On April 30, 1564, Duke Andrey Kurbsky, fearing the Russian Tsar’s anger, fled to Poland and became the first Russian dissident.
Kurbsky was not only a famous military commander who took part in administration and wars, but a true close friend of Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible. He was given top honors, promoted to the rank of boyar and was part of the ‘Izbrannaya Rada’ or ‘Chosen Council’ assisting Ivan IV in the preparation of reforms. But when Ivan IV began to feel threatened by the boyars and nobles, he undertook a campaign against them in which many were deprived of their property, jailed or executed.
Fearing for his life Kurbsky escaped to the enemy, becoming known forever as the first defector of his country. He was welcomed with open arms and given political asylum in Poland-Lithuania. Kurbsky was granted large estates and was placed in charge of the army to fight against Russia.
Kurbsky’s defection became even more important when it resulted in an extraordinary exchange of letters between him and Ivan IV. Kurbsky began by criticizing the tsar for the “persecutions against his own people and commanders, who have always been true to their tsar and victorious in his wars.”
''Wherefore, oh tsar, have you destroyed the strong in Israel and subjected to various forms of death the voevodas (the commandants) given to you by God? And wherefore have you spilt their victorious, holy blood in the churches of God…In front of your army have I marched - and marched again; and no dishonor have I brought upon you…But to you, oh tsar, was all this as nothing; rather do you show us your intolerable wrath and bitterest hatred, and, furthermore, burning stoves.'' Kurbsky wrote in his first letter.
Brushing aside these claims, Ivan IV answered defending his sovereignty, and the absolute power to execute or have mercy on any national of his country, whoever that might be. ''…And we are free to reward our servants, and we are also free to punish them… Dogs are executed in all countries.'' He continues damning Kurbsky’s betrayal “You, a dog - having committed such crime, are writing to me and complaining! Why do you, oh duke, think you are righteous, having betrayed your only begotten soul? What good is your point? Or do you think that your associates were right, throwing off their monarchal clothing and fighting against Christianity?”
Neither of them was willing to leave it at that, and both continued screaming their convictions at each other until the year 1579, when Ivan IV no longer deemed it necessary to answer. Kurbsky was denouncing Ivan IV for his tyranny and Ivan IV accusing him of betrayal and apostasy.
Their hostile letters became one of the first surviving documents of Russian dissent. Comprised in a book they make a most interesting work of literature and are an important source for Russian history.