Blood, Iron, & Fortune: Otto von Bismarck & the Role of Chance in Statesmanship


History is, by its very nature, contingent; that contingency has gone by many names over the eons: luck, chance, fate, or – if one is inclined to see the workings of the divine in history – Providence. The famed Renaissance political philosopher and theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, in his masterwork The Prince, called this element of randomness Fortune and saw it as a major factor in the passage of history and the practice of statesmanship. He did not, however, see Fortune as the only factor in human affairs, instead writing that “I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”[1] What is more important than luck is how the statesman deals with that element of chance – fortune or misfortune – and his ability to succeed in achieving his goals regardless of the quirks of fate. That, for Machiavelli, meant that a key job of the statesman was to “direct his actions according to the spirit of the times” so as to tame the whims of Fortune and use them to his own advantage.[2] To bring this idea down from the lofty heights of political philosophy to the everyday practice of government, Machiavelli analogized Fortune to a flowing river, saying:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.[3]

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The Curious Case of Simeon Bekbulatovich

Note: This is the first academic paper of many that will be posted to this blog. Please check out our Brief Update for more info. Fair warning, this is not a short read. Enjoy!


One of the most peculiar episodes of sixteenth-century Russian history revolved around a Christianized Tatar prince, Simeon Bekbulatovich. His brief reign as Grand Prince of All Rus’ from 1575 to 1576, during an abdication by Ivan IV, was seen as controversial at the time and has only become more contentious over the centuries. The significance of Bekbulatovich’s time as Grand Prince, Ivan’s rationale for Simeon’s elevation, and the merits of that decision remain up for debate. This paper undertakes a historiographical analysis of the perspectives of various historians on the Bekbulatovich affair, from the initial sixteenth-century accounts through those of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. I explore the contemporaneous evidence from Bekbulatovich’s reign, including writings by foreigners in Muscovy at the time who discussed the issue with Ivan IV. An assortment of historical views on Bekbulatovich, from those of early scholars like Soloviev and Kluchevsky to those of more modern historians including B.A. Uspenskij, Charles Halperin, Ruslan Skrynnikov, Donald Ostrowski, and Isabel de Madariaga, are presented and analyzed. I argue that the defining aspect of the controversy over Bekbulatovich’s rule was Ivan’s attempt to reestablish an oprichnina­-like system to further cement his own autocratic power.

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