Ivan the Terrible: The First Czar of Russia

In 1533, the year of the ascension of the infant of Ivan IV Vasilyevich to power, Moscow had been ruled by a grand prince and controlled 2.8 million square kilometers- to put this into perspective, that is about five times the size of modern France. Moscow now symbolized a new political center and time showed a new Russian civilization that was more rural, more centralized and authoritarian, and more hierarchical than Kievan Rus had ever been. The infighting between the princes of different principalities had finally (for the most part) calmed down and most had been able to agree on a system of vertical succession for its rulers- only the son of a grand prince was eligible for the throne and the heir to the throne should be the eldest living son of the last ruler. (One source suggests that the succession was actually decided by the blinded ruler Vasily II and his triumph over his uncles and cousins after 1430.) The culture of the orthodox church had also become more enmeshed into the society and many members of the church hierarchy helped perpetuate the idea of Moscow/Russia being the 'third Rome' that the first two 'Romes' had fallen as God's punishment and Russia was now the third and final 'Rome'. This idea was clearly expressed by abbot Joseph of Volokolasmk Monastery who also expressed four ideas that when used helped build the foundation for a more authoritarian government- the ruler is God's representative, ruler's main concern should be for the spiritual welfare of his subjects, all his subjects should obey him unless the ruler is acting in a non-Christian manner, and then the subject's disobedience should be passive and they should be willing to suffer at the hands of an unjust ruler. The combination of the acquisition of more territory, the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, the rise in power and prestige of the princes of Moscow, and the deep and pervasive influences of the church allowed for the eventual rule by the dominant princes of Moscow... and also the development of an autocratic, hereditary ruler who was able to gather enough power to become 'terrible' or a tyrant. This paper will explore the life of Russia's first Tsar, his policies, and the negative influence that Ivan IV was able to hold over his subjects. This paper will also explore the major changes that occurred during this time frame that affected the 'lifestyle' of his subjects and became so ingrained in the population that many of these changes continued into the twentieth century.

Ivan was the son of Vasili III from his second wife Elena Glinskaya. He was born on August 25, 1530 in the city of Kolomenskoye, Russia. Details on his first few years of life are not well known as we are lacking documentation. What is known is that his life probably took a drastic change when he was three years old. In 1533, Vasily III became ill and died of blood poisoning from an infection from a boil on his leg. Even though the succession of princes had been 'decided', Vasily III's two remaining brothers were quickly arrested after his death to keep the throne preserved for the elder son, the now three year old Ivan IV. By this time, the government could be visualized as a pyramid- the grand prince at the top, surrounded by members of other elite families, with administrative officials conducting the business of state and then provincial servicemen provided the personnel for other civil and military posts -it must be stated that the top of the pyramid didn't have absolute power at this time. The next several years would see Russia ruled by regents and rival family factions who would rule in his name. His first regent was his mother Elena and she was his regent until she died in 1538. (It was fairly risky to be a relative of Ivan at this time -both of his uncles died in prison, his half sister Agrafena was sent to a convent and a half brother assassinated, and it is believed that his mother might have been poisoned.) After his father's death, the next decade was a time of political turbulence in Russia... and a time of neglect and domestic conflict. Three families used this period of time to try and gain political superiority over each other- the Shuiskiis, Bel'skiis, and Glinskiis. During this time, Ivan and his younger brother Yuri appear to be secondary concerns to the power struggle taking place and in letters Ivan was quotes as suggesting that he and his brother went hungry, had poor clothing, and even had to beg for their needs. This rivalry between the warring families turned violent and bloody and Ivan appears to have been in the middle- a difficult way to grow up. This violence and turmoil has been suggested to have caused a permanent scarring and hardness in his character that came out later during his reign. While there appears to be some question as to the why's, Ivan IV assumed control of the kingdom at 14 years old. One suggestion is that at the age of 14, Ivan ordered one of the ruling princes of the family of Shuiskii thrown to the dogs and executed.

A few years later and after some sort of settlement with the important ruling families, Ivan was crowned tzar in a four hour ceremony on January 16, 1547 in the Assumption Cathedral/Dormition Cathedral., An important feature of this coronation was that he wore the Monomakhn Cap as his new crown- this cap once signified the subordination of the Moscow princes to the Mongol-Tartars. Fairly quickly after this event on February 3, 1547, Ivan married Anastasia Romanova from a powerful boyar family - this family would later be known as Romanov which was the family of the last of the Russian Tzars in the early 1900's. Anastasia was married to Ivan for 13 years- years which appear to have had a good and calming effect on him (Ivan's nickname for her was his 'little heifer'.) She was to bear him six children and died in the summer of 1560 after a lingering illness- assassination is also a suspect as well. Whether illness or murder was the culprit, Ivan IV was devastated by his wife's illness/ death and the many years of his reign after her death were not the peaceful and moderate ones that it had been while she was living.

The early years of his reign with a few exceptions appear to be relatively peaceful and prosperous. Ivan was a smart man who appears to have been an avid reader, a writer and art lover... and a good politician. A riot broke out soon after his marriage during the summer due to a huge fire in Moscow and it had to be dealt with. The tzar then set up an advisory council in 1549 of 'common men' to help guide him- Alexis Adashev and the monk Sylvester were the cream of this advisory body. After that, Ivan passed a new law code and various decrees aimed at increasing government efficiency and also church efficiency (1550). The 'Stoglav' church council of 1551 was an attempt by the tzar to bring better order and discipline to the administration and morals to the clergy of the Eastern Orthodox church and to set limits on the ways the church could obtain land. He worked on defining the relationships of elite families with the grand prince (himself) and that helped to relax the intensity and the violence of the past political competition. Ivan increased the size/membership of the Boyar Duma as he filled that government body with selected church leaders and nobles who supported his initiatives. Also during the 1550's, the Tsar improved the organization of his central government and set up 'offices' that dealt with a single area of government. (Military, Foreign Relations, etc...) He also changed/tweaked the military and created a permanent force named the Streltsy. Using the Streltsy, Ivan concentrated on the conquest of non Russian areas including Kazan (1552), Astrakhan (1556) and Siberia which paved the way for eastward expansion. On an unfortunate note, the Tsar did find that his previous mistrust of the boyar classes was reinforced in 1553 when an illness caused him to ask for their support for his son Dmitri... which he wasn't able to easily get (possibly because his son was young and the ruling classes could still 'feel' or remember the chaos surrounding the childhood reign of Ivan.) It appears that he never forgot the hesitation- and certainly his childhood experiences might have never been far from his mind throughout his life... although we will never know that for certain. He recovered and that particular crisis ended.

After his first wife's death (Anastasia), Ivan's policies became more paranoid and stern. From 1560-1580, Ivan married six times and had a few more children. He appears to have never really gotten over the death of his first wife and it certainly seems that these last wives- while providing him with his eventual heir for the throne... never had the sway or hold over him as Anastasia did. He began to distrust his advisory council (they were a few of the 'hesitators' over the succession of his son in 1553) and both the formerly mentioned members left around 1559. The personal loses, which include the death of his wife and the defection of a trusted friend in 1564, seems to have cause an deep anger and despair that Ivan IV never recovered from. The next decade saw a Tsar who suspected conspiracies against him from all sides and engaged in a two decade long 'Livonian' War which was not successful and resulted in a loss of land. In January 1565, he moved his family from Moscow and abdicated his throne... only agreeing to return if his right to deal with traitors as he saw fit was accepted- which it was. He developed a new organization called the Oprinchina which Ivan used in some areas exclusively to carry out the tzar’s wishes and as a form of secret police/court – to weed out and execute traitors. He separated himself entirely from the Duma and other offices of government and only interacted with them on 'extraordinary and exceptional' occasions. The Oprichniki ended up ruling about half the country as a separate royal court and administration for about eight years, killing thousands of innocent people- many from the noble classes and confiscated hundreds of estates of the condemned. As the years went on Ivan's fear worsened and his reign of terror continued. He denied the Boyar Duma the right to judge cases of capital punishment. He forced the suicides/death of suspected plotters or potential heirs... clearing the way so that only his sons could inherit the crown. He had the city of Novgorod burned, devastated and destroyed in the year 1569. No one class was immune from his paranoia or his wrath- not even men from the Church His behavior became sometimes more difficult to understand and he even abdicated his throne again in 1575 and served 'as a lesser prince' to the new grand prince for about a year before the charade ended. He also tried to open more relations with other countries including Queen Elizabeth I of England and when he didn't get the response he wanted, he wrote the Queen several rather bitter letters. His rages continued and in a moment of extreme anger in 1581, he beat his pregnant daughter in law on the excuse that her clothing was immodest. His son Ivan (and his heir apparent) engaged in an argument with his father which ended in his (the heir's) death. Ivan was devastated by this death and the political consequences were that he only had two sons left- the eldest was Feodor. Ivan is thought to have died of a stoke while playing chess on March 28, 1584. This left the throne to Feodor- described by sources as unfit, weak-witted, etc...

Ivan IV Vasilyevich was certainly a colorful figure in whom historians still have many debates about today. While in the English language we call him Ivan the Terrible, this is not quite the best translation of the Russian name 'Ivan Groznyi' and suggests to English speakers a more negative connotation than the thoughts and ideas of his native land. Other translations that could be more apt are: awe-inspiring, formidable, menacing, 'the great', or 'the dread'. These translations suggest that Ivan IV was not thought of as only a 'terrible' or a tyrant. If we add into our mix parts of Russian folklore as well as chronicles, it can be seen that this nickname was meant as a compliment by some... and rulers who came after him such as Peter the Great and Stalin regarded Ivan IV quite favorably. There is also some discussion about the few sources that we have that have been used to 'develop' our understanding of the tzar's character, motivations, and behavior- some historians believe that one major source (Kurbskii-Groznyi apocrypha) is a forgery from a later century. It is certainly true that in some ways Ivan IV defies accurate description. He has been described by historians in many ways- and some descriptions conflict with each other and seem to be almost opposites. Some descriptions include: a ruthless political leader, madman, murderer, a paranoid, a sufferer of disease and mercury poisoning, torturer, insanity sufferer, animal abuser, etc... There are tales of supernatural happenings at the time of his birth, of warnings by church leaders, etc... which also add to the mystique of his legacy.

One a last biographical note, Ivan was considered a fairly pious man for most of his life. He had been well grounded in the Bible while he was a child and when he toured Russia throughout his lifetime, he was known to stop at every monastery on the way. He also built a cathedral- St Basil's Cathedral in 1560 in celebration of his achievements over Kazan and sent a embassy group to Constantinople at one point when asked. In 1550, the tzar summoned a national assembly (the first ruler to do so) to make a public confession of his sins and promised that he would govern Russia justly and mercifully. Ivan IV was also known to travel annually on pilgrimages so as to be seen as a humble and penitent ruler. One source can be quoted as writing- 'Despite Ivan's repeatedly unrestrained actions, he always remained constant in his belief that God was with him and every action he committed.' The tzar believed in following 'signs' from God and might have made some decisions based on his interpretation of signs. (An example is a legend that states that Ivan had been contemplating moving his capital city from Moscow to the city of Vologda. While attending the ceremony of consecration for the St Sophia church in that city, a piece of stone came off of the foot of an angel and fell on the Tzar's toe... he decided not to move the capital to Vologda.) Right before Ivan's death, he worked with the orthodox church and became a monk- dying under the name of Jonah. (This was apparently very common for rulers to become monks right before they died in order to improve their chances for heaven.) There is some debate about Ivan IV's position in the orthodox church with those for and against his 'sainthood'- his fans appear to be winning the debate however, as he is known as a 'Saint' under Article 64.6 of the Covenant of One-Heaven and his date of formal beautification has been set for 12/21/2012.

There were several major changes that were brought about during the reign of Ivan IV. One change is that under his tutelage and his son Fedor, one focus of foreign policy was the control of others lands such as Kavan in 1552 and Astrakhan in 1556 which helped assure Russian control of the Volga River. Along with his expansion of the Russian empire, he also centralized the government. One aspect of his reign was that while the beginning of his reign came after years of instability and no stable hierarchy, his reign was marked by the continuing efforts to restore and maintain and appropriate balance. One part of the political legacy he left was a completely different governmental structure-the title of Tsar symbolized a new acquisition of supreme power with religious overtones. The creation of the Oprichnina marked a new process that worked along with other changes to firmly centralize the government and to reduce the political power of the wealthy or elite. The idea of local governments that Ivan created are still very much in force today. Many of these political changes have stayed with Russia until almost a century ago. The fact that Stalin himself could exist as a ruler for so long in a modern century with his behavior was based just as much on the political structure left by Ivan IV than Marxist ideas. Ivan's sheer genius for propaganda is also a legacy that Russia continued to use for several hundred years to help keep tight control over its population and image. But on a positive note, many of these changes strengthened the Russian state and helped keep it stronger and more secure from it's foreign enemies. Ivan's systematic or accidental removal of heirs to the throne also left the throne vulnerable and after his son Fedor died in 1598, there was a succession crisis. (Ivan's only other son Dmitry died under mysterious circumstances during Fedor's reign.) Lastly, Ivan began the Russian quest of 'expansionism' and he made Russia an empire whose desire for growth and power continued even up to our present time. His expansionism also brought Russia into a relationship with other countries in Europe through trade and politics and this legacy would continue on into the 20th century.

The economic legacy that Ivan left behind was a devastated country. He had inherited debt from before he was in power and his wars brought the debt higher... even with raising taxes. He gave land to the Oprichniki but he had no way to confiscate their lands or hold these members accountable for their actions. So the Oprichniki could overcharge the peasants causing the peasants to flee in some cases... leaving whole villages empty and overall economic production took a tumble- in some years Ivan reacted to the fleeing constituents by declaring certain years 'forbidden' to leave your masters or their land- I do wonder how effective that was. The wars also paid a heavy cost in human life. And none of the above discusses the places that were destroyed- in Novgorod for example, about 90% of the farm land at one point had been abandoned.

In conclusion, Ivan IV is not an easy character to define. His legacy in Russian policy and culture is quite long lasting. His gift for propaganda has helped to control in some ways how he was viewed... and is viewed today. His life and his story are legend and the tale of many books, biographies, movies and opera... and his writings and/or hymns have been honored, published and even recorded as recently as 1988 into the first Soviet produced CD. Very few rulers have caused the plethora of different emotions and argument as this particular one. If having a legacy of being avidly discussed centuries after your death could be considered success... then Ivan IV was one of the most successful people in Russian history.


  1. whoah thats crazy

  2. How did i get here? Where am I? Honestly, I have no clue. I was looking for a way to get cheesburgers on Ebay!

  3. I have no idea how you got here if you were looking for a cheeseburger or ebay, but feel feel to come back! :)

  4. Well, I was looking for cheeseburgers on ebay too, but i also ended up needing this info a few days after, so Thank You. I think they ahd something about Ivan's burgers...then something brought me to Ask.com and i found a link to something that linked to this. Very useful information, however I am still hungry.

  5. That is pretty funny! I am glad you found useful information, but sorry that you are still hungry. :D