I do not quite share the enthusiasm of the two previous reviewers on Amazon.com and hesitated as to whether to rate this book four or three stars. I finally went for the latter, mainly because this book, while original, interesting, and at times even fascinating when telling the military history of the reign of Ivan IV the Terrible, also has a number of problems and curious omissions. At the end of it, and especially in the last couple of chapters, I could not help wondering to what extent it was also biaised, although less than others.
One of the main advantages of this book is that it is a first, and on a subject - Ivan the Fourth - which has attracted comparatively little interest in Western Europe and North America. There are, however, half a dozen biographies of this tsar in English, so the statement I have just made needs to be somewhat qualified. This is, however, the first "Military History" of his long reign. What it interesting - and very valuable - with this book, is that it tends to show that Ivan's military policy and wars were mostly successful and his last defeat at the hands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland, while stopping Russia from taking over the Baltic countries, did not reverse most of his conquests. Another strongpoint of this book is to show that, perhaps with a few exceptions, most of what we know of the reign of the despot has come to us through the rather distorted image of German and Polish propaganda. Both statements seem to be at least partly true, and the exlanations provided by the (Russian) author sound mostly convincing, although I have not read the original sources and cannot claim any particular knowledge in the history of this region and this period.
The introduction and the first two chapters, which present the state of Russia at the beginning of the 16th century, its military forces and those of of its ennemies are probably among the best - if not the best - in the book. However, they are not flaweless.
I was surprised, for instance, when discussing the starist ideology of the time, to see the author's minimize, when he could not do otherwise, and pass under silence, most of the time, the importance of the Byzantine orthodox heritage for Russia in general, and for the tsarist imperial and religious ideology in particular. Despite the author's efforts, for instance by mentioning that the concept of Moscow as the "Third Rome" was used after the reign of Ivan IV by his successors, would have at least expected the author to discuss the role of the orthodox religion and of what is still sometomes called "cesaropapism" in the West, or the Emperor as the direct representative of God on earth, in a direct filiation from Constantine the Great rather than Cesar Augustus (Octavius). While it is entirely possible that Ivan chose to claim that his ideology was derived from the latter, it also owed much to the former and to Byzantine (or East Roman) conceptions. Strangely, when disussing ideology, this is something that the author choses not to discuss, not even to dismiss it, although the "Rus" did not exactly become Christians all of a sudden and the influence exercized on them through orthodoxy - if only in the field of religion and ideology - was obviously not negligible.
A second surprise comes with the second chapter discussing Russia's ennemies in the 16th century. There is plenty of the various Tatar successor states (but curiously very little on their Mongol predecessors). There is also pieces on the Turks, on the Livonian Knights and on the Swedish army and navy. There is, however, one rather glaring omission: nothing on the Lithuanians or on the Poles in this chapter. This is partly made up latter on, when discussing their conflicts against Russia, but the omission is nevertheless very surprising and simply not explained.
Another - more general - problem is the way this book is written: the chapters are rather uneven. As previously mentioned, some are very interesting. Others are much less so, possibly because the sources are much more limited. This is for instance the case of the chapters covering most of the conflicts against the Tatars of Kazan, of Astrakhan and of Crimea where the narrative almost gets boring at times. You get treated with an accumulation of dates, troop numbers, events, nales of battles and sieges, with often little explanation provided. In particular, and this is already true to some extent in the earlier chapters discussing the Russian armed forces and their ennemies, the accumulation of numbers is sometimes almost overwhelming and even unhelpful: you are almost never told whether the author had drawn them from the sources (and which ones) or whether these are no more than educated (but plausible) guesses.
There is also something else that I found rather odd with this book. At the end of it, I still do not know precisely what is the author's assessment of Ivan's military achievements and real talents, whether military or diplomatic. He seems to want to show Ivan as hugely successful, but without being entirely able to do so. The tsar does not seem to have had any particular military talent as a commander, a strategist or a warrior. His diplomacy, which seems to have been just as relentless and as ruthless as his character, does not seem to have been always very successful and the author in fact mentions several cases where it failed because of the tsar, rather than despite him. However, most of his military campaigns do seem to have been successful. Another very interesting piece is the last one discussing how our western perceptions have been slanted by the "very negative press" that Ivan IV has received from Polish and German authors almost immediately after his death. While certainly true, and something that I was clearly unaware of, this nevertheless hardly makes him into a Saint. By the end of the book, I could not in fact stop himself from thinking of Staline. Although the author hardly ever mentions the latter's name and is careful not to hint too obviously at such a comparison which would be anyway anachoronistic, the paralel is somewhat difficult to escape entirely.
By the end of the book, you cannot also avoid wondering about some possible conclusions, which, curiously, the author seems very careful NOT to make or even to discuss. For instance, to what extent were the military successes the result of good generalship (not that of the tsar but of his commanders), and the bravery of his soldiers who, as shown throughout the book but especially in the first chapter, seem to have paid a terrible price, just as the civilians seem to have at the hands of multiple Tatar raids. You also get the impression that the russian forces, despite their deficiencies, won against the Tatars and against the relatively weaker Livonians, Lithuanians and Swedes, either because they outnumbered them (the latter case, in particular) or because they were as well or even better equiped. However, against the forces of the Polish Kingdom, largely backed by foreign mercenaries, it seems to have been an entirely "different kettle of fish".
Finally, another parallel that the author is careful NOT to draw or discuss, perhaps because it is a loaded issue in Russia, is with World War II and the Russian front. He does mention a couple of times the Oprichniki, general in passing, although he does grace them with a footnote at the end of his introduction. In it, he does mention that they were the tasr special guard from 1565 to 1572 and "were used to unleash a reign of terror on the population." Even if the author does not, you cannot help wonderting about the role played - and the importance of this role - by what could be seen as the great, great ancestor of modern secret police, of political commissars and of the sinister NKVD during WWII. None of this, however, is discussed, which is somewhat strange...
So, three stars for the effort and for presenting a very interesting book to read, but I do feel that this book could have been better, particularly if some issues had not been downplayed or even entirely avoided and if the author's assessment of Ivan IV's military achievements had been a bit more "personalized", although this is perhaps difficult to do when writing about a "national hero"...