Ivan IV (born 1530, ruled 1533-1584) is better known as Ivan the Terrible (his Russian epithet, groznyy , means threatening or dreaded). He became the leader of Russia when he was 3 and was crowned the "Tsar of all Russians" in 1547 with a sable-trimmed Byzantine-style crown.

The development of the tsar's autocratic powers reached a peak during the reign of Ivan IV. He strengthened the position of the tsar to an unprecedented degree, demonstrating the risks of unbridled power in the hands of a mentally unstable individual. Although apparently intelligent and energetic, Ivan suffered from bouts of paranoia and depression, and his rule was punctuated by acts of extreme violence. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Ivan the Terrible's is now regarded by many Russians as a great hero. He has been lionized n poems and ballads. There are even some people that want to make him a Russian Orthodox saint. Some of these same people would also like too see Rasputin and Stalin honored.

Ivan the Terrible’s Life

Ivan IV became grand prince of Muscovy in 1533 at the age of three when his father Vasily III (1479-1533) died. Vasily III (ruled 1505-33) was Ivan III's successor. When Vasily III died his mother Yelena (ruled 1533-1547) was made his regent. He survived growing up in an environment of brutality and intrigue and reportedly amused himself as a child by throwing animals off roofs. When he was 20 he did public penance for the sin of his youth. Various factions of the boyars—old Russian nobility and landlords— competed for control of the regency until Ivan assumed the throne in 1547.

According to madmonarchs.com: “Ivan was born August 25, 1530, in Kolomenskoe. His uncle Yuri challenged Ivan's rights to the throne, was arrested and imprisoned in a dungeon. There he was left to starve. Ivan's mother, Jelena Glinsky, assumed power and was regent for five years. She had Ivan's other uncle killed, but a short time afterwards she suddenly died, almost surely poisoned. A week later her confidant, Prince Ivan Obolensky 1, was arrested and beaten to death by his jailers. While his mother had been indifferent toward Ivan, Obolensky's sister, Agrafena, had been his beloved nurse. Now she was sent to a convent. [Source: madmonarchs.com^*^]

“Not yet 8 years old, Ivan was an intelligent, sensitive boy and an insatiable reader. Without Agrafena to look after him, Ivan's loneliness deepened. The boyars alternately neglected or molested him; Ivan and his deaf-mute brother Yuri often went about hungry and threadbare. No one cared about his health or well being and Ivan became a beggar in his own palace. A rivalry between the Shuisky and the Belsky families escalated into a bloody feud. Armed men roamed the palace, seeking out enemies and frequently bursting into Ivan's quarters, where they shoved the Grand Prince aside, overturned the furniture and took whatever they wanted. Murders, beatings, verbal and physical abuse became commonplace in the palace. Unable to strike out at his tormentors, Ivan took out his frustrations on defenceless animals; he tore feathers off birds, pierced their eyes and slit open their bodies. ^*^

“The ruthless Shuiskys gradually gained more power. In 1539 the Shuiskys led a raid on the palace, rounding up a number of Ivan's remaining confidants. They had the loyal Fyodor Mishurin skinned alive and left on public view in a Moscow square. On December 29, 1543, 13-year-old Ivan suddenly ordered the arrest of Prince Andrew Shuisky, who was reputed to be a cruel and corrupt person. He was thrown into an enclosure with a pack of starved hunting dogs. The rule of the boyars had ended. ^*^

“By then, Ivan was already a disturbed young man and an accomplished drinker. He threw dogs and cats from the Kremlin walls to watch them suffer, and roamed the Moscow streets with a gang of young scoundrels, drinking, knocking down old people and raping women. He often disposed of rape victims by having them hanged, strangled, buried alive or thrown to the bears. He became an excellent horseman and was fond of hunting. Killing animals was not his only delight; Ivan also enjoyed robbing and beating up farmers. Meanwhile he continued to devour books at an incredible pace, mainly religious and historical texts. At times Ivan was very devote; he used to throw himself before the icons, banging his head against the floor. It resulted in a callosity at his forehead. Once Ivan even did a public confession of his sins in Moscow.” ^*^

Ivan the Terrible was married seven times. The last were fraught with trouble but his first one to Anastasia, a member of the Romanov Boyar family, appears to have been happy Ivan and Anastasia were married in the cathedral not long after he crowned himself tsar. This launched a dynasty, springing his Anastasia's side of the family that lasted until Nicholas II abdicated before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Not all of Ivan’s six other wives were recognized by the church.

Ivan the Terrible as Tsar

Reflecting Muscovy's new imperial claims, Ivan's coronation as tsar was an elaborate ritual modeled after those of the Byzantine emperors. With the continuing assistance of a group of boyars, Ivan began his reign with a series of useful reforms. In the 1550s, he promulgated a new law code, revamped the military, and reorganized local government. These reforms undoubtedly were intended to strengthen the state in the face of continuous warfare. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Early in his rule, Ivan was regarded as a fair and just leader who favored the merchant class over the land owners. He introduced land reform laws that ruined many aristocratic families who were forced to turn over their property to the Russian state and Ivan himself. Ivan and other early tsars destroyed all institutions that could challenge their powers. The nobility became their servants, the peasantry were controlled by the nobility and Orthodox church served as propaganda machine of tsarist ideology.

Ivan the Terrible ruled Russia not long after Constantinople and Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. He pushed forth idea of making Moscow the third Rome and the third capital of Christendom. With Byzantium gone Ivan the Terrible set up an independent Russian Orthodox state. At this time there was little trade, Russia became a primarily agrarian fuel state with peasants becoming serfs. Ivan the Terrible encouraged trade with the West and expanded Russia's borders. Queen Elizabeth I of England turned down Ivan the Terrible's proposal of marriage.

After Ivan reclaimed Moscow, outsiders began arriving in larger numbers. “Of the Russe Common Wealth” by Giles Fletcher, the British ambassador to Russia, and “The Report of a Bloudie and Terrible Massacre in the City of Mosco” by William Russell are valuable source on what Russia was like at that time.

Ivan the Terrible Defeats the Mongols

In 1552, Ivan the Terrible drove the last Mongol khanates out of Russia with decisive victories in Kazan and Astrakhan. This opened the way for the expansion of the Russian empire southward and across Siberia to the Pacific.

Moscow historians have traditionally claimed that the Russians were joined by other ethnic groups to overthrow the Mongols in 1552 and these groups voluntarily sought inclusion in the Russian Empire which was able to expand greatly by adding their territory after the Mongol conquest. But this was not the case. The ethnic groups for the most part did not want to join Russia.

The Russians invaded Muslim-Mongol Kazan and Astrakhan in 1552 and 1556 and imposed Christianity there. Ivan He lost everything when his campaign against the Crimean Tatars ended with the sacking of Moscow. He ordered St. Basil Cathedral to be built to commemorate the victory over the Tatar khan in Kazan. He also presided over the disastrous 24-year-long Livonian War, which Russia lost to the Poles and Swedes.

Russia Expands Under Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible and his son started Russia’s southeastward expansion that pushed Russia to the Volga Steppe and the Caspian Sea. Ivan’s defeat and annexation of the Kazan' Khanate on the middle Volga in 1552 and later the Astrakhan' Khanate, where the Volga meets the Caspian Sea, gave Muscovy access to the Volga River and to Central Asia. This eventually lead to control of the entire Volga region, the establishment of warm water ports on the Black Sea and the seizure of the fertile lands in the Ukraine and around the Caucasus mountains.

Under Ivan the Terrible, the Russians began their push into Siberia but were turned back by fierce tribes in the Caucasus. Muscovy's eastward expansion encountered relatively little resistance. In 1581 the Stroganov merchant family, interested in fur trade, hired a Cossack leader, Yermak, to lead an expedition into western Siberia. Yermak defeated the Siberian Khanate and claimed the territories west of the Ob' and Irtysh rivers for Muscovy. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Expanding to the northwest toward the Baltic Sea proved to be much more difficult. Ivan’s armies were unable to challenge the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, which controled much of the Ukraine and parts of western Russia, and blocked Russia's access to the Baltic. In 1558 Ivan invaded Livonia, eventually embroiling him in a twenty-five-year war against Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, and Denmark. Despite occasional successes, Ivan's army was pushed back, and Muscovy failed to secure a coveted position on the Baltic Sea. The war drained Muscovy. Some historians believe that Ivan initiated the oprichnina to mobilize resources for the war and to quell opposition to it. Regardless of the reason, Ivan's domestic and foreign policies had a devastating effect on Muscovy, and they led to a period of social struggle and civil war, the so-called Time of Troubles (Smutnoye vremya, 1598-1613).

Ivan Becomes Terrible

During the late 1550s, Ivan developed a hostility toward his advisers, the government, and the boyars. Historians have not determined whether policy differences, personal animosities, or mental imbalance cause his wrath. In 1565 he divided Muscovy into two parts: his private domain and the public realm. For his private domain, Ivan chose some of the most prosperous and important districts of Muscovy. In these areas, Ivan's agents attacked boyars, merchants, and even common people, summarily executing some and confiscating land and possessions. Thus began a decade of terror in Muscovy. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

As a result of this policy, called the oprichnina , Ivan broke the economic and political power of the leading boyar families, thereby destroying precisely those persons who had built up Muscovy and were the most capable of administering it. Trade diminished, and peasants, faced with mounting taxes and threats of violence, began to leave Muscovy. Efforts to curtail the mobility of the peasants by tying them to their land brought Muscovy closer to legal serfdom. In 1572 Ivan finally abandoned the practices of the oprichnina. *

Ivan became a paranoid psychotic in 1560 after Anastasia death. He believed that she was poisoned and began imagining that everyone was against him and set about ordering wholesale executions of landowners. He founded Russia’s first secret police, sometimes called the “oprichniki”, in 1565 to strengthen his grip on power by terrorizing the populace. The dog-and-broom insignia's on the secret police’s uniforms symbolized the sniffing out and sweeping out of Ivan's enemies.

Terrible Things Ivan Did

Ivan the Terrible took part in murders and massacres. He sacked and burned Novgorod on the basis of unproved accusations of treason and tortured its inhabitants and killed thousands in a pogrom there. In some cases men were roasted on spits on special frying pans made for the occasion. Novgorod's archbishop was first sewn up in a bearskin and then hunted to death by a pack of hounds. Men, women and children were tied to sleighs, which were then run into the freezing waters of the Volkhov River. A German mercenary wrote: "Mounting a horse and brandishing a spear, he charged in and ran people through while his son watched the entertainment..." Novgorod never recovered. Later the city of Pskov suffered a similar fate.

Ivan the Terrible took part in the murder a prelate of the church, Metropolitan Filip, who denounced Ivan’s reign of terror. Ivan also reportedly liked to torture victims modeled on biblical accounts of the sufferings of hell but he also said to have earnestly prayed for his victims before he butchered them. His treasurer, Nikita Funikov, was boiled to death in a cauldron. His councillor, Ivan Viskovaty, was hung, while Ivan's entourage took turns hacking off pieces of his body. An offending boyar blown to bits after being tied on a barrel of gunpowder.

Ivan the Terrible carryied an iron-pointed staff with him, which he used to beat and bludgeon people who pissed him off. Once, he had peasant women stripped naked and used as target practice by his Oprichniki. Another time, he had several hundred beggars drowned in a lake. Jerome Horsey wrote how Prince Boris Telupa "was drawn upon a long sharp-made stake, which entered the lower part of his body and came out of his neck; upon which he languished a horrible pain for 15 hours alive, and spoke to his mother, brought to behold that woeful sight. And she was given to 100 gunners, who defiled her to death, and the Emperor's hungry hounds devoured her flesh and bones". [Source: madmonarchs.com^*^]

Ivan’s sixth wife Wassilissa Melentiewna was sent to a convent after she foolishly took a lover. The was impaled under Wassilissa's window. Ivan’s seventh wife Maria Dolgurukaya was drowned the day after their wedding day when Ivan discovered that his new bride was not a virgin. ^*^

Ivan Kills His Son and Dies Perhaps from Mercury Poisoning

In 1581, Ivan the Terrible killed his oldest son Ivan, possibly on the urging of the Boyar Boris Godunov, who became tsar eight years later. Ivan killed his son with an iron-pointed stick when he was a young man after becoming enraged father. Ivan was said to be consumed by guilt over the death of his son. In the last years if his life he joined an order of hermits and died as the monk Johan. He died of poisoning in 1584. His brother, the feeble-minded Fedor, became tsar after Ivan's death.

According to madmonarchs.com: “Ivan had always had quite a good relationship with his eldest son, and young Ivan had proved himself at Novgorod. On November 19, 1581 Ivan became angry with his son's pregnant wife, because of the clothes she wore, and beat her up. As a result she miscarried. His son argued with his father about this beating. In a sudden fit of rage, Ivan the Terrible raised his iron-tipped staff and struck his son a mortal blow to the head. The Prince lay in a coma for several days before succumbing to his festering wound. Ivan IV was overcome by extreme grief, knocking his head against his son's coffin. [Source: madmonarchs.com^*^]

“ Ivan became addicted to the ingestion of mercury, which he kept bubbling in a cauldron in his room for his consumption. Later the exhumation of his body showed that he suffered from mercury poisoning. His bones showed signs of syphilic ostratis. Ivan's sexual promiscuity with both sexes, his last illness and many features of his personality support a diagnosis of syphilis, a venereal disease that was often 'treated' with mercury. However, it can not be determined indisputably if Ivan's problems were basically organic or psychological. ^*^

“By the end of his life, Ivan was habitually bad tempered. Daniel von Bruchau stated that in his rages Ivan "foamed at the mouth like a horse". He had long looked older than his years with long white hair dangling from a bald pate onto his shoulders. In his last years, he had to be carried on a litter. His body swelled, the skin peeled and gave off a terrible odour. Jerome Horsey wrote: "The Emperor began grievously to swell in his cods, with which he had most horribly offended above fifty years, boasting of a thousand virgins he had deflowered and thousands of children of his begetting destroyed." On March 18, 1584, as he was preparing to play a game of chess, Ivan fainted suddenly and died. ^*^

Boris Godonov and the False Dimitri

Ivan's remaining son Fedor Ivanovich (Fyodor I ) became tsar. Fyodor I (ruled 1584-1598) was a weak leader and mentally deficient. Perhaps the most important event of Fedor's reign was the proclamation of the patriarchate of Moscow in 1589. The creation of the patriarchate climaxed the evolution of a separate and totally independent Russian Orthodox Church.

Fyodor I was manipulated by his brother-in-law and advisor Boris Godonov, a descendant of a 14th-century Tatar chief who converted to Christianity. Fyodor died childless, bringing an end the Rurik line. Before he died he handed over power to Boris Godonov, who convened a zemskiy sobor , a national assembly of boyars, church officials, and commoners, which proclaimed him tsar, although various boyar factions refused to recognize the decision.

Boris Godonov (ruled 1598-1605) is the subject a famous ballet, opera and poem. He ruled behind the scenes when Fyodor was tsar and he ruled outright as tsar for seven years after Fyodor died. Godonov was an able leader. He consolidated Russia's territory but his rule was marked by drought, famine, rules that bound the serfs to their land, and a plague that killed half a million people in Moscow. Godonov died in 1605.

Widespread crop failures caused a famine between 1601 and 1603, and during the ensuing discontent, a man emerged who claimed to be Dmitriy, Ivan IV's son who had died in 1591. This pretender to the throne, who came to be known as the first False Dmitriy, gained support in Poland and marched to Moscow, gathering followers among the boyars and other elements as he went. Historians speculate that Godunov would have weathered this crisis, but he died in 1605. As a result, the first False Dmitriy entered Moscow and was crowned tsar that year, following the murder of Tsar Fedor II, Godunov's son. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

"False Dimitri" ruled from 1605 to 1606. Russians were overjoyed by the prospect of the return of the Rurik line. When it soon discovered that Dimitri was an imposter he was murdered in a popular revolt. Afterwards other "sons" of Ivan appeared but they all were dismissed.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.