THERE ARE many ways of approaching Ivan the Terrible, the first Grand Prince of All Russia to be crowned czar, and the prolific Henri Troyat has chosen the simplest. He has written a narrative account of Ivan's life, dwelling on its more grotesque aspects and slighting the complex questions that historians generally ask about Ivan's reign. As a result Ivan the Terrible, while it has vivid and entertaining moments, proves to be a superficial portrait of a most difficult subject.
Troyat, who in the last several years has managed to publish biographies of Catherine the Great and Alexander I, sees the key to Ivan's behavior in the experiences of his early childhood. Orphaned at 8, relegated to the company of his simple-minded brother, witness daily to intrigue, violence and murder, left at the mercy of the contentious boyar families whose sovereign he was supposed to be, Ivan learned early that "God was on the side of poison, the garrote, and the sword"; he supervised his first atrocity at the age of 13. He found in wanton bloodshed not only an effective instrument of authority but a source of real pleasure, and he combined it with a rampant sexuality, a frenetic piety and a driving sense of his own divine appointment. His coronation as czar, when he was 16, was performed at his own insistence and represented an implicit claim to the fallen imperial power of Rome and Byzantium.
Shortly following the coronation Ivan married Anastasia Romanovna. It was a true love match, according to Troyat -- Ivan called Anastasia his ''little heifer" -- and until her death the influence of Ivan's gentle, pious wife kept in check the worst excesses of his personality. In these years of relative domestic tranquility Ivan used a variety of administrative reforms to consolidate his own position and extend his authority to the farflung Russian lands beyond Moscow. Troyat summarizes the councils and manuals of this period with a mixture of amusement and condescension, concentrating on the more dramatic conquest of Kazan and especially on Ivan's near-fatal illness. Apprehensive at the prospect of another interregnum, many of the boyars declined to swear allegiance to Ivan's infant son. Ivan never forgot or forgave. With the death of his wife seven years later, he set out to avenge himself against the nobility who he felt had betrayed him.
Troyat presents the traditional view that Ivan's revenge took the form of the oprichnina, a state-within-a-state whose purpose was to uproot forever the great boyar families. Ivan assigned lands to the oprichnina, including large parts of Moscow, and expropriated the owners ; personally chose the 6,000-man Praetorian Guard of oprichniki, whose conduct was governed solely by his whim; and set up a separate court at a separate capital. For seven years the oprichniki brutalized the rest of the Russian population, committing acts of extraordinary savagery with Ivan's approval and often his active collaboration. This bizarre arrangment provided an institutional framework of sorts for the sadism, sex and piety which Troyat describes in great detail.
Ivan then dissolved the oprichnina as suddenly as it had been created, in part to improve his reputation abroad. He spent the last dozen years of his life preoccupied with international affairs -- the vulnerable Livonian territories along the Baltic, his candidacy for the elective throne of Poland, his prospects for an English wife, a political alliance with England and a united Christian crusade against the infidel Turks. Not one of these enterprises proved successful. In a fit of rage he killed his eldest son, whom he was deeply attached to, and spent the last several years of his life beset by melancholy and remorse.
This, in its broad outlines, is the story Troyat tells. A simple treatment of a complicated subject, it is likely to leave both casual reader and serious student preplexed: Troyat's bare-bones chronology and one simple map are not sufficient to orient the former, and his random documentation is notsufficient to satisfy the latter. While it is true, as he maintains, that contemporary sources are not numerous, there are several that have been used to greater advantage by other writers. For all the careful descriptions of the techniques and instruments of torture, the landscape of 16th- century Russia remains distant and obscure, and Ivan's reign strangely cut loose from its moorings in Russian history.
In the end, Troyat falls back on the conventional dilemma about Ivan when he concludes, "Considered by some a bloodthirsty monster, by others a ruler who dispensed retribution and gathered lands together, he would stride toward the tribunal of posterity through a fog pierced by gleams of light." Would that the gleams in this latest biography were brighter.