This edited article about Russia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 887 published on 20 January 1979.
The tide of invasion turned. Those fierce, slant-eyed men from the far east, the Mongols, sometimes so aptly called the “Golden Horde”, loaded their wagons, mounted their horses, and went back by the way they had come many years before.
They left Russia united under the reigning Prince of Moscow. Moscow was the capital of the country, just as it is today.
Later, after the capture of the great Christian city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) by the “infidel” Turks in AD 1453, Moscow also became the centre of the Christian faith in Russia.
The Russia of those days was still a tiny country compared with the gigantic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) of today. In fact it was not much bigger than the British Isles.
Then there came to power a remarkable man who was to extend Russia’s dominions very considerably. He was Ivan III, and he reigned for 43 years, from 1462 to 1505.
Because of his genius for both military enterprise and peaceful administration, he is known as Ivan the Great.
It was Ivan the Great who finally freed Russia from Mongol domination. Although they had, mercifully, gone, the Mongols were still acting like conquerors, demanding regular tribute from their once-subject people in both cash and kind. In the year 1480, Ivan III decided that he had had enough – and that the Russians’ one-time lords and masters had, too, in a different sense. He refused to go on paying the rent, and the landlords were no longer powerful enough to do anything about it.
Ivan III’s basic achievement was to make Russia strong, and the country was lucky in having just the right person to follow him on the throne.
Ivan III’s successor, Basil III, who occupied the Russian throne for 28 years (1505 to 1533), pursued a policy of consolidation. Because he was not as adventurous as Ivan, his reign was a comparatively quiet one. It could be called a breathing space – or, better still, the calm before a storm.
Because a storm was coming, a storm which, before it was over, was to bring ruin and desolation, despair and death to tens of thousands of Russians.
The cause and centre of that storm was Ivan IV, who reigned as Tsar from 1547 to 1584, and who has gone down in history as Ivan the Terrible. Never was any ruler more suitably named. The murders for which he was responsible were beyond counting, and the tortures inflicted at his command were quite unspeakable.
It is possible to find some excuse, or at least some grounds, for Ivan’s behaviour. His father died when he was only three years old, which meant that he became, in name at least, ruler of Russia at that age. It also meant that he never had a chance to grow up more or less normally, as he might have done if his father had lived just a few years longer.
Also, he was living in dangerous times, surrounded by men as hard and ambitious as they were unscrupulous. It is little short of a miracle that he even survived.
But he did, and it is an indication of his remarkable strength of personality that he began to rule Russia in fact as well as in name when he was only 14 years old.
Ivan IV already had a marked sense of his own importance. He had himself crowned tsar when he was 17, not merely of Russia but of “all the Russias”. And he did not promise what he could not perform. During his reign he added considerably to Russian territory by conquering Kazan, on his country’s eastern frontier, and Astrakhan, to the south, while much of Siberia was to fall to the lances of his Cossack cavalry.
Ivan IV was a strong man in both character and physique. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with the arrogant manner of one who knew his power.
Like all absolute rulers, he had tremendous opportunities to do either good or evil, and during his lifetime he was to demonstrate an enormous capacity for both. At one stage in his life he cared for his people. At another, he killed them.
For years he killed them, or gave them over to his torturers. At that stage, his reign was a reign of terror. Then, quite suddenly, he changed. After spending several days sunk in gloom, he called his trembling ministers together and announced that he intended to confess and repent of his sins. This he did in a characteristically dramatic manner, kneeling in the snow at roadside shrines, weeping bitterly for all to see.
The change lasted a number of years, during which time Russia was not ruled by Ivan the Terrible but Ivan the Capable, Ivan the Hard-Working, the Wise, even the Good. He proved himself a fine administrator, a skilful diplomat, and a talented general. He gathered a body of wise and enlightened counsellors round him and through them encouraged the arts and sciences and promoted social reform. He made many improvements in the way his country was run, and was especially interested in promoting scientific discovery and technological invention. He promoted trade with other countries, including England, and even proposed marriage to the English queen, Elizabeth I. Luckily for the English, she was very good at saying no.
Then it all went wrong again – and again there were reasons for it. In a comparatively short space of time fate struck Ivan a series of blows. His wife and eldest son died. And his greatest friend deserted him.
In the agony of his grief he turned first against the boyars, the great Russian landowners he hated because they had disregarded or opposed him when he was young. Many he tortured and executed, seizing their lands and possessions.
The boyars were not his only victims. Anyone who incurred his displeasure suffered. He was only too ready to strike. On a mere rumour that certain citizens of Novgorod were plotting against him, he laid waste the town and put hundreds of its inhabitants to the sword.
Still worse was to come. In the year 1580, Ivan’s personal tragedy reached a dreadful climax. In the course of a quarrel, he struck his eldest surviving son, whom he loved dearly, a blow which killed him.
It was too much for Ivan’s sanity. Tortured by feelings of guilt for which there could be no excuse or comfort, he fled to a monastery. There monks cared for this strange, distraught man until his death three years later.
On Ivan’s death, Russia was able to breathe easily again. But not for long.
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