Friday, December 4, 2015

Rediscovering History's Losers

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m currently researching the background for the story that will become Vermilion Bird. The plan involves a plot that takes place between February and June 1537, an especially fraught three months in the unusually fraught period that was the minority reign of Ivan IV “the Terrible” (1533–47). Although I have no more intention than in any previous book of following the political events day by day, my own story as yet lacks any form that would make it worth discussing—and besides, I don’t want to give away spoilers for book 4 before book 3 even hits the shelves! So this post looks at the history on which I plan to tack my plot as needed.

Only that history turns out to be far from easy to re-create. The reasons why have to do with the old saw that “history is written by the winners.” In this case, the “winner” (however temporarily) was Grand Princess Elena Glinskaya, the young mother of the future Ivan the Terrible. At the time, she was probably twenty-six or twenty-seven, and Ivan was six. Her power, always shaky because Muscovy didn’t like the idea of a woman in control, may have been starting to slip, although that too is speculation. We do know that her dead husband’s brother Yuri Ivanovich died in August 1536, reportedly of starvation, in the prison where the court nobles had confined him about ten days after Elena’s husband died. (That’s Yuri top right, looking remarkably healthy for a long-time prisoner about to expire, as portrayed in the Illustrated Chronicle Codex, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) A few months later, Elena’s uncle, Prince Mikhail Glinsky, also died in prison. And in April 1537, rumors reached Moscow that “wicked people” had convinced Elena’s younger brother-in-law, Andrei Ivanovich, to flee his separate principality on the grounds that he was in disfavor with the royal court.

A trio of priests and two contingents of armed men were dispatched to stop him. Yet Andrei, unconvinced by his sister-in-law’s assurances that she bore him no ill will (because of the two contingents of soldiers? his attendance at Yuri’s funeral less than a year before?), ran off anyway. According to a chronicle set down about a hundred years after the events, he wrote to gentry military servitors in the merchant town of Novgorod, promising favors if they would join him. By the end of the month, Andrei was on his way to Moscow, traveling under a safe conduct that Grand Princess Elena would abrogate. He died in the same prison as his older brother Yuri before the end of the year.

How much of this story is true? How much did the chronicler invent? It’s hard to say. The tale is longer in later chronicles than in ones closer to the events being described, which is suspicious. But a chronicle can draw on older texts that are then destroyed—and in any case, the dating of old manuscripts is more an art than a science, at least at this point in time. So we can’t say absolutely that a detail is wrong because it appears in only one, relatively late source. But we can’t say that it’s right, either.

What has absolutely vanished is Andrei’s motivation. He is the loser in this conflict; his story remains only as the chronicler wished it to be told. Some details flatter the court in Moscow; others raise eyebrows. The grand princess and her supporters call him to service against Kazan, and he fakes illness to avoid presenting himself (again, urged by “wicked people” who wish to sow dissension between him and his loving family). They send clerics to reassure him of their good intent (but also those soldiers). They offer a safe conduct (then declare it null and void and punish the favorite who issued it). With his oldest brother dead of illness and his second brother murdered in captivity, Andrei had reason to worry. He had become the only surviving member of the older generation, the one around whom dissatisfied courtiers might rally. And he had learned from experience that Elena and her boyars would tolerate no such rallying point. But did he run in self-defense, or had he in fact decided (not without grounds) that both his own future and the country’s would look brighter if he, rather than his nephew Ivan, sat on the throne?

Andrei’s troubles were not the only events besetting Russia in 1537. The war with Lithuania finally dragged to a halt in the spring, when the two countries signed a five-year truce. The new khan of Kazan, feeling his oats and wanting (perhaps) to create a buffer zone between himself and his troublesome neighbor, launched a series of lightning raids on Muscovy’s eastern fortresses. Later that year, a new campaign against Kazan—retaliation for those raids—was called off only when the khan sued for peace. And within a year, Elena Glinskaya was dead, possibly poisoned, and the real chaos set in.

Plenty of material for fiction. And the novelist, unlike the scholar, can fill in the gaps and bring the losers back to life—so long as we remember that try as we might, we don’t really know. We’re just telling a story.

Andrei Staritsky in happier times, at his wedding in 1533. Again from the Illustrated Chronicle Codex via Wikimedia Commons. Both these images are in the public domain because of their age.


  1. Russian history is awash with dynastic clashes (as is Scottish!) - that's why I love it - great material for a novelist. I'm looking forward to this series, Carolyn.

  2. A nice blog post and am grateful for the chance to learn about a topic I know little about. Intriguing


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