Was Ivan The Terrible Really As Terrible As His Legacy Suggests?

Published February 23, 2018
Updated October 15, 2018

Ivan the Terrible was given a terrible reputation, but was he really as bad as history made him out to be?

Ivan The Terrible

Wikimedia CommonsIvan the Terrible

Like many ancient leaders of Eastern Europe, Ivan the Terrible was known by his name, and a descriptor – in his case, “terrible.” However, was Ivan really as terrible as his name suggests?

Sure he ravaged villages and had a hell of a temper, but there is evidence that he contributed greatly to the cultural heritage of Russia. But, was his advancement of culture a move for his people, or a product of his unrelenting greed?

Ivan took the throne in January of 1547, amid the Great Fire of 1547. Despite the repercussions, Ivan actually introduced peace and military reform. He revised the law code, allowing for the first Russian parliament to begin. He also organized the first Russian police force, known as the Oprichniki, and the Streltsy, the first standing army of Russia.

His most notable contribution to the arts came when established the Moscow Print Yard, which introduced the first printing press to the country. The print yard began publishing religious texts at first, and later historical manuals. Though it went through a minor set back, after being burned down in protest two years after its inception, it eventually became a fully functioning printing house once again.

St. Basils Cathedral

Wikimedia CommonsThe recognizable onion-shaped spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

In 1552, Ivan the Terrible ended the Russo-Kazan wars by invading and seizing Kazan. The reasoning behind the seizure was split, as there were some who believed that the Kazan’s did not deserve to be invaded, and there were some who agreed that the war needed to be ended. In the end, the bloody battle did end the war, though with great detriment to the Kazan’s.

To commemorate the battle, however, Ivan the Terrible commissioned St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of the most recognizable and beautiful architectural achievements in Moscow. Ivan was so impressed with his architect’s work, that he ordered him and all of his workers be blinded, so they could never create anything as beautiful ever again – a prime example of his cultural advancement entwining with his greed.

Soon after he was named Czar of Russia, the first leader to be called a Tsar over a grand prince. Upon becoming the Tsar, his power reached its heights. He began invading and conquering all nearby villages, gaining followers and critics nationwide. He would reward his followers with land taken from those who disobeyed him and plunder villages who disagreed with his policies.

Ivan The Terrible After His Son's Death

Wikimedia CommonsA painting depicting Ivan the Terrible after his son’s death.

His rage eventually consumed his mind, and his outlets became far and few between. Though his marriage to his first wife, Anastasia Romanov was allegedly a happy one, her death was detrimental to his spirit. His son from the marriage, Ivan, was the heir apparent, in line to assume the throne upon his father’s death, until Ivan the Terrible went into a fit of rage and beat him to death.

Though his rage, his greed, and his terror were felt by all, it’s worth noting that he contributed greatly to the arts, writing literature, and poetry and composing music. He enjoyed chess, and artistic expression, and even died while playing a game of chess with Bogdan Belsky.

His reign was handed over to his nephew, Feodor, though the Russia that he was left with was not a happy one. Ivan the Terrible’s reign had proven to be tumultuous to his people, and it would be centuries before the terror left behind would be quelled.


After learning about Ivan the Terrible, take a look at these stunning color photos of Imperial Russia. Then, read about Russian history’s favorite villain, Rasputin.

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