The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible

CULTURE | December 28, 2019

Ivan the Terrible killing his son; painting by Ilya Repin. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

In terms of historic notoriety, few have the equal of Ivan IV, also called Ivan Groznyi, meaning Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was the first of the Tsars of Russia who set an autocratic pattern that would be followed for centuries.

The Grand Duchy of Muscovy. Source: (Wikipedia)

A Dysfunctional Childhood

The future Tsar was born as Ivan Vasilievich on August 25, 1530, near Moscow. The Prince was the son of Vasilii III the Grand Duke of Muscovy. Vasilii died by the time Ivan was three, leaving his wife, Ivan’s mother Elena Glinskaya in control of the throne. Elena, however, proved ineffective in the face of the powerful aristocrats, the boyars of Muscovy. When Ivan was seven, his mother died — likely by poisoning.

Ivan and his younger brother Yuri were at the mercy of the boyars who manipulated the young princes for their own ends. Sources tell how the princes routinely witnessed violence, intrigue, backstabbing, and murder. They were essentially captives of their own court. Reduced to poverty and near starvation, they were paraded out in public view only when it was of the interest of one of the vying boyar families. This abuse marked itself well on Ivan who was reported to have tortured birds and animals as a boy.

Early 17th century image of Ivan the Terrible. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Seizing Power

By 1543, the Shuisky boyar clan had gained control of the palace and thus the brothers. The head of the family, Prince Andrew Shuisky was particularly brutal, and Ivan loathed him. Finally, on December 29, 1543, Ivan in a power play had him arrested by a group of his huntsmen. He had the boyar thrown into an enclosure filled with starved hunting dogs. They devoured Shuisky.

With the control of the boyars broken, Ivan came into his own. He was clearly intelligent, well-read, and devoted religiously. He looked to develop Muscovy in a way that would bring on par with other states during the Renaissance in the arts and literature.

A 19th Century painting of Ivan the Terrible. Source: (Wikipedia)


At the same time, Ivan was also exceedingly violent. Stories abound of him throwing cats and dogs from the walls of the Kremlin for pleasure. There are accounts of the young monarch riding with horsemen near the palace raping, robbing, and torturing at will. Much of this was driven by excessive drunkenness. Throughout his life, these incidents of drunken rage would be countered by brief respites of confession and penance. 

Monomakh's Cap in the foreground and Kazan Cap in the background. Source: (Wikipedia)

A Tsar is Born

On January 16, 1547, Ivan took the title of Tsar (or Czar) of the Russians. The title of Tsar is derived from the Imperial Roman title of Caesar and is meant to connote “emperor.” Ivan saw himself and Russia as the inheritor of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire that fell in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. This was bolstered by being the only strong state that followed Orthodox Christianity. To solidify this lofty claim the new Tsar was coronated with the Monomakh's Cap, or Golden Cap, which was supposedly sent to Kiev by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX. This story is probably legendary with the cap’s origins being from the Mogolian Golden Horde which had controlled Kievan Rus from the 13th to 15th centuries.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Ivan set about cementing his rule by working to reduce the power of the boyars and reforming the Orthodox Church. He in effect centralized power into his own hands. Meanwhile, the Tsar set about an ambitious campaign of conquest from the Baltic to the Volga River. During his reign, he subdued the khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia.  In commemoration of his conquests of Kazan and Astrakhan, he ordered the building of the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral.

Anastasia Romanova. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Death and Power

Shortly after Ivan’s coronation, he married Anastasia Romanova who he selected out of up to 1,500 potential brides. She bore him six children. In 1560, the Tsaritsa fell ill and died. Ivan suspected she was poisoned by the boyars and a 2001 study did find evidence as such. The Tsar, filled with grief-fueled rage, became further committed to reducing the power of the boyars who had been his principal adversary since childhood. In a moment of madness or shrewdness, he abdicated in December 1564 unless he was granted autocratic powers. The public cried for the Tsar’s return and the aristocracy knew that to remove Ivan from power would result in the chaos of civil war. The ploy worked. 

Oprichniki, painting by Nikolai Nevrev. This depicts Ivan IV about to execute a boyar whom he forced to wear royal regalia. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Terror

Meanwhile, Ivan created the Oprichniki which was a small corps that policed areas of Russia which were under the personal control of the Tsar. This amounted to up to one half of Muscovy. The Oprichniki looked terrifying in their black robes riding on black horses. Their symbols were a dog’s head and broom representing dogs snapping at the heels of their enemies and brooms to sweep away traitors. They answered only to the Tsar and tortured, mutilated, and executed at will. Ivan’s brutal tactics continued until late in his reign. Upon suspicion of treason he had all the citizens of the towns of Novgorod and Pskov tortured and executed in 1570.

Tsar Ivan’s personal life was no less tumultuous. Since the death of Anastasia, he married seven more times, although that number is debated. None of them ended happily. Some were probably poisoned, three were sent to nunneries, another murdered, and another executed for infidelity. It has been reported that Ivan even proposed to Elizabeth I of England.

Ivan the Terrible, with the body of his son, whom he had murdered (1860s), by Nikolay Shustov. Source: (Wikipedia)

Ivan’s Worst Deed

Of all of Ivan’s violent deeds, perhaps the most notorious is the death of his second eldest son, Ivan Ivanovich, the Heir Apparent. In 1581, the Tsar disliked the dress his son’s wife was wearing and assaulted her. Ivan Ivanovich was forced to come to her aid. In the ensuing melee, the Tsar bashed his son on the head with his iron-tipped scepter which he employed in punishments. The Tsar, realizing what had happened immediately was filled with grief and tried to stop the bleeding. However, his son died days later. The Tsar himself would die of a stroke in March of 1584. Without a properly trained heir, Ivan was succeeded by his ineffective son, Feodor. Upon Feodor’s death in 1598, Russia would enter a chaotic period known as the Time of Troubles.

Ivan the Terrible and souls of his victims, by Mikhail Clodt. Source: (Wikipedia)

It is little wonder that Ivan earned the moniker the “Terrible.” Terrible for Ivan is defined in the traditional sense: Powerful and dangerous. It makes sense that the Communist dictator and strongman Joseph Stalin looked with admiration upon Ivan IV and identified with him. Quite the historic endorsement. But some have speculated that the Tsar was mentally ill. When considering Ivan the Terrible’s childhood and upbringing, it is no great surprise.

Tags: Ivan The Terrible | The First Tsar

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