Ivan the Terrible

In This Review

Ivan the Terrible

By Isabel De Madariaga
Yale University Press, 2005
416 pp. $35.00
Purchase

For all his infamy, there are few serious English-language biographies of Ivan the Terrible. De Madariaga fills that void masterfully. She has a great gift for distilling information to clear, sensible, compelling essentials, all the while walking the fine line between plausible guesses and confessed ignorance -- which is particularly important when, as in Ivan's case, the blanks are many. Covering his life from boyhood to death, she firmly and fairly sifts through the details, many of which are encrusted with centuries of speculation and myth that have served the biases and political needs of a particular time. That he was psychologically disordered, or became so, and innately cruel from adolescence, de Madariaga accepts. But beyond the sheer sweep of her account, what sets it apart is her insistence that judgments be based on words and practices as they were understood in his day, not ours. And by that standard, she argues, Ivan, at least in the first 27 years of his 51-year reign, was not monstrously different from his counterparts elsewhere in Europe.