What do you do when the mad are right, when the dishonourable are the saviours, and when your choice is between your own morality and the survival of the world?
What do you do, when brutality and terror are all that keeps the Devil at bay?
Ivan Grozny, Ivan the Dread, Ivan the Terrible. The first Grand Prince of Muscovy to be called Tsar, emperor, is going mad.
He rebuilt Moscow after the Great Fire of 1547. He codified the laws and established the bureaus that for the first time began to bring order to the realm. He opened up trade with England, far to the west, and broke the last Tatar khanates to the south, taking Kazan and dissolving the last of their great slave markets.
He is commanding and charismatic, mercurial and magnetic, brilliant and bombastic, a composer and litterateur, a general and a lawmaker. And he is going mad.
The Livonian Wars were going badly, and Ivan worried about betrayal. In 1560, his beloved wife Anastasia Romanovna died, and Ivan suspected poison. His trusted adviser Prince Andrei Kurbsky, defected to the Lithuanians, and Ivan saw conspiracy.
On 3 December 1564, he left Moscow for his estates at Aleksandrova Sloboda, and denounced the sinful, corrupt, treacherous and undeserving nobility and clergy of the country. Trapped between their own divisions and fear of the Moscow mob, the boyars begged him to return. He agreed – but only on his own terms.
He assumed absolute power of life and death over all. He formed a state within a state, the oprichnina (the ‘separation’), to the north of the country. The Boyar Council rules the rest of the country, the zemshchina (‘land’), but only subject to the will and whim of the tsar.
Within the oprichnina, Ivan broods over slights and plots, real and imagined. He has gathered his own army of oprichniki from the loyal and the opportunistic alike. With a dog’s head on their saddle (as they are the tsar’s hounds) and a broom (to sweep away his foes), they are at once army, retinue, secret police and sacred brotherhood.
They rule as lords at home, untouchable raiders in the zemshchina. At the slightest provocation – or none at all – Ivan sends them forth with fire and sword. Peasants are being driven from their homes as boyars are murdered and their lands seized on the pretexts that they are plotters or cultists. Suzdal has been sacked because Ivan called it a hotbed of ritual sacrifice. Priests are sewn into sacks and thrown to hungry dogs, accused of being Satanists and schismatics.
And the tsar is growing ever more mad. Some days, he is himself, others he gibbers and howls his way through the corridors of Aleksandrova Sloboda, plucks imaginary darts from his flesh, snarls replies to questions no one else can hear. Meanwhile, his oprichniki grow rich, and the zemshchina drowns in blood and fear.
And yet maybe he is not mad, or not simply mad. The Lord has decreed that the tsar and the Rus’ and the lands of the Rus’ are one. What if his madness is but a symptom of a deeper, darker, creeping malaise, and not all those wild accusations are so wild after all?
This is the basic premise for a very dark setting for Mythic Russia that, if I am honest, I may never have the plan to flesh out, but which has a perverse appeal. We think of Ivan’s later years as degenerating into paranoia and murderous insanity, but what if Russia was indeed being corrupted and infiltrated by the Kam, mighty agents of Satan, possessing families, encouraging bloody sacrifices, despoiling holy sites and every night whispering words of treachery and ambition into a dozen dozen sleeping ears. As Russia is corrupted, so too Ivan himself is being driven insane, but he retains just enough lucidity to forge a weapon against the Kam: the oprichniki. They may often be bloody-handed opportunists, but they are all he has.
So the players would first have to realise what is actually going on, and then decide what is, if not the best option, perhaps the least-worst. Is there another way to fight back the Kam than with fire and sword, the oprichnik way? Can decency be restored through indecent methods? Or is this simply a great opportunity to accumulate power and wealth, like so many of the opruchniki. Dark times.