Russia: History of the (secret) police state

Although most people are familiar with the KGB (and a few with its most recent reincarnation, the FSB), Russia has had a long and infamous history of secret police organizations used by those in power to keep the public in line… and eventually topple others in power so new leaders could take their place.

Oprichniki: The earliest secret police

The first Russian leader to be crowned Tsar (царь) — in addition to holding the title of Grand Prince of Moscow also held by all prior rulers of Rus — was Ivan IV, “the Terrible,” better known to history as Иван Грозный (Ivan Grozniy, from the word meaning “fearsome, redoubtable”). Unsurprisingly, the “fearsome” autocrat was also the first to officially institute an oppressive secret police state in Russia.

Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible
Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible

Ivan was only three when he was proclaimed the Grand Prince of Moscow in 1533, after the death of his father Vasiliy III (Basil III). Upon his father’s death, his mother, Elena Glinskaya, was named as regent but died not long after, in 1538, allegedly as a result of a poisoning plot orchestrated by the boyars (бояре: members of the Russian aristocracy). However, even as Grand Prince, Ivan grew up neglected and abused by boyars of the powerful Shuisky and Belskiy families, who were fighting for supremacy over the “headless” state. Five years of plotting and intrigue later, the Shuisky family was finally overthrown and not long after, at the age of 16, Ivan was ready to make his move toward independence: on January 16, 1547, Ivan IV was crowned with the Cap of Monomakh (Шапка Мономаха, Shapka Monomaha) — the most important reliquary of Russian Grand Princes and, later, tsars — in the Cathedral of the Dormition (Успенский собор, Yspenskiy Sabor) and had himself proclaimed the “Tsar of All the Russias.” With his new title, Tsar Ivan—who legitimized this title by linking his ancestry back to the Empire of Kievan Rus—proclaimed himself the supreme ruler of Russia whose will was not to be questioned.

Having grown up abused by the boyars and fearing that the powerful landowners could turn on him in favor of his enemies (and, as historians argue, with the greater aim of subordinating all independent social classes to his autocracy), Ivan, following some deft political maneuvering, demanded the creation of the oprichnina — опри́чнинa, originally a term for land left to a noble widow that is separate from her children's land (from the word опричь, oprich, meaning “apart from, except”) — in 1564.

The oprichnina was a separate territory in Russia situated in the north — which included the former Republic of Novgorod — that contained many financial centers of the country. Simultaneously, Ivan created a loyal force of oprichniki — (опричники) a troop of personal guards originally 1000-men strong — whose ranks would, with time, come to be filled from the lower levels of Russian society, thereby ensuring that they would be loyal to Ivan and not a rival boyar family. Because its purpose was to allow his men to investigate and persecute treason outside existing legal limitations — in other words, without involving the church or the Boyar Council — Ivan held exclusive power over the oprichnina territory.

Oprichniki
Painting by Nikolai Nevrev

The Council of the Boyars ruled over zemshina — земщинa, from the old Russian word for “land” — and the two sides engaged in open conflict as the boyar lands were confiscated and resettled. Under the new regime, when oprichniki discovered traitorous zemshina boyars, Tsar Ivan would have them executed and confiscate their land, resettling it with loyal men loyal and forcing the remaining family members onto zemshina land. This process served to undermine the power of the landed nobility by forcing division of hereditary estates in zemshina territories among the surviving members of the boyar family, thereby diminishing their influence in the provinces. Simultaneously, while zemshina boyars lost both, their heredity and service lands in the oprichnina territory, oprichniki retained heredity holdings that fell in zemshina land and even received the spoils of a heavy tax Ivan had levied on zemshina nobles. Through this process, Ivan ensured that oprichniki owed their allegiance to him and not heredity or local bonds.

The first wave of Ivan’s persecutions was centered in the Suzdal province: local boyars were executed, tortured, and exiled on questionable charges of treason until eighty percent of them had been removed. By 1566, Ivan stretched the territory of the oprichnina to eight central districts and of approximately 12,000 boyars, 570 became oprichniks while the rest were expelled from their lands and forced to make the trek to zemshina mid-winter without aid: peasants that helped these exiles were executed. However, taking a step back from such cruelty, Ivan recalled a number of the exiles to Moscow for a Zemskiy Sobor (Земский собор) in 1566. The Zemskiy Sobor — first called in 1549 by Tsar Ivan — was an assembly of the boyars, high members of the clergy, and representatives of merchants and townspeople that Ivan relied on to “rubberstamp” his decisions under the guise of consulting all strata of Russian society. This Sobor, however, did more than simply approve Ivan’s call for renewed war on Lithuania: they also petitioned Ivan to abolish the oprichnina.

In response to the petition, Ivan ordered that the leaders of the protest be executed and that the petitioners be arrested. When an investigation tied the head of the zemshina duma (дума — ruling council) Ivan Fedorov to the plot to overthrow Tsar Ivan, Fedorov was also executed.

But Ivan’s reign of terror was only beginning: the death of his much-hated second wife Maria Temryukovna from what was believed to be poison and raging epidemics of plague that were killing between 600-1000 people daily in Moscow, and which had claimed ten thousand lives in Novgorod, the country’s second-largest city, combined into a growing sense of paranoia in Tsar Ivan. Then, when the border town of Izborsk surrendered to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ivan’s paranoia turned homicidal: although questioning the reliability of all border towns, Ivan’s attention fell on Novgorod, which fronted the military advance against the Lithuanian border. Believing that the boyars of the wealthy city — who had ties to many of the condemned boyar families in Moscow — would likewise defect to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, he ordered oprichniki to raid Novgorod in 1570. For a month, Novgorod was burned and pillaged, with at least 1500 members of the boyar ruling class falling victim to executions by oprichniks although all social classes were targeted. In addition to ensuring the city’s “loyalty,” Ivan’s purge had an ulterior motive: the war with Lithuania had drained the country’s coffers and to help finance the continuing conflict, Ivan ensured that the wealthy ecclesiastical and merchant holdings were targeted with zeal. Between the epidemics that wiped out large numbers of its population in the preceding years and the raid, during which the city was pillaged, burned, and at least another 3000 citizens were killed and many survivors deported, Novgorod would never regain its former prominence.

Oprichnik by Vasnetsov
Painting by Apollinary Vasnetsov

After Novgorod, Ivan set the oprichniki to work on the nearby city of Pskov, concentrating on seizing ecclesiastical wealth and less on mass executions. When he finally returned to Moscow, Ivan turned on his own men: his paranoia likely flamed by the lower-born oprichniki seeking to advance in the hierarchy at the expense of the older, noble oprichniki, he had Aleksei Basmanov and Afanasiy Viazemsky — both of whom were responsible for the initial formation and recruitment of oprichniki — thrown in prison where they died.

In 1571, during the course of the Russo-Crimean War, Tartars (татары, people of the Russian steppes) burned Moscow, an act that undoubtedly shook Ivan’s faith in the effectiveness of oprichniki’s fighting abilities. It’s also likely that the division of the state between the oprichnina and the zemshina was an unnecessary hindrance during a time of war and that, by this point, Ivan had achieved his aim of weakening the boyars. Whatever the root cause, in 1572, Tsar Ivan abolished oprichnina, disbanded the oprichnik troops, and reunited the two territories, placing both under the rule of a reformed Council of the Boyars whose members were drafted from both former territories: the zemshina and the oprichnina.

And so, in 1572, the first Russian secret police ceased to exist… at least for this brief historical moment.

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