Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ivan the Big Pushy Jerk Just Doesn't Scan

Part of the problem may be in the translation... Not that Ivan Grozny's not a perfectly good name (and, given recent events in the Chechen capital, Grozny is an obvious synonym for terrible). Just that Ivan the Scary or Ivan the Asshat doesn't quite have that kingly ring to it.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe question remains: was he really all that bad?

Oh sure, as a child he was known to defenestrate pets (even though it wasn't called that yet). He introduced serfdom to Russia, essentially enslaving the country's peasant class. He also raped and killed and bullied, apparently as a hobby. In 1581 he assaulted his son's wife (for wearing what he considered inappropriate attire) until she had a miscarriage; when his son found out and got mad, Ivan killed him too. Accidentally, of course.

Okay, so he was a creep. But on the plus side, he... He... Wow, this is harder than I thought it'd be.

He introduced the printing press to Russia (then exiled all the printers when they were critical of him), founded a rudimentary Parliament (in order to grease the palms of nobles and clergy so they'd support him), and opened up Russia to new trading partners, notably the British via the Muscovy Company (no doubt at some profit to himself).

He did order the gorgeous St. Basil's Cathedral to be built... As a tribute to himself for the bloody capture of a neighbouring enemy, the Khanate of Kazan. Of course, then he blinded the architects so they couldn't replicate it.

In the end he died a bully's death; syphilitic, his body loaded with mercury, the first Tsar of Russia was almost certainly murdered. But there must have been a time there, when he was very young, such as on this day in 1530 when he was born or shortly thereafter, when at least his mother loved him.

For all that, his actions point to serious mental illness; one minute filled with towering rage, the next prostrate with religious fervour and supplication. His early writings indicate a boy, orphaned at eight, surrounded at court by poisoners (including the ones who may have killed his parents); wracked by the paranoia wrought by bullying, he overcame his outcast state by outdoing the cruelties of his oppressors.

Again, that's not an excuse, merely a reason.

'What's in a name?' quoth Shakespeare; apparently, in the case of Ivan the Terrible, a good deal of accuracy. Not even the most motivated of revisionist historians could make much of a victim out of this villain; I know, because I tried. Oh, how I tried...
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Seumas Gagne said...

I think it takes more than bullying to make a monster. A good dash of self-pity is also required.

michael sean morris said...

I've been pondering this very question quite a bit lately; my own views on nature vs nurture fall right down the center. A terrible childhood can create a monster, but lots of people with terrible childhoods become lovely people. Ultimately a choice is made, and why that choice is made is what interests me.