Russian roulette: 5 of the most ruthless Tsars in history

Statue of Ivan the Terrible on a horse
Ivan the Terrible was the first tsar of Russia and was known for his regular fits of rage | Image: Alexey Borodin/Shutterstock

From the middle of the 16th century to 1917, millions of people lived and died under the rule of the tsars – the all-powerful heads of Russia. Many tsars were great leaders, innovators, and builders, but the exploits of others fill the pages of history’s goriest and most sinister chapters.

Here we look at five of the most 'tsavage' tsars ever to rule Russia (see what we did there?).

1. The Dog Despot - Ivan IV (reigned 1547-1584)

The first tsar of Russia wasn’t known as ‘Ivan the Terrible’ for nothing. Said to have an awful temper, even as a young boy, he would fly into horrible fits of rage. Hobbies he had as a youngster included going around beating up strangers at night and chucking dogs off the roof of the palace.

Ivan was a big fan of architecture and was so impressed with his new St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow that he had the chief builders blinded to make sure they couldn’t knock up anything better. He wasn’t very kind to his court performers either, once pouring boiling soup over a jester and then stabbing him to death. Several of his wives were either executed or banished, and he even murdered one of his own sons by throwing a spear at him.

In the 1560s Ivan founded a unit of men with the sole purpose of spreading death and terror among his subjects - the much-feared Oprichniki. Dressed in black cloaks and riding black horses, their emblem was a dog’s head and a broom. The canine symbolised their fierce loyalty to Ivan and the broom indicated their mission to sweep away traitors. Thousands of aristocrats, church leaders, old enemies, and anyone suspected of disloyalty were hunted down by the riders, tortured, and killed.

In 1570, Ivan and his forces wreaked havoc in the city of Novgorod and for five weeks they raped, pillaged, tortured, and murdered the residents. Modern estimates believe 60,000 people lost their lives during the rampage, including the city’s archbishop who Ivan had killed by sewing him into a bearskin and feeding him to a pack of hungry hounds.

Ivan often liked to personally take part in the torture and killing of his enemies. He would charge at unarmed people on his horse and run them through with his spear. He delighted in seeing unfortunate men and women being roasted alive on spits or having their ribs torn out with red-hot pincers. He once personally raked hot coals over a man’s body as he was being burned alive.

2. The Punisher - Peter I (reigned 1682-1725)

Peter I, known as Peter the Great, certainly achieved a lot during his tsardom. He founded the city of St Petersburg, modernised many outmoded institutions, and made Russia a European power. His building programmes and imperial wars didn’t come cheap, though. Peter added to his coffers by exploiting church assets and taxing things such as coffins, beards, and certain clothes.

In June 1698, a large contingent of the Streltsy – a historic soldierly class of Russia – marched on Moscow in a bid to topple Peter’s regime and reinstall the former regent Sophia, Peter’s sister. Peter’s close friend and adviser Patrick Gordon, a Scotsman, defeated the rebels and 2,000 of them were beheaded. They were laid out on a piece of public ground in Moscow with their severed heads placed next to them. Overall, thousands were punished in response to this attempted coup. Noble men and women, priests, and anyone named by those during torture were beheaded, burnt alive, broken on the wheel, brutally tortured, and the relatively lucky ones were banished.

Peter executed many people by his own hand. On one night of brutal excess, he played a diabolical brandy-based drinking game at a banquet. He ordered 20 prisoners to be brought into the dining hall and personally lopped off their heads, one by one, taking a swig of brandy between each blow.

One of the main rebel leaders who was intent on restoring Sophia to power was caught by Peter’s forces. His arm was cut off and the victory speech he had planned to deliver upon the success of the rebellion was placed between his fingers. When rigor mortis set in and the speech was clutched in his hands, the arm was hung up on the wall of Sophia’s convent bedroom, to serve as a warning to her.

3. The Ice Empress - Anna (reigned 1730-1740)

The reign of Anna has been considered by many historians a dark era, synonymous with terror and autocracy.

Anna was said to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, constantly eating and drinking, using melted butter as a skin moisturiser, and demanding almost non-stop entertainment that included bedtime stories. Anna had a fondness for practical jokes and comedy. She once had a court entertainer – whose ‘talent’ was that she was ‘very ugly’ – marry a jester. For the newlywed couple, she ordered an entire house to be built of solid blocks of ice, with all the furniture made of ice too. The couple was forced to spend their wedding night inside this icehouse.

Anna and her German lover Ernst Johann von Biron executed, tortured, and repressed opponents through their brutal state secret police. They raided the countryside to extort tax ‘arrears’ from serfs. During Anna’s reign, over 20,000 people were exiled to Siberia. Of this number about 5,000 vanished from the records without a trace.

4. The Pompous Prince - Paul I (reigned 1796-1801)

Paul had such a strict approach to the military that he would order his troops to drill in all weathers, and the soldiers would be flogged or beaten for even the smallest errors. He once commanded a whole regiment to march to Siberia after blundering on the parade ground but called them back after 10 miles.

Paul had a kind side, though. He liked to ensure his subjects had a good lie down to take the load off. Whenever anyone bumped into Paul out and about in his royal carriage, whatever they were doing, they had to lie flat on the ground face down. This rest break lasted for as long as Paul could see them. If they were too shy to have a rest in the presence of the tsar, then his guards were there to help them down into the mud.

Paul also famously banned many French-style fashions, such as round hats, in a bid to ward off a revolution in Russia. He was murdered one night in his bedroom by several senior military officers, who stamped on and throttled him after he refused to sign abdication papers.

5. Nasty Nick - Nicholas II (reigned 1894-1917)

Famously shot to death along with his family by the Bolsheviks in July 1918, Nicholas was the last tsar of the Romanov dynasty. Some think that he was a callous autocrat, while others believe that he was simply weak and poorly advised.

Pogroms of the Jewish populations of the Russian Empire (particularly in the years 1903-1906, in which thousands were killed), continued under his watch, as did the famous event on Russia’s road to revolution, Bloody Sunday. On this fateful day in January 1905, the thick white snow on the ground of St. Petersburg was stained red with the blood of unarmed protestors marching to deliver a petition to the tsar at the Winter Palace. Nicholas's guards opened fire at the men and women and as many as 4,000 were killed. This kicked off the 1905 Russian Revolution which, despite some concessions won from Nicholas, was met with brutal suppression from the government.

Written by:

James Brigden