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Ivan the Terrible

Why was Ivan so terrible? | Ivan the Terrible biography & facts

They called him Ivan the Terrible for a reason (Portrait of Ivan IV by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1897)

Today, the word ‘terrible’ can be used to describe anything from a particularly bad meal to a natural disaster that kills millions of people. Back in the 16th Century when it was a nickname bestowed on the Russian ruler Ivan IV, it specifically meant ‘awe-inspiring’, ‘powerful’ and ‘formidable’. However, if we examine the reign of one of the most paranoid, bloodthirsty and unpredictable men who has ever ruled the country, maybe the modern definition of ‘extremely bad’ isn’t so wide of the mark after all? So, what exactly made Ivan so terrible?

The seeds of the dreadful human being Ivan would become were sewn in his miserable childhood. His father, Vasili the Grand Prince of Moscow, died when Ivan was just three years old and his mother passed away when he was eight. The young prince then became the object of power struggles between various members of the nobility, in particular, the powerful Shuisky and Belesky families. While the royal court descended into a dangerous chaos of murder and intrigue, Ivan and his deaf-mute brother Iurii were treated no better than a couple of street urchins.

There were times when Ivan and his sibling were left clothed in rags and on the verge of starvation. 'My brother Iurii, of blessed memory, and me they brought up like vagrants and children of the poorest,' Ivan wrote in a letter to his close friend Prince Andrei Kurbsky. 'What have I suffered for want of garments and food!' Being neglected and treated as a political football made Ivan mistrust the nobility: a mistrust would fester into blinding hatred as he grew older. When he became Tsar, his mistreatment would come back to bite the noble families of Ivan’s realm in the most spectacular fashion. However, that was all in the future. Unable to take his frustrations out on his tormentors, Ivan took his anger and resentment out on animals instead, pulling the feathers out of live birds and throwing dogs and cats out of windows.

At the age of thirteen, Ivan finally bared his teeth. The powerful Shuisky family were by this time the de facto rulers of Russia having emerged victorious from their power struggle with the Belskeys to have control over the prince. However, they had not reckoned on the boy they had ignored and abused for so many years. At a feast held in 1453, Ivan accused the most powerful of the Shuiskys, Prince Andrei, of mismanaging the country and had him arrested and put to death. Some say the unfortunate Andrei was torn apart by hungry hunting dogs, though a more credible story is that Andrei’s jailers beat him to death.

Full power was transferred to Ivan on his sixteenth birthday. Two weeks later, he married his first wife, Anastasia. There was nothing particularly terrible about Ivan’s early years on the throne. Indeed, it was a time of relative peace and progress. He introduced reforms that included an update of the penal code introduced by his grandfather, the establishment of a standing army and the introduction of regional self-governance. Ivan also introduced the first printing presses into Russia and ordered the construction of the magnificent St. Basil’s Cathedral following his conquest of the Tartar region of Kazan. There is a story that persists to this day that Ivan was so impressed with the finished cathedral that he had the architect blinded so he could never produce anything so beautiful again. There is no evidence that the blinding ever took place, but it’s a testament to Ivan’s reputation that many are still prepared to believe he was capable of such a vile and uncultured act.

What tipped Ivan over the edge and turned him from a reasonable ruler into a full-blown tyrant were two events that both took place in 1558 and 1560. The first was the betrayal of his great friend Prince Kurbsky. The nobleman defected to the Lithuanians during Ivan’s ill-fated attempt to conquer the Baltic territory of Livonia in 1558. Kurbsky took charge of the Lithuanian army and, alongside forces from Poland and Sweden, handed Russia a defeat that left Ivan beside himself with fury and more convinced than ever that his country’s nobility was out to get him. The second event was the death of his beloved wife Anastasia in 1560. Ivan was certain that his wife had been poisoned by his enemies. While no evidence could be found of poison at the time, a 20th Century examination of the Tsarina’s bones uncovered unusually high levels of mercury, indicating that the paranoid young monarch might well have been right for once.

Ivan’s initial reaction to the death of his wife and the betrayal of his friend was to remove himself from Moscow to Alexandrov, a town located 120 kilometres northeast of the Russian capital. Here, he wrote two letters signalling his intention to abdicate. His council of noblemen and clergymen attempted to rule in his absence, but when this proved impossible, an envoy was sent to beg Ivan to change his mind. He did so, on the proviso that he be given the right to seize the lands of those who had betrayed him and execute anyone he suspected of treason. The desperate council and clergy agreed to Ivan’s demands. It was to prove a costly mistake.

Favourite execution methods included boiling alive, impalement, being roasted over an open fire or being torn limb

Ivan returned to Moscow and set about separating the country into two administrative areas. One would be ruled by the nobility and the other, named the Oprichnina, would be governed by Ivan himself in any way he saw fit. This, it turned out, involved the torture and execution of the vast majority of his political rivals and pretty much anyone else who got in his way. To police his new territory, Ivan created the Oprichniki. Dressed all in black, the Oprichniki were Ivan’s personal bodyguard and enforcers who roamed the newly created territory doing the Tsar’s bidding. The Oprichniki were given carte blanche to torture and murder anyone Ivan suspected of betrayal. A gang of paid thugs loathed and feared by everyone in the Oprichnina, the Oprichniki rode around with severed dogs’ heads attached to their saddles to symbolise the sniffing out of traitors. It soon became a common sight in the towns and villages of the Oprichnina to see peasants, the middle classes and the high-born fleeing for their lives as word spread that the Oprichniki were in the area.

The Oprichniki were utterly ruthless. Anyone Ivan suspected of disloyalty was tortured and horribly put to death. Favourite execution methods included boiling alive, impalement, being roasted over an open fire or being torn limb from limb by horses. To live in the territory ruled over by Ivan and the Oprichniki was to live in a permanent state of fear, as was amply demonstrated by the terrible fate that fell on Novgorod – Russia’s second-largest city and Moscow’s most powerful rival.

Convinced that the city’s leaders, clergy and most prominent citizens were conspiring against him, Ivan ordered an assault on the city in 1570. Priests and monks were rounded up and beaten to death while their churches and monasteries were ransacked. Prominent merchants, officials and noblemen were tortured and executed; many were roasted alive on specially constructed frying pans. As these poor unfortunates suffered slow and agonising deaths, their wives and children fared no better. They were rounded up, tied up and thrown in the river Volkhov. Any unfortunates who tried to escape were pushed under the icy waters and drowned by soldiers armed with boat hooks, spears and axes.

It would take centuries for Novgorod to fully recover from the attack

Merchants lower down the social ladder were targeted by the Oprichniki, who were ordered to seize all profitable goods and destroy storehouses and shops. Anyone who attempted to resist was killed, as indeed were many who offered no resistance. The poor fared no better. The city was full of destitute peasants looking for work as a result of a series of famines that had occurred in the region over the previous few years. Along with the evicted merchants and their families, these poor souls were thrown out of the city and left to freeze and starve to death in the harsh Russian winter.

All in all, the orgy of bloodshed and destruction visited on Novgorod resulted in the deaths of an estimated 12,000 of its citizens. With its administrative and religious structures destroyed, its prominent citizens executed, its commercial centre a gutted shell and most of its wealth stolen, the city was so decimated by the attack that it ceased to be Russia’s second city. Most of what remained of its population fled the ruins for a better life elsewhere. It would take centuries for Novgorod to fully recover from the attack, and it would never again be a rival to Moscow. Novgorod was just one of many examples of Ivan’s merciless approach to conquest. He was very much 'a sack the city and kill everyone in it' kind of man throughout the long years of his brutal rule.

Nobody, not even his own family, was safe from Ivan the Terrible.

The massacre of Novgorod proved to be the last moment in the sun for the hated Oprichniki. Ivan’s crushing paranoia had already led him to begin to suspect its leaders of conspiring against him before the sacking of the city, and an attack on Moscow by the Tartars that the Oprichniki failed to repel convinced Ivan that they were not as loyal as they professed to be. The organisation was disbanded and many of its leaders were executed in 1571. The Oprichnina region itself was abolished in 1572, after which it became an offence punishable by death even to mention the word.

Ivan’s constant warmongering, brutalising of his own population, attacks on the clergy, nobility and middle classes, torturing and executing of anyone he felt was against him and raiding of the nation’s wealth eventually brought the Russian economy to its knees, and things did not improve as Ivan aged and his mental health deteriorated even further. One of the last brutal acts of his reign occurred in 1581 when, upon encountering his heavily pregnant daughter-in-law in a state of undress, he beat her so severely that she miscarried. On hearing the news of the loss of his unborn child, Ivan’s second son confronted his father. Ivan, who always carried a sharpened baton around which he used to to beat anyone who displeased him, hit his son over the head so hard that he collapsed and died several days later. Nobody, not even his own family, was safe from Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan died from a stroke while playing chess with a close friend in 1584 at the age of fifty-three. His kingdom passed to his middle son, a feeble-minded fool called Feodor who died childless in 1598, plunging Russia into a period of lawlessness and anarchy that came to be known as the ‘Time of Troubles’.

From butchering his subjects to slaughtering the citizens of the towns and cities he conquered to the killing of his own son, Ivan was terrible in both the old and new definition of the word. He had started as a reasonable ruler, but his escalating paranoia and the deterioration of his mental health from 1558 onwards turned him into a monstrous tyrant who left death, destruction and economic ruin in his wake. Yes, Ivan the Terrible truly was as terrible as his nickname suggests.

Ivan the Terrible
A monument to Ivan the Terrible, Oryol, 2016 Editorial credit: yingko /

6 facts about Ivan the Terrible

As we’ve seen, Ivan the Terrible more than lived up to his moniker. But did you know he was also a dab hand at music and poetry? Let’s delve into some fascinating facts about the man who set the template for every brutal dictator in the modern world.

1. He was the first tsar

Ivan the Terrible was the first Russian leader to be officially proclaimed and crowned ‘tsar’. The word itself derived from the Latin word ‘caesar’, and so carried with it the resonance of ancient power. This was a massive step up from the traditional title of ‘Grand Prince’ and signalled Ivan’s intention to be regarded as the supreme overlord of his nation.

He took his cue from his grandfather Ivan III, who had a fondness for unofficially referring to himself as ‘tsar’ in his letters to other monarchs. However, while this earlier Ivan was content to remain a mere Grand Prince during his reign, Ivan the Terrible would not be so modest.

2. His mother was probably murdered

Having lost his father, Vasili III, aged just three, Ivan was left an orphan when his mother Elena died five years later. But was her passing due to natural causes, or had something more sinister been afoot?

Elena had assumed power following her husband’s death and she was no mere placeholder for her young son. She carried out reforms, became active in diplomatic affairs and ordered the construction of a new defensive wall around Moscow.

This all ended abruptly with her untimely death in her late 20s and many believe she was poisoned by the power-hungry Shuisky family. Chemical testing carried out on her remains in 2006 indicated that she very likely had been murdered in such a way.

3. He had many, many wives

Ivan the Terrible’s appetite for wives probably exceeded even that of Henry VIII. He married six women, of which four were officially recognised by the church. On top of that, it’s long been speculated that he married two more, bringing the overall tally to eight.

He was deeply in love with his first wife, Anastasia. It’s generally believed her death robbed him of a moderating influence and put him on the path to the atrocities he’s known for. Like Ivan’s mother, Anastasia may well have been the victim of poisoning, a fate that also seems to have befallen wives two and three as well. As with Henry VIII, being married to Ivan was a dangerous career path.

4. He wanted to marry Elizabeth I

Terrible he may have been to his enemies, but Ivan had warm and cordial relations with England. He helped to forge trading links between England and Russia and even expressed an interest in marrying Elizabeth I – despite her famed reluctance to tie the knot with anybody, no matter how lofty in status.

The English diplomat Sir Jerome Horsey noted that Ivan was ‘disheartened that many kings and great princes that had been suitors to Her Majesty could not prevail, yet he magnified himself, his person, his wisdom, greatness and riches, above all other princes.’

Ivan was partly motivated by paranoia over his position in Russia and the ever-present possibility that he would be toppled by enemies. With Elizabeth as his wife, he’d always have the option of escaping to England if things got hairy.

This of course didn’t come to pass and Ivan’s irritation with the queen’s cool manner led to him penning a spectacularly rude letter to Elizabeth, complaining about the petty, greedy behaviour of his merchants and referring to the queen herself as a ‘maid’.

5. He was a composer and poet

Just as Hitler had a passion for painting, Joseph Stalin was a serious poet and Saddam Hussein was a prolific novelist, Ivan the Terrible also had artistic inclinations. As well as writing poetry, he composed a hymn for the Orthodox Church. In fact, the very first CD to be produced in the Soviet Union was an album of music based on Ivan’s writings.

Ivan also influenced the cultural evolution of his country by establishing Russia’s very first publishing house, known as Moscow Print Yard, in 1553. While this was considered a huge step forward for the cause of enlightening the people of Russia, there was some violent opposition from church leaders and scribes responsible for writing manuscripts by hand.

Arson attacks were even carried out on the publishing house, with an English diplomat visiting Russia at the time writing that they were against educating the masses ‘as if fearing to have their ignorance and ungodliness discovered’.

6. He ran his secret police like a cult

Ivan the Terrible has the dubious distinction of developing one of the world’s first secret police organisations, the Oprichniki. These terrifying operatives were the ancestors of the likes of the Gestapo, the Cheka and the Stasi, deployed by Ivan to maintain the absolute power of his regime and sniff out dissenters.

One thing that set the Oprichniki apart from more contemporary secret police organisations was that a core contingent was selected to become a quasi-religious order, almost like a brotherhood of knights. They lived in a castle with the tsar himself, praying and eating together.

Perhaps the closest modern equivalent would be Heinrich Himmler’s vision of the Nazi SS as a religious organisation centred on Wewelsburg Castle in Germany.

If you enjoyed reading about Ivan the Terrible, why not read about some other truly terrible Tsars?