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Russian History and Ivan the Terrible
I do not intend to write a book about the history of Russia, but if we are to understand the behaviour and future plans of that country, then we cannot ignore its past. I will discuss several episodes and individuals who, I am convinced, laid the foundations for the expansion of Russia's territory, and who had a far-reaching influence on shaping the Russian nation. That's why approximately one third of this book is devoted to historical events that are of crucial importance for understanding the current situation. The history of Russia can be studied in countless books, but one must be wary of publications by historians who are close to the Russian regime and who consequently twist, conceal or simply make up facts. Their work is full of disinformation and is designed to promote Russia's imperialist ideology.
To make things clear from the very start, I wish to explain that when I use the words "Russian nation", I refer to the majority of those who identify themselves as being Russian. As is the case in any society, Russia has people with different viewpoints. It goes without saying that many Russians are good and kind-hearted people.
In the book Democracy in America, French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) described and analysed the United States of America, which had only recently been founded. He aptly pointed out that in order to gain a firmly grounded understanding of a country, it is not enough to study that country's present. It is equally important to analyse the country's origins, along with the characteristics, customs and laws of its initial founders. De Tocqueville concluded that the Pilgrims, as the founders of the first permanent European settlement in New England, had a large influence in the future traits of what would later become the United States. These were people with a highly developed sense of morals. They wanted the freedom to practice their religion and they wanted to live in a democratic environment, with no social class distinctions or special privileges. The Pilgrims sought to found a community that was based on equality and the rule of law, as opposed to the rule of aristocrats or monarchs.
Similarly, if we are to understand present-day Russia, then we need to know about the country's origins. If one analyses the initial events of Russia's history and compares them with Russia's behaviour in recent times, then a careful observer will not fail to notice that the 250 years during which Russians were subjugated to Mongol rule have left indelible marks on the character of the Russian nation, and particularly on the country's governing elite. Genghis Khan became the ruler of the Mongols in 1206, and over the course of a single generation, he created the foundations for an empire that would soon become the largest realm that the world had ever seen. The armies of subsequent Mongol khans conquered Russian lands with unbelievable brutality and cruelty. Anyone in the cities or countryside who dared to oppose their onslaught, even to a minimal extent, was slaughtered without mercy. However, this brutal approach in conquering and ruling over other countries proved to be very effective, and the men and women who became Russia's subsequent rulers would never forget this lesson.
There is imprecise knowledge about the origins of Russia, but historians agree that the first ruler of the Rus' (a medieval group of Slavic people) was a Viking named Rurik (c. 830-879). According to legend, the locals of the Ladoga region themselves asked Rurik to become their ruler. Rurik established his seat of power in Novgorod, a large and wealthy town inhabited by merchants. Rurik's relatives became rulers of the surrounding cities and towns, and two of his contemporaries, Askold and Dir, were allegedly authorized to rule Kyiv. No one knows whether Askold and Dir actually existed, but according to one legend, Rurik's successor Oleg assassinated Askold and Dir in 882. He chose Kyiv as his seat of power, because the city had better links with Byzantium, being located further south on the banks of the massive Dnieper River.
Oleg is considered to be the founder of the Kievan Rus', which encompassed the territory that stretches between Novgorod and Kyiv and which is viewed as the cultural cradle of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The Viking origins of Rurik's dynasty and Kyiv as the first capital city of the Rus' are uncomfortable facts for the historians and ideologues of Russia's current regime, who have tried in all kinds of ways to misrepresent or gloss them over. Oleg was the first to begin Russia's expansion and to unite various Slavic tribes. If the story about Askold and Dir is true, then the Russian state began its life after its ruler Oleg committed a double murder.
The most important and far-reaching event in early Russian history is the occupation of the Kievan Rus' by the Mongols. The troubles for the Russians began in 1223, when the forces of the Rus' were all but destroyed during a battle at the Kalka River. Despite this major victory, the Mongols retreated, but they returned again in 1238, and two years later, they occupied Kyiv. Novgorod was protected by its distance, forests and swamps, but because the city had been weakened by endless wars with neighbours, it accepted Mongol rule without offering any armed resistance. Thus began a period of bondage that the Russians refer to as Tatar rule and that lasted for approximately 250 years.
For clarity's sake, the Tatars were Turkic people that the Mongols subjugated and incorporated into their horde. Many Tatar soldiers joined the Mongols during their medieval period of empire-building and conquest. For this reason, the Russians have traditionally linked the Tatars with the Mongols and have used the term Tatar to denote Mongols as well as the Turkic peoples under Mongol rule. Today, the term Tatar refers to several distinct groups of Muslim Turkic people who inhabit different parts of present-day Russia and Ukraine.
The Mongol-Tatar rulers imposed severe taxes and forced Russians to serve in their army. Sometimes they conducted violent military raids in territories that they had already subjugated as a means to terrify their subjects and quell any thoughts of rebellion. Western influence all but disappeared. Russians became accustomed to despotism, unlimited power for the ruler, and brutal treatment of prisoners, hostages and indentured servants. Human life was of no importance in this system of values.
The Mongols and Tatars assigned the task of collecting taxes to local Russian rulers, who were their vassals. The princes of Moscow proved to be the most diligent at this task. For this and other reasons, the Grand Principality of Moscow gradually became the most powerful Russian state, moving ahead of Kyiv. Moscow's rulers gradually began to retain more and more of the tax revenues for their own purposes. Several princes or knyazes ended up living long lives, and that created political stability. The city was at a strategically important location near the Volga River and its tributaries. Moscow's military power increased, but in the end, liberation from the overlordship of the Mongols and Tatars was due mostly to internal dissent within the ranks of the invaders. When an army of the Great Horde (a remnant of the Golden Horde) faced off against the Russians at the Ugra River in 1480, there was no decisive battle. Indeed, each army retreated and went its own way.
This can be seen as the time when foreign rule in Russia ended. The Russians stopped paying taxes to their former masters from the East, and during the next 20 years, the final remnants of the Golden Horde collapsed completely. The "Tatars" were gone for good, and the Russians once again became masters in their own lands. Then the roles changed. Russia started to attack other nations, and to assume the role of conqueror and oppressor.
Indeed, the "Tatar yoke" had left an indelible mark on the mentality and behaviour of Russia's rulers and their subjects. This could be clearly seen when Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), came to power. Like the Mongols who preceded him, Ivan employed brutal methods to conquer vast territories. He slaughtered those who opposed him, as well as anyone else whom he saw as a real, potential or imagined enemy. Among his victims was his oldest son and heir, whom Ivan killed with an iron walking stick. He also caused his pregnant daughter-in-law to have a miscarriage. Ivan's rule was marked by an endless litany of murder, looting, torture and rape, with countless people falling victim to his wrath, including many of Ivan's own Russian compatriots.
Any foreigner who wishes to understand modern-day Russia should read a few biographies about Ivan. Among those that I have read, the one that seems to be the most thorough and precise in scholarly terms is Ivan the Terrible by Robert Payne and British-born American writer Nikita Romanoff (he was an exiled Russian prince and a great nephew of the last tsar, Nicholas II).
If the Pilgrims can be seen as having laid the moral foundations of the United States, then the father of the morals and methods employed by Russian rulers is Ivan the Terrible. Ever since Ivan's death, his successors have studied his methods and learned from him. Biographies about Russian tsar Peter the Great and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin indicate that both rulers studied the techniques of Ivan's rule. Following Stalin's death, a book about Ivan was found in his personal library. Stalin had written on the cover: "Teacher, teacher, teacher". It is thus not surprising that the Soviet KGB was built upon exactly the same principles as Ivan the Terrible's dreaded secret police, the oprichnina.
Russian historians often describe Ivan's crimes in passing, and always justify them on the basis of the same moral norms – Ivan acted as he did because he needed to consolidate his power, and the expansion of Russian territory under his reign was good for the empire. This view of history can be seen even in the tsar's name: for Russians, he is Ivan the Formidable (Ivan Grozny). For the people of neighbouring countries, he has always been Ivan the Terrible (Janis Briesmigais in Latvian, Ivan der Schreckliche in German).
To offer readers a further insight into the rule of Ivan the Terrible, I will relate a few episodes from the book by Payne and Romanoff. First of all, there was the way in which Ivan settled accounts. The case of Ivan Cheliadnin is a good example. Cheliadnin had been a governor of Moscow. He owned several large baronial estates with many serfs. He was known as a man of honour, a leader who had been kind and goodhearted, a devout Christian. Then came the day when the tsar grew angry with the nobleman. Cheliadnin was summoned to Moscow. He sensed his fate and said farewell to his family. It seems, however, that he never imagined what would happen to his relatives, friends, acquaintances and servants. As soon as Cheliadnin arrived for his audience with the tsar, he was humiliated. Then Ivan stabbed him with a dagger several times. The wounds did not kill the old boyar immediately, so the tsar ordered his guards to finish Cheliadnin off and to dump his body at the Red Square for everyone to see.
That was not the end of the story, however. The next six weeks turned into an orgy of unimaginable crimes. The tsar ordered reprisals against practically everyone – from noblemen to simple peasants – who had had anything to do with Cheliadnin. His family members were killed. All of his servants were thrown into rivers and drowned, as were some 300 peasants who lived at one of Cheliadnin's estates. The buildings of his estates were razed, as were the estates owned by the late nobleman's acquaintances or friends. These estates were attacked in surprise night raids, with Ivan himself sometimes taking part.
Another terrifying form of reprisal would also be repeated later in Russian history. The most attractive wives and daughters of Cheliadnin's associates were taken to Moscow – some 500 women in all, according to evidence from that period. Ivan selected 50 of the most beautiful women and raped them. Those who displeased or resisted him were drowned. The other women were assigned for the pleasure of the tsar's inner circle.
Even merchants, civil servants and craftsmen who had had anything to do with the Cheliadnin family were murdered. Their homes were sacked and the women of their households were subjected to humiliation and violence. Ivan loved to come up with new and increasingly sophisticated ways of torturing and killing people. In one instance, the oprichnina – Ivan's black-robed army of killers – captured a group of soldiers who were living at one of Cheliadnin's country estates. The soldiers were stripped of their clothes and locked into a building that was then blown up with gunpowder.
Payne and Romanoff describe other gruesome execution methods that the tsar's secret police employed against Cheliadnin and his associates. In one case, a group of women was forced to take off their clothes and then chased into a forest. Members of the oprichnina hunted the women down like animals, torturing and killing those whom they managed to capture. Another group of women was stripped naked and ordered to catch some chickens that had been let loose. As the women ran after the chickens, the oprichnina used them for target practice, shooting arrows at them and killing them all.
These crimes were directed against a single individual, but resulted in the murder of countless other people who were seen to be linked with Cheliadnin. Later, Ivan subjected entire cities to similar fates. The most thorough information available is about the sacking and destruction of Novgorod, a city of trade with a prosperous merchant class. Novgorod had been annexed by the Grand Principality of Moscow in 1478 and had no army of its own. Nevertheless, it enjoyed a positive image as the first capital city of Russian lands in 862. For centuries, Novgorod had competed with Moscow as a centre of influence, wealth and culture.
Ivan arrived at the gates of Novgorod during the winter of 1570, accompanied by a large oprichnina force. The tsar was determined to end the city's special status once and for all. Novgorod's inhabitants were completely defenceless against the onslaught, during which the city was sacked and its most influential residents killed. The oprichnina hunted down wealthy merchants, looting their homes, stores and warehouses. Carts loaded with confiscated gold and silver objects, icons, furs and all kinds of valuables were sent off to fill the tsar's coffers.
The fate of a wealthy merchant named Fyodor Syrkov is worth mentioning. He was known as a philanthropist who generously supported cloisters. Syrkov had hidden his riches, and when he fell into the hands of the oprichnina, he at first refused to disclose where they were. Ivan had Syrkov put into a large pot with water up to his knees. A fire was lit under the cauldron. Before the water reached boiling point, Syrkov disclosed the hiding place of 12,000 silver roubles (their purchasing power today equivalent to approximately 2 million US dollars), but that did not save him. Ivan ordered that he be chopped into pieces and dumped into the Volkhov River, which flows through Novgorod.
The churches and their clergy were not spared, either. Icons and other valuable objects – many of which had been donated by faithful parishioners – were taken away. Ivan wanted as much booty as possible, but most of all, he wanted to terrorize the inhabitants of Novgorod so that those who survived the massacre would never consider any future resistance to his regime. This was the method that Ivan had learned from the Mongols, and that his successors Peter I and Joseph Stalin also used effectively, centuries later.
The massacre of Novgorod's inhabitants was carried out with indescribable cruelty. The tsar ordered the construction of a high platform above a wooden bridge. The ice under the bridge was broken and victims were pushed alive into the freezing water with their hands and feet bound. The men were pushed off the bridge, while the women and children were thrown into the river from the high platform. Next to the execution site, members of the oprichnina patrolled the river in boats, using axes and lances to strike at anyone who managed to float up to the surface, ensuring that all of the victims either drowned or were dragged under the ice by the river's current.
It is impossible to estimate the exact number of casualties during this five-week orgy of murder and violence. Modern-day Russian historians have calculated that the oprichnina murdered at least 3,000 people, or 10% of the city's population. Older chronicles cite much higher figures (30,000). Many other mostly lower-class peasants perished from famine and diseases, as a result of the fact that the city and its surrounding area had been razed, warehouses had been burned down, and food had been confiscated or destroyed. Incidentally, the confiscation of food was effectively used by Stalin to kill millions of Ukrainians during the Holodomor in 1932-1933.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Face To Face With Russia"
Copyright © 2019 Vilis Vitols.
Excerpted by permission of Mosaic Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface by MEP Sandra Kalniete,
Russian History and Ivan the Terrible,
Russia's Goals, Strategy and Tactics. Hybrid War,
Lies and Brainwashing,
Why Democracy is Impossible in Russia,
A Lack of Understanding in the West,
Western Goals and Strategies,
Russia's Strengths and Weaknesses,
GDP as a Reliable Indicator of a Country's Capabilities. Haigerloch,
Weapons from the West. Peenemünde,
Why the Further Deterioration of Western-Russian Relations is Unavoidable,
The Wrong Strategy for Dealing with Russia,
The Correct Strategy for Dealing with Russia,
Summary / Epilogue,
About the Author,