Ivan’s Singer


Image Source: Franz Riss Skomorokh in a village, wikipedia

Noone knows for sure how Ivan the Terrible died. The Tsar of all Russia, Grand Prince of Vladimir and Moscow and all the rest, died in 1584, but how we do not really know. The uncertainty, together with the availability of scientific methods, led to the exhumation of his bones from his grave within the Cathedral of the Kremlin that houses all the bones of the fallen Tsars, except, of course, the last Romanov.

There is an account of his death from the unreliable commercial adventurer, Jerome Horsey, but it is an eyewitness account, which is an uncommon thing in the history of the death of kings. According to Horsey, Ivan the Terrible who suffered from multiple ailments and was a believer in all kinds of magic and religion, called for precious stones to be brought to his private chamber. He placed coral and turquoise stones on his body and declared to his private court: “I am poisoned with disease; you see they show their virtue by the change of their pure colour into pall; declares my death.”

Ivan then spent the last hours of his final day with the comforts of his doctor and his alchemist, which were comforts he had denied thousands upon thousands who he listed in his sinodiki (prayers for the dead, listing the many names of his victims, which Ivan sent to monasteries in the deranged grief that followed his murder of his son and heir). He took a bath and there “made merry with pleasant songs as he useth to do.”  Ivan had always loved the singers of his court, the skomorokhi, who sang ballads and ribaldry and performed clowns. They had roots in peasant and even pagan culture, and were suspected of fomenting heresy and disrespect by the Russian church.

Indeed such was Ivan’s love for the skomorokhi that as part of perhaps his most infamous act – the sack of Novorod and the massacre of its citizens – he captured all the loved and artful skomorokhi of Novgorod, and after using them to shame the insubordinate Archbishop of this city, still too proud of its religious and republican traditions, carted them off to Moscow. Russell Zguta’s Russian Minstrels: a history of the skomorokhi (public library) identifies at least one of these skomorokhi who would later serve Ivan for over 20 years, indeed most likely till the day of his death.

Was it one of these captive artists of this perfect monster of power who helped Ivan approach his death, stained with sin, but merry with song? I like to imagine that one of these skomorokhi became the cruel man’s most loyal singer, and so found in captivity, like much art does, a comfortable life. But such a lowly singer does not appear in the next scene of Jerome Horsey’s account of the Tsar’s final moments.

Returning to his bedchamber fresh from his bath and in new linen, the Tsar called for a chess board. Beside the bed stood the two rivals for the Tsar’s favour – Boris Godunov, who would uniquely later become Tsar, despite not being a part of any dynastic family, and the sly and surly drinking partner of the Tsar, Bogdan Belsky. Would they have been the Tsar’s chess opponent – it seems odd indeed. But perhaps it was the singer, who like Roy in Bladerunner, used a game of chess to confront his maker?

Then Ivan suddenly fainted and fell back, and now the confusion and omissions of details in Horsey accounts demand the imagination. The apothecary was sent for some usual rememdies, and the doctor, and the confessor. A strange scene of rivals in power standing alone with a minstrel clown before their suddenly vulnerable terror. And in these moments, Horesy writes most enigmatically of all “In the mean he was strangled and stark dead.”

So the great biographer of Ivan the Terrible Isabel de Madariaga wonders: “Was Ivan murdered?” (p 353) Not poison. But there were motives: with Tsar in disarray with grief and madness and sorcery; his war plans ruined; his own dynasty brought to the edge of extinction by his rage-filled impulse to kill his own son.

Madariaga forms the cautious view the Horsey’s strangling was a spasm or suffocation of a heart attack. But I see another possibility. There in that room, the captive artist finally struck out at the domination of power and terror. Too late of course; far too late for all the dead souls whose fate the singer did not celebrate; too convenient, but is that not the way of all patronage art, which imagines it seduces power, when power controls its every step? So I imagine, in the black spots of history’s recall, that the moment the tsar fell back, and panic filled the room, his late chess opponent, his loyal skomorokhi, seeing his power wane, reached across the board and strangled the Tsar to death, while Belsky and Godunov looked on and did not intervene. Moments the two rivals conspired together to take the sad and broken life of Ivan’s Singer, and we can only begin to know of this drama because the clumsy Horsey let slip one stray word – strangled.


The enigmas of Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible tests the limits of historical understanding. All that we know of him we only seem to know of him. All the stories we tell of him we can narrate only with difficulty separate from legend. His experience of the world, to the extent that we can reach that interpretation beneath other interpretations, is of a reality that many of us are troubled to accept: borderline madness; a belief in an idea of sovereignty, which was in turn consecrated by a Byzantine political tradition that has now disappeared from the world; an intimate familiarity with violence, complex trauma, and their effect on the disassociation of memory, image and culture.

Here are seven enigmas of Ivan Groznyi, fourth of his name, Tsar of Holy mother Russia:

  1. How did he die? The English commercial agent, Jerome Horsey, leaves the only account. With Bogdan Belsky and Boris Godunov – the two principal counsellors and rivals in the court – in his room, Ivan was anticipating death, calling for gemstones and magic. He called for apothecaries and his confessor, and then, Horsey writes, “In the mean he was strangled and stark dead.” Was Ivan then murdered, and if so by whom and why?
  2. Was he mad and if so how? It is difficult to account for the savagery of his fits and turns of violence, the spectacular cruelty of his revenge against the loyal diaks and priests who served him, or the accounts of debauchery and ritualistic violence without believing there was some kind of derangement in his mind. Yet at the same time he may be seen as ruthlessly if violently imposing his will on the world. My theory is that he suffered what we would today call borderline personality disorder.
  3. What purpose was served by the creation of the oprichniki? The old Marxist histories of course see it as an attack on the feudal boyars. It seems in some ways consistent with the formation of stronger states by sovereigns across Europe. Was this creation of a warrior band and personal estate of the ruler also an imaginative development of themes of Mongol and Byzantine traditions of governing that Ivan was an heir to?
  4. What were the reasons for his feigning abdication? Before the creation of the oprichniki he feigned abdication, taking himself on a pilgrimage? Was it only an act, which worked strategically in forcing loyalty to a ruler among quarrelsome boyars? Or was there a psychological discomfort with sovereignty – especially when his concept of sovereignty brooked no opposition to his will? What are we to make of the alter episode when he gave the crown to a Tatar prince, and with dramatic revenge took it away, so creating through his personal execution of this prince a theatrical symbol of his absolute power?
  5. What was the nature of his religious belief, especially his belief that he was a dread angel? Deep religiosity pervades his life – day long sessions of prayer, his taking of a monastic name on his deathbed, his early fidelity to the Priest Sylvester and the Metropolitan Filip, his strange poems that expressed his belief that he was an incarnation of a Dread Angel. Yet magic, debauchery, ritualistic and sacrificial violence haunt him, alongside perhaps a chiliastic belief that he was living hell on earth and the end of days before the judgement of God. How do such strange and powerful currents of good and evil inhabit the same mind?
  6. Are the stories of his traumatic childhood later dissociation and reconstruction? The rage and violence in his descriptions of his treatment by the boyars after his mother and nurse were killed and taken from him ring true. But are they screen memories? Are they justifications of a sulking anger, an indulged bloodlust? Are they indeed the later fabulations of the myth of the cruel tyrant who pulls wings off flies as a child?
  7. Is his famous correspondence with Prince Kurbsky a later forgery? Is indeed anything that we say we know of him reliably true or available for extrapolation from a true primary source. Edward Keenan, who died only in the last year or so, made this argument, and it may be true. But if it is, then how are we to speak of this character, whose life is too real, too implausible to be mere invention, forgery and fiction?  Surely whereof this life of which we must speak, we must not be silent.