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Flourished Mid-Sixteenth Century

Priest and social disciplinarian


Significance. There is considerable debate as to how much the priest Silvester influenced Russian Tsar Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible. According to Nikolay Mikhaylovich Karamzin, the great early-nineteenth-century Russian historian, Ivan the Terrible only acted virtuously when he was guided by Silvester, and all that was good in Ivan ought to be attributed to Silvester. Yet, another great nineteenth-century Russian historian, S. R Platonov, denies Silvester both the credit for Ivan's farsighted policy of strengthening Russia's southern frontier and the opprobrium for Ivan's brutal responses to the social crises that destroyed the Muscovite state by the 1580s. Most twentieth-century experts on Ivan, however, argue that Silvester must assume some blame for Ivan's later violence and debauchery, viewing the Tsar's maniacal behavior as a direct consequence of, and reaction against, Silvester's stern treatment of the youthful Ivan.

Background. Little is known about Silvester's early life. As a priest in Novgorod, Silvester was first noticed by Macarius, Archbishop of Novgorod. The latter had set the goal of bringing together “all the reading books that could be found in the Russian land” under one collection, and to this end he created a team of scholars that included Silvester. When Macarius was promoted to the rank of Metropolitan (head of the Orthodox Church in Russia) and relocated to Moscow in 1542, he brought along Silvester. Like other members of Macarius's team, Silvester was famous for his literary knowledge and he espoused nationalistic and political ideas that would have great appeal to Tsar Ivan. Silvester favored the creation of a single, ecumenical Orthodox state under an autocrat who would be “Tsar of Orthodoxy.”

In 1547 a great fire consumed Moscow and killed more than 1,700 people. Terrified crowds sought scapegoats to punish for this disaster, which many believed was a form of Divine retribution, and members of the Glinsky clan (a family loyal to Ivan and politically influential) and their servitors were openly murdered, provoking severe retribution by Ivan. At this time, Silvester emerged and rebuked Ivan in God's name and used Holy Scripture to admonish the young Tsar severely. Silvester continued to warn Ivan that God would punish him if he continued to indulge his evil passions. Silvester told Ivan of apparitions and miracles God had sent. A contemporary of Ivan's, Prince Kurbsky, claims in his chronicles that at this point Ivan repented, and became cleansed and docile, though modern historians challenge Kurbsky's assessments. Brought into Ivan's confidence, Silvester worked with a noble, Aleksei Adashev, in urging Ivan to control his violence and to renew himself in goodness. Both Silvester and Adashev ultimately sought a moral improvement in government, but they believed this was unattainable without a moral improvement in Ivan.

Court Favorite. Ivan's government was ruled from 1547 until 1557 by a council of men selected by Silvester and Adashev. An all-powerful favorite, Silvester presided over this ruling council. The official chronicle of Ivan's reign records that “this churchman, Silvester, was held in great favor by the Sovereign, who took his advice on spiritual and secular matters. He was, it were, omnipotent, because all heeded him and no one mocked him or opposed him in any way. . . . And he wielded great power over all matters, things both holy and secular alike, as though he were both Tsar and saint . . . although he [was] but a priest.” Indeed, Silvester and his council controlled the young Ivan and bent his will with abstruse religious arguments and pleas for the public's welfare. Clearly Silvester was a charismatic man: Prince Kurbsky believed him to be both blessed and a flatterer, while an older Ivan stated that, in his youth, Silvester had been able to oppress him and treat him like a slave. Records left by observers at Ivan's court note that Silvester was able to silence Ivan by reproaching him and accusing him of being childish.

Guidebook. Officially Silvester was priest in Moscow's Kremlin Church of the Annunciation, and in that capacity he oversaw the installation of the icons that make this church's interior among the most beautiful in the world. Silvester also oversaw the decoration of Ivan's Zolotaya Palata (Golden Palace), personally selecting the subject matter of the frescoes within it and arranging their placement. In fact, the incomparable splendor of these projects enabled his enemies to attack him for heresy and promoting Western influences in Orthodoxy through art, though there was nothing undogmatic in the new style of icons that Silvester favored. Silvester also is credited with authoring the Domostroi (circa 1550-1580), a guidebook for moral living. The dictates of the Domostroi reflect Silvester's religious views. Silvester opposed amusement in theory, and he prohibited dancing, singing, and even the playing of chess. He believed laughter was a weapon of the devil; regarded a wife not as a partner, but as the chief servant in a man's house; and argued that a husband should treat a wife as a slave or as a farm animal. Stubborn and stern, even in comparison to other mid-sixteenth-century religious figures like John Calvin, Silvester's Domostroi is a manual that links Christianity to the most mundane aspects of daily life, such as how to clean carpet, where to arrange furniture, and how to wash dishes. Its passages aim at total control of daily life, much as its author himself attempted to control Ivan's every action.

Political Machinations. In 1553 Ivan became quite ill and was presumed to be dying. Ivan noted that Silvester spent this time trying to consolidate his own position, rather than tending to the needs of his bedridden sovereign. Ivan also discovered that Silvester had been working behind the scenes to champion the Tsar's cousin Vladimir as heir, rather than the heir selected by Ivan himself, his son Dmitry. Ivan became convinced that Silvester's council was working to undermine the policies of his grandfather, Ivan III, who had consolidated central power at the expense of Russia's landowning princes. Silvester believed he was merely improving the moral stature of Russia's government by restoring to influence men whom he considered suitable for state service. From this point on, Ivan viewed Silvester as an opportunist who had cunningly usurped power and who had treasonably appropriated sovereign power unto himself. Though after 1553 Ivan no longer trusted Silvester, he so feared him and the council that he dared not challenge them until 1557.

Banishment. Perhaps because of his religious background, Silvester always regarded the Crimean Tatars and the Turks, both Muslim, as Russia's main threats, and he centered his foreign policy recommendations on them. Others at Ivan's court favored Russian intervention in the Baltic, particularly against Livonia and Sweden, and Ivan himself shared this orientation. Ivan used Silvester's and Adashev's opposition to the Livonian War (which, in hindsight, was correct, as the war proved to be a disaster for Russia, despite initial successes) to free himself from their control. Ivan banished Silvester to the distant Kirillov Monastery. Though Silvester had already been cloistered for several years when Ivan's beloved wife, Anastasia, died after a prolonged illness in 1560, Ivan nonetheless blamed Silvester. Ivan believed his wife was the victim of poisoning, assassinated by nobles whose great hatred of her had been stirred up by Silvester and his council during the time when Silvester had opposed her son as heir to the throne. In fact, Ivan vacillated as to whether he should bring Silvester to trial on the charges of witchcraft, believing his former guardian had cast spells on nobles to make them oppose and hate Anastasia. Silvester was ultimately spared this ordeal, though he was transferred to the Solovetsky Monastery, which lies isolated on an island in the White Sea. Here Silvester died, though when and how is unknown. Ivan later took pride in the fact that he spared Silvester's son.


Robert Payne and Nikita Romanoff, Ivan the Terrible (New York: Crowell, 1975).

S. F. Platonov, Ivan the Terrible, edited and translated by Joseph L. Wieczynski (Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International, 1974).

Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, ed. and trans., The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994).