In This Review

Ivan the Terrible: Free to Reward and Free to Punish
Ivan the Terrible: Free to Reward and Free to Punish
By Charles J. Halperin
378 pp, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019

Ivan the Terrible is most commonly associated with the oprichnina—the seven years of atrocity and devastation that he inflicted on his country. Halperin describes Ivan as “the first ruler of Muscovy”—it would be ahistorical, he notes, to use “Russia” when writing about the sixteenth century—“to employ mass terror as a political instrument,” a practice that vanished until Joseph Stalin revived it three and a half centuries later. Yet in his meticulous book, Halperin cautions historians against reducing Ivan’s contradictory personality to that of a mere sadistic tyrant. Halperin does not share the common view that the gratuitous savageries of the oprichnina made it worse than the violence in western Europe brought about by religious strife, class warfare, or ethnic bigotry during the same time period. In a contrarian spirit, he insists that Ivan’s actions do not distinguish him from other monarchs from that era, such as Henry VIII of England and Philip II of Spain. To account for the oprichnina, Halperin focuses on Ivan’s interaction with a Muscovite society overstrained by an “unprecedented and intolerable level of elite and popular social mobility.” Ivan’s introduction of repressive meas-ures exacerbated the preexisting social instability before spiraling into mass terror and executions.