundred churches, banned alcoholic beverages except on festive holidays, and oversaw a great many other innovative aspects of life in our country.

This was one of the most educated men of his time, who possessed a phenomenal memory, and wrote music. A profoundly religious person, Ivan was well-versed in all the aspects of the church service, and even wrote canticles. In the period of his reign the population of Russia grew by 30-50%. While under Peter I it was reduced by 40%. And yet, Ivan IV is dubbed a despot, while Peter I –a Great Russian Tsar.

So how did this happen? Who and why chose to spread this malicious myth about Russian Tsar Ivan IV? After all, he most certainly cannot be regarded as the most diabolical ruler of his time. And while he did mete out punishment for specific crimes, and around 4-5 thousand people were sentenced to death, a good deal more terrifying things were taking place at the time in Europe. Take France, for example: in 1572 during the massacre of Saint Bartholomew two thousand Protestants were slaughtered in Paris alone, while across the entire country in the course of two weeks they killed 30 thousand. In England during the first half of the 16th century 70 thousand people were hanged just for vagrancy. This all serves to prove that the myth about the «bloodthirsty and ferocious ruler of Muscovy» was fabricated deliberately.

It was the Tsar’s sworn enemy, Jesuitical monk Antonius Possevin, who started the ball rolling by spreading the story of the murder of Prince Ivan, as well as German agent Heinrich von Staden. Possevin arrived in Moscow in 1581, to serve as an intermediary in negotiations between the Russian Tsar and the Polish King, who had invaded Russia and seized several towns. Possevin hoped to take advantage of Russia’s difficult foreign policy situation, gain concessions from Ivan and bend the Russian Church to submission before the Papal throne. Needless to say, he did not succeed.

So then, driven by petty vengeance, Possevin fabricated a falsehood according to which the Tsar had killed his own son in a bout of temper, during a quarrel over the daughter-in-law, the Tsarevich’s wife. The absurdity of the version was so evident that soon there was a need to find a more plausible motive for the alleged murder. So that is how a new version took shape – according to which the Tsarevich had led a political opposition against his Father and was slain by the Tsar over suspicion of involvement in a boyar conspiracy.

At that period in history Russia was waging a grueling war to return Slav lands in the Baltics. This was the most opportune time to convince European rulers to join forces in an anti-Muscovy coalition. There was but one purpose – to portray Russia as a barbarian state, dangerous for all European countries. Accordingly, the “barbarians” had to be ruled by a Tsar that fit the picture: ruthless, bloodthirsty and perilous. What is lamentable, is that well-known Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin, known for his idolatry of the west, gave credit to this falsehood, and thanks to him the myth gained a firm foothold in history books.

The myth about the «ferocious» Ivan the IV put down such solid roots, that already in our day and age Sergey Eisenstein fell victim to it, as he was making a film about this Tsar at Stalin’s orders. The acclaimed maitre of the cinema depicted Ivan as a raving psychopath – something that found no favor with Stalin, who demanded the second part of the film “Ivan the Terrible” be destroyed. Paradoxically, from a historical aspect, the dictator was right.

While implementing his reforms, consolidating and unifying the Russian state, Tsar Ivan was forced to overcome resistance on the part of not only the enemies from without, but those from within, as well – the willful boyars loathing to be subordinate to anyone.

In 1560 Ivan’s wife Anastasia died of some unknown disease. The Tsar had serious grounds to believe that she had been poisoned. It came as a terrible shock to him. Extremely sensitive to any sign of encroachment on his authority, Ivan suspected his inner circle of conspiring against him. Yet, he abstained from taking reprisals against them that time. Things came to a head when the boyars started to openly betray him by defecting to his enemies. An Englishman who was in Moscow at the time, Jerome Horsey testified that «if Ivan didn’t rule with an iron hand, he would not have lived long. Conspiracies against him were brewing constantly, but he disclosed them, one by one».

Historian Vyacheslav Manyagin determined that the Tsar’s enemies had poisoned not only his son, but also his two wives and Tsarevich Fyodor. Did painter Ilya Repin know any of this, when working on his canvass that Konstantin Pobedonostsev found so offensive? Most probably not. Already then it was becoming fashionable among the “progressive public” to criticize autocratic rule and undermine the state, which eventually led to a fall of the monarchy and establishment in Russia of the most merciless dictatorship in history.

The Tsar consolidated his grip on autocratic power. But as he rooted out treachery and treason among the boyars, Ivan IV did not flatter himself with expectations that his contemporaries would speak highly of his reign. He said: “I was waiting for someone to come and grieve with me, but no one came to console me, they repaid good with evil and love with hatred.” That was true. However, unlike historians, the people of Russia realized what kind of person Ivan IV had been and venerated his memory. Ordinary people kept coming to his sepulcher in the Kremlin until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to hold requiem services and thus pay tribute to Russian Tsar Ivan IV’s outstanding achievements.

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
3 December, 2012