Iran the Terrible

[Yale University Press, $3.00]
THIS full-length portrait of the first and most notorious of the Russian Tsars fills a gap on the English shelf of Russian collections that had long been known and deprecated by informed scholars and historians but as consistently neglected by them. Mr. Stephen Graham has now put between book covers convincing proof of much diligent research and gives further evidence of the broad understanding of Russian manners and psychology which characterizes his previous works. The result is a biography which in quality and form is a distinguished contribution to letters.
To offset the natural revulsion or anticipated incredulity of readers as they pursue the sadistic career of Ivan IV from his birth in 1530 to his death in 1584, the author, in his preface, wisely and briefly sketches a backdrop of historic facts against which his paranoiac protagonist ranges, suffused in the red glow common to sixteenth-century autocrats. If life was cheaply held in
a Russia that had been degraded and Orientalized by two centuries and a half of Mongolian domination, it must always be remembered that human beings were equally played as common pawns in the contemporary statecraft of Western Europe. With literary skill and understanding Mr. Graham then selects the significant domestic influences surrounding the future Tsar in his formative years. He relies on the facts to furnish, if not condonation, at least reasons and explanations for the incredible blood lust that was soon to develop. He depicts an orphaned and neglected heir wandering about in a court overrun and tyrannized by boisterous boyars — the landed aristocracy of Muscovy. The wrongs, the abuses, the coarseness, intrigue, and prevalent barbarity, brutalized Ivan’s character and sowed a poison in the susceptible mind of childhood that was to bear terrifying fruit when his arm was strong enough to strike.
It would appear, however, that the current of revenge was diverted temporarily by his marriage, at the age of seventeen, with Anastasia, for whom alone of all his seven wives he entertained a lasting affection. The thirteen years of wedded life with her were the happiest, the most productive, and in fact the only normal years of his existence. Mr. Graham pays due credit to Ivan’s administrative abilities during this period and considers him, up to that time, ‘the wisest ruler Russia had known.’
But a devil of unparalleled cruelty that had been expelled by the gentle Anastasia took repossession of Ivan’s soul on her demise in 1560. Attributing her death in some indefinite way to his hereditary enemies the boyars, the Tsar, just turned thirty, embarked on that final phase of terrorism, brutality, debauchery, and perverted sexuality that made him John the Dread. He surrounded himself with an organization of fellowminded assassins and terrorists called oprichniki. His monstrous cruelties ranged from personal torture of individual victims reserved for his after-dinner amusement to the collective slaughter of 60,000 citizens of Novgorod. Mr. Graham’s terse, lucid, and rapid prose keeps pace admirably with the barbaric crescendo of Ivan’s rage, which ended in the murder of his own son, the Tsarevitch, in 1581. In keeping with his religious mysticism that was merely another Russian paradox, the Tsar alternated between orgies of viciousness and periods of profound penitence and self-pity during which he would fling himself for hours on end before the altar, read the Scriptures to his bullies assembled in the garb of monks, bruise his forehead with repeated prostrations before the ikons, and then arise comforted — and ready for new victims.
The specific manner and details of Ivan’s executions, as recorded elsewhere, are too ghastly to set down in cold print. Mr. Graham, for the most part, has mercifully veiled the realities, though there is much plain writing on many of his pages. Ivan slew and tortured with the righteous conviction that innocent and guilty alike ought to welcome his visitations as the merited wrath of God operating through the anointed person of His Tsar on earth. Perhaps that is what justifies the pregnant sentence so characteristic of Mr. Graham’s compact and vigorous style in which he raises the question whether Ivan should be considered a great, man. The author evades a direct reply, but adds, ‘He was a great Russian, and there is a difference.’ Students of Russian mentality will doubtless understand and probably agree.
The comic relief in this volume is Mr. Graham’s excellent account of Ivan in the rôle of suitor for the hand of Elizabeth of England. The Tudor queen encouraged the flirtation, and the ensuing episodes and correspondence are as entertaining as they are ironic. The Tsar sensed a kindred spirit and wrote offers of love and joint glory — even though his courtship was virtually an invitation to Elizabeth to enter his harem, as the fifth of his seven known consorts was still alive. Elizabeth, finding it ‘rather delicious,’ replied guardedly and sent ambassadors to look into the matter, but not to omit treaties of trade and commerce. When the comedy was played out, she demurely proposed Lady Mary Hastings as a substitute, coyly sent her sisterly love, and invited Ivan to take refuge in England, — at his own expense, — should he ever lose his throne.