Ivan The Terrible: The Russian Despot Who Deserved His Nickname

Published June 13, 2015
Updated October 30, 2018

After being beaten and held in captivity during his formative years, Russia's Ivan the Terrible had the last laugh.

Ivan The Terrible Portrait

Wikimedia CommonsNobody knows what Ivan the Terrible really looked like, but artists throughout history have made him their subject, as this anonymous Russian artist has done.

When you spend your formative years locked in closets, work your way through eight wives as an adult, and go down in history as [Your Name] the Terrible, it’s fair to say you’ve had quite a run.

Ivan the Terrible ruled from 1547 until his death in 1584, and he can be thought of as the George Washington of Russia — that is, if instead of chopping down a cherry tree, George Washington had killed his own son by hurling him against a wall in one of his trademark psychotic rages.

To be clear, Ivan Vasilyevich didn’t live in an English-speaking country, so his title – Grozny – had to be translated, and “terrible” is the closest thing to the original meaning. In Russian, however, especially 16th-century Russian, Grozny doesn’t mean “bad” or even “evil.” A more accurate translation would be “scary as hell.” In that sense, Ivan the Terrible absolutely earned every letter of his title.

The Principalities

Russian War

Wikimedia CommonsIvan the Terrible made sure his reign was bloody and violent — but curiously, the peasantry always stood behind him.

Ivan the Terrible was born to Basil, the Prince of Muscovy, in 1530. In those days, what we now call Russia was a patchwork quilt of duchies and principalities, every one of them running its own live-action Game of Thrones performance. The duty of a “prince” was mainly to collect taxes for Russia’s Mongol overlords, who ruled through violence and brutality.

Given this power structure, it’s not surprising that Russia’s nobility, known as the boyars, was more interested in looting the peasants and throttling each other than in working together to push out the declining Mongol Empire.

Because everyone who tried to do that wound up rolled in a carpet and trampled to death by ponies, it was just safer for the dukes and other gangsters to line their pockets and protect the status quo.

In the early 1500s, there was no indication that that world was about to be blown to flinders, and even less that scrawny little Ivan the Terrible was going to be the one to do it, especially after the three-year-old Ivan’s father died in 1533.

A Childhood Of Captivity And Torture

Ivan The Terrible Illustration

Deviant ArtIvan the Terrible and his bloody reign continue to inspire artists today.

After his father’s death, Ivan was officially the Prince of Muscovy. Somewhat less officially, he was at the mercy of the local aristocracy. These men needed the cover that having a prince provided to preserve the formality of local rule, but they certainly weren’t going to let Ivan grow up into some kind of leader.

Which is why, instead of seeing to his education and preparing him for the burden of the throne, they locked him in confined spaces for days at a time and beat him mercilessly with little or no provocation.

On good days, young Ivan the Terrible was restricted to the palace grounds, usually his mother’s bedchamber, until boyars of the Shuisky and Belsky clans poisoned her when Ivan was eight.

Physically weak due to malnutrition, all alone, and probably terrified out of his mind, Ivan knew his only hope was to cultivate friends among the boyars. It was probably those friends who arranged for Ivan to be crowned “Tsar of All the Russias” in 1547, when Ivan was just 16 years old.

Gradually, Ivan’s freedom of movement increased, and he started making alliances among the nobility. Very slowly, he began to consolidate his power.

Hard Times For 16th-Century Russia

Ivan The Terrible War Crimes

Latvian HistoryIvan the Terrible ordered his soldiers to use women for target practice.

The state of Ivan’s realm makes you wonder why he would even bother. Still suffering under the Mongol yoke, Russia spent the 1550s dealing with drought (and the resulting famine), Tartar invasions, war with Lithuania (which was a bigger deal back then than it would be now), domestic disturbances, and a trade embargo organized by Poland and Sweden (which was also a much bigger deal back then).

To top things off, Ivan’s first wife was (probably) poisoned in 1560, sending him into a spiral of depression. With an infallible sense of timing, Prince Andrei Kurbsky chose this moment to defect to the Lithuanians, taking with him a fair-sized chunk of Ivan’s army, and started laying waste to Russian territories in the northwest.

Ivan responded to these problems in what strikes a modern person as the only sane way — he quit. In 1564, Ivan retired to his country estate and sent off a couple of public letters announcing his abdication and blaming the boyars for all of Russia’s misfortunes.

The letters are written in an archaic style, but the message was, basically, “You’re on your own, Russia. Hope you like not having a Tsar.”

Ivan The Terrible Painting

Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov/Wikimedia CommonsAn 1897 imagining of Ivan the Terrible.

In retrospect, the abdication seems like a cunning political gambit. By the time he quit, Ivan the Terrible had spent over a decade accumulating power, to the point that the government didn’t work without him.

His high-profile flounce was probably calculated to inflame the peasantry, among whom he was popular, to pressure the boyars into surrender. In any event, he certainly had his terms ready when the nobles came crawling back to him.


Russian Execution

Kyrgyz National Museum of Fine Arts Gapara Aitieva/Wikimedia CommonsNikolai Nevrev’s 1870 depiction of court life under Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan the Terrible played at being reluctant to come back, but eventually, he relented… for a price.

First, he must be granted absolute power over life and death among the boyars, who you’ll remember were the people who locked him in a closet and poisoned his mom. He also demanded control of the military, sole authority over the treasury, and the power to administer the courts himself. The desperate nobles agreed, and Ivan immediately gave them cause to regret it.

Now with unchecked power, he first set up the Oprichniki, which was a kind of 16th-century SS, whose members dressed in black, arrested real and perceived enemies of the tsar, and rode around with severed pigs’ heads on their saddles.

Oprichniki were granted total immunity from all laws, a custom that persists in Russia today, where many members of the government are also immune to legal prosecution.

Vladimir Putin

Wikimedia CommonsFor many, Vladimir Putin’s modern rule echoes the authoritarian legacy of Ivan the Terrible.

Second, Ivan seized the estates of accused traitors and started killing, torturing, exiling, forcibly retiring, and otherwise ending everybody who had ever been mean to him, and sometimes their kids and grandkids, too, just in case.

Fearing that Novgorod might defect to the Lithuanians, Ivan sent the Oprichniki to teach everybody a lesson. Nobody really knows how many people were killed by the 1570 raid, as it happened when the city was already suffering from an epidemic, but it was certainly in the thousands.

Two years later, having used the Oprichniki to break domestic opposition, Ivan disposed of his army of murderers by throwing them against the Lithuanians and letting them get slaughtered. Ivan the Terrible then had the few survivors locked up and/or executed after the battle.

Ivan The Terrible And The Arts

St Basil's Cathedral

Anita Mishra/Wikimedia CommonsSt. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow.

Despite his deservedly brutal reputation, Ivan The Terrible was also a dedicated supporter of the arts, and he used his power to commission the construction of the Moscow Print Yard, which introduced the first printing press to the country in 1553.

The print yard initially focused exclusively on religious texts, then broadened its scope to include historical manuals. Setbacks occurred when the press was burned to the ground by a group of angry scribes who felt their livelihoods were being jeopardized. But before long, things got back on track and the Moscow Print Yard became a fully functioning printing house once again.

Ivan the Terrible was also responsible for some of Moscow’s most iconic architecture. He commissioned the beautiful St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of the most recognizable and beautiful architectural achievements in Moscow.

The story goes that Ivan was so impressed with his architect’s work that he ordered that he and all of his workers be blinded, so they could never create anything as beautiful ever again.

Fortunately, historians have mostly decided that this legend is apocryphal, since Ivan appears to have hired the same man to construct further architectural wonders.

Ivan himself was also a poet and a remarkably talented composer, as evidenced by his Orthodox liturgical hymn “Stichiron No. 1 in Honor of St. Peter.”

Ivan The Terrible’s Terrible End

For the remaining 12 years of his reign, Ivan the Terrible seemed intent on terrorizing all 1.5 million square miles of his territory. He led a war, on top of the other war he was already fighting, against the lingering Khanates, breaking the Tartars for good. He reorganized the Church with himself as its head. He broke the bureaucracy and rebuilt it to his liking, and he did all this while increasingly lapsing into violent rages.

During one such rage, Ivan beat his pregnant daughter-in-law hard enough to cause a miscarriage, apparently because he didn’t like the way she was dressed.

The aggrieved father, Ivan’s son Ivan, confronted his father. During the argument, Ivan (father) either grabbed Ivan (son) and threw him against a wall or hit him in the head with a stick. Either way, the blow was hard enough to kill him.

Young Ivan’s death has been a controversial subject in recent years as some Russian nationalists have sought to cast Ivan the Terrible in a gentler light and revise his violent history. It’s hard, however, to dispute the evidence.

Ivan's Death

Wikimedia CommonsIlya Repin’s 1885 depiction of the death of Ivan, son of Ivan the Terrible, at his father’s hands.

Ivan the Terrible died of a stroke, possibly rage-induced, during a friendly chess game in 1584. Seeing as how he had killed his heir two years earlier, the crown was passed to Ivan’s mentally disabled son Feodor.

Feodor presided over the general decline of his father’s empire and died in 1598. The period that followed Feodor’s death is known as “The Time of Troubles.” When Russians who lived through Ivan the Terrible’s reign call an era “The Time of Troubles,” you know which coordinates to avoid in your time machine.

Now that you know about Ivan the Terrible, take a look at these stunning color photographs of Imperial Russia. Then, read about Russian history’s favorite villain, Rasputin.

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