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A tsar’s autopsy and the midterm elections

As I’m writing this article, there are two days left until the midterm elections, and political issues are heating up as voters head to the polls. Or so I’ve heard. Meanwhile, the politics on my mind are those of Ivan IV Vasilyevich, also known as Ivan the Terrible.

Allow me to explain.

While I made sure to do my civic duty by sending in my absentee ballot a couple of weeks ago, lately I’ve been on a bit of a “news break.” I’ve stopped listening to my morning news podcast, stopped clicking on articles in my social media feeds and consciously allowed myself to fall back into the Stanford bubble.

The truth is, a lot of recent political news added an additional element of chaos to my life that I simply wanted to eliminate. Although some part of me knew that complete avoidance wasn’t quite the way to deal with it, I chose to focus solely on the midterms of the exam variety.

Finding ways to cope with a time of political chaos isn’t a challenge unique to the 21st century. Ivan the Terrible’s Russia exemplifies this idea. Picture this: an unpredictable executive, an elite, aristocratic group of state officials who are constantly being replaced and a press littered with propaganda and hyperbolized political language. Sound familiar?

Ivan IV ruled Russia from 1547 to 1584. During that time, he senselessly sacked the crucial trading port of Novgorod, likely arranged the murders of multiple suspected rivals, married six or seven times (depending on which stories you believe) and reveled in a string of ruthless and violent acts.

How do we explain this horrible leadership, and the chaotic life it produced in his kingdom? In some ways, there is no satisfactory explanation. Ivan IV was called “Terrible” because he was just that — a terrible ruler whose reign bred instability and fear.

But some of the sources describing his rule are also slippery. For instance, we know a lot about Ivan from German pamphlets, which were part of a campaign to create sensationalized depictions of a barbaric Russia in an attempt to gain the sympathies of the powerful Holy Roman Empire.

Another fascinating tool that we can now use to deconstruct Ivan IV’s rule is his autopsy, performed in 1963 on his remains. Historians uncovered some muscle tissue in addition to the skeleton, which allowed them to provide a potentially deeper explanation for his behavior: Ivan had a disease that caused his spine to fuse. He probably walked with a limp to compensate for pinched nerve pain.

Ivan had also been taking mercury as a painkiller. Deposits of mercury were found on his extremities and joints, suggesting a sustained use that likely contributed to mercury poisoning — which could explain some of his irrational behavior.

Of course, all these explanations were only developed hundreds of years after Ivan IV’s rule. We don’t have many written sources describing what it was like to live at that time, but I suspect it felt confusing and chaotic.

When we read the news, listen to political podcasts or even engage in conversations and debates with our friends, we are attempting to perform our own autopsies. We’re searching for definitive evidence, trying to ground the rhetoric that we consume in our own belief systems and understandings of fact. And we also have to be critical of the news sources that are providing that evidence in the first place. It’s a difficult job, especially without the advantage of historical perspective.

Yet I have also felt the discomfort of attempting to turn away from this job entirely. As nice as it is to try to ignore the chaos around us, dropping off the map and turning off the news entirely doesn’t feel right either. Trying to make sense of the world we live in is an important, and maybe even essential, part of being a member of an elite academic institution and, more broadly, of a nation.

Eventually, when I feel ready to end my “news break,” I’ll try to keep working on my own news autopsies. I’m sure they won’t always feel as satisfying as uncovering the medical history of a long-dead tsar, but for now, they’ll have to do.

Special thanks to Professor Nancy Kollmann for her expertise and perspective on Ivan IV’s Russia.

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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