|Ivan IV, the Terrible, occupies a special place in Russian history. At the age of five, he inherited the throne and had to escalate his authority against the nobility, from a very young age. That caused to develop extreme of cruelty and brutality. Among the original historical documents of that time are the accounts of four western visitors that have witnessed the events in Muscovy at the peak of Ivan IV’s savage reign ─ the years of the oprichnina (1566-72). The accounts of Johan Taube and Elbert Kruse, Albert Schlichting, and Heinrich von Staden overlap a great deal, even with all their differences in their personalities, backgrounds, and perception of events. In all of their writings, Ivan IV was a man who displayed a mania for various types of extreme brutality that he applied to a great number of his subjects.
Until the sixteenth century, in the eyes of the western Europeans, Muscovy was a strange and unknown land. Muscovites had been under the rule of the Tatars until 14781, when Ivan III finally defeated them. This marked the beginning of the era of expansion for Muscovy, as a state that would eventually become a unified country of Russia under Ivan IV. This expansion resulted in the suppression of the power that previously resided in the hands of the boyars.2 This led to a number of rebellions and attempts to overthrow the ruling family.
The earliest of the above mentioned foreigners to arrive in Muscovy were a team of Johan Taube and Elbert Kruse. They were both born in Livonia and belonged to upper class families. They were captured while participating in the Livonian War against Muscovy. It is not quite clear exactly when they arrived in Muscovy as prisoners. According to Roginskiy, they acquired fluency in Russian during the first couple of years of their captivity. Due to their good communication skills and their noble Baltic background, they became useful to Ivan IV. This allowed them to obtain higher status in his court.1 They became active diplomats for Ivan IV leading discussions between him and the Baltics. This position gave them a great amount of freedom to travel throughout Muscovy. Their Russian career lasted from 1564 to 1571, which covers the majority of the period of the oprichnina. Taube and Kruse were also the only foreigners that were already active on the royal court, during Ivan IV’s temporary ‘abdication’ of the throne in 1564. Upon their return to their motherland in 1571, they wrote “Poslanie Taube i Kruze,” which put a strong emphasis on Ivan’s cruelty.
Taube and Kruse’s account was not a report based on what may was ‘expected’ of them. It was not a mandatory assignment but more of a way of justifying their double betrayal in order to promote their political careers. They wrote the account while trying to gain trust and respect from the people of the upper ranks, in the community of their country where they arrived after fleeing from Muscovy. Mikhail G. Roginskiy points out that their writing references mostly the events during the time of their stay there.2 They mention very few events that had taken place prior to their arrival. They tend to cross-reference very little second hand material. Even though most of their writing is supported by a number of various resources, their material is not always written in a consistent chronological order.
The next to arrive in Muscovy was Albert Schlichting. Unfortunately, there is not much known about his background except what he mentions in his own writing: “A Brief Account of the Character and Brutal Rule of Vasil’evich, Tyrant of Muscovy.” Similar to Taube and Kruse, he was from Pomerania, which was also affected by the Livonian War. Schlichting belonged to the noble class and claimed to be educated. Because he was bilingual in German and Russian, he eventually received a job as an interpreter in the court of Ivan IV. Schlichting states that he started working with Ivan IV almost immediately upon his arrival in Moscow in 1564, by saying that he worked with Dr. Arnold for seven years1. However, as stated by Hugh Graham, Dr. Arnold did not arrive in Moscow until the summer of 1568. Since there are no other references available as to Schlichting’s prior activities, it is unclear when Schlichting actually began to work for the tsar.2 It is a known fact, that starting in 1568, Schlichting began working as an interpreter for Ivan IV’s court, and was exposed to the events of the oprichnina and other cruelties of Ivan IV.
The last of the referenced travelers, Heinrich von Staden, was the latest to arrive and the only outsider who became an official member of the oprichnina in its last couple of years. Staden was a different kind of person as compared to Schlichting, Taube, and Kruse. As described by Thomas Esper, even though Staden’s has a noble background, since his family was involved in local politics3, he did not fit the stereotype of a nobleman. Based on Esper’s comments, Staden’s original writing was very difficult to follow4; however, it could be due to an inaccurate transcription of the original document. During the Livonian War, circa 1560, his family sent him away to Riga because of his poor conduct. It is not clear when Staden acquired the knowledge of the Russian language with his level of fluency in it. Within his account, Staden displays no regret for his acts of animosity that he was performing, as he describes them in his writing. As a result of Staden’s personal cruel nature, he was able to give us a different perspective that was not solely aimed at Ivan IV’s cruelty, but was more balanced in the descriptions of the events of that time. According to Esper’s comments, Staden did not become an oprichnik until late 1569, whereas before that he was working in the zemshchina1. He actually explains the reason for the establishment of the oprichnina, its responsibilities, and the necessity thereof.
One important fact regarding Staden’s book The Land and Government of Muscovy, was that it was intended to be read by the Holy Roman Emperor only, in order to provoke him to declare war on Russia. In order to be able to accomplish that, he had to present himself, in front of the Holy Roman Emperor, as an important figure in Moscow, who had a close contact with Ivan IV. He did not mean to have it published as a work available to a common reader. According to Staden, Ivan IV accepted him immediately and not only assigned him to oprichnina, but also gave him a large lot of land. In addition, he received permission to setup personal businesses, such as bars and taverns. Contrarily, according to Esper, Staden greatly “exaggerated his role in the oprichnina in order to pose as an authority on Russian affairs.”2
One of the most important events of Ivan’s reign was his fake abdication of the throne. It actually initiated the setup of the oprichnina. Taube and Kruse provide the most thorough description of this event, in their account. As stated by Taube and Kruse, ever since the time that Ivan IV has taken the throne, there was ongoing hatred towards him and his family among the boyars. (This is one of the few historical facts that Taube and Kruse discuss that precedes their presence in Muscovy.) Since the time when Ivan IV was about to be coronated as the Great Prince, at the age of five, upon his father’s death, there were constant attempts to overthrow the royal family3. Therefore, in 1564, when he heard rumors of the new plot to overthrow him, Ivan IV used his ingenuity to fake a scene of his abdication of the throne, by pledging to the church at Alexander’s Sloboda1. He intended to use this departure to filter out his supporters versus his enemies. Upon his ‘resignation,’ the tsar made a point to leave a wide-open chance at return. Taube and Kruse quoted the church officials saying to Ivan:
“‘With saddened hearts and great unwillingness, to hear from their great and deserving of various homage, master, that they have disgrace and especially, that he is leaving his kingdom and them… And they are begging and asking him, maybe he can think of another plan… If he really know that there are traitors let him declare and name them; and they must be ready to be responsible to defend their faults; therefore he, the leader, has the right and power to the strictest punishments and prosecution.’”2
However, that statement was probably more due to their fear of Ivan IV rather than the support thereof. He had officially appointed his brother to be the tsar in his place. Ivan’s stay at the church was a practical way of learning who was for versus against him. He also used the time to setup his plans for what to do when he would return to Moscow. One major idea that Ivan IV developed during his stay at the Alexander’s Sloboda was the origin of the oprichnina. According to Taube and Kruse, Ivan IV spent forty days there.
Taube and Kruse are also the only ones to actually describe the process of Ivan’s return to Moscow, due to the summons for his return. Schlichting totally omits any details of this event, never mentioning neither the length of Ivan’s departure nor what prompted his return to Moscow. Schlichting totally jumps over that period of forty days, as if they never took place. For an unknown reason, Staden briefly mentions Ivan IV’s stay at Alexander’s Sloboda as a “two-day trip.”3
Taube/Kruse and Schlichting point out that Ivan IV hated the nobility as well as the church. According to Graham, there was a confrontation between the nobles and Ivan IV in 1562, regarding excessive executions of the nobility, which were taking place. However, that is not very clear how Schlichting collected that information, because he did not arrive in Muscovy, until 1564, at the earliest. Nonetheless, Graham confirms that information, as he states “Ivan had taken repressive actions against certain members of nobility in 1562.”1 In the middle of 1564, the nobility became petrified of Ivan IV’s ongoing “savagery” and confronted him by stating that “‘no Christian ruler had the right to treat human beings like animals; instead he should fear the righteous dooms of God, Who avenges the blood of innocents unto the third generation’”2. Schlichting also discusses Ivan IV’s fake abdication of the throne, even though he never mentions his actual departure or return. He describes it as:
Ivan pretended that he had grown tired of power and wished to lay aside his responsibilities in order to live the holy life of a monk apart and alone. Summoning members of the nobility he explained his intentions… I have been sated with power… Here are my sons… receive them as your princes, rulers, and commanders… Let them rule… If any difficulty which seems beyond your capacities should arise, you may call upon me for advice and counsel. I shall not be dwelling far apart.3
The writings of both Schlichting and the team of Taube and Kruse supported the information of Ivan’s abdication at the end of 1564. This retreat gave him time to analyze and think of his next plan of actions. However, Schlichting has contradicted Taube and Kruse about who was to be his replacement. According to a number of sources, it was Ivan’s brother, who was supposed to become the ‘new tsar’ following Ivan’s retreat, as stated by Taube and Kruse, and not the sons, as mentioned by Schlichting.
Heinrich von Staden also comments on Ivan IV’s retreat to Alexander’s Sloboda, in December of 1564. However, he does not go into any details as provided by Taube and Kruse or Schlichting. He never refers to it as a form of “resignation” as it was described by others. However, he does mention, unlike the prior sources, that the whole stay only lasted two days. Another difference in Staden’s account from others is that he describes the confrontation of the boyars as an “insurrection”1 against Ivan IV.
Upon Ivan IV’s return from Alexander’s Sloboda, he started implementing the setup of the oprichnina and zemshchina. Schlichting defines oprichnina as “Swiftmen or Military Bodyguards”2. According to Schlichting, the oprichnina was made up of approximately 800 men. Zemshchina, as defined by Heinrich von Staden was a group of “hand-picked” ordinary ranking individuals working for Ivan IV. They were on a lower level then the oprichniki3 and, therefore, were required to abide them, even if the latter were in the wrong4.
Taube and Kruse give a thorough description of the process of choosing the individuals, uniform, the pledge, and the following family problems upon one’s appointment to the oprichnina. Taube and Kruse say, that Ivan requested all the soldiers from the area of three cities. As a result, 6,000 people showed up. According to Taube and Kruse, after all the soldiers had been questioned, roughly one fourth of them was selected to be the members of the oprichnina, which equals about 1,500. The selection was based on their family and friends’ backgrounds. Later, in the passage, Taube and Kruse show a total of 500 people made up the oprichnina, mostly of the lower level of nobility. Those numbers are obviously not consistent. Taube and Kruse’s numbers alone are three times the differences, and Schlichting’s number of 800 people seems to be in between the two.
Taube and Kruse also provide the text of the oath that the members of the oprichnina were required to take:
I swear to be faithful to our ruler, the Great Prince and his government … not to be silent about what I know or hear what is being planned against the tsar, or Great Prince, his government… I swear not to eat or drink together with zemshchina and not to have anything in common with them. For this I kiss the cross.1
Staden gives a detailed description of the setup of the oprichnina. He explains that the members of oprichnina were selected based on their birth status and were required to wear a special all black attire, which would identify them to anyone on the street. After a while, that began to be used against them; this enabled other people to fake their uniforms in order to commit similar types of crime. Staden confirms the rule described above by Taube and Kruse that the oprichniki were not allowed to have anything to do with the zemshchiki. According to Taube and Kruse, the oprichniki were separated from the rest of the population, because Ivan IV set up an isolated area for their residence. That meant that they had to be totally cut off from their families. They also explain that many of the nobles that were not selected to be part of the oprichnina, were stripped of all of their belongings and forced out in the street to pursue the life of a beggar. It seems that Taube and Kruse were the only ones of the foreigners who had any detailed information about the original setup of the oprichnina. Both Staden and Schlichting focus on a slightly later period, which makes sense, since both of them began their active role in the government at a later period.
One of the “benefits” that the oprichniki enjoyed as described by Staden was
…a person from the oprichnina could accuse someone from zemshchina of owing him a sum of money. And even if the oprichnik had never known nor seen the accused from zemshchina, the latter had to pay him immediately or he was publicly beaten in the marketplace with knouts or cudgels everyday until he paid.2
Taube and Kruse also confirmed this, as they described the power of an oprichnik to approach a stranger on the street and ask for a payment of any amount. “The person was required to pay that amount instantly with no questions asked; otherwise, they were subjected to acts of extreme brutality.”3
Ivan IV made sure to prosecute people who had displayed a level of kindness in them. That was the case with Prince Ivan Petrovich. There are no dates referenced regarding him on either of the sources. Taube and Kruse do not give a very detailed description of this event. They state that “as for Ivan Petrovich… [Ivan IV] personally stabbed him in a large tent and ordered oprichniki to throw the [body]; they chopped [it] up into more than a hundred pieces and left them out in the middle of a large town square…”.1 The other two accounts, of Schlichting and Staden, tend to support the statements of Taube and Kruse and give an even more detailed description of these events.
Schlichting gives a long thorough description of Prince Ivan Petrovich’s execution. According to Schlichting, Ivan IV brutally murdered Ivan Petrovich by stabbing him multiple times, in front of all his military assistants. Then the oprichniki picked up his body and pulled around the city, to intimidate the city population2. Based on Schlichting’s account, following the cruel and unjustified execution of Ivan Petrovich, Ivan IV decided to get rid of all Ivan Petrovich’s family members and the residents of the fortress that was recently conquered by him. Over sixty family members together with over 300, mostly foreign, residents of Kolomna (which had belonged to Ivan Petrovich) were drowned. Schlichting states that Ivan IV decided to totally annihilate all the people, animals, and lands of Ivan Petrovich’s enormous estate, which consisted several cities. He personally accompanied the oprichniki in performing these brutal acts and displayed great satisfaction at the executions being committed.
According to Staden, the reason for the execution of Prince Ivan Petrovich, who “was one of the chief men of the zemshchina,” was his kindness that he displayed towards the poor people. He describes these events as “villages were burned with their churches and everything that was in them, icons and church ornaments.”1 Staden claims that following the brutality of those town eliminations; there was a low level rebellion by the zemshchiki, who secretly murdered many of the oprichniki who participated in this massacre.
One of the most atrocious acts of violence that by Ivan IV and the oprichnina was the attack on the city of Novgorod, in 1570. According to Esper, the reason for the attack was the city leaders’ rebellion plans that were in alliance with Sigismund-Augustus of Poland-Lithuania.2 All three writings discuss the brutal events that took place there over a period of six weeks. However, not all of their data matches in some specific details.
Taube and Kruse begin with Ivan IV and his oprichnik’s arrival in the outskirts of the city and their attacks on many of the churches in the area. Ivan’s presence meant tormenting of “many thousands of clergymen, merchants, and various craftsmen.”3 He tortured them until they would confess where all their goods were or kill them. Taube and Kruse do not give an exact number of churches that were attacked, but they do state that he ransacked and destroyed everything in the churches to such an extreme, that there was nothing left; things he could not take with him, he would either discard in the river or set to fire. Roginskiy mentions in the introduction, that Taube and Kruse were not present at the location where these events were taking place; therefore, it is realistic to postulate that their information had derived from other sources and some details could be missing.
Staden also describes the events taking place at the churches and monasteries, but from a first hand perspective, of the oprichnina. His description of Ivan’s behavior with the monasteries focused on the anti-church approach. He confirms the brutality and murder of majority of the monks there, giving a number of “three hundred monasteries inside and outside the city and not one of these was spared.”1 Staden also confirms the fact that “anything that the soldiers could not carry off was thrown into the water or burned.”2
Schlichting supports the fact that Ivan IV and the oprichniki attacked many monasteries. He has two variations from the two prior discussed accounts. First, Schlichting makes a point that all the clergy, from the monasteries that were torn down, were killed. Schlichting also changes the number of monasteries torn down from 300 as mentioned by Staden to 170. Graham comments that the main reason for Ivan IV to burn down all those monasteries was to be able to confiscate their lands.3 It is unclear who has the correct number pertaining to the quantity of monasteries, which were destroyed in that six-week period of time.
The other part of the attack was on the secular part of Novgorod. There is a detailed description of the attack from Taube and Kruse and Schlichting, but not Staden. Staden had no numbers to give for the devastating events that took place. Since Staden was a member of the oprichnina and had direct involvement in the event, one would expect more detailed information from him. Staden does mention the destruction of all the physical objects found in Novgorod and confirms, as Taube and Kruse and Schlichting do, that “anything that the soldiers could not be carry off was thrown into the water or burned. If one of the zemskie people retrieved anything from the water, he was hanged… This distress and misery continued in the city for six weeks without interruption.”4 However, Staden makes it sound that even though there were some cruelties done, it was not anything extreme.
Ironically, Taube and Kruse give a rather detailed description about the events that had taken place in Novgorod. They discuss the process of taking away of the various goods from the residents of Novgorod and burning them. They also give estimates as to the number of people of various social classes brutally murdered there. Their estimates are 12,000 nobles and 15,000 more of everyone else in the city, for a total of 27,000 people. As mentioned above, Taube and Kruse were not present at the time that the bloodbath at Novgorod was taking place, therefore they did not have an accurate headcount.
Finally, Schlichting gives the most detailed description of the attack on Novgorod compared with either Taube and Kruse or Staden. He describes that all this was carried out using
“unbelievable tortures, he cut them to pieces, pierced them with spears, and shot them with arrows. The method of execution he favored was to fence off a large area into which he herded a huge number of nobles and leading merchants of whose prominence he was aware. Mounting a horse and brandishing a spear he charged in and ran people through while his son watch the entertainment and joined in the sport.”1
The numbers given by Schlichting, happened to be lower than those given by Taube and Kruse. Schlichting says that Ivan “slew 2,770 Novgorod nobles and wealthy men.”2 Graham proposes that Schlichting’s original paper stated more or less correctly the total number of all people killed in Novgorod. Graham suggests that the concept of that number (2,770) cross-referencing strictly the wealthy population was forced onto Schlichting by papal authorities.3
Another tyrannical event that was an aftermath of the destruction of Novgorod cross-listed by all three writings is the prosecutions that took place in Moscow, on July 25, 1570. All three accounts describe quite graphically, the brutal acts that were executed in front of the whole city that day. Staden, however, gives a much briefer description of the same type brutalities as described by either Schlichting or Taube and Kruse. All three establish the place of the event as downtown marketplace square and emphasize the cruelty displayed that day within a two-hour period, but approach the descriptions differently.
Schlichting provides the most graphic description of the execution and is the only one to officially record the date of the execution, ironically, as being “the Feast Day of St. James.”1 Schlichting starts to list the first seven of the accused that were about to be prosecuted, by name, status, and description of the prosecution technique applied to each of them. Majority of the people that he named held high-ranking government offices. Then Schlichting goes on to state that a total of 300 people were originally brought out, of which 180 were cruelly tormented leading up to death that day. These varied from dipping people in boiling and freezing water, to stabbing with spears, and chopping them up into pieces… all of this after being stripped naked in front of the crowd. The rest of them were to be slaughtered, over the next few days. According to Schlichting, Ivan IV definitely had a broad range of types of executions to conduct on his victims. The one that all three accounts describe graphically is the prosecution of Ivan Mikhailovich, one of Ivan’s personal secretaries. Schlichting describes the event as follows:
They stripped him naked, passed a rope under his arms, tied him to a transverse beam, and let him hang there… The tyrant [said]: ‘Let the most loyal punish the traitor.’ [One] ran up to the man as he hung from the beam, cut off his nose, and rode away on his horse; another darted up and cut off one of Ivan’s ears, and then everyone in turn approached and cut off various parts of his body. Finally, Ivan Reutov, one of the tyrant’s clerks, cut of the man’s genitals and the poor wretch expired on the spot.”2
Schlichting states that this prosecution went on for four hours and left those bodies in the middle of the town square to rot for a week to come. Schlichting’s presence at the event allowed him to give such a graphic description.
Taube and Kruse tend to give a very similar description without giving a list of individual executions. He said that there were 300 noblemen brought over to be executed which supports Schlichting’s statement. They do also give details about the execution of Ivan Mikhailovich “…who he loved same as himself. The church official ordered first to tie the treasurer to a pole and cut him up starting at the bottom.”1 The one fact that Taube and Kruse have mentioned, which was omitted by Schlichting was that Ivan IV had his elder son go along the line of the nobles tied to the poles, one by one and “poked a spear in their stomachs and then butcher them with their swords.”2 Therefore, this was a method of making sure that his son, when he comes to power, maintains the same level of cruelty as his father.
Staden’s account has a very brief mention of the events of that day. He says that a total of 130 noblemen were executed. This seems that he is undermining the number of executions compared to Schlichting and Taube and Kruse. The reason for that could once again be his cruel personality and himself being a member of the oprichnina. Even Staden mentions the beginning of execution conducted on Ivan Mikhailovich Viskovatyi as being “first has his nose and ears cut off, and then his hands.”3 However, that is the most details that he goes into for that day’s events.
The final topic cross-referenced by all the accounts is various types of sexual cruelties displayed by Ivan. Starting with Taube and Kruse, they mention that following the prosecution of Prince Ivan Petrovich, which was discussed earlier. Ivan IV with the assistance of the oprichniki got “women, maidens, and female servers were brought out naked in the presence of many people and were forced to run around catching hens… when all this was done, he said to shoot them with a bow and arrow.”4 Taube and Kruse state that this was all part of Ivan’s search for a wife. They are the only ones that discuss his wife search in detail. However, Staden describes a similar event, following the killing of Prince Ivan Petrovich. His quote about the incident is “women and girls were stripped naked and forced in that state to catch chickens in the fields.”1 Schlichting, however, does not mention the same event in his writing. He states that Ivan IV also instructed the oprichniki, to strip and rape the women of those towns before killing them.2 This was before Dr. Arnold’s arrival to Moscow; therefore, it is not clear neither where Schlichting was working at the time nor if he was even present at Ivan IV’s court.
Overall Taube and Kruse, Albert Schlichting, and Heinrich von Staden have all supported the general idea of Ivan IV’s brutality. There were a number of events that they described in all of their writings. Even though there were mild discrepancies between them, they all tend to support the same general theme of Ivan IV being a cruel and brutal man. There is a record of Ivan IV conducting a number of barbaric acts on thousands of innocent people. He seemed to enjoy to watch other people being tortured in the totally unimaginable ways. Even Staden, who was also a heartless man, says that “The Grand Prince has been such a grim and horrid tyrant that neither Laymen nor clerics savor him, and all the neighboring sovereigns are his enemies, that heathens as well as the Christians.”3 Regardless of the peoples’ hatred to him, he was able to unite Russia into a powerful country. That, however, does not justify the loss and suffering of thousands of innocent people over almost four decades of his reign.
Ivan the Terrible. April 22, 2002. http://www.cnit.uniyar.ac.ru/yaros/images1/uglich/uglich70.jpg. May 1, 2002.
Kruse, Elbert and Taube, Johan. “Poslanie Ioganna Taube i Elberta Kruze.” Translated by Mikhail G. Roginskiy. Russkiy Istoricheskiy Zhurnal July 1922: 29-59.
Oxford Russian Dictionary. 3rd Edition. 2000.
Roginskiy, Mikhail G. “Poslanie Ioganna Taube i Elberta Kruze kak istoricheskii istochnik.” Russkiy Istoricheskiy Zhurnal July 1922: 10-28.
Rowse, A. L. “Europe’s First Glimpse of the Russians. Elizabeth I and Ivan the Terrible – A Study in Diplomacy.” The Saturday Review 7 June 1958: 9+.
Schlichting, Albert. “A Brief Account of the Character and Brutal Rule of Vasil’evich, Tyrant of Muscovy.” Translated and Intro. by Hugh F. Graham. Canadian-American Slavic Studies Summer 1975: 204-66.
Schlichting, Albert. “News from Muscovy Concerning the life and Tyranny of Prince Ivan, Conveyed by the Nobleman , Albert Schlicting.” Translated and Intro. by Hugh F. Graham. Canadian-American Slavic Studies Summer 1975: 266-72.
Staden, Heinrich von. The Land and Government of Muscovy. Translated and intro. by Thomas Esper Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1967. (Original documents were written in 1578.)
Urganov, A. L. “Staricheskiy Myatezh.” Voprosy Istorii 1985: 100-45?