1569: Orthodox Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow

Add comment December 23rd, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1569, Orthodox Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow was martyred for his opposition to Ivan the Terrible.

He was elevated in 1566 as Russia’s top prelate* by that same Ivan, who soon regretted and then raged at his selection when Philip righteously withheld the church’s blessing from the tyrant in the midst of Ivan’s Oprichnina bloodbath.

That was in Lent of 1568. Before the year was out Ivan, who did not fear to bully churchmen, had forced Philip’s deposition and had him immured in a Tver monastery.

Safely out of the way there, the tsar’s fell henchman Malyuta Skuratov arrived two days before Christmas of 1569 pretending to bear a message. “My friend, do what you have come to do,” the monk replied. Skuratov strangled him to death.


Here comes trouble: Metropolitan Philip in prayer as his executioner arrives. (By Aleksandr Nikanorovich Novoskoltsev, 1880s.) For a more mannered and less violent interpretation of the same scene, try this number by Nikolai Nevrev

The Russian Orthodox Church observes this saint’s feast date on January 9. His relics are enshrined today at the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral.

* Moscow did not become a patriarchate until 1589, so Philip did not bear that title.

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1569: Vladimir of Staritsa, royal cousin

Add comment October 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1569, Vladimir of Staritsa was forced by Ivan the Terrible’s goons to drink poison.

Vladimir was Ivan’s (barely) younger cousin, both of them grandsons of Russia’s state-building Ivan the Great.

Ivan the Terrible, of course, was the heir to the throne, an inheritance he received at the tender age of three when his father died unexpectedly — leading to Ivan’s famously miserable childhood of being kicked around by the boyars.

The dreadful relationship thereby fostered between throne and nobles came to a crossroads in 1553, when Ivan the Terrible appeared to be on his deathbed. The fading tsar tried to get those boyars to swear loyalty to Ivan’s infant son. Most of the boyars openly preferred the adult Vladimir of Staritsa.

This dramatic encounter is a pivotal episode in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film Ivan the Terrible.

Instead of dying, Ivan surprisingly recovered. Awkward!

Vladimir actually survived this episode, and he himself may not even have been actively trying to claim the throne: the boyars hated Ivan plenty without his seditious assistance.

And for a while it looked as if any ill feelings were water under the bridge. Vladimir swore loyalty to Ivan upon the latter’s recovery, fought military campaigns alongside Ivan, and was even depended upon by Ivan as a guarantor of peace among Ivan’s own several potentially rivalrous sons.*

But that was the 1550s.

As the 1560s unfolded, Ivan grew increasingly mistrustful of his boyars’ loyalty.** According to this volume, an elevation of Vladimir to the throne was the object of at least one plot during those years. As Ivan’s only male cousin, he was a natural successor should Ivan be deposed, and therefore a natural focal point for Ivan’s enemies.

When Ivan eventually gave rein to his paranoia and unleashed the bloody purges of the oprichnina, Vladimir inevitably succumbed. Ivan decreed his death and forced him to administer the sentence by his own hand with a draught of poison, even going so far as to extirpate Vladimir’s wife and children, too.†

In a twist of the cruel irony Russian history is so susceptible to, Ivan the Terrible’s homicidal suspicion of his relations helped to doom Ivan’s own Rurik dynasty: after Ivan accidentally killed his own son and heir in a fit of pique, the succession which might have found a backup option in Vladimir and his offspring instead utterly collapsed — plunging Russia into the “Time of Troubles” out of which one of those former boyar families, the Romanovs, emerged with the throne after all.

* See Sergei Bogatyrev, “Reinventing the Russian Monarchy in the 1550s: Ivan the Terrible, the Dynasty, and the Church”, The Slavonic and East European Review, Apr. 2007. (pdf here)

** Ivan’s nasty turn after 1560 might trace to the untimely death of his wife Anastasia Romanovna, whom Ivan suspected might have been poisoned by those hated boyars.

† One daughter Maria Vladimirovna of Staritsa, survived.

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1543: Andrei Shuisky, gone to the dogs

2 comments December 29th, 2011 Headsman

On December 29, 1543, Ivan the Terrible arrived — with the summary execution of hated boyar Andrei Shuisky (Shuysky).

Call it Ivan’s rite of passage.

The 13-year-old Ivan IV had technically “ruled” Russia since toddlerhood, when his father died suddenly in the prime of life.

But in reality, the “ruler” was not the master of his domain.

The powerful boyar nobles ran roughshod during his minority, scrapping for power, poisoning off his mother,* and behind the Kremlin’s closed doors overtly treating the kiddo’s regal person like a redheaded stepchild.

“What evil did I suffer at [the boyars’] hands!” Ivan later remembered of these years in his hostile correspondence with the exiled noble Kurbsky.

we and our brother … remained as orphans, [having lost] our parents and receiving no human care from any quarter; and hoping only for the mercy of God … our subjects had achieved their desire, namely, to have a kingdom without a ruler, then did they not deem us, their sovereigns, worthy of any loving care, but themselves ran after wealth and glory … they began to feed us as though we were foreigners or the most wretched menials. What sufferings did I endure through [lack of] clothing and through hunger! For in all things my will was not my own; everything was contrary to my will and unbefitting my tender years. (Source)

Ivan’s indomitable personality and mercilessness, later the stuff of legend, make their first appearance in these formative years. Biding his time, nurturing his hatred, he survived his humiliations and designed a show-stopping vengenace. “Then,” remembers Ivan, “did we take it upon ourselves to put our kingdom in order.”

In the span of a single feast on this date in 1543 the young prince elevated himself from abused orphan to feared sovereign when he unexpectedly accused the attending boyars of mismanagement and had the greatest man among them — Andrei, of the mighty Shuisky family, the de facto head of state** — arrested and brutally put to death.

(The most colorful versions of this have it that Shuisky was thrown to the dogs to be devoured; I’m inclined to suspect this is embroidery upon the chronicler’s report that it was mean little Ivan’s kennel-keepers who were the men tasked with arresting and beating to death the nobleman.)

Sergei Eisenstein dramatized the terrible tsar’s backstory of violently overturning his childhood abuse in part two of Ivan the Terrible. (Masterful review.)

With his terrible blow, Ivan — still only an (unusually warped) adolescent after all this time — freed his hands and truly began the strange and cruel reign that would earn him the awestruck sobriquet Grozny, “terrible”. He got the ball rolling by purging a couple dozen other Shuisky loyalists.

While Ivan Grozny had his way in his reign’s political conflicts with Russia’s nobility, the violent monarch also shockingly killed his own son during a fit of rage — effectively destroying his own lineage. In the Time of Troubles invited by the resulting power vacuum, Andrei Shuisky’s grandson briefly claimed the throne as Tsar Vasily IV.

Though this power grab didn’t work out any better than had his grandfather’s, Vasily was the last [legitimate] product of the Rurik dynasty† dignified as Tsar of Russia, before the Romanovs were elevated to that station.

* Allegedly. Ivan certainly thought so.

** Andrei’s brother Ivan, equally loathesome to the tsar, had passed on the Big Man in Russia mantle to Andrei when he died a couple of years before.

† The Shuiskies were merely a junior branch, but they were a branch.

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1570: Hegumen Kornily of the Pskov-Pechery Monastery

1 comment February 20th, 2011 Headsman

Though the primary sources are shaky, at least one chronicle avers that it was on this date in 1570 that the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible had Hegumen Kornily [Cornelius] of the Pskov-Pechery Monastery put to death.

An icon of the sainted Cornelius marks the spot of his martyrdom at his Pskovo-Pechery monastery. From (cc) image by Usama.

This was the coda to Ivan’s bloody sack of Novgorod, part of the violent state consolidation carried out in Ivan’s terrible police state.

Having left Novgorod prostrate, Ivan marched westwards towards the edge of Livonia (what is now the Russian-Estonian frontier) to put Pskov in its place.

If Ivan’s depredations here were less extensive than in Novgorod — and they were less extensive — it might be due in no small measure to this date’s victim.

Over a period of four decades, Kornily had overseen the golden age of his priory — agglomerating lands, riches, and brethren. He had also charted a somewhat independent, contra-Moscow political course, and apparently harbored anti-Ivan refugee Andrei Kurbsky.*

[Ivan] came [to Pskov] in great wrath, roaring like a lion, for he wished to torture innocent people and to spill much blood. But the Lord God, all-bountiful and all-merciful lover of mankind … took pity on the human race … when the Grand Duke came before Pskov, he halted near the town and rested at the monastery of St Nicholas. And … when the Grand Duke heard all the bells ringing, his heart was softened and he came to himself, and ordered all his soldiers to blunt their swords with stones and forbade them to commit murder in the town … he was met by the Abbot of the Pechery monastery, Kornily, with all the clergy … and they went into the cathedral church of the Holy Trinity and heard mass.**


Ivan the Terrible begs Kornily for admission to the monastery, by Klavdy Lebedev. (Detail view; click for the full canvas.)

This all sounds friendly enough.

What we may have in the passage foregoing is a conflation of legends about the monk, who is unambiguously attested a martyr to Ivan at the gates of the monastery even as he’s credited with sparing the city as a whole from the tsar’s full fury. (This particular execution — or murder — date is cited in this popular history of Ivan; “February” sometime is generally agreed.)

So maybe it was one of the tyrant’s famous piques of rage — or maybe Kornily didn’t really charm him into altering his plans at all.

Although the particulars are half-obscured in legend, one can still visit at this gorgeous monastery the “Path of Blood”: the route from the gates to the cathedral along which the remorseful tsar allegedly carried his victim’s body. Ivan also made several gifts to the monastery.†

Kornily himself is still venerated on these sacred grounds, thanks not only to his holy martyrdom but to his worldly machinations. A decade after the abbott laid down his life, the walls he had raised around the monastery proved fortification enough to repel the Polish king Stephen Bathory‡ — helping cement Kornily’s reputation as the celestial defender of Pskov.

* See the title of the next footnote? Vassian Muromtsev was a protege of Kornily’s in the Pskov-Pechery monastery; Kurbsky actually had a running correspondence with Muromtsev.

Muromtsev “was put to death together with [Kornily],” reports Kurbsky, although his authority for this claim is doubtful. “They say that they were both crushed together on the same day by some kind of instrument of torture; and their holy martyred corpses were buried together.”

** Quoted in Nikolai Andreyev, “Kurbsky’s Letters to Vas’yan Muromtsev,” The Slavonic and East European Review, June 1955.

† Andreyev, “The Pskov-Pechery Monastery in the 16th Century,” The Slavonic and East European Review, June 1954.

‡ We’ve met Stephen Bathory’s infamous niece in these pages.

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1570: Ivan Viskovaty among hundreds on Red Square during the Oprichnina

4 comments July 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1570, Russian tsar Ivan IV GroznyIvan the Terrible — carried out one of his most infamous and horrible atrocities with hundreds executed on Red Square.

Ivan the Terrible, by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Cropped image; click for the full painting.)

We find ourselves in 1570 almost a quarter-century into the reign of this complicated, frightening figure. It is the oprichnina, the bloodiest spell of Ivan’s authority: years of torture, purges, and political violence vividly symbolized by the tsar’s black-clad personal Gestapo, the oprichniki.

“Children of darkness,” the exiled noble Kurbsky called these dreadful Praetorians. “Hundreds and thousands of times worse than hangmen.”

A dangerous time to draw breath, but a particularly dangerous time for any boyar, men of the feudal nobility whom Ivan set his iron hand to mastering. This, after all, was the historical task of monarchs at this time, and it was everywhere accomplished with bloodshed.

For Ivan, having come of age an orphan at the mercy of rival boyars, it was a vengeful personal obsession.

Already stung by the defection — and subsequent nasty correspondence — of one such noble, Andrei Kurbsky, Ivan was downright paranoid about disloyalty during the long-running Livonian War against Muscovy’s western neighbors, Poland, Lithuania and Sweden.

Ivan became ever readier to equate dissent with treason and to ascribe his military reverses to conspiracies on the part of his aristocratic commanders, rather than to the shortcomings of his war-machine in general. A vicious circle thus emerged – of military failures; suspected treachery; the suspects’ fear of condemnation and liquidation, and flight abroad.*


The innocent have nothing to fear!

Taking it into his head that the ancient, rival city of Novgorod — one of the cradles of Russian civilization — was scheming to deliver itself to the newly-formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ivan led an army there that in early 1570 massacred thousands of Novgorodians.**

He wasn’t done yet.

Returning to Moscow with his blood up, Ivan subjected his numerous Novgorodian prisoners to a savage regimen meant to uncover the extent of their nefarious doings. And it wasn’t long before the locals (who were, after all, just as suspect in Ivan’s eyes) got swept up in it, too. Politically-motivated magistrates with torture-induced confessions and denunciations did the dreadful things they always do.

This date in 1570 turned out to be the affair’s crowning carnival of barbarism.

“The Russian capital had seen many horrors in its time,” wrote Soviet-era historian A.A. Zimin (cited in this biography of Ivan IV). “But what happened in Moscow on 25 July, in all its cruelty and sadistic refinement, outdid all that had gone before and can perhaps be explained only by the cruel temperament and the sick imagination of Ivan the Terrible.”

Ivan Viskovaty (English Wikipedia link | French) had been one of Russia’s leading men on foreign affairs for a generation, as well as a longstanding ally of the tsar.

Nevertheless, he would be the first and most prominent victim on Red Square this date. Viskovaty’s rival Andrei Shchelkalov, who succeeded Viskovaty as the foreign affairs minister, neatly stitched up the senior diplomat for being in on the Novgorod “plot” as well as more exotic schemes to hand over southern cities to Turkey and the Khanate.

Historian Nikolai Karamzin related the scene (quoted here):

On July 25, in the middle of the market-place, eighteen scaffolds were erected, a number of instruments of torture were fixed in position, a large stack of wood was lighted, and over it an enormous cauldron of water was placed. Seeing these terrible preparations, the people hurried away and hid themselves wherever they could, abandoning their opened shops, their goods and their money. Soon the place was void but for the band of opritchniks gathered round the gibbets, and the blazing fire. Then was heard the sound of drums: the Tsar appeared on horseback, accompanied by his dutiful son, the boyards, some princes, and quite a legion of hangmen. Behind these came some hundreds of the condemned, many like spectres; others torn, bleeding, and so feeble they scarce could walk. Ivan halted near the scaffolds and looked around, then at once commanded the opritchniks to find where the people were and drag them into the light of day. In his impatience he even himself ran about here and there, calling the Muscovites to come forward and see the spectacle he had prepared for them, promising all who came safety and pardon. The inhabitants, fearing to disobey, crept out of their hiding-place, and, trembling with fright, stood round the scaffold. Some having climbed on to the walls, and even showing themselves on the roofs, Ivan shouted: “People, ye are about to witness executions and a massacre, but these are traitors whom I thus punish. Answer me: Is this just?” And on all sides the people shouted approval. “Long live our glorious King! Down with traitors! Goiesi, Goida!”

Ivan separated 180 of the prisoners from the crowd and pardoned them. Then the first Clerk of the Council unrolled a scroll and called upon the condemned to answer. The first to be brought before him was Viskovati, and to him he read out: “Ivan Mikhailovich, formerly a Counsellor of State, thou hast been found faithless to his Imperial Highness. Thou has written to the King Sigismund offering him Novgorod; there thy first crime!” He paused to strike Viskovati on the head, then continued reading: “And this thy second crime, not less heinous than thy first, O ungrateful and perfidious one! Thou hast written to the Sultan of Turkey, that he may take Astrakhan and Kazan,” whereupon he struck the condemned wretch twice, and continued: “Also thou hast called upon the Khan of the Krim Tartars to enter and devastate Russia:† this thy third crime.” Viskovati called God to witness that he was innocent, that he had always served faithfully his Tsar and his country: “My earthly judges will not recognize the truth; but the Heavenly Judge knows my innocence! Thou also, O Prince, thou wilt recognise it before that tribunal on high!” Here the executioners interrupted, gagging him. He was then suspended, head downwards, his clothes torn off, and, Maluta Skutarov, the first to dismount from his horse and lead the attack, cut off an ear, then, little by little, his body was hacked to pieces.

The next victim was the treasurer, Funikov-Kartsef, a friend of Viskovati, accused with him of the same treason, and as unjustly. He in his turn said to Ivan, “I pray God will give thee in eternity a fitting reward for thy actions here!” He was drenched with boiling and cold water alternately, until he expired after enduring the most horrible torments. Then others were hanged, strangled, tortured, cut to pieces, killed slowly, quickly, by whatever means fancy suggested. Ivan himself took a part, stabbing and slaying without dismounting from his horse. In four hours two hundred and been put to death, and then, the carnage over, the hangmen, their clothes covered with blood, and their gory, steaming knives in their hands, surrounded the Tsar and shouted huzzah. “Goida! Goida! Long live the Tsar! Ivan for ever! Goida! Goida!” and so shouting they went round the market-place that Ivan might examine the mutilated remains, the piled-up corpses, the actual evidences of the slaughter. Enough of bloodshed for the one day? Not a bit of it. Ivan, satiated for the moment with the slaughter, would gloat over the grief of the survivors. Wishing to see the unhapy wives of Funikov-Kartsef and of Viskovati, he forced a way into their apartments and made merry over their grief! The wife of Funikov-Kartsef he put to the torture, that he might have from her whatever treasures she possessed. Equally he wished to torture her fifteen-year-old daughter, who was groaning and lamenting at their ill fortune, but contented himself with handing her over to the by no means tender mercies of the Tsarevich Ivan. Taken afterwards to a convent, these unhappy beings shortly died of grief — it is said.

Thanks to this sort of wholesale purging, Ivan the Terrible became in the 20th century something of an allegorical shorthand for Joseph Stalin, whose own reign of terror was a touchier subject for direct commentary. By that same token, and capturing the multifaceted meaning of the word Grozny, (both awful and awe-inspiring) Soviet patriotic mythology co-opted Ivan and his allegedly farsighted cruelty as a state- and nation-builder.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible — a planned trilogy of films of which only two were completed, due to Stalin’s distaste for his greatest director’s interpretation — captures a view of Ivan IV Grozny from the shadow of wartime Stalinist Russia. (The two extant films can be seen in their entirety on YouTube, and are well worth the watching.)

The more conventional take is that, especially by his later years, the guy’s tyrannical paranoia had metastasized enough to send him plum off his rocker. In 1581, that favorite son who had accompanied Tsar Ivan to Novgorod, and to Red Square on this date, piqued his father’s rage during an argument — and in a fury, Ivan struck him dead.


Detail view (click for the full, gorgeous canvas) of Ilya Repin‘s emotional painting of Ivan the moment after he has mortally wounded his son. Incited to his own act of lunacy by the tsar’s riveting madman expression, iconographer and Old Believer Abram Balashov slashed these faces with a knife (image) in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1913.

The capable young heir’s senseless death effectively spelled the end for Russia’s Rurikid Dynasty descended from the half-mythical Norse founder of Rus’, Rurik. That argument from order and progress in favor of Ivan’s ferocity inconveniently runs up against the fact that what he actually bequeathed to the next generations of Russians was the rudderless, war-torn Time of Troubles, when rival claimants struggled for the throne.

Ivan IV is sure to remain a controversial, compelling figure for many a year to come. Released just a few months ago as of this writing, and in a time when Ivan comparisons are coming back into vogue for the ominous contemporary Russian state, Pavel Lungin’s Tsar (review) mounts a gory critique of its subject.

* Jonathan Shepard, book review in The Historical Journal, vol. 25, no. 2 (June 1982).

** Novgorod by 1570 was not as important as it had once been, but Ivan’s sack massively depopulated the city, essentially destroying its remaining strength as an independent commercial center.

† The allied Ottoman Turks and Crimean Khanate did in fact devastate Russia (and pillage Moscow) the very next year.

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