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  • Visible Bullets: Tamburlaine the Great and Ivan the Terrible
  • Richard Wilson

On 18 March 1584 Tsar Ivan IV, Emperor and Great Duke of Vladimir, Moscow and of all Russia, King of Astrakhan, King of Kazan, and King of Siberia, was carried on a throne into his treasury, where (in the account of the English emissary Sir Jerome Horsey) he called for his jewels: the lodestone of the prophet Muhammed, “without which the seas nor the bounds that circle the earth cannot be known”; the unicorn’s horn encrusted with rubies and emeralds he had bought for “seventy thousand marks sterling” from the Welsh wizard David Gower; the “richest diamond of the orient,” which guaranteed chastity; a sapphire that “cleared the sight, took away bloodshot, and strengthened muscles”; and an onyx that changed color in the hand of vice. Armed with these charms, he summoned the “Lapland witches” who had foretold his death, to tell them that “The day was come; he was as heart whole as ever,” and that at sunset they would therefore be burned. Then he “made merry with pleasant songs as he useth to [and] called his favourite to bring his chess board.” The opponent he chose was his rival, Boris Godunov; but the tsar set out his pieces confidently until he came to the king, which rolled onto the floor; whereupon “the Emperor faints and falls backward. Great outcry and stir; one sends for his physicians, another for his ghostly father. In the meantime he was strangled and stark dead.” 1 Thus passed the tsar known as the Terrible: “This Heliogabalus,” as Horsey reported him, who was “a right Scythian; well favoured, high forehead, shrill voice; full of ready wisdom, cruel, bloody, merciless,” and whose Kremlin tomb, “guarded day and night, remains a fearful spectacle to such as pass by or hear his name spoken, who are contented to cross and bless themselves from his resurrection.” But if there was jubilation in Moscow when the chancellor sarcastically announced that “the English Emperor was dead,” there was consternation in London, where the Muscovy Company had built its fortune on Ivan’s despotic word. 2

The Muscovy Company was England’s first joint-stock enterprise, floated in 1553 with 240 £25 shares, which members sub-divided as the market value rose during Ivan’s reign to £100 by 1557 and £450 [End Page 47] in 1572: an exponential growth of 1,800 percent. 3 The Company’s success was thus the reverse of that to which the dying tsar had physically clung: the triumph of capital as an invisible power penetrating distant lands. For as Fernand Braudel explains, merchant companies were engines of a new global economy, pumping investment from an ever larger public through cycles of expanding trade. “At the top of the world of commerce, the real big business” of the Renaissance was a fourfold operation (import-and-export and purchase-and-sale) by these international monopolists; and the Muscovy Company completed a classic circuit when they sold the English navy Russian cable bought with arms shipped to the tsar. 4 Distance, volume, and demand made this semi-clandestine trade so lucrative that by the mid-1580s the Company was declaring goods worth £25,000 a year (£75,000 at market rates); but the stimulus for fresh capital on which its directors constantly called was the potential for new markets at each end of the line: in the Asian territories conquered by Ivan where, as Horsey wrote, “great traffic is maintained with all nations for the commodities which each country yields”; and in the American colonies founded on the defeat of Spain. 5 From Virginia to Persia, the Muscovy Company straddled the shipping and caravan lanes of world trade; but the hub of its activity was its warehouse in Deptford, where up to £10,000-worth of cordage was stowed. That “the fleet which defeated the Armada was rigged with Russian tackle and cable,” was due to the bills and invoices that meshed in this store, where the Company’s London agent was charged with executing some of the most secret orders of the state. 6 And this is significant, because from 1576 to 1599 the...

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