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January 16: Ivan the Terrible

Lawrence Bush
January 16, 2017
Russia’s first Tsar, Ivan the Terrible (translated by some as “the Awesome”), was crowned on this date in 1547. When he captured Polotsk, a Polish-Lithuanian town, during the Livonian War in 1563, he ordered that all Jewish residents (about 300) who refused to be baptized be drowned in the icy Dvina River. Ivan’s reign brought about a centrally governed Russian Empire, a reign of terror and purges against Russian nobility, endless war against the Tatars, Swedes, Poles, and others, and a strengthening of the Orthodox Church. “In his time,” writes the Jewish Encyclopedia, “the prejudice against the Jews in the Muscovite dominions was very pronounced. They were feared as magicians and proselytizers.” Jews had, in fact, been banned from entering the lands stretching from Kiev to Moscow, until their expulsion from several countries in western Europe drove Jews eastward to the kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania, where Ivan the Terrible encountered them in his drive to expand his empire. “His domestic rule saw Russia almost double its territory and population, and was marked by the founding of the oprichnina, a 1,000-strong private army personally loyal to the Tsar. Its members wore all-black uniforms, and rode horses adorned with a severed dog’s head and a broom, signifying that they would first bite Ivan’s enemies and then sweep them away.” --The Guardian

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.