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Kurbskij's History of the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan IV «the Terrible» (in Italian and Old Russian, yet unpublished)

by: A. M. Kurbskij
translated by: Edgardo Tito SaronneIsabella Intelisano
original title: Storia del Gran principe di Mosca, Ivan IV il Terribile
to be published by: Carocci editore 

Book's frontpage

Ivan Vasil’evič IV, the first Russia tsar’ (1530-84), is also known in the West as “the Terrible”, although his Russian denomination as Groznyj was traditionally referred to all Grand Princes, i.e. princes who, for longer or shorter periods, had occupied the throne at Kiev, later at Suzdal’-Vladimir or Moscow. Groznyj means “authoritative”. It happened that at times, in the course of his life, Ivan Groznyj was in fact also terrible. From a strictly political point of view, though, he was a great sovereign. He left Russia much greater than he had found it. He made enormous mistakes and was subject to fits of folly, but he was also a great reformer, managed to unify Russia and extend its boundaries to unheard dimensions. He also was a precursor of Peter the Great as to his unachieved project to conquer permanently the Baltic coast. Prince Andrej Michajlovič Kurbskij (1528-83) was a contemporary of Ivan IV’s, his former cooperator as a general, advisor and friend and finally, as a political refugee, his strenuous enemy. He had to escape to Poland (the kingdom of Poland and Lithuania) to avoid death and his family, whom he left behind, was destroyed by order of the tsar’. Kurbskij is well known for his polemic and caustic correspondence with Ivan IV. In 1573, urged – as he says – by a number of Ivan’s enemies, he wrote his History of the Grand Prince of Moscow. Kurbskij, like Ivan IV, was a cultivated man. He learned Latin and translated John Crysostom’s The new Pearl from Latin into Russian. His language, though, in the History, is not always correct, being to a certain extent influenced by Polish grammar and lexicon.


Table of contents

Introduction: the Prince and the tsar’
1. A.M. Kurbskij’s «History»
2. Who was Andrej Michajlovič Kurbskij? 
3. Objectives, literary characteristics and sources of Kurbskij’s «History» 
4. Structure and content of the «History» 
5. The style of the «History»
6. Quotations from the Bible and from John Crysostom’s writings
7. Polish linguistic influence and loanwords in the «History» 
8. The relations between Ivan IV and A.M. Kurbskij; Kurbskij’s personal events 
9. The correspondence between Ivan IV and Kurbskij
10. Ivan Groznyj’s and Kurbskij’s age
11. Who was Ivan Vasil’evič?
12. Ivan’s childhood, adolescence and personality
13. First signs of Ivan Groznyj’s real nature
14. Young Ivan under tutorship
15. Ivan IV as a legislator
16. The first part of Ivan’s reign: his coronation and wedding, up to his wife’s Anastasija’s death
17. Ivan’s disease and the oath concerning his succession
18. Grandeur and persecution mania: the age of executions, banishments and early massacres
19. The institution of the opričnina as a “separate reign”
20. Ivan’s bloody despotism: slaughters and mass executions
21. Ivan’s physical and moral decadence: Simeon Bekbulatovič on the throne
22. The killing of tsarevič by Ivan during a fit of temper
23. Ivan IV and his net of relations
24. Ivan IV and his family
25. All Ivan’s wives
26. Ivan’s last dream: marrying a noble  English young woman and eventually fleeing to England
27. Ivan IV’s sons and daughters
28. Ivan IV and the aristocracy
29. Ivan and religious believes
30. Ivan IV’s relations with the clergy
31. Foreign policy during Ivan’s reign
32. Russian campaigns against the Tatars: Ivan’s success and behaviour
33. New dangers from Crimean Tatars: the tsar’’s attitude, victories and triumph
34. The Stroganov family, Ermak the bandit and the conquest of Siberia up to the Pacific Ocean
35. The fortuitous beginning of commercial relations with England: the first idea of the Livonian campaign
36. Ivan’s IV’s policy towards the West (Poland and Lithuania, Livonia and Sweden)
37. Military strategy during the Livonian campaign: the first disagreement with Kurbskij
38. Secret agreements between Ivan and Magnus; Stephen Báthory on the throne of Poland and Lithuania
39. Serious losses in Livonia: the end of the dream about a Russian opening on the Baltic Sea           

Philological notes
1. Manuscripts and editions
2. Kurbskij’s «History» in translation; debts and credits 
3. Our work and its antecedents
4. Pronunciation of peculiar characters used in rendering Russian (and Slavic) names
1. Biblical abbreviations (in alphabetical order)
2. Biblical sources
3. Manuscript sources
4. Other quoted works      

Old Russian original 

Italian translation 

Notes on text        

Notes on translation

Appendix: the historical context of Kurbskij’s «Istorija»
1. Russia’s eastern enemies: the Tatar states west of the Ural Mountains
2. Russia’s western enemies: the Dukedom of Livonia, Poland and Lithuania, Sweden and Denmark            


The History is articulated in nine chapters.
The first chapter starts with a preface by the author, where he explains his goal and the reasons for writing his book. Further, it describes the horrors during the reign of Vasilij III Ivanovič, who was Ivan Groznyj’s father: the divorce from his legitimate wife Solomonija, his rage against various holy men, particularly Maksim Grek, the philosopher who had been brought to Russia by Ivan III’s second wife, Sophie Paleolog. It relates of Ivan Groznyj’s birth and of his early orphanhood and harmful education by the boyar family dominating at court. Very early Ivan began to show his rebel and fierce nature by sending to death several noble men. Finally, Moscow was burnt down by a fire and some members of the Glinskij family – who had been in charge of Ivan’s education – were either killed by the crowd, who accused them of incendiarism, or compelled to flee the capital. Luckily enough two positive characters – the pope Sil’vestr and Adašev – emerged at court and began to exert their good influence on the young sovereign.

The second chapter is substantially a very effective and detailed description of the campaign against the Tatar khanate of Kazan’ led by the young tsar’ (Ivan had been crowned in 1547), which in 1552 brought to the conquest of Kazan’ fortress and city, both by the skills of the Russian generals and the miraculous intervention of a holy relic (a fragment of the Cross) specially brought over from Moscow. Kurbskij does not miss the opportunity to praise Ivan for his successful campaign and his own brother and himself for their bravery in fighting. Praises also go to the enemy, khan Ediger.

The third chapter still concerns the war against the Tatars (or Tartars). Kurbskij accuses the tsar’ of leaving the front and going back to Moscow in order to be glorified for his success. In Moscow the tsarevič Dmitrij was born, but Ivan Groznyj fell ill. When the tsar’ recovered, he insisted in going on pilgrimage to Kirillov monastery, in spite of Maksim Grek’s prophesy and following Vassian Toporok’s advice. During the trip the tsarevič Dmitrij, who had recently been born, died tragically. Meanwhile, the Russian army was in difficulties in controlling the newly conquered territories and was even defeated by the Tatars.
Chapter IV relates on the war against Livonia started by Ivan IV and fought in the years 1554-60. Kurbskij examines the causes of this war, then tells about the first successes reported by the Russians. Soon, though, the enemies – due to the courage of their chief Kettler – took advantage of the Russians. Meanwhile, the war against the Tatars continued: the Crimean khan attacked the Russians, who in spite of this managed to submit the khanate of Astrachan’. Subsequently, the Russian army moved against Crimea. Although the boyars appealed for help in this new war both to Ivan IV and the Polish sovereign, they got no answer. Kurbskij makes a digression about the corruption at the Polish court, then goes back reporting on the Livonian war.
Chapter V has the subtitle “The beginning of evil”, i.e. of a dark age, in 1560. Ivan’s good advisors Sil’vestr and Adašev are accused by calumniators of Anastasija’s (Ivan’s beloved wife’s) death and are therefore exiled. Ivan Groznyj surrounds himself with new favorites (mainly rascals) and creates a sort of new landed aristocracy called the opričnina, which becomes an instrument of his absolute power. The tsar’ engages in a new style of life, characterized by corruption, immorality and abuse. Kurbskij seems to identify the misery of Russia and the fire set to Moscow by the Tatars as a sort of divine punishment. He also tries to prove that Ivan’s new follows the perverse tradition started by Ivan III and his son Vasilij III. The chapter is concluded with Kurbkij’s remarks concerning his own writing and divine punishment for immoral conduct.
Chapter VI is a dramatic and at times moving report of how Ivan Groznyj proceeds to the extermination of the princes and their families in the years 1560-73, beginning an age of horror.
Chapter VII relates dramatically on the destruction of the noble and courtly families in the years 1565-73.
Chapter VIII concerns the sufferings endured by various members of the Church (among whom Moscow's archbishop Filipp) during the domination of the opričnina. It also contains an hagiography about Feodorit, who helped in obtaining by Constantinople’s patriach the recognition of the title of tsar’ (Caesar or Emperor) and was repaid by ingratitude. Kurbskij claims that Ivan’s behaviour towards Feodorit was due to the fact that he spoke to the tsar’ in favour of Kurbskij himself.
In the ninth chapter, which concludes Kurbskij’s History, the author outlines a parallel between Ivan Groznyj and some ancient torturers, between the new martyrs and the ancient ones.



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