Ivan IV was the son of Tsar Vasily III of Russia and became tsar, sort of, at the age of three when his father died. His mother the Lithuanian princess Helena, was his regent with the help of her uncle Michael and her lover Prince Telepnev-Obolensky; however, her marriage to Vasily had not been popular and the boyar nobles of Russia opposed her rule. Helena died in 1538, most likely by poison, and the boyars fought among themselves for power. Ivan and his younger brother Yuri were afterthoughts, not well taken care of; Ivan later wrote that "they fed us as though we were foreigners or the most wretched servants. We lacked food and clothing; our will counted for nothing and no one was found to provide for us as children."

Ivan nonetheless managed to educate himself, reading everything he could find (which wasn't much in 1500s Russia -- religous works and chronicles of Russian heroes). From this and from the fighting around him, he came to the view that strength, even to the point of arrogance and cruelty, would serve him best. He tortured animals, broke the leg of a boyar's child in a fight, and raped at least one servant girl. At the age of 14, he decided to take back the power due to the Tsar by having the leading boyar Andrei Shuisky thrown to a pack of dogs and many more boyars hung. Within the next few years, he consolidated his power and married Anastasia Romanov in 1547 (a popular choice, as she was Russian, but he had earlier sought to marry a foreign princess.)

Anastasia and Ivan were a good match, and she is considered to have been a brake on his more outrageous tendencies. In 1550 Ivan put together the Zemsky Sobor, a group of representative from different parts of the country which served as a kind of advisor to the tsar. He set up a new legal code with local government reform, giving more local control to the spread-out parts of Russia. He standardized the military service owed to the tsar by nobles. On the other hand, he put in place laws forbidding Russians to travel abroad and other infringements on personal liberty.

The usual menace to Russia of Tartars on the southeast continued; Ivan managed to capture the city of Kazan on the Volga river, making Russian trade into their new (since the reign of Ivan III) Siberian colonies much easier. Later he would try to conquer the entire length of the Volga down to the Caspian Sea. He was also involved in wars with Livonia (approximately modern Latvia/Estonia) and when its government collapsed, with Sweden and Poland/Lithuania who also wanted possession of the area.

In 1553 English traders trying to reach China arrived on the coast of the White Sea; they were brought to Ivan and started both diplomatic and trade relations between Russia and faraway England. These western connections would grow greatly over the next four centuries.

Also in 1553, Ivan fell ill and on what he thought was his deathbed, asked the boyars to swear allegiance to his infant son. Many of them refused or were at least reluctant, just having gotten out of the turmoil of having an infant for Tsar who could not control the country. Ivan never forgot this, and this increased his mistrust of his nobles even more.

In 1560, Ivan's wife Anastasia died; this is often considered the start of the worst part of Ivan's reign. Ivan was convinced (with no real evidence) that she had been poisoned and tried two of his advisors for the crime without allowing them to defend themselves. He would have six more wives (ignoring the Orthodox Christianity limit of three) but none of them ever calmed him down like Anastasia.

In 1564 he left Moscow and from a small town issued a manifesto saying the nobles and clergy were all derelict in their duty and that he was going to abandon his throne. A delegation led by the Archbishop of Novgorod went to ask him to return, and Ivan agreed with some peculiar conditions. He said he was going to divide the country into two sections, the zemshchina, which would remain as it had been, and the oprichnina, which would have its own court, nobles, and rules. The oprichnina took up part of Moscow and about 20 other towns and districts (not necessarily all together in one area), and former owners of land there were evicted and sent elsewhere. He named a puppet Tsar for the Zemshchina, a Tartar called Simeon who had converted to Orthodox Christianity, but kept the control of both divisions. In the oprichnina his servants were given complete immunity from charges of any crime they committed. The Oprichniks, Ivan's men dressed in black and riding on black horses, killed, tortured, and stole from people in all parts of Russia. The oprichnina was officially abolished in 1572 but was not really reincorporated into the rest of the country for some years, and it didn't stop the arbitrary execution, frequently in disgusting ways, of anyone Ivan suspected.

Ivan would have fits of religious conscience alternating with his periods of paranoia and rage. The worst came after 1581, when Ivan killed his own grown son Ivan. It was in a fit of anger, after the older Ivan had attacked the younger Ivan's pregnant wife for not wearing the customary clothing for a pregnant woman. The younger Ivan tried to defend his wife, and his father hit him with a pointed staff and mortally wounded him, though it took days to for him to actually die. (The wife and baby also died.) Ivan is said to have "known no peace" from his remorse after this.

Ivan died in 1584; a Soviet-performed autopsy is said to have indicated that he was poisoned. This is not very surprising for a ruler who earned the nickname of "Terror-Inspiring," the older sense of "terrible." Some scholars have argued that "Awe-Inspiring" might be a better translation of the nickname; this goes along with the historical dispute about whether Ivan's peculiarities and atrocities were actually helpful for uniting Russia under one central ruler. Some views (including Stalin's) consider Ivan to be a good ruler; others think he was just insane. Ivan was succeeded by his son Fyodor I.

Source: Carr, Francis. Ivan the Terrible. Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1981, in addition to those listed under Monarchs of Russia.

Ivan IV Grozny's nickname definitely described his reign well: "Awe-inspiring". Whether it was awful or awesome is another question. He did help start Russian expansion and consolidated its rule into a somewhat stable autocracy, but he also cruelly killed thousands in a brutal reign of terror similar to Stalin's. Though he may have been a paranoid schizophrenic and was extremely sadistic, he was a very intelligent and educated man. This combination proved to make for a very interesting and strange Czar of all the Russias. (6)

Ivan became the Grand Prince of Muscovy when he was only 3 years old upon the death of his father, Basil(Vasily) III in 1533. Because he was too young to rule, his mother Helena seized power and ruled as a regent for him. She was ambitious and tried to secure her power through various intrigues and murders of relatives and other people who might be power hungry. After about five years of this the leading Boyars (upper nobles) had had enough of the insult and she was poisoned. This led to a fight over power between the two foremost Boyar families, the Shuiskys and the Belskys. The leader of the Shuiskys soon imprisoned the leader of the Belskys and let him starve to death. However that did not put and end to the turmoil. (1)

This period of his childhood was the most awful. Soon after his mother was killed, his beloved nurse was sent to a nunnery by the Boyars. This left nobody to take care of him and his younger brother, Yuri. The Palace was like a battleground for the Boyars and people were always being beaten or killed in the palace in front of the young Ivan. One time a fleeing noble ran through Ivan's bedchambers as other nobles proceeded to hunt the first one down and kill him. Ivan and Yuri were often left without food and nobody cared for them. One noble did befriend him but he was soon killed for some reason or another. (1, 2, 5)

During this time Ivan began to show his dark side. He would torture anything he had power over, because among the nobles he had no power. He and his little friends favorite playtime activity was dropping small dogs off the towers and rushing down to watch them die. As they got older he liked to ride through the crowded streets of Moscow on his horse trampling whatever he hit. Besides torturing the weak, his other, more insidious, childhood activity was reading. He read whatever books were lying around the palace. There were not many books but there was a considerable amount of religious books. This might have been why Ivan was so, in his mind, devout later on. (4)

Ivan executed his first political at the age of fourteen when he ordered Prince Andrei Shuisky to be fed to the hunting dogs. Not long after that he had thirty important Boyars hung. He gradually exerted more power and occasionally killed unruly Boyars. In 1547 he started gain actual power. It was this year that he asked the Metropolitan to give him the title of Czar of All the Russias, which was granted to him, and held a Miss Russia contest to find a bride. (2)

Much to the outrage of the Boyars he selected Anastasia Romonov who came from an upper middle class, formerly Prussian family. He loved Anastasia very much and she would play a very important role in the Czar's reign. (1)

Soon after this there was a huge fire in Moscow and Ivan's uncles, the Glinskys, who were the main people running the government, were killed in the riots afterwards. Ivan then used a common strategy to put down these riots. He asked to talk to the leaders and when they met him he had them immediately hung in the middle of the square. (1)

After this Ivan IV was completely in control of Russia. His first act was the calling of the first National Assembly or Zemsky Sobor. At this meeting he made confessions for the sins of his youth and promised good leadership. These assemblies would last throughout Ivan's reign and beyond advising Czars on domestic and foreign policy. Sometimes these assemblies were made up mostly of gentry and merchants. These were the first democratic institutions in Russia. (1)

Ivan also set up a close ring of advisors that would be very influential to him. Many of them were not Boyars, but just people who were politically active and he had heard of their deeds. The two most important were the Monk Sylvester and Alexi Adashev. (2)

He also made many military and political reforms during this period. The first reform was instituting a system of lower nobles who were tied to the Monarch to govern the provinces and collect taxes. This helped take the power away from Boyars and give the Czar more control. In the Military he reorganized it into six regiments, establishing strict discipline in the army, and making larger with more guns. He also started a nationwide census to help broaden the tax base. (2)

Ivan now had a strong state with a very good army and it was time to make use of it. For years the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan routinely made raids on Russia for slaves and to plunder towns. They were now at a weak moment and part of the Kazan Khanate offered itself to Ivan. Upon hearing this Ivan, who had made previous unsuccessful attempts, took his army directly to the city of Kazan and successfully besieged it. After this they sent a message to Asrakhan by tying forty dead Kazanians to a log and floating down the Volga to Astrakhan. Astrakhan fell with little or no fighting.

Feeling like he was already successful he then took his army north. This left the Khanate of the Crimea, the greatest Tartar power, untouched. (1)

In 1553, a year after his Kazan campaign, Ivan fell terribly ill. The disease from which he suffered is unknown but it may have been Pneumonia. His condition was so bad that the doctors said there was nothing they could do and that he would soon die, therefore he had to write a will and name his successor. He named his one year old son Dmitri as the heir to the throne (Ivan's little brother was not an option because he was "simpleminded".). Almost all of his close council, including Sylvester and Alexi Adashev, refused to recognize his choice because they did not want another period of regents as there was with Ivan. Expecting him soon to die the Boyars also criticized his wife and his policy within earshot of Ivan. They said they would support a Boyar as the next Czar. (2)

However, Ivan made an unexpected recovery and now viewed all Boyars and advisors as enemies. The cruel traits that he had displayed as a boy now began to resurface. This was just aggravated by the fact that Dmitri was drowned later that year. (7)

Now a leading Boyar Prince Simon Lobanov-Rostovsky led a conspiracy for the Boyars to flee to Lithuania. He hated how Ivan was gradually taking away their power and giving it to the junior people (Nobility of service) or how a lowly Romanov might become a Regent. Ivan had this Boyar exiled. (1)

At this time the Russian State was stronger than ever. It had no enemies to the East and no possible invaders to the West. The only threat was Crimea to the south. However there still was a dilemma of what to do militarily. The problem lied to the West. Livonia controlled Russia's contact with the West through the Baltic. They would not let any doctors or anybody who might give Russia power or trade through to Russia. This greatly restricted Russia's development and they needed western money and technology. Also, Livonia was weak at this point and it looked ready to take. However a western campaign would leave the south open. Ivan's advisors first recommended that he defend the South but then said to go further and Invade Crimea. This would have been foolish and they would have had to attack from the unsettled steppe. Therefore Ivan refused that plan. (1)

He decided to go on the offensive with Livonia, beginning by demanding tribute and control. They refused and allied with Poland but Ivan invaded before Livonia could receive help. Russia easily won, but the war was not over yet. Livonia fragmented, but each different fragment asked a different country for help against Russia, and all of these countries would benefit greatly from obtaining Livonia. The countries involved were Denmark / Norway, Sweden, Poland, and Russia. (2)

First, Denmark and Russia made a treaty saying that Livonia was under the control of Denmark but a vassal to Russia. However, Sweden was already at war with Denmark, and Poland now claimed Livonia. In 1566 Poland offered Ivan portions of Poland in exchange for Livonia. Ivan called the Zemski Sobor to decide on what to do. The popular decision was to continue the war. This led to a long on and off struggle with the various powers contesting over its control which was eventually unsuccessful. (2)

Ivan did however obtain some access to the west when the British reached Arkangelskii. Ivan gave them a monopoly on Russian trade. This helped influence Peter I in his policies of westernization. (2)

In 1560 Ivan's Wife died which led to more paranoia and cruelty on Ivan's part. He suspected foul play and Anastasia who had previously pacified his temper could no longer help. In 1664 he moved his family to Aleksandrovskaia Sloboda and announced the next year his intentions to abdicate the throne. The people pleaded him to stay and he then presented them with the conditions upon which he would stay. He said that that he retained the right to punish anyone he suspected of treason without question. They agreed and thus began the Oprichnina. (4)

The Oprichnina was a state within the outside Russian State ( Zemschina ) controlled by the nobles. The Oprichnina and the officers of it, the Oprichniki, reserved the right to basically do whatever Ivan said. They began by finding all the Boyars who were suspected of treason (almost all of them) and kill or exile them anyone who opposed was exiled or brutally murdered. Sylvester was sent to a Siberian Monastery and Ivan's former council was gone. Ivan then began torturing random people and sending the Oprichniki on raids in towns killing and pillaging anything. Novgorod was sacked because of a suspicion of a revolt. Its leader were tortured and killed and many of its citizens were killed or raped. (1)

During this period Ivan acted as if he was a paranoid schizophrenic. He would hardly sleep and got to church in the middle of the nigh apparently hearing the word of god tell him who to kill next. He continually married wives, and then killed them or sent them to a nunnery. Though the atrocities he committed with the Oprichnina were unspeakably horrible he probably would have been considered a good czar if it were not for one unrelated action. (7)

His oldest son and only suitable heir, Ivan V was 27 and had a pregnant wife who was wearing and tight dress. Ivan IV came in and started arguing with her about the dress and soon started beating her. This caused a miscarriage of their baby, which Ivan V was very upset about. Young Ivan started arguing with Old Ivan about this and Old Ivan got so mad he hit his son this his metal tipped staff so hard that Ivan V had a concussion and soon died. (1)

This not only left Ivan IV a broken man but it also left Fyodor "the Bellringer" as his only heir. Fyodor was much kinder than his dad was but also probably at least semi-retarded. He had no interest in politics and only liked church and especially ringing the church bells. When he took over Boris Gudonov, a friend of Ivan IV, had to rule for him.

When Fyodor died so did the Rurik dynasty that had lasted ever since the Vikings first established Russia as a state. (4)

Ivan Grozny was a very conflicted man. This is most evident in the killing of his son. He had loved his son very much and he was completely miserable afterwards, but his awful childhood made it so that he would never stand for something that goes against him. He tried to work for the good of Russia, but disregarded the people that lived there at the time. That was how he ruled his country and that is why he was both Awesome and Awful.



1. Carr, Francis: Ivan the Terrible, 1981.

2. Platonov, F.R.: Ivan the Terrible, 1923, 1974.

3. Encyclopedia Britannica: Ivan IV, 1959.


4. http://www.xs4all.nl/~kvenjb/madmonarchs/ivan4/ivan4_bio.htm

5. http://www.dana.edu/~dwarman/kmaas.htm


7. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/ivan/ivanmain.shtml

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