From Ivan the Terrible to Putin

Frank Malley

Russian leaders employing ruthless methods is nothing new
Ivan the Terrible by Viktor Vasnetsov
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The world watched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with horror and disbelief. The siege of Mariupol, the shelling of Kharkiv, alleged war crimes in Bucha. A willingness to lay waste cities, destroy infrastructure and murder civilians.

All presided over by a leader in Vladimir Putin apparently intent on expanding Russia’s borders and creating a buffer zone between Russia and the West.

As each bomb burst and atrocities were unearthed, Russia’s brutal politics appeared not to have changed in 450 years.

For Putin read Ivan IV Vasilyevich, or Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of all Russia, who reigned from 1547 to 1584, dragging Russia from a medieval state to an empire, regardless of the cost to its people and economy.

Ivan is regarded as the original autocrat. A man who ruled by repression, at times making Putin seem moderate by comparison. He beat his pregnant daughter-in-law and killed his eldest son, Ivan Ivanovich, in a fit of anger. His warmongering was savage and ruthless.

In 1552 he led the siege of the Tatar capital Kazan, cutting off the city’s water supply and murdering much of the population.

In 1558 he launched the Livonian War in an attempt to open up trade routes by gaining access to the Baltic Sea. The war lasted 24 years, sucking in Sweden, Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Teutonic Knights of Livonia, ruining the Russian economy, confirming autocrats rarely give thought to damage they wreak or sanctions they incur.

For balance, it should be noted that Ivan’s and Putin’s early years saw progress. Russia’s economy and standard of living growing rapidly under Putin, while Ivan’s reign introduced Russia’s first printing press and saw the construction of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. He established the Zemsky Sobor, the first Russian parliament of feudal estates, instituted self-government in rural regions and unified religious rituals and regulations. Scholars often describe Ivan as intelligent and devout. But the rages, mental instability and paranoia render those qualities insignificant.

Two events are cited as triggering Ivan’s darkest side.

During the Livonian War his first wife, Anastasia Romanovna, died of suspected poisoning and one of his closest advisors, Prince Andrei Kurbsky, defected to lead Lithuanian troops. His wife’s death contributed to his mental problems. The betrayal led to his hatred of Russian nobility, a loathing fuelled by his paranoia when, after threatening to abdicate, Ivan returned to power demanding the right to execute traitors and seize their estates without interference from the Church or the aristocrats, known as the boyars.

The Oprichnina was formed, a territory comprising the former Novgorod Republic. Ivan also created a personal guard called the Oprichniki, around 1,000 men enjoying social status and monetary privileges. Similar to the Russian oligarchs who prospered under Putin, they owed their wealth to their leader.

Oprichniki by Nikolai Nevrev

The Oprichniki took control of large estates and exploited peasants. The price of grain soared. They also persecuted Russia’s influential families, Ivan executing and exiling thousands of nobles.

When Ivan suspected Novgorod nobles were planning to defect and hand over the city to Lithuania, a conspiracy theory modern historians believe to be false, the Tsar ordered in the Oprichniki. The city was destroyed and thousands, many women and children, tied to sleighs and run into the freezing Volkhov River.

Ivan’s capacity for violence and his obsession in rooting out treason, perceived or otherwise, resonates in modern Russian politics. The Oprichniki terror lived on, not least in the KGB’s 13th Directorate, instituted in the 1950s and later renamed Department V, charged with eliminating threats by ‘executive action’ or ‘liquid affairs’. Anything, foreign or domestic, that involved the spilling of blood.

According to a declassified CIA study, chemical spray guns and heart attack-inducing poison were weapons of choice during the Cold War and beyond. Britain has witnessed some high-profile cases.

1978: Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian BBC journalist, jabbed with a poison-tipped umbrella in London.

2006:  Alexander Litvinenko poisoned with radioactive polonium at a London hotel. A UK public inquiry concluded the event was ‘probably’ approved by Putin.

2018: Double agent Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury. Both survived, Prime Minister Theresa May confirming Russia was responsible.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was also poisoned with Novichok in Russia in 2020.

Under Putin’s shift to authoritarianism, Russia has seen war against Chechen separatists, war against Georgia, the annexing of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine, while state-sponsored assassination appears almost routine.

More than four centuries after Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichniki wrought murder and mayhem, the conclusion is inescapable. Autocracy rules. Nothing much has changed.

Frank Malley is the author of The 13th Assassin,published by Sharpe Books.