Contemporary Russian Perceptions of Ivan IV’s Oprichnina
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Contemporary Russian Perceptions of Ivan IV’s Oprichnina

In December 1564, without explanation, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible, 1533–84) left Moscow with his wife, sons, treasury, and the religious treasures of the city for an undisclosed location. He wound up at Aleksandrovskaia Sloboda, a royal hunting retreat, from which he sent epistles to Moscow informing the elite and the populace that he had abdicated the throne. When those groups petitioned him to return to Moscow, he agreed upon the condition that he could establish the oprichnina, a private appanage, state-within-a-state, under his sole authority. The elite and commons acquiesced to Ivan’s demand. The oprichnina eventually became the instrument by which Ivan imposed mass terror on Muscovite society. It also remains a highly controversial episode in Russian history, the subject of an enormous, contentious, and ever-growing historiography.

Disagreements within the historiography about the oprichnina center on both specific, factual issues and broader analytical and conceptual issues. On the one hand, historians contest which territories Ivan incorporated into the oprichnina, how many oprichniki (members of the oprichnina) served Ivan, and the extent of land confiscations and deportations. On the other hand, historians dispute why Ivan established the oprichnina, whether it reflects his mental health, foreign policy or domestic political considerations, or religious ideology, and what its consequences were for 16th-century Russia and for subsequent Russian history down to the present. Whether Ivan abolished the oprichnina in 1572, and if so, why, or whether he renamed it the “household” or “court” (dvor), depends on one’s definition of the oprichnina, so the question is both narrow and broad. This article will not discuss any of these questions. However, because I define the existence of the oprichnina by the presence of its symbols—the black robes of the oprichniki, their black horses with dogs’ heads and brooms, their oaths, and their membership in a [End Page 95] pseudo monastic brotherhood, all of which disappeared in 1572—I proceed from the premise that Ivan abolished the oprichnina in 1572. Discussion of this problem lies outside the scope of the present article, but I would observe that post-1572 Muscovite sources referred to the oprichnina and oprichniki only in the past tense.

This article asks how Muscovites living in Muscovy during the oprichnina perceived that institution. No historian has ever studied all references to the oprichnina and oprichniki from the period of its existence in order to derive Muscovite perceptions of the oprichnina. Some historians have commented in passing on this question. Vasilii Kliuchevskii ascribed to contemporaries a mood of deep pessimism. According to him, the oprichnina confused Muscovites, who thought that it was “strange.” Aleksandr Kopanev concluded that the oprichninacreated “uncertainty and unease” among the boyars. Ann Kleimola asserted that members of the elite thought that they had to denounce someone else first, before they were denounced. Robert Crummey wrote that the oprichnina destroyed expectations of order among the population. The excesses of the oprichnina, he wrote, rendered society numb. Isabel de Madariaga opined that Ivan’s arbitrary executions during the oprichnina “shattered public opinion” (with due allowance for projecting that term onto 16th-century Muscovy). Vladimir Ivanov observed that the bloody oprichnina campaigns, amid other factors, created a general atmosphere of uncertainty, fear, and alienation in Muscovy.1 Dmitrii Volodikhin is a rare exception to the drift obvious in all these observations. He suggests that nonprincely gentry perceived the oprichnina as an opportunity for promotion to field army commands from which they were usually excluded.2 However, all these historians fail to cite any indigenous Muscovite documentation to corroborate their conclusions. Most historians just let the atrocities of the oprichnina speak for themselves, without addressing the reaction on the part [End Page 96] of the Muscovite elite or commoners at all.3 Atrocities, it is assumed, created disorientation, moral outrage, and discontent, if not outright opposition, among Muscovites under the oprichnina regime.

The nature of the extant sources profoundly complicates any attempt to analyze contemporary Russian perceptions of the oprichnina. Of course, we cannot evaluate letters to the editors of newspapers or dissect public opinion polls. We certainly do not have estimates of...