Think Tank: Ivan the Terrible's Guide to Living


New York Times, May 8, 1999

Ivan the Terrible's Guide to Living


Only a few years ago, thanks to decades of Soviet propaganda, the word Domostroi -- the title of a 16th-century guide to living written by the spiritual mentor of Ivan the Terrible -- conjured up images of medieval horrors including instructions on how to beat one's wife properly. (Actually, it says simply that a man should deal "sternly" with a wayward wife.)

Domostroi, which translates awkwardly as "home-building," was essentially good housekeeping for medieval Russians. Compiled in the mid-1500s by Silvester, a Russian Orthodox priest, it is a mix of Orthodox teaching and Russian folk traditions.

In the seven years since it was placed on sale to the general public for the first time in post-Soviet Russia, copies have found their way into many homes. Publishers herald it as wise moral instruction for today's lost generation. They may not be all wrong. Much about life in Russia is eternal and the Domostroi unexpectedly provides some apt guidance. Consider:

  Chapter 15 warns: "See the embarrassment and reproach in the fruitless waste that is drinking. If you ever go away drunk and fall asleep on the road, then you'll never make it home, and you will pay dearly for it. They'll steal all your clothes from you. And if you do not regain your sobriety, you will lose both your body and your soul, for many drunkards have perished from wine and frozen to death along the roadside."

Wintry Russian streets are still full of sleeping drunks, not only homeless people but often more propertied members of the community as well. Last year in Moscow alone, 557 people froze to death.

  Chapter 47 encourages one "to buy all sorts of foreign goods . . . as much as you want."

Russia's manufactured goods are notorious for chronic defects and poor quality. Indeed, before a devaluation of the ruble in August, some 60 percent of the country's consumer goods were imported, and they still enjoy great popularity among Russians, even though jumping in price.

  Chapter 40 says: "An upstanding man and a proper wife, and all thinking and reasonable people, are careful to store up on various items for the home, foodstuffs, and drink. . . . An upstanding man and an upstanding woman will not want during a time of deficit."

A relevant observation during the financial crisis in August, when the ruble's 70 percent devaluation led store owners to pull goods off the shelves until the currency stabilized.

  Chapter 8 urges those suffering from "God-sent" illnesses to cure themselves "by asking for God's mercy with tears and prayers, and fasting and by giving alms to the poor."

Given the state of the contemporary Russian hospital, where supply shortages are chronic and tipsy doctors not uncommon, there may not be many alternatives to the Domostroi's advice. In the 1990's, Russian life expectancy is said to have dropped from 63.8 years to 57.7 years for men, and from 74.4 years to 71.2 years for women.

  Chapter 10 declares: "Do not express any lie, slander and deceit toward the Czar, prince or any member of the aristocracy -- God will destroy anyone speaking such lies."

Alas, such exhoratations have been ignored as Russia's political and economic elite have made a national sport out of publicizing compromising material against one another. In the latest round, the Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov have been flinging charges of corruption back and forth. The conflict has even ensnared the Russian Prosecutor General, Yuri I. Skuratov, whom the Kremlin is trying to oust. Russian state television recently broadcast a video showing the married Mr. Skuratov in bed with two young women.

  Also in Chapter 10: "Be afraid of the Czar and serve him faithfully . . . as if he were God, and subject yourself to him in all manners."

Fear of authority, especially of the supreme ruler, is a central tenet of the Domostroi and is deeply rooted in the Russian mentality even today. How else to explain why the unpopular President, Boris N. Yeltsin, manages to hold onto power?