Ivan the Terrible and the Origins of Russian State Security

Ivan the Terrible and Maliuta Skuratov

Ivan IV ‘the Terrible’, Grand Prince of Moscow in 1533 at the age of only three, who became first ‘Tsar of all the Russias’ in 1547, remains the most mysterious as well as the most terrifying of sixteenth-century European monarchs. Though most biographies and many histories of Russia contain portraits of him, all are imaginary. In striking contrast to the contemporary English Tudor dynasty, no authentic likeness of Ivan survives. The written sources are also more fragmentary and more frequently unreliable than in the case of any other major sixteenth-century ruler, though reports by English merchants and diplomats, which were kept secret at the time, fill some gaps in the Russian records.

The reign of Ivan the Terrible cast a long and brutal shadow over the later history of Russian intelligence and security. Stalin, his greatest twentieth-century admirer, called him a ‘great and wise ruler’ but blamed him for not being terrible enough. Had Ivan ‘knifed through’ five more noble families, Stalin claimed, the authority of the Tsar would have been maintained and Russia spared the ‘Time of Troubles’ which reduced it to chaos less than two decades after Ivan’s death in 1584. Stalin himself made no such mistake in the Great Terror of 1936–8 which killed and imprisoned millions of mostly imaginary traitors. In January 1941, Stalin sent instructions to the great film-maker Sergei Eisenstein to make a film about Ivan the Terrible. By commissioning a film showing that Ivan’s Terror was necessary, Stalin sought to justify his own.

Ivan IV lived in constant fear of conspiracies against him. In December 1564 he left the Kremlin for his fortified country estate at Alexandrovskaya Sloboda, about 100 kilometres north-east of Moscow, from which he accused boyars, other nobles and Moscow court officials of ‘treasonable deeds’; even clerics, he claimed, were ‘covering up’ for the traitors. In January 1565 he announced his intention to divide his realm into two: the oprichnina (a term derived from oprich, ‘separate’) under his personal control and the zemshchina (from zemlia, ‘land’) ruled by the boyars in Moscow. Though a complete separation between the two parts of Ivan’s realm was never established and he spent much of his time in the Moscow Kremlin rather than in the country, the royal decree establishing the oprichnina gave the Tsar unlimited power to ‘eradicate treason’ and execute ‘traitors’.

Oprichniks in Novgorod by Mikhail Avilov

Ivan gave responsibility for identifying and disposing of traitors to his newly established imperial guard, the oprichniki, who, bizarrely, he liked to think of as a monastic order with himself as ‘Father Superior’. The oprichniki, though their responsibilities went beyond intelligence collection and analysis, were Russia’s first organized security service. Swathed in black and mounted on black horses, they must have seemed like a vision from the Apocalypse as they rode though Russia. Each had a dog’s head symbolically attached to his saddle (to sniff out and attack treason) and carried a broom (to sweep away traitors). A seventeenth-century silver candlestick preserved in the museum at Alexandrovskaya Sloboda shows Ivan himself on horseback with dog’s head and broom.

The use of dogs’ heads by the oprichniki was entirely new as well as deeply macabre. Though Russians, like Western Europeans, had long been familiar with folk-tales of Hounds of Hell, dog-headed men and dog-headed monsters, no writer or artist had ever imagined dogs’ heads carried on horses. Though the Russians did not practise taxidermy and so had no mounted animals’ heads on the walls of their residences as in Western Europe, a dog’s head, drained of blood, froze in the Russian winter and could have been carried by oprichnik horses when Ivan created the oprichnina in January 1565. But in spring the dogs’ heads must have begun to decompose, thus limiting their use for six months of the year to those oprichniki able to obtain a regular supply.

The dog’s head remains the most gruesome symbol ever devised by a security or intelligence agency (far more so than the stylized skull and crossbones of the Nazi SS). It was also a fitting symbol for the chief oprichnik, Grigory Lukyanovich Skuratov-Belski, better known as Maliuta Skuratov – against strong competition, probably the most loathsome figure in the entire history of Russian intelligence. Skuratov, a nickname inherited by Maliuta from his father, meant ‘worn-out chamois’, a reference to his coarse complexion. ‘Maliuta’ referred to his short stature. Mikhail Bulgakov, the greatest writer of the Stalin era, wrote in his forbidden masterpiece The Master and Margarita:

Neither Gaius Caesar Caligula nor Messalina interested Margarita any longer, nor did any of the kings, dukes, cavaliers, suicides, poisoners, gallowsbirds, procuresses, prison guards and sharpers, executioners, informers, traitors, madmen, sleuths, seducers. All their names became jumbled in her head, the faces stuck together into one huge pancake, and only a single face lodged itself painfully in her memory – the face, framed in a truly fiery beard, of Maliuta Skuratov.

By a curious coincidence, the most homicidal of Stalin’s intelligence chiefs, Nikolai Yezhov, in whose honour the years of the Terror became known as the Yezhovshchina, was as diminutive and almost as unpleasant as Maliuta; he was given the nickname ‘Poison Dwarf’. Though Yezhov was responsible for far more deaths than Skuratov, neither he nor any other of Stalin’s intelligence chiefs rivalled Skuratov’s enthusiasm for the role of executioner-in-chief or showed such sadistic pleasure in mutilating and torturing victims. Stalin’s admiration for Skuratov exceeded that for any of his own intelligence chiefs. In 1940 Yezhov was secretly tried, found guilty of nonsensical charges of treason, and taken to execution, hysterically pleading for his life. He quickly became an unperson, airbrushed out of official photographs. By contrast, Stalin continued to praise Skuratov’s historical record. At a meeting with Eisenstein in 1941 to discuss the making of his film Ivan the Terrible, Stalin declared that ‘Maliuta Skuratov was a great army general and died a hero’s death in the war with Livonia.’ When asked by the actor Nikolai Cherkasov, who played the role of Ivan, whether a scene showing Skuratov in 1569 strangling the Metropolitan of Moscow, Filipp Kolychev (who had publicly condemned Ivan’s murders), could appear in the film, ‘Stalin said that it was necessary to retain this scene as it was historically correct.’ Filipp is now a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. Skuratov was probably the only one of Ivan’s closest associates whom he never suspected of plotting against him.

Ultimate responsibility for Skuratov’s barbarous purges lay with the Tsar himself. Ivan’s way of warfare (he was at war for all but three years of his reign as Tsar) was brutal even by the standards of the day. A German print made in 1561 during the Russian invasion of Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) shows naked women hanging from a tree above the disembowelled bodies of their children while Russian archers use them for target practice. By the heads of the women hang their children’s hearts. Though there is no corroboration for these atrocities in the sparse Russian sources, since we know that Ivan committed equally appalling acts of brutality against his Russian subjects it is unlikely that he spared the Livonians.

As during Stalin’s Terror four centuries later, none of Ivan’s closest associates (save, probably, for Skuratov) could be certain that they would not be suspected of plotting against him. Among the unlikely figures who figured in Ivan’s conspiracy theories was Prince Ivan Petrovich Cheliadnin-Fedorov, who had been Ivan’s childhood tutor and brought him up in his own household, where his wife had been Ivan’s nanny. For the first two years of the oprichnina he had been close to Ivan. In 1568, however, Ivan’s spies told him, probably wrongly, that Cheliadnin-Fedorov was leading a plot to remove him from power.

According to a probably first-hand account by Albert Schlichting, a German interpreter in the Tsar’s court, Ivan summoned Fedorov to the Kremlin, and ordered him to sit on his throne, dressed in royal attire, and hold the royal sceptre. Ivan bowed and knelt before him, saying: ‘Now you have what you sought and strove to obtain – to be Grand Prince of Muscovy and occupy my place.’ But he added: ‘Since I have the power to seat you upon this throne, so I also have power to remove you from it.’ He then stabbed Fedorov several times in the heart with a dagger. Oprichniki added other dagger blows, ‘so that’, according to Schlichting’s gruesome account, ‘his stomach and entrails poured out before the tyrant’s eyes’. With Ivan at their head, the oprichniki then terrorized Cheliadnin-Fedorov’s estates. According to Baron von Standen, a German who served in the oprichnina: ‘The villages were burned with their churches and everything that was in them, icons and church ornaments. Women and girls were stripped naked and forced in that state to catch chickens in the fields.’ In 1569, following rumours that Ivan’s cousin Vladimir of Staritsa was planning to seize the throne (probably as baseless as those about Cheliadnin-Federov), he was forced by Skuratov to drink poison while his children were murdered around him.

Ivan’s reign of terror was no more related to real Russian security needs than Stalin’s Terror in the 1930s. It reached its peak in 1570 with the oprichniki massacre of the people of Novgorod, Russia’s third-largest city, suspected by Ivan of collective treason. Though the level of oprichnik violence may have run out of central control, it is clear that it was premeditated and that Ivan took a personal part in directing it. Before entering Novgorod with the oprichniki, he sent one of his commanders with retinue, probably in disguise, to ‘spy and reconnoitre’ the main targets for pillage and execution. Then, according to Standen, after plundering the bishop’s palace:

He took the largest bells and whatever he wanted from the churches . . . Every day he arose and moved to another monastery. He indulged his wantonness and had monks tortured and many of them were killed. There are 300 monasteries inside and outside the city and not one of these was spared. Then the pillage of the city began . . .

The distress and misery continued in the city for six weeks without interruption . . . Every day the Grand Prince [Ivan] could also be found in the torture chamber in person . . . Several thousand daughters of the inhabitants were carried off by the oprichniki.

According to a contemporary account in a German newsletter, on their triumphal return to Moscow after the victory over imaginary treason in Novgorod, the leading oprichnik had on his saddle the freshly amputated head of a huge English dog (probably a bull mastiff). Ivan’s horse carried a silver replica of a dog’s head whose jaws opened and closed in time with the movement of the horse’s hooves.

During the Stalin era no suggestion was allowed that any of the killings in Ivan’s reign of terror were influenced by the paranoid strain in his personality. Though the horrors of Ivan’s reign of terror have long since ceased to be a taboo subject for Russian historians, they are underplayed by the official history of today’s Russian foreign-intelligence service, the Sluzhba Vneshnei Razvedki (SVR), which devotes its first volume to intelligence under the tsars. The history makes no mention of the role (or even the name) of the leading oprichnik, Maliuta Skuratov. It blames Ivan’s brutality in part on his disturbed upbringing in a court riven by intrigue and brutal rivalries. At the age of thirteen, according to the official chronicler of Ivan’s reign, he ordered the brutal murder of Prince Andrei Mikhailovich Shuisky, who he complained had treated him with disrespect, resting his dirty boots on the royal bed. Shuisky was torn to pieces by the Kremlin’s pack of hunting and guard dogs.

The SVR official history acknowledges the historic achievement of Ivan III ‘the Great’ (Ivan IV’s grandfather, who reigned from 1462 to 1505) in ending Russian subjection to the Mongol ‘Golden Horde’, but it gives the main credit for the origins of Russian diplomacy and foreign intelligence to Ivan IV and his counsellor, Ivan Mikhailovich Viskovaty, who in 1549 became the first head of Russian diplomacy, though Russia had as yet no permanent ambassadors stationed abroad. Since there was no clear dividing line between diplomacy and intelligence work, the SVR also reasonably regards Viskovaty as Russia’s first foreign-intelligence chief. His greatest achievement was probably to conclude the Treaty of Mozhaysk with King Frederick II Denmark in 1562, which gave mutual recognition to both countries’ territorial claims in Livonia (modern Estonia and Latvia). The SVR official history concludes that Viskovaty overcame strong initial opposition from the Danish king by ‘what is now called in professional intelligence jargon the acquisition of “agents of influence”. It took money and remarkable strength of persuasion to secretly win over the Danish nobles who were then at the right moment able to influence the King . . .’

Ivan the Terrible’s childhood experience of internecine feuding in the Russian court gave him a natural interest in internal divisions in the foreign courts with which he dealt, such as that of Denmark, on which Viskovaty kept him informed. The SVR official history, however, exaggerates the extent to which Ivan ‘appreciated intelligence that helped to orient himself correctly in foreign policy’, allegedly rewarding even those who provided useless information to encourage them to remain involved in intelligence collection. As the horrors of Ivan’s reign of terror showed, his deeply suspicious nature made it unusually difficult for him to distinguish between real and illusory threats. His later admirer, Joseph Stalin, suffered from the same problem at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Though Viskovaty’s judgement was greatly superior to the Tsar’s, he suffered from two major handicaps in understanding the outside world by comparison with senior officials in major Western states. First, Russia, like Turkey, had no permanent embassies. Its ambassadors were sent abroad for specific assignments and returned after they were complete or were seen to have failed. The Kremlin was thus deprived of the constant flow of information provided by English and some other European ambassadors. Also like Turkey, though in lesser degree, Russia lacked the print culture which had generated an information revolution in the West. Moscow’s first printing house was not founded until 1553, a century later than in Western Europe. Established by Ivan IV and Metropolitan Makarii of Moscow and All Russia, its purpose was to print religious texts. It was deeply unpopular with traditional scribes and is believed to have been burnt down by a mob in 1568. The Kremlin deacon, Ivan Federov, who was chiefly responsible for running the printing house, was forced to flee to Lithuania, though printing resumed soon afterwards. The travel books which were immensely popular in Elizabethan England and help, for example, to account for Shakespeare’s detailed knowledge of Italy, in which he set thirteen of his plays, did not exist in Russia. Open-source knowledge of foreign countries and cultures was extremely limited.

Ivan’s and Viskovaty’s first and closest diplomatic ties in Western Europe were with England. They began not as the result of a Russian policy decision but, as the SVR official history acknowledges, as the unexpected outcome of a failed attempt by the young English merchant adventurer Richard Chancellor, then in his early twenties, to reach China through the Arctic North-East Passage. Chancellor arrived on 24 August 1553 at the mouth of the Northern Dvina river on the White Sea, at the site of the future port of Archangel, which at the time was only a small fishing village. The SVR account emphasizes how effectively Ivan’s ‘notification system’, designed to warn the authorities of the unexpected arrival of foreigners on Russian territory, operated even in this remote, sparsely populated area.

The local governor came aboard Chancellor’s ship, agreed to ‘afford him the benefit of victuals’, and sent a messenger to seek further instructions from the Tsar. When no instructions had been received after three months, Chancellor decided on 25 November to set off himself by horse-drawn sleigh on what he found a ‘very long and most troublesome’ journey to Moscow. Having covered the greater part of the 600-mile journey, he met coming in the opposite direction a messenger from the Kremlin, who had earlier lost his way, bearing an invitation to him from Ivan IV written ‘with all courtesy’. On arrival in Moscow, Chancellor and his men were kept under surveillance for twelve days before Viskovaty informed them that they were to be received by the Tsar. In the royal court, wrote Chancellor later, ‘there sat a very honourable company of courtiers to the number of one hundred, all apparelled in cloth of gold down to their ankles’. The throne room made Chancellor’s men ‘wonder at the Majesty of the Emperor [Tsar]’:

His seat was aloft, in a very royal throne, having on his head a diadem, or crown of gold, apparelled with a robe all of goldsmith’s work and in his hand he held a Sceptre garnished, and beset with precious stones, and besides all . . . there was a majesty in his countenance proportionable with the excellence of his estate . . .

Chancellor and his men were invited to an enormous dinner which gave an unexpected insight into the nature of Ivan’s personal autocracy. In the course of the meal Ivan addressed each of the many nobles and other diners by name: ‘The Russes told our men that the reason thereof . . . was to the end that the emperor might keep the knowledge of his own household, and withal, that such as are under his displeasure might by this means be known.’

Because of difficulty in transliterating his surname into Cyrillic, official Russian documents referred to Chancellor by his first name, ‘Richard’. Following his return to England in 1554, the Muscovy Company was founded in London to trade with Russia. At a time when Russia still had no outlet on the Baltic coast, the new company offered an important trading link with the West and a valuable source of arms and munitions for Ivan’s many wars, as well as of luxury goods. The Muscovy Company (later known as the Russia Company) also made a lucrative trade by importing furs and ship-building supplies. After Chancellor’s second voyage to Russia in 1555, Ivan ordered the construction of an embassy for English diplomats and merchants within the walls of the Kremlin, and gave the Muscovy Company exemption from Russian customs duties. According to the SVR official history, which largely agrees with Western accounts:

Flushed with success, Chancellor returned home [in 1556] with a rich cargo in his ship and the first Russian ambassador [to England] on board, Osip Nepeya. In a stormy night at the Scottish coast, the ship crashed against the rocks. Whilst trying to save the Moscow ambassador, Chancellor was killed along with his son and most of the crew. Nepeya escaped and was ceremoniously received in London, where local merchants arranged a celebration in his honour.

Nepeya returned to Russia in 1557 on the ship of Chancellor’s successor, the experienced sea captain Anthony Jenkinson (‘Anton Iankin’ in Russian documents), who acted as both English ambassador and Moscow representative of the London Muscovy Company. With them, at Nepeya’s request, travelled English craftsmen, doctors, and gold and silver prospectors. Unsurprisingly, after his terrifying voyage to London, Nepeya expressed ‘great joy’ on his safe return to Russia.

The different roles of Nepeya and Jenkinson exemplify the gulf between English knowledge of Ivan IV’s Russia and Russian understanding of Tudor England. Nepeya had come to London on a temporary diplomatic mission to cement the trading relationship begun by Chancellor. He left no Russian embassy or representative behind him in London. Because of Russia’s lack of any direct sources of information in Tudor England, news of the death of Edward VI, the accession of Mary, her marriage to Philip II, Mary’s death and the accession of Elizabeth seem to have been brought to Moscow by Chancellor and Jenkinson. It is highly unlikely that the Tsar and his advisers understood the political and religious complexities of these regime changes. In addition to the problems of translating Tudor diplomatic communications written in Latin, they found them more generally confusing. Ivan later complained to Elizabeth: ‘How many letters we have received in all this time, and all with different seals! That is not the royal custom. And such documents are not trusted in any State. Rulers of States have only one seal.’ Ivan, however, claimed to have believed all these documents and to have done as Elizabeth had asked.

Unlike Nepeya in London, Jenkinson established a permanent English embassy and trade mission in Moscow. He quickly became the most influential foreigner at Ivan’s court. Jenkinson’s warm welcome in the Kremlin in December 1557, when he presented letters to Ivan from Queen Mary and her husband, Philip II, must have owed something to Nepeya’s account of how Chancellor had been drowned saving his life during the voyage to England. A gargantuan dinner followed on Christmas Day, 1557. Jenkinson already knew from Chancellor’s account of his first visit to the Kremlin that the dinner would enable him to judge the extent of the Tsar’s favour. Ivan made clear to the whole court that Jenkinson was an exceptionally honoured guest. Seated by himself at a table of his own next to the Tsar’s, ‘the emperor sent me divers bowls of wine and mead, and many dishes of meat from his own hand’. Ivan showed his favour once again at the Twelfth Night dinner in Ivan’s Kremlin palace, where, wrote Jenkinson, ‘I sat alone as I did before directly before the emperor, and had my meat, bread and drink sent me from the emperor.’ Despite the warmth of the royal welcome, Jenkinson had no illusions about Ivan’s tyrannical regime: ‘He keepeth his people in great subjection; all matters pass his judgment be they never so small.’

Though Chancellor’s and Jenkinson’s accounts of their pioneering missions to the court of Ivan the Terrible are nowadays recognized as important historical sources, at the time they were treated by both the Muscovy Company and the Tudor court as intelligence reports to be kept secret. None of Chancellor’s reflections on his time in Russia were published until 1589, five years after Ivan’s death. Ivan and Viskovaty, among others, would have been outraged by Chancellor’s frank comments on Ivan’s tyrannical rule, on the Tsar’s court (‘much surpassed and excelled by the beauty and elegancy of the houses of the kings of England’) and on some beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church (‘foolish and childish dotages of . . . ignorant barbarians’). Chancellor provided military as well as political intelligence, notably a report entitled ‘Of the discipline of war amongst the Russes’, which would also have caused offence in the Kremlin. He made, however, the wildly exaggerated claim, probably derived from boasting in the Kremlin, that, in time of war, the Tsar ‘never armeth a less number against the enemy than three hundred thousand soldiers’. The Muscovy Company regarded even Chancellor’s less controversial reports on the main Russian cities as commercial intelligence which was too valuable to potential rivals to be made public.

Ivan’s personal favour allowed Jenkinson unlimited freedom to travel through Russia and cross its borders. After a perilous expedition to Central Asia, he returned to the Kremlin in September 1559 to a hero’s welcome, bringing with him twenty-five Russians whom he had rescued from slavery, as well as six Tatar envoys. No British representative since has ever won such favour in the Kremlin. After spending a year back in London, Jenkinson returned to Russia for the third time in 1561 and, in the course of his own travels further east, became the first English envoy to be used as a secret emissary by a Russian Tsar. In 1562 Ivan personally entrusted him with a hazardous mission to Abdullah-Khan, ruler of Shirvan in the eastern Caucasus, whence he returned a year later with a large consignment of silk and jewels as well as what Ivan regarded as favourable letters from both Abdullah-Khan and the ruler of Georgia. Jenkinson was rewarded with further concessions for the Muscovy Company.

Ivan continued to take Jenkinson into his confidence to a remarkable degree, unaware that in 1566 he wrote to William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State, denouncing the oprichniki campaign of terror against nobles suspected of plotting against the Tsar. In the summer of 1567 Ivan began telling Jenkinson that, because of (probably largely imaginary) plots against him, he might have to seek asylum in England. Having taken leave of Ivan on 22 September 1567, Jenkinson returned to England by sea with an official letter and a secret message from the Tsar, both of which he delivered personally to Elizabeth in November. Remarkably, Ivan had thus selected for what he regarded as an important secret assignment a trusted English adventurer in preference to a Russian envoy. In the messages Ivan stressed his desire for a Russian–English alliance, to be negotiated via Jenkinson, and made the extraordinary proposal (unique in the history of English foreign relations) that each monarch should have the right to take refuge in the other’s country: ‘The Emperor [Tsar] earnestly requireth that there may be a perpetual friendship and kindred betwixt the Queen’s Majesty and him.’ Ivan may well have wished to conceal his request for political asylum from Viskovaty and other Kremlin officials.

Ivan had expected Jenkinson to return to Russia with Elizabeth’s reply. Jenkinson, however, was replaced by a new envoy: the diplomat Sir Thomas Randolph, former Master of Broadgates Hall (now Pembroke College), Oxford. Randolph was the brother-in-law of Elizabeth’s intelligence chief and Foreign Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, who probably had a hand in his appointment. Walsingham later used his influence on three occasions to help Randolph become MP for Maidstone. No record survives of what Randolph discovered after his arrival on the White Sea coast in July 1568 about the oprichniki reign of terror, but he clearly feared for his own personal safety, writing to William Cecil even before he reached Moscow that he was anxious to conclude his mission and return to England as quickly as possible. George Turberville, Randolph’s secretary and a former Fellow of New College, Oxford, privately denounced the Russians in poems sent to his friends as ‘a people passing rude, to vices vile inclin’d’. Randolph’s reception on arriving at Moscow late in September added to his anxieties. There was no one to welcome him; even members of the English embassy were not ‘suffered to meet us’. As he later acknowledged, the contrast between his own initial reception and that of Jenkinson ‘bred suspicion in me’. Though supplied with victuals, he was disturbed by the hostile manner of the Russian appointed to ensure that he did not leave the embassy and received no visitors: ‘We had no small cause to doubt that some evil had been intended unto us.’

After seventeen weeks under house arrest, Randolph was finally invited to an audience with the Tsar on 20 February 1569. Ivan failed to invite him to dinner, as he had done Chancellor and Jenkinson, but freed him from house arrest: ‘I dine not this day openly, for great affairs I have; but I will send thee my dinner, and give leave to thee and thine to go at liberty, and augment our allowance to thee in token of our love and favour to our sister the Queen of England.’ A few days later Ivan summoned Randolph for over three hours of secret talks in the early hours of the morning. The Tsar then left Moscow for Alexandrovskaya Sloboda, believed by Randolph to be ‘the house of his solace’. On his return to the Kremlin six weeks later, Ivan summoned Randolph for further talks, during which Randolph claimed to have secured all the ‘large privileges’ he had sought for the Muscovy Company.

Ivan, however, was seriously dissatisfied. He had hoped to secure an alliance with England, directed mainly against Poland. Randolph stuck to his instructions to ‘pass these matters with silence’, leading the Tsar to complain in a letter to Elizabeth that her envoy’s ‘talk was of boorishness and affairs of merchants’, and failed to address ‘our princely affairs’. To accompany Randolph on his return voyage to England in October 1569, Ivan sent his own ambassador, Alexander Grigoryevich Sovin, with a draft treaty of alliance to which he was instructed to obtain Elizabeth’s signature. Sovin was told that no changes could be accepted in the draft, predictably failed in his mission, and returned to Russia in the following year.

Ivan’s diplomacy and intelligence collection suffered a major self-inflicted blow on 25 July 1570 with the execution of Viskovaty, who fell victim to another of the Tsar’s conspiracy theories, bizarrely accused of plotting with Lithuania and urging the Ottoman Turks and the Khan of Crimea to invade Russia. In reality, as contemporary records show, so far from plotting with Viskovaty, Lithuanian envoys found him ‘not well disposed’ and ‘intractable’ in negotiations with them. Having refused to beg forgiveness for treason he had not committed, Viskovaty was strung up in a market square and sliced to death. Skuratov began the execution by cutting off his nose, another oprichnik removed his ears and a third hacked off his genitals. Ivan complained that Viskovaty died too quickly. Over a hundred other gruesome executions followed of probably innocent victims. Viskovaty’s fate prefigured that of Stalin’s three most powerful intelligence chiefs, all of whom were also executed for imaginary acts of treason, which, absurdly, included spying for Britain.

The bizarre nature of Ivan’s relations with England in the aftermath of Viskovaty’s execution reflected the Tsar’s loss of his diplomatic expertise. On 24 October 1570, outraged by Elizabeth I’s refusal to sign the draft alliance delivered by Sovin, Ivan personally penned a letter to the Queen which, so far as is known, was the rudest she ever received. According to the translation prepared for Elizabeth, he said that his previous willingness to correspond with her on ‘weighty affairs’ of state had been based on the mistaken belief that ‘you had been ruler over your land, and had sought honour to yourself and profit to your Country . . . But now we perceive that there be other men that do rule, and not men but boors and merchants, the which seek not the wealth and honour of our majesties, but they seek their own profit of merchandise . . . And you flourish in your maidenlike estate like a maid’, he added insultingly, before announcing the cancellation of the rights previously granted to the Muscovy Company: ‘The privilege that we gave to your Merchants be from this day of none effect.’

Despite the rudeness of the letter, Elizabeth and her advisers clearly believed that the trading privileges of the Muscovy Company were too important to abandon. It was therefore decided to ignore Ivan’s insults and send the Tsar’s favourite Englishman, Anthony Jenkinson, on a new mission to Moscow as English ambassador as well as Company representative to try to restore relations. His mission began badly. After landing on the Arctic coast in July 1571, he was stranded for over six months as the result of travel restrictions imposed after an outbreak of plague. His first report to William Cecil (newly ennobled as Baron Burghley) gave further details of atrocities committed during the oprichniki reign of terror. Jenkinson eventually had an audience with Ivan in the Kremlin on 23 March 1572. His instructions were to persuade Ivan to agree to reinstate the privileges of the Muscovy Company by hinting at the possibility of an Anglo-Russian political alliance but to make no binding commitments. Such was the Tsar’s confidence in Jenkinson that, at their next meeting on 13 May, Ivan agreed to restore all the Company’s privileges and complimented ‘Anthony’ on his role in restoring Russian–English relations. Jenkinson arrived back in England on 23 July after what the Dictionary of National Biography terms ‘a brilliant culmination to a career which won him a permanent place in the history of Anglo-Russian relations’.

By the time Ivan began negotiations with Jenkinson, his main anger was directed not against Elizabeth I but against his own oprichniki, whom he blamed for failing to defend Moscow against a devastating Tatar raid in 1571, which (as reported by Jenkinson to Cecil) laid waste much of the city outside the Kremlin. In 1572 Ivan formally abolished the oprichniki. Though Jenkinson did not return to Russia after 1572, Ivan continued to make occasional secret use of other English diplomats. In 1580 he entrusted an English diplomat in Moscow, Jerome Horsey (later knighted), with what he regarded as a secret mission to England to obtain supplies of ‘powder, saltpetre, lead and brimstone’.50 Horsey doubtless reported his secret mission to his patron, Sir Francis Walsingham, and later dedicated to him a book on his travels in Russia.† Horsey’s seventeen years in Moscow epitomize the frequent sixteenth-century overlap between diplomacy and espionage. What is remarkable in Horsey’s case is that, because of Russia’s lack of both diplomats and spies in England, his services (like those of Jenkinson before him) were used by the Tsar, as well as, more frequently, by Walsingham. Horsey was so trusted by Ivan that he was invited into his Treasury and, in 1581, given a secret letter, hidden in a flask, to take to Queen Elizabeth.

During the final years of his reign, Ivan continued to suffer from uncontrollable fits of rage. During one of them in 1581, he accidentally killed his son and heir. Ilya Repin’s famous painting, which shows the Tsar grieving over the bloodstained body of his son Ivan, which was completed in 1885, four years after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, so disturbed his son Alexander III that he had it temporarily removed from Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.

The SVR official history plausibly argues that, after the death of his son, in the final years before his own death, in 1584, Ivan began to ‘repent’ that he had ordered so many executions. From 1583 all monasteries started regular ‘Remembrances of the Disgraced’. The execution Ivan most regretted was almost certainly that of Viskovaty, whose expertise had never been replaced. Ivan personally sent to the Holy Trinity Monastery 223 rubles for the ‘remembrance of the soul of Viskovaty’ as well as another twenty-three rubles to pay for candles. No other intelligence chief has ever been remembered in this way by a ruler who ordered his execution.

Ivan IV was succeeded by his devout but simple-minded younger son, Tsar Fedor I (a ‘silly prince’, in the opinion of Sir Jerome Horsey). Real power, however, lay with a faction-ridden regency council in which Boris Godunov (best known nowadays as the anti-hero of Mussorgsky’s popular nineteenth-century opera) eventually won a prolonged power struggle. Horsey, who, as under Ivan IV, was occasionally used by Godunov for secret missions, reported that at one point during the power struggle, also like Ivan, Godunov told him he might seek refuge in England. He found Godunov ‘of comely person, well favoured, affable . . . not learned but of sudden apprehension, and a natural good orator’. But Godunov was also superstitious (‘affected much to necromancy’) and ‘revengeful’. He had a sinister past both as an oprichnik from the age of about twenty and as the son-in-law of the most bloodthirsty of all the oprichniki, Maliuta Skuratov. To rise in the court of Ivan the Terrible, he must have shown enthusiastic support for the brutal execution of imaginary traitors in Novgorod and Moscow. Probably largely at the expense of his victims, Godunov built up enormous wealth. The historian Catherine Merridale describes him as the nearest sixteenth-century ‘equivalent of a twenty-first-century oligarch’.

Unlike Ivan IV, however, Godunov tried – successfully – to avoid foreign wars. He deserves much of the credit for the twenty-year period of peace which followed Ivan’s death. During the regency Godunov also showed no liking for the public execution of traitors. Instead he proceeded behind the scenes, built up a large network of informers and disposed secretly of some of his main rivals. While ambassador in Moscow from 1588 to 1589 on a mission to settle disputes involving the Russia Company, the English writer and diplomat Giles Fletcher, a former Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, felt under almost continuous hostile surveillance. As he complained to Burghley, ‘My whole entertainment from my first arrival till towards the very end was such as if they had devised means of very purpose to show their utter disliking both of the trade of the Merchants, and of the whole English nation.’ Though he was eventually able to negotiate an agreement, according to the well-known writer Thomas Fuller when he returned home in the summer of 1589 ‘he heartily expressed his thankfulness to God for his safe return from so great a danger; for the Poets cannot fancy Ulysses more glad to be come out of the Den of Polyphemus, than he was to be rid out of the power of such a barbarious Prince’.

In 1591 Fletcher tried to publish a book based on his experiences, entitled Of the Russe Commonwealth, or, The manner of government by the Russe emperor . . . with the manners, and fashions of the people of that country. The best and most detailed account by any Elizabethan traveller to Russia, it made clear Fletcher’s loathing for the Russian political system: ‘The state and form of their government is plain tyrannical.’ The worst of the tyrants had been Ivan the Terrible:

To show his sovereignty over the lives of his subjects, the late emperor Ivan [IV] Vasilevich in his walks or progresses, if he had misliked the face or person of any man whom he met by the way, or that looked upon him, would command his head to be struck off, which was promptly done, and the head cast before him.

The governors of the Russia Company no doubt believed, as they had done after Richard Chancellor produced an account of his mission a generation earlier, that publication of Fletcher’s book would reveal valuable commercial intelligence to their competitors. But their main fear was that, if the Godunov regime discovered what Fletcher had written about their ‘tyrannical’ rule, ‘the revenge thereof will light on their people and goods remaining in Moscow, and utterly overthrow the trade forever’. Burghley clearly agreed and the book was suppressed. Its contents were still highly sensitive two and a half centuries later. In 1848 Tsar Nicholas I ordered the confiscation of the first Russian translation of Of the Russe Commonwealth and severe punishment of the officials of the Imperial Moscow Society of Russian History and Antiquities who had dared to publish it in their Proceedings. No other British intelligence report on Russia has remained so controversial for so long.

On the death of Fedor I in 1598, Boris Godunov became Tsar. Though most of the details of his surveillance system will probably never be known, his network of spies and informers increased. Servants were encouraged to inform on their masters. Even slaves were used as informants. Boris’s uncle, Semen Nikitich Godunov, his chief inquisitor and an enthusiastic torturer, reported to him regularly on the evidence of treason he claimed to have uncovered during his brutal interrogations. But Godunov’s surveillance system and secret intrigues failed to secure the succession. On his death in April 1605 he was succeeded by his son, the well-educated sixteen-year-old Fedor Borisovich Godunov, who was crowned Tsar Fedor II. In May the army mutinied and many of its commanders sided with a pretender to the throne, the so-called first ‘False Dmitrii’. In June Fedor II and his mother (Skuratov’s daughter) were strangled in the Kremlin by Dmitrii’s agents and their bodies put on public display. The hated Semen Godunov was thrown into a prison cell and left to starve to death. There followed years of chaotic civil war and Russia’s ‘Time of Troubles’.


1 thought on “Ivan the Terrible and the Origins of Russian State Security

  1. Really interesting! And I did not realise how few records there are of Ivan – I’m particularly surprised that no contemporary portrait of him survives when portraits were so prolific elsewhere in europe at that time


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