When historians draw up their lists of ruthless autocrats, Ivan the Terrible is usually near the top. When political scientists assert that totalitarianism is not a new phenomenon, they back up their claim with a reference to Ivan the Terrible, the 16th-century leader of Russia who dominated both church and state. This first Czar of Russia is clearly a benchmark ruler.

Russian-born Frenchman Henri Troyat has written an entertaining but sensationalized account of Ivan, depicting his subject as a Russian version of the Marquis de Sade writ large. It is a matter of record that Ivan ordered and often took part in the torture of thousands of men and women, that he married nine times, and that he killed his own son in a rage. Still, a fixation on Ivan’s brutality does not help us understand how he unified Russia with a uniform code of conduct and law, expanded education, created representative assemblies of a sort, reformed and codified behavior within the Orthodox Church, and significantly expanded the territory of Russia. Something more than sadism must account for these accomplishments.

Unfortunately, Troyat explains few of the historical circumstances of Ivan’s rule. Unmentioned, for instance, is the rough training that early Russian leaders received at the hands of their enemies, the Tartars and Mongols. These foes were, after all, led by men who would drink from cups made of hollowed-out skulls of their rivals. Even in 1662, 80 years after the death of Ivan IV, Tartars raided the city of Putivl and carried off 20,000 Russian slaves, after finishing their normal raping and pillaging.

Then, too, it should be remembered that torture was a generally accepted means of investigation and punishment throughout “civilized” Europe in Ivan’s time. The knout, fire, hanging, beheading, and the severance of limbs were accepted in France and England.

In 1613, France executed an assassin of Henry IV by letting four horses pull him apart, while a large crowd of families watched—eating picnic lunches! The leaders of 16th-century Russia should not be compared to Woodrow Wilson. What we would now regard as simple justice would in those times have been regarded as weakness by many, including the Russian boyars who resented Ivan’s reorganization of Russia.

But if Troyat offers too little factual background, he does let us in on Ivan’s inner feelings and motivations. We learn, for instance, that “[Ivan] watched [his adversaries] out of the corner of his eye, hating them in silence,” and that “he was distressed at his inability to take pleasure in bloodshed. He felt that this was a sort of sexual impotence.” It’s amazing how far an author can go on just 14 footnotes. Readers distressed by the ways Ivan and Troyat deal with their subjects may soon find themselves reaching for Robert K. Massie’s Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra.


[Ivan the Terrible, by Henri Troyat (E.P. Dutton; New York) $18.95]