Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

How the Young Ivan


Basil had no hesitation in leaving the care of his two sons, Ivan and George, and the government in the hands of his second wife, Helena. She was of Western origin and remarkable for her freedom of mind and for her accomplishments.

She straightway set to work to complete her husband's plans for the establishment of absolute empire. She threw his brothers into prison; she put down the plots of the princes and boyars; she met the Tartars and Lithuanians on the battle-field and came back with victorious arms; she surrounded a part of Moscow with walls. As there were few in whom she could trust she gave all her confidence to the "master of horse," who was charged with being her lover.

The old nobles were angry to see a woman, and especially a foreign woman, wielding the sceptre. They believed that her place was in the seclusion, of the Terem. If they could not keep her there by force, they could at least put her out of the way. Helena died by poison; the "master of horse" was starved to death, and his sister, the young Grand Prince's nurse, was banished to a nunnery.

Then there began a period of lawlessness; the supreme power became an object of ambition among the boyars, the descendants of Rurik and Gedimin. Chief among the rivals were the families of Bielski and Shuiski. Prince Ivan Bielski, who had the support of the Metropolitan, ruled in Helena's place for several years. Prince Ivan Shuiski headed a conspiracy among the boyars and men-at-arms and seized the regent by night and had him murdered. The Metropolitan escaped into the Grand Prince's chamber, but was followed and bound in spite of Ivan's cries for help. Ivan Shuiski soon after died, and the regency passed to three of his family, and more especially to Prince Andrew. These three nobles jealously watched the growing influence of Prince Vorontsof, and at last they fell upon him, struck him on the cheek, and tore off his robes and nearly killed him. The young Ivan sent the Metropolitan to beg them to desist; they heeded him not, but dragged the prince out to the stables, beat him ignominiously, and delivered him over to the guard.

In after years Ivan the Terrible thus described in a letter his stormy childhood and the impudence of his boyars:—



"After the death of our mother, Helena, we were left with our brother George absolute orphans; our subjects did their own will, carried on the government lawlessly. They took no care of us, their sovereign, but busied themselves only in the gain of wealth and power, and began to war with one another. And what evil things they did! How they killed boyars and captains, the friends of our father! The houses, villages, and domains of our uncles they took for themselves. . . . They treated us and our brother George like strangers, like beggars. They granted us not even the necessities of dress and food. They treated us as it was unbecoming to treat children. One example: it chanced that we were playing and Prince Ivan Shuiski had the impudence to sit with his elbows leaning over the bed of our father and his leg stretched out upon it! What shall I say of our hereditary treasure? They pillaged everything and gave to their men-at-arms, and the men-at-arms were unworthy and dishonest. Out of the treasure of our fathers they stole vases of gold and silver and engraved upon them the names of their kinsfolk as though it were their inherited property. And it was known to all men. Then they rode about among the cities and towns and plundered the citizens without mercy, and such evils they did upon their neighbors as it is impossible to number. Of our subjects they made slaves, and, their own slaves they raised to be great lords. They thought they were ruling and ordering, but on the contrary there was misrule and disorder. For every one made boundless gain and no one spoke or acted except for gain."

While the nobles were thus struggling for their own ends the two young princes were left to themselves. George was feeble-minded, but Ivan was "gifted with great talents." He was a lad of quick temper and open to all impressions, good or bad. The hard circumstances in which he was placed seemed to bring out and strengthen his character. For three years he had been Grand Prince in form, and he clearly saw that the very boyars, who in private were most insolent and lawless, at the receptions of foreign envoys appeared before his throne in the attitude of cringing slaves. It was his signature which made a law of force among the people. Even if he had not been bright enough to see for himself the power which his name and title bore, there failed not to be men around him who, out of envy or worldly wisdom, filled his mind with distrust of his self-appointed tutors. He also read much and eagerly studied sacred and profane history, the rise and fall of empires, the Russian annals, and the works of the holy fathers. He had no fear of using too cruel measures. As a boy, says one of his early biographers, he delighted to kill animals and see the blood flow, and in all such brutal pleasures he was praised by his guardians. He had an example, too, in the way that his friends and favorites were treated. It was dangerous for boyars to show him any attention or do him any favor: banishment or poison was their reward. He saw that he must be wary, but at last the time drew nigh for him to show his hand.

The Christmas festival had just been celebrated. Ivan, who was about fourteen years old, unexpectedly called the boyars before him and sternly upbraided them for their conduct: "Many of you are guilty," he said, but I will make example of only one." At his nod the guard seized Andrew Shuiski, the regent, and gave him to the dogs, who tore him to pieces on the spot. Others who fell under his displeasure were banished.

The surprise which this sudden action of the young prince caused was a complete success: "From that time forth," says the annalist, "the boyars began to fear their master and obey him."