As the historical profession declines in scholarly rigor, its practitioners huddle like quivering hamsters around the same factors—moral relativism, contrarian revisionism, scabrous identity politics, useless social-science theories—that have already driven it to the brink of irrelevance. Charles J. Halperin’s attempted biography of the notorious Ivan IV (r. 1533–84), the first Russian ruler to be crowned tsar, succeeds in capturing these factors so thoroughly that the book is a virtual parody of contemporary academic writing. Alas, the genre of historical biography will be forced to survive outside of academia’s self-imposed limitations.
The grating irony is that Halperin himself left university life more than twenty-five years ago but, for whatever reason, still clings to its institutional groupthink, which dictates that the straightforward narrative is as unfashionable as studying “great men.” His biography tells no coherent story but rather addresses Ivan’s life thematically, roving with little sense of direction through highlights of his reign in search of myths to dispel and received wisdom to challenge. Little of it is convincing, and much of it is so irritatingly peppered with “may have,” “could have been,” and similar conditional locutions that the impression the book leaves is unlikely to be lasting or definitive. Five chapters in the middle do not discuss Ivan at all, but relate a largely tangential history of early modern Russia, presented as though its ruler, who originated Russia’s imperial tradition of autocracy (and indeed Russia’s empire itself), were not a particularly important part of it. I have never before read a biography that devoted so much attention to topics other than its subject. Halperin appears to believe that rulers do not matter very much and that the ship of the Russian state slouched its way forward through a jumble of impersonal “forces,” petty conflicts, and dumb luck.
The book’s full title, Ivan the Terrible: Free to Reward and Free to Punish, borrows from one of the ruler’s official mandates to make Halperin’s main argument: whatever “bad” things Ivan did went along with some good points. Halperin seeks to refute imaginary and prejudiced commentators holding that “Ivan was uniquely worse than any non-Russian ruler, because Russians were uniquely worse than any other people” and to promote an understanding of Ivan as “a human being . . . not simply the monster of legend.” One hears the clichéd echo of “he made the trains run on time” and ruminates on the likely fate of such a historian were he to attempt a similar revision of the life and work of Adolf Hitler. (Granted, in and to the detriment of academic Russian Studies, qualifying Lenin and Stalin’s murderous regimes still passes muster among the tweedy tenurati.) Halperin claims that the handful of Ivan’s cruelties he does not minimize bear comparison to those of Ivan’s peers ruling other countries in the sixteenth century. But who feels any pangs of nostalgia for Bloody Mary’s depredations in England, or Phillip II of Spain and that minor detail of the Inquisition? No matter how similar Halperin imagines them all to have been, his Ivan still impaled scores of people on Red Square, capriciously dispatched loyal servitors on whims, had the head of the Russian Orthodox Church strangled in prison, policed the country with black-robed pseudo-monks who sported dogs’ severed heads and licenses to kill, and perpetrated a mass terror that even Halperin finds, albeit incorrectly, unparalleled by any other Russian ruler before Stalin.
Halperin pleads a lack of sources for not having written a fuller biography. While Ivan ruled a remote realm with unsystematic records, left no diaries or memoirs, and may not have composed crucial documents of governance (either in their entirety or at all), this excuse falls short next to the work of Ivan’s more intelligible recent biographers. It is downright ridiculous when compared to Janet Nelson’s superb new biography of Charlemagne—the Holy Roman Emperor who lived more than seven centuries before Ivan and left even less documentation. In an awkward leap of logic, however, Halperin abandons his relativism to make some definite assertions about certain sources. Without explanation, he fully accepts the heavily contested authenticity of Ivan’s correspondence with his courtier and military commander Prince Andrei Kurbsky, who defected to Poland and used his refuge there both to taunt his erstwhile sovereign and to pen an unflattering history of his early reign. It is unlikely that the authenticity dispute will ever be settled, but Halperin opts to remove himself from the conversation entirely: he eschews even a cursory review of extant biographies and other scholarship, perhaps because they would handily refute what he would like us to believe is his “balanced” interpretation.