Assassinations By Ivan The Terrible

Russian history abounds in instances of famous assassinations. Sometimes these murders were committed by the rulers of Russia, at other times these rulers themselves were the victims.

Ivan the Fourth, whose very surname, “the Terrible,” sufficiently indicates his character, was one of the most cruel and inhuman monarchs who ever ruled over a nation, either in ancient or modern times. It is therefore not one famous assassination which we wish to describe, but a series of monstrous crimes, unparalleled in history as the acts of one individual.

Ivan was only three years old when his father died. A regency was formed, composed of his mother and a council of boyars, belonging to different factions, who were constantly at war with one another. At no time had Russia been more poorly governed. As Ivan grew up, he was despised and maltreated by the haughty nobility; his favorites were abused. In order to divert his mind from nobler occupations and keep him in profound ignorance of public affairs, he was amused and entertained with coarse and brutal games which developed his innate cruelty and ferocity, and made him, at an early age, the terror of those who were subordinated to him. He delighted in torturing and slowly killing domestic animals, and also in crippling and killing old men and old women whom he encountered in the streets while riding fast horses or driving a carriage like a madman, without looking either right or left. He was a mere boy yet—hardly fourteen—when the boyars began to fear him and predicted a reign of terror when he should assume the reins of government.

At seventeen, he dissolved the regency and declared his intention to reign for himself. He also wanted to get married, and sent out messengers to the different provinces of the Empire to pick out the most beautiful young girls and send them to the capital, that he might choose a wife from among their number. Many noblemen hid their handsome daughters, or sent them far away from home on hearing of the Czar’s intention. His reputation for excessive cruelty had reached already the remotest parts of the Empire, and nearly every boyar trembled at the mere idea of becoming his father-in-law. But the messenger succeeded nevertheless in bringing together several hundred young girls of extraordinary beauty, and sent them to the capital. Ivan then chose from their number Anastasia Romanowna, a young girl of great beauty and great brilliancy of mind. He fell desperately in love with her, and through the superiority of her mind she gained a great influence over him, and succeeded even in keeping his cruelty in check.

Ivan was a man of natural ability. He had some striking qualities, and might have been a great ruler if his education had been entrusted to competent and wise teachers. At an early age he learned the art of dissembling to perfection, and possessed the rare faculty of keeping his plans and intentions secret even from his closest friends. It was only after the conquest of Kasan that he threw off the mask. Until then he had been exceedingly friendly and kind to a number of the powerful noblemen, who considered themselves almost his peers in rank and birth. But when that conquest had added to his power and authority, he suddenly said to his boyars: “At last I am free! God has made me the master over all. Beware!” Again it was his wife, Anastasia Romanowna, who with rare political sagacity prevented him from too openly showing hostility and impatience at their pretentious conduct. He was very young, and could afford to wait. But in 1560, when Ivan was only twenty-nine years old, Anastasia, his best friend and his ablest counsellor, died, and he found no loving hand to restrain his passions and keep his cruelty and ferocity in check. Nevertheless, for some time after her death the softening influence of his wife (whom he had really loved) over his cruel nature made itself felt, and for the next four years he proceeded rather cautiously. He considered all the boyars his enemies and traitors; and he commenced murdering them, one at a time.

In 1564 he threw off all restraint. He suddenly disappeared with all his soldiers and servants, and rumors were circulated that he intended to abdicate the crown and to retire from public life. The abject fear in which the people had lived for thirty years had fully demoralized them. Boyars, clergymen, and the great mass of the people went nearly crazy at the idea that their “dear little father” would no longer rule over them. At last they discovered his place of retirement, and the manifestations of public delight at this discovery were almost boundless. Delegation after delegation waited upon him and implored him on their knees that he might return to his capital and continue to govern them. At last Ivan consented to return, but he consented conditionally. He demanded—and they all cheerfully agreed to the demand—that he should have full and absolute power to punish all his enemies and all traitors by banishment or death and confiscation of their property, without being interfered with, even by the clergy. It was a regular coup d’état. From this act dates the absolute rule of the emperors of Russia, and Ivan the Fourth thenceforth took the official title of “Czar of all the Russias,” which his successors have retained to the present day.

Ivan had carefully matured his plan. He took possession of a certain number of cities and country districts, expelled the proprietors from them, declared them territory forfeited to the government, and distributed them among certain of his own adherents upon whose fidelity he could count. These adherents generally were taken from the lowest classes of the people, knew no other law than the will of their master, and obeyed him blindly. While confiscating all these estates without mercy or hesitation, on the most trivial or far-fetched pretexts, he was shrewd enough to respect constitutional rights in other parts of the Empire. His plan was to increase the imperial private domains gradually to enormous proportions by dispossessing year after year the legitimate proprietors of the soil, and by this method to destroy the power of the nobility. In order to accomplish this purpose he did not hesitate to employ the most cruel and disreputable means for the conviction and punishment of his intended victims.

One of his favorite ways for entrapping and punishing a rich boyar was to order one of the servants employed in the imperial household to steal jewelry or other valuables, and then to seek refuge in the boyar’s residence. Of course, the fugitive was closely pursued by the Czar’s guards, drawn from his hiding-place, and then massacred together with the boyar and his family, who, the Czar pretended to believe, were the thief’s accomplices and deserved death as well as the offender. But much oftener the terrible Czar rushed down, with a numerous suite of his followers, upon the residence of a wealthy boyar, put all the men, the children and the old women of the domain to the sword, carried off the young women and girls, and abandoned them on the highways after he and his gang had satisfied their desires on them. On the trumped up charge that Grand Duke Wladimir, his own cousin, as well as the Grand Duke’s wife and grown daughters had participated in a conspiracy against the Czar’s life, he forced him to commit suicide by drinking poison, while the Grand Duchess and her beautiful young daughters, and all their ladies of honor and female servants, were divested of their garments, exposed in a state of complete nudity on the market space of the town adjacent to their domain, and afterwards butchered in cold blood. Wladimir’s immense wealth and all his real estate were confiscated by the crown. In this manner Ivan succeeded in overpowering the boyars, one after another, in a very short time, and acquiring immense wealth. He visited the different provinces and departments in succession, and wherever he appeared he left a track of desolation, rapine, and murder. From the capital of each province he organized marauding tours in all directions, placing each under the command of an officer on whose devotion to himself and ferocity to others he could count. But the most terrible expeditions were those which he commanded himself. It can truthfully be said that wherever Ivan “visited,” he destroyed everything in sight,—not only the human inhabitants, but also the farm and domestic animals, even dogs and cats. He took also a pleasure in draining ponds and creeks, so as to cause the fish to die, and after having killed or mutilated all things living, he ordered the buildings to be set on fire, and left the scene of his cruelty and lust amidst the wild huzzas of his comrades. No civilized, or half-civilized country had ever witnessed such atrocities on the part of its own ruler.

If Ivan was not travelling and marauding he resided generally in the Alexandrowna Convent, which he had strongly fortified. This convent, situated in the neighborhood of Moscow, and surrounded by dense forests, was not only the scene of his bestial orgies and excesses, and of his more than beastly cruelty, but also of his hypocritical zeal for religion and divine service. The convent, although transformed into a palace, remained still a convent. Ivan’s most abject and infamous favorites were acting as monks, while Ivan himself performed the functions of the pontiff. He also acted as a bell-ringer for the church. Quite early in the morning, at four o’clock, mass was read and public service was held in the church, lasting till seven o’clock. Regularly every evening, from seven to eight o’clock, there was again divine service. The time intervening between the dinner and the last church service was employed by him in going to the torture rooms of the palace where his victims—and there was always a number of them—were subjected to the most excruciating pain, and in many cases tortured to death. To be invited to these scenes of horror was a mark of imperial favor.

Ivan was never in better humor or happier than after having witnessed the tortures or the execution of a man whom he had sacrificed to his greed for wealth or to his vindictiveness. It is reported that one day when one hundred and twenty persons were to be executed—either strangled, hung, beheaded, or quartered—at Moscow, and when the inhabitants of the streets near the place of the execution had fled in horror from the neighborhood, the Czar sent out his soldiery and compelled thousands of citizens to be spectators of the wholesale butchery. He sat there himself on an elevated stage applauding the torturers and executioners when, in his opinion, they had done their task well and had prolonged the agony of the victim as much as possible. When the cruel spectacle was over, he rose to his feet and addressed the spectators as follows: “My loyal subjects! You have seen torture and death! Some of you are horror-struck at what you have witnessed! My punishment is severe, but it is just. All these men and women were traitors to their Czar, and deserved to die. Answer me, was I right in punishing them?” And the tremendous audience, almost frightened to death, as with one voice replied: “Glory and long life to the Czar! Death to the traitors!” The sight of blood, of suffering and of death seemed to have an intoxicating effect on this unparalleled monster, and he never tired of it to the day of his death.

The high dignitaries of the Church fared no better at Ivan’s hands. Whenever they stood in the way of his ambition, or whenever they presumed to criticise him for his crimes, he treated them with the same cruelty and inflicted the same punishments upon them as upon the boyars. In that way he imposed silence on the clergy, and caused them even to sanction his worst misdeeds. But one day, after an especially atrocious marauding expedition of the Czar, the Metropolitan of Moscow mustered sufficient courage to reprimand him publicly. On the twenty-second of March, 1568, Ivan entered the cathedral, expecting the blessing of the high-priest. The latter did not stir, but kept his eyes fixed upon a picture representing Christ in all his glory. “Holy Father,” said one of the boyars to the Metropolitan, “the Czar is here; bless him!” “I do not recognize the Czar!” replied the Metropolitan. “Since this world was created and the sun was placed in the skies, it has never been known that a Czar has committed such atrocities and crimes in his own state as ours has. Here in this church we offer our prayers to God, and beyond its walls the blood of innocent Christians is shed in torrents.” Then turning to Ivan, he said in a loud voice: “The very stones under thy feet will rise against thee and cry out against thy crimes and atrocities! God has bidden me tell you and warn you, even if I should suffer death for my boldness!” And death was his punishment, although not at the very moment. As a rebel, he was sentenced to imprisonment for life at Twer. But it happened so that Ivan, the year after, passed through Twer on one of his marauding expeditions. It was then that he remembered Philip, the Metropolitan, who had accosted him so boldly. He sent half a dozen of his soldiers to the prison, and they strangled the Metropolitan without previous notice. This assassination paved the way for many others among the clergy, until Ivan had so intimidated them that thenceforth not even a whisper was heard among them against his cruelties.

It then became apparent how readily the example of an infamous ruler is followed by his courtiers and attendants. The boyars and officers accompanying him on his expeditions of murder and pillage tried to surpass him in iniquity; in their very appearance they showed their true character, adorning themselves with symbols of their ferocity. When they started on their marauding tour, they attached a bleeding dog’s-head and a broom to the neck and saddle of each horse, signifying by these decorations that they would bite like savage dogs and sweep off the ground all they could find. Whomsoever they found on the highways they would arrest and hang as traitors to the Czar, and in the villages and towns on their route they would commit the most horrid excesses, sparing neither sex nor age. If the inhabitants had fled at their approach, they reported them to the Czar as his enemies who were plotting against his life, and he issued decrees of vengeance declaring their property confiscated and their lives forfeited. In this way they kept the inhabitants at home waiting in terror for the arrival of their tormentors.

After having decimated and terrorized the nobility and the clergy, Ivan turned his attention principally to the merchants and wealthy citizens. The commercial centres, in which a great amount of capital had accumulated, were the special objects of his greed, especially if they showed a spirit of independence. Prominent among these was Novgorod, the ancient and wealthy city, proud of her free institutions and her honored name. It was this pride and her great wealth which pointed out Novgorod as a victim for Ivan’s wrath and cupidity, and the manner in which he planned and executed his evil designs on the city shows his diabolical genius at its height. Never has tyrant or despot conceived a more sinister and treacherous plot for the ruin of a great city and for the assassination of its inhabitants. The horrors of St. Bartholomew’s night pale in comparison.

A Polish vagabond, on the personal command of Ivan, wrote a petition, with the forged signatures of the Archbishop of Novgorod and a large number of leading and wealthy citizens and addressed to the King of Poland, in which the latter was supplicated to assume the sovereignty over Novgorod and the province in which it was situated, and to assist the citizens in their desire of shaking off the yoke of Ivan. By Ivan’s direction this petition was concealed in the great cathedral, behind a picture of the Holy Virgin. The Polish vagabond, after having executed the task dictated to him, came to Moscow and charged the city of Novgorod with treasonable designs against the Czar. Upon this information the Czar immediately sent messengers with the Polish vagabond to Novgorod, where, as a matter of course, the forged petition was found hidden behind the picture of the Holy Virgin in the cathedral. This was considered proof sufficient to condemn the whole city. No further investigation was deemed necessary. Ivan kept quiet, but the inhabitants knew what was in store for them. They trembled and waited. They had not to wait a long time. Two weeks after the discovery, on the twenty-first day of January, 1570, the first detachments of an imperial army, commanded by some of Ivan’s most trusted and most cruel lieutenants, entered the city. They immediately proceeded to seal the doors of all the churches and chapels, and took possession of the residences of the wealthy inhabitants, where they established their headquarters. All traffic was suspended. No citizen was permitted to leave the city, nor could goods of any kind be shipped from it. A dead silence and fear hung over the city. Nobody knew what the Czar intended to do, but that he would do something horrible, everybody felt, and also that there was no escape from him.

At last he came. He took up his residence in the Archbishop’s palace. He treated the priests and the Archbishop himself like servants; he drank and feasted with his boyars, while the priests had to wait upon him at table. And then suddenly, when he rose, he uttered a loud shout of triumph, and this was the signal for his lieutenants to order a general pillage throughout the city. Without any control by their superiors, the soldiers committed plunder, murder, violence, and outrages of all kinds. The treasures accumulated in the churches and large business houses Ivan had reserved for himself, and his orders were strictly observed; nobody touched what he had designated for his share. The palace of the Archbishop became the scene of the most beastly orgies and excesses. The wives and daughters of the noblest families were dragged before Ivan, and after having picked out the most beautiful for his own use, he turned the others over to his lieutenants and companions. Many of the unfortunate women committed suicide, many others died from the effects of the terrible abuse to which they had been subjected. The Czar knew no pity. “Such scenes of horror, iniquity, and inhumanity,” says a foreign eye-witness, “had not been seen in the world since the destruction of Jerusalem.”

The work of devastation, pillage, murder, violence, and incendiarism lasted five weeks. At last the Czar thought it was time to stop the bloody carnival. The measure was full to overflowing,—not only the measure of misery, affliction, distress, and death for the unfortunate and innocent inhabitants of Novgorod, but also the measure of lust and cruelty for himself. The constant indulgence in voluptuous excesses told upon his constitution; he was worn out and surfeited with animal gratification; his eyes had a vague, almost lifeless expression; his herculean frame commenced to tremble, his legs to totter. No less than twenty-seven thousand persons, men, women, and children, had perished; there was not a family which did not lament one or more dead among its members. The corpses were thrown into the river, and at some points they had been thrown in in such numbers that the river was impeded in its current. On the first day of the sixth week, Ivan called citizens living in all the different streets of the city together and addressed them as follows: “Men of Novgorod, and all of you who are still alive, pray to God and thank him for your escape from peril; thank your Czar too, for it is to his mercy and his fear of God that you owe your safety; and thank also his soldiers, whose humane treatment saved you from death. Pray to God that he may give us power and strength to vanquish all our enemies! Much blood has been shed for the punishment of traitors. These traitors are responsible to God for all that has happened here during the last five weeks. May God have mercy on them. And now stop your crying and weeping! Live and be happy, and may your city grow and prosper!”

Cæsar Borgia could not have done better than this brutal monster of the North. He was the genius of cruelty and hypocrisy personified in one man.


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