Prince Andrej Kourbsky was one of the chief boyards or nobles at the Court of Ivan, the first Grand Prince of Muscovy who assumed the Eastern title of Tzar, and who relieved Russia from the terrible invasions of the Tatars. This wild race for nearly four hundred years had roamed over the country, destroying and plundering all they met with, and blighting all the attempts at civilization that had begun to be made in the eleventh century. It was only when the Russians learnt the use of firearms that these savages were in any degree repressed. In the year 1551 the city of Kazan, upon the River Kazanka, a tributary of the Volga, was the last city that remained in the hands of the Tatars. It was a rich and powerful place, a great centre of trade between Europe and the East, but it was also a nest of robbers, who had frequently broken faith with the Russians, and had lately expelled the Khan Schig Alei for having endeavored to fulfill his engagements to them. The Tzar Ivan Vassilovitch, then only twenty-two years of age, therefore marched against the place, resolved at any cost to reduce it and free his country from these inveterate foes.
On his way he received tidings that the Crimean Tatars had come plundering into Russia, probably thinking to attack Moscow, while Ivan was besieging Kazan. He at once sent off the Prince Kourbsky with 15,000 men, who met double that number of Tatars at Toula, and totally defeated them, pursuing them to the River Chevorona, where, after a second defeat, they abandoned a great number of Russian captives, and a great many camels. Prince Kourbsky was wounded in the head and shoulder, but was able to continue the campaign.
Some of the boyards murmured at the war, and declared that their strength and resources were exhausted. Upon this the Tzar desired that two lists might be drawn up of the willing and unwilling warriors in his camp. 'The first', he said, 'shall be as dear to me as my own children; their needs shall be made known to me, and I will share all I have with them. The others may stay at home; I want no cowards in my army.' No one of course chose to be in the second list, and about this time was formed the famous guard called the Strelitzes, a body of chosen warriors who were always near the person of the Tzar.
In the middle of August, 1552, Ivan encamped in the meadows on the banks of the Volga, which spread like a brilliant green carpet around the hill upon which stood the strongly fortified city of Kazan. The Tatars had no fears. 'This is not the first time', they said, 'that we have seen the Muscovites beneath our walls. Their fruitless attacks always end in retreats, till we have learned to laugh them to scorn;' and when Ivan sent them messengers with offers of peace, they replied, 'All is ready; we only await your coming to begin the feast.'
They did not know of the great change that the last half-century had made in sieges. One of the Italian condottieri, or leaders of free companies, had made his way to Moscow, and under his instructions, Ivan's troops were for the first time to conduct a siege in the regular modern manner, by digging trenches in the earth, and throwing up the soil in front into a bank, behind which the cannon and gunners are posted, with only small openings made through which to fire at some spot in the enemy's walls. These trenches are constantly worked nearer and nearer to the fortifications, till by the effect of the shot an opening or breach must be made in the walls, and the soldiers can then climb up upon scaling ladders or heaps of small faggots piled up to the height of the opening. Sometimes, too, the besiegers burrow underground till they are just below the wall, then fill the hole with gunpowder, and blow up all above them; in short, instead of, as in former days, a well- fortified city being almost impossible to take, except by starving out the garrison, a siege is in these times almost equally sure to end in favor of the besiegers.
All through August and September the Russians made their approaches, while the Tatars resisted them bravely, but often showing great barbarity. Once when Ivan again sent a herald, accompanied by a number of Tatar prisoners, to offer terms to Yediguer, the present Khan, the defenders called out to their countrymen, 'You had better perish by our pure hands than by those of the wretched Christians,' and shot a whole flight of arrows at them. Moreover, every morning the magicians used to come out at sunrise upon the walls, and their shrieks, contortions, and waving of garments were believed, not only by the Tatars but by the Russians, and by Andrej Kourbsky himself, to bring foul weather, which greatly harassed the Russians. On this Ivan sent to Moscow for a sacred cross that had been given to the Grand Prince Vladimir when he was converted; the rivers were blessed, and their water sprinkled round the camp, and the fair weather that ensued was supposed to be due to the counteraction of the incantations of the magicians. These Tatars were Mahometans, but they must have retained some of the wind-raising enchantments of their Buddhist brethren in Asia.
A great mine had been made under the gate of Arsk, and eleven barrels of gunpowder placed in it. On the 30th of September it was blown up, and the whole tower became a heap of ruins. For some minutes the consternation of the besieged was such that there was a dead silence like the stillness of the grave. The Russians rushed forward over the opening, but the Tatars, recovering at the sight of them, fought desperately, but could not prevent them from taking possession of the tower at the gateway. Other mines were already prepared, and the Tzar gave notice of a general assault for the next day, and recommended all his warriors to purify their souls by repentance, confession, and communion, in readiness for the deadly strife before them. In the meantime, he sent Yediguer a last offer of mercy, but the brave Tatars cried out, 'We will have no pardon! If the Russians have one tower, we will build another; if they ruin our ramparts we will set up more. We will be buried under the walls of Kazan, or else we will make him raise the siege.'
Early dawn began to break. The sky was clear and cloudless. The Tatars were on their walls, the Russians in their trenches; the Imperial eagle standard, which Ivan had lately assumed, floated in the morning wind. The two armies were perfectly silent, save here and there the bray of a single trumpet, or beat of a naker drum in one or the other, and the continuous hum of the hymns and chants from the three Russian chapel- tents. The archers held their arrows on the string, the gunners stood with lighted matches. The copper-clad domes of the minarets began to glow with the rising sunbeams; the muezzins were on the roofs about to call the Moslemin to prayer; the deacon in the Tzar's chapel-tent was reading the Gospel. 'There shall be one fold and one Shepherd.' At that moment the sun's disk appeared above the eastern hills, and ere yet the red orb had fully mounted above the horizon, there was a burst as it were of tremendous thunderings, and the ground shook beneath the church. The Tzar went to the entrance, and found the whole city hill so 'rolled in sable smoke', that he could distinguish nothing, and, going back to his place, desired that the service should continue. The deacon was in the midst of the prayer for the establishment of the power of the Tzar and the discomfiture of his enemies, when the crushing burst of another explosion rushed upon their ears, and as it died away another voice broke forth, the shout raised by every man in the Russian lines, 'God is with us!' On then they marched towards the openings that the mines had made, but there the dauntless garrison, in spite of the terror and destruction caused by the two explosions, met them with unabated fury, rolling beams or pouring boiling water upon them as they strove to climb the breach, and fighting hand to hand with them if they mounted it. However, by the time the Tzar had completed his devotions and mounted his horse, his eagle could be seen above the smoke upon the citadel.
Still the city had to be won, step by step, house by house, street by street; and even while struggling onwards the Russians were tempted aside by plunder among the rich stores of merchandise that were heaped up in the warehouses of this the mart of the East. The Khan profited by their lack of discipline, and forced them back to the walls; nay, they would have absolutely been driven out at the great gate, but that they beheld their young Tzar on horseback among his grey-haired councillors. By the advice of these old men Ivan rode forward, and with his own hand planted the sacred standard at the gates, thus forming a barrier that the fugitives were ashamed to pass. At the same time he, with half his choice cavalry, dismounted, and entered the town all fresh and vigorous, their rich armor glittering with gold and silver, and plumes of various colours streaming from their helmets in all the brilliancy of Eastern taste. This reinforcement recalled the plunderers to their duty, and the Tatars were driven back to the Khan's palace, whence, after an hour's defense, they were forced to retreat.
At a postern gate, Andrej Kourbsky and two hundred men met Yediguer and 10,000 Tatars, and cut off their retreat, enclosing them in the narrow streets. They forced their Khan to take refuge in a tower, and made signs as if to capitulate. 'Listen,' they said. 'As long as we had a government, we were willing to die for our prince and country. Now Kazan is yours, we deliver our Khan to you, alive and unhurt--lead him to the Tzar. For our own part, we are coming down into the open field to drain our last cup of life with you.'
Yediguer and one old councillor were accordingly placed in the hands of an officer, and then the desperate Tatars, climbing down the outside of the walls, made for the Kazanka, where no troops, except the small body under Andrej Kourbsky and his brother Romanus, were at leisure to pursue them. The fighting was terrible, but the two princes kept them in view until checked by a marsh which horses could not pass. The bold fugitives took refuge in a forest, where, other Russian troops coming up, all were surrounded and slain, since not a man of them would accept quarter.
Yediguer was kindly treated by Ivan, and accompanying him to Moscow, there became a Christian, and was baptized by the name of Simeon, in the presence of the Tzar and his whole court, on the banks of the Moskwa. He married a Russian lady, and his whole conduct proved that his conversion was sincere.
But this story has only been told at so much length to show what manner of man Andrej Kourbsky was, and Ivan Vassilovitch had been, and how they had once been brethren in arms; and perhaps it has been lingered over from the melancholy interest there must always be in watching the fall of a powerful nation, and the last struggles of gallant men. Ivan was then a gallant, religious and highly gifted prince, generous and merciful, and with every promise of a glorious reign, full of benefits to his country. Alas! this part of his career was one glimpse of brightness in the course of a long tempestuous day. His reign had begun when he was but three years old. He had had a violent and cruel mother, and had, after her death, been bred up by evil-minded courtiers, who absolutely taught him cruel and dissolute amusements in order to prevent him from attending to state affairs. For a time, the exhortations of the good and fearless patriarch, and the influence of his gentle wife Anastasia, had prevailed, and with great vigor and strong principle he had shaken off all the evil habits of his boyhood, and begun, as it seemed, an admirable reign.
Too soon, a severe illness shook the balance of his mind, and this was quickly followed by the death of the excellent Tzarina Anastasia. Whether grief further unsettled him, or whether the loss of her gentle influence left him a prey to his wicked councillors, from that time forward his conduct was so wildly savage and barbarous as to win for him the surname of the Terrible. Frantic actions, extravagant excesses, and freaks of horrible cruelty looked like insanity; and yet, on the other hand, he often showed himself a clear-headed and sagacious monarch, anxious for the glory and improvement of his people.
But he lived in continual suspicion, and dreaded every eminent man in his dominions. Kourbsky whom he had once loved and trusted, and had charged with the command of his army, as his most able boyard, fell under his suspicion; and, with horror and indignation, learnt that the Tzar was plotting against his life, and intended to have him put to death. Kourbsky upon this explained to his wife that she must either see him put to a shameful death, or let him leave her for ever. He gave his blessing to his son, a boy of nine years old, and leaving his house at night he scaled the wall of Moscow, and meeting his faithful servant, Vasili Shibanoff, with two horses, he made his escape. This Vasili was his stirrup-bearer, one of those serfs over whom the boyard on whose land they were born possessed absolute power. That power was often abused, but the instinctive faithfulness of the serf towards his master could hardly be shaken, even by the most savage treatment, and a well- treated serf viewed his master's family with enthusiastic love and veneration. Vasili accompanied his master's flight through the birch forests towards the Livonian frontier, the country where but lately Kourbsky had been leading the Tzar's armies. On the way the prince's horse became exhausted by his weight, and Vasili insisted on giving up his own in its stead, though capture in the course of such desertion would have been certain death. However, master and servant safely arrived at Wolmar in Livonia, and there Andrej came to the determination of renouncing the service of the ungrateful Ivan, and entering that of the King of Poland. For this last step there was no excuse. Nothing can justify a man in taking up arms against his country, but in the middle Ages the tie of loyalty was rather to the man than to the state, and Andrej Kourbsky seems to have deemed that his honor would be safe, provided he sent a letter to his sovereign, explaining his grievance and giving up his allegiance. The letter is said to have been full of grave severity and deep, suppressed indignation, though temperate in tone; but no one would consent to be the bearer of such a missive, since the cruel tyrant's first fury was almost certain to fall on him who presented it. Believing his master's honor at stake, Vasili offered himself to be the bearer of the fatal letter, and Kourbsky accepted the offer, tendering to him a sum of money, which the serf rejected, knowing that money would soon be of little service to him, and seeking no reward for what he deemed his duty to his lord.
As Ivan's justice had turned into barbarity, so his religion had turned into foolish fanatic observance. He had built a monastery near Moscow for himself and three hundred chosen boyards, and every morning at three or four o'clock he took his two sons into the belfry with him and proceeded to strike the bells, the Russian mode of ringing them, till all the brethren were assembled. This bell-sounding was his favorite occupation, and in it he was engaged when Vasili arrived. The servant awaited him in the vestibule, and delivered the letter with these words: 'From my master and thine exile, Prince Andrej Kourbsky.'
Ivan answered by such a blow on the leg with his iron-tipped rod that the blood poured from the wound; but Vasili neither started, cried out, nor moved a feature. At once the Tzar bade him be seized and tortured, to make him disclose whether his master had any partners in guilt, or if any plans were matured. But no extremity of agony could extract aught but praises of the prince, and assurances of his readiness to die for him. From early morning till late at night the torturers worked, one succeeding when another was tired out; but nothing could overcome his constancy, and his last words were a prayer to implore his God to have mercy on his master and forgive his desertion.
His praise came even from the tyrant, who wrote to Kourbsky--'Let thy servant Vaska [Footnote: the abbreviation of Vasili or Basil.] shame thee. He preserved his truth to thee before the Tzar and the people. Having given thee his word of faith, he kept it, even before the gates of death.'
After the flight of Kourbsky, the rage of Ivan continued to increase with each year of his life. He had formed a sort of bodyguard of a thousand ruffians, called the Oprichnina, who carried out his barbarous commands, and committed an infinity of murders and robberies on their own account. He was like a distorted caricature of Henry VIII, and, like him, united violence and cruelty with great exactness about religious worship, carrying his personal observances to the most fanatic extravagance.
In the vacancy of the Metropolitan See, he cast his eyes upon the monastery in the little island of Solovsky, in the White Sea, where the Prior, Feeleep Kolotchof, was noted for his holy life, and the good he had done among the wild and miserable population of the island. He was the son of a rich boyard, but had devoted himself from his youth to a monastic life, and the fame of his exertions in behalf of the islanders had led the Tzar to send him not only precious vessels for the use of his church, but contributions to the stone churches, piers, and hostelries that he raised for his people; for whom he had made roads, drained marshes, introduced cattle, and made fisheries and salt pans, changing the whole aspect of the place, and lessening even the inclemency of the climate.
On this good man the Tzar fixed his choice. He wrote to him to come to Moscow to attend a synod, and on his arrival made him dine at the palace, and informed him that he was to be chief pastor of the Russian Church. Feeleep burst into tears, entreating permission to refuse, and beseeching the Tzar not to trust 'so heavy a freight to such a feeble bark'. Ivan held to his determination, and Feeleep then begged him at least to dismiss the cruel Oprichnina. 'How can I bless you,' he said, 'while I see my country in mourning?'
The Tzar replied by mentioning his suspicions of all around him, and commanded Feeleep to be silent. He expected to be sent back to his convent at once, but, instead of this, the Tzar commanded the clergy to elect him Archbishop, and they all added their entreaties to him to accept the office, and endeavor to soften the Tzar, who respected him; and he yielded at last, saying, 'The will of the Tzar and the pastors of the church must, then, be done.'
At his consecration, he preached a sermon on the power of mildness, and the superiority of the victories of love over the triumphs of war. It awoke the better feelings of Ivan, and for months he abstained from any deed of violence; his good days seemed to have returned and he lived in intimate friendship with the good Archbishop.
But after a time the sleeping lion began to waken. Ivan's suspicious mind took up an idea that Feeleep had been incited by the nobles to request the abolition of the Oprichnina, and that they were exciting a revolt. The spies whom he sent into Moscow told him that wherever an Oprichnik appeared, the people shrank away in silence, as, poor things! they well might. He fancied this as a sign that conspiracies were brewing, and all his atrocities began again. The tortures to which whole families were put were most horrible; the Oprichniks went through the streets with poignards and axes, seeking out their victims, and killing from ten to twenty a day. The corpses lay in the streets, for no one dared to leave his house to bury them. Feeleep vainly sent letters and exhortations to the Tzar--they were unnoticed. The unhappy citizens came to the Archbishop, entreating him to intercede for them, and he gave them his promise that he would not spare his own blood to save theirs.
One Sunday, as Feeleep was about to celebrate the Holy Communion, Ivan came into the Cathedral with a troop of his satellites, like him, fantastically dressed in black cassocks and high caps. He came towards the Metropolitan, but Feeleep kept his eyes fixed on the picture of our Lord, and never looked at him. Someone said, 'Holy Father, here is the prince; give him your blessing.'
'No,' said the Archbishop, 'I know not the Tzar in this strange disguise--still less do I know him in his government. Oh, Prince! we are here offering sacrifice to the Lord, and beneath the altar the blood of guiltless Christians is flowing in torrents... You are indeed on the throne, but there is One above all, our Judge and yours. How shall you appear before his Judgment Seat?--stained with the blood of the righteous, stunned with their shrieks, for the stones beneath your feet cry out for vengeance to Heaven. Prince, I speak as shepherd of souls; I fear God alone.'
The Archbishop was within the golden gates, which, in Russian churches, close in the sanctuary or chancel, and are only entered by the clergy. He was thus out of reach of the cruel iron-tipped staff, which the Tzar could only strike furiously on the pavement, crying out, 'Rash monk, I have spared you too long. Henceforth I will be to you such as you describe.'
The murders went on in their full horrors; but, in spite of the threat, the Archbishop remained unmolested, though broken-hearted at the cruelties around him. At last, however, his resolute witness became more than the tyrant would endure, and messengers were secretly sent to the island of Solovsky, to endeavor to find some accusation against him. They tampered with all the monks in the convent, to induce them to find some fault in him, but each answered that he was a saint in every thought, word, and deed; until at last Payssi, the prior who had succeeded him, was induced, by the hope of a bishopric, to bear false witness against him.
He was cited before an assembly of bishops and boyards, presided over by the Tzar, and there he patiently listened to the monstrous stories told by Payssi. Instead of defending himself, he simply said, 'This seed will not bring you a good harvest;' and, addressing himself to the Tzar, said, 'Prince, you are mistaken if you think I fear death. Having attained an advanced age, far from stormy passions and worldly intrigues, I only desire to return my soul to the Most High, my Sovereign Master and yours. Better to perish an innocent martyr, than as Metropolitan to look on at the horrors and impieties of these wretched times. Do what you will with me! Here are the pastoral staff, the white mitre, and the mantle with which you invested me. And you, bishops, archimandrites, abbots, servants of the altar, feed the flock of Christ zealously, as preparing to give an account thereof, and fear the Judge of Heaven more than the earthly judge.'
He was then departing, when the Tzar recalled him, saying that he could not be his own judge, and that he must await his sentence. In truth, worse indignities were preparing for him. He was in the midst of the Liturgy on the 8th of November, the Greek Michaelmas, when a boyard came in with a troop of armed Oprichniks, who overawed the people, while the boyard read a paper degrading the Metropolitan from his sacred office; and then the ruffians, entering through the golden gates tore off his mitre and robes, wrapped him in a mean gown, absolutely swept him out of the church with brooms, and took him in a sledge to the Convent of the Epiphany. The people ran after him, weeping bitterly, while the venerable old man blessed them with uplifted hands, and, whenever he could be heard, repeated his last injunction, 'Pray, pray to God.'
Once again he was led before the Emperor, to hear the monstrous sentence that for sorcery, and other heavy charges, he was to be imprisoned for life. He said no reproachful word, only, for the last time, he besought the Tzar to have pity on Russia, and to remember how his ancestors had reigned, and the happy days of his youth. Ivan only commanded the soldiers to take him away; and he was heavily ironed, and thrown into a dungeon, whence he was afterwards transferred to a convent on the banks of the Moskwa, where he was kept bare of almost all the necessaries of life: and in a few days' time the head of Ivan Borissovitch Kolotchof, the chief of his family, was sent to him, with the message, 'Here are the remains of your dear kinsman, your sorcery could not save him!' Feeleep calmly took the head in his arms, blessed it, and gave it back.
The people of Moscow gathered round the convent, gazed at his cell, and told each other stories of his good works, which they began to magnify into miracles. Thereupon the Emperor sent him to another convent, at a greater distance. Here he remained till the next year, 1569, when Maluta Skouratof, a Tatar, noted as a favorite of the Tzar, and one of the chief ministers of his cruelty, came into his cell, and demanded his blessing for the Tzar.
The Archbishop replied that blessings only await good men and good works, adding tranquilly, 'I know what you are come for. I have long looked for death. Let the Tzar's will be done.' The assassin then smothered him, but pretended to the abbot that he had been stifled by the heat of the cell. He was buried in haste behind the altar, but his remains have since been removed to his own cathedral at Moscow, the scene where he had freely offered his own life by confronting the tyrant in the vain endeavor to save his people.
Vain, too, was the reproof of the hermit, who shocked Ivan's scruples by offering him a piece of raw flesh in the middle of Lent, and told him that he was preying on the flesh and blood of his subjects. The crimes of Ivan grew more and more terrible, and yet his acuteness was such that they can hardly be inscribed to insanity. He caused the death of his own son by a blow with that fatal staff of his; and a last, after a fever varied by terrible delirium, in which alone his remorse manifested itself, he died while setting up the pieces for a game at chess, on the 17th of March, 1584.
This has been a horrible story, in reality infinitely more horrible than we have made it; but there is this blessing among many others in Christianity, that the blackest night makes its diamonds only show their living luster more plainly: and surely even Ivan the Terrible, in spite of himself, did something for the world in bringing out the faithful fearlessness of Archbishop Feeleep, and the constancy of the stirrup- bearer, Vasili.