Ivan the Terrible

There’s a lot that’s been said about Ivan the Terrible. He was insane, tyrannical, a reformist, even humanitarian. His history is as turbulent as his reputation and is a fascinating case study in both a historical and psychological context.

Prior to Ivan’s reign, Russia had been undergoing a unifying movement that threatened aristocracies, namely the boyars, which Ivan the Terrible would come to contend with throughout his reign.  Ivan was born in 1530 to Basil the third and Elena Glinskaya. He was made Grand Duke of Moscow at the age of three, following his Father’s death. His Mother was to act as regent until he came of age was killed (possibly poisoned by the boyars) when Ivan eight. He was left with his deaf and dumb younger brother Yuri to the mercy of the new reagents – the boyars who disposed of their care givers and neglected them. He escaped with the help of his religious tutors. It has been said that already, Ivan began to exhibit mental disorder and a tendency towards sadism.

It became clear to Ivan that his future hinged upon the dissolution of the Boyars. At the age of thirteen, he established his authority by sentencing Andrei Shuinsky, a boyar leader to death. He was thrown to a pack of hungry dogs.

Ivan was profoundly religious, as Moscow was the most Christain Eastern territory of Russia at the time. The cleric led Ivan to believe that he was the last descendant of the Roman’s Caesars, which is why he was crowned as the first Tsar, derived from Caesar. He claimed to be not only prince of Moscow but of the whole of the Russian Empire, declaring that Moscow would be the third Rome.  Ivan was married two weeks into his reign to a mild mannered woman named Anastasia Romanova. She apparently had a calming effect on him. She had three children by Ivan: Dmitri who died in childhood, Ivan who would live to adulthood but die young, and Feodor who may have had congenital syphilis and would grow into a simple man with no interest or aptitude for politics.

One of the reformist practices Ivan put into place was allowing free speech and establishment of the ‘Rada’ a private council heavily influenced by religious mentors. He was successful in the regard, in that he was able to centralize administration and modernize legislation while allowing the public access to government. He also created sort of a Royal Army – units of guards loyal to the Tsar. This was mainly to push out the Boyars and their reduce their influence on the country.

The death of Anastasia weighed heavily on Ivan and caused him to spiral downhill and his religiousness took a fanatical turn. He suspected the Boyars of poisoning his wife, as they did his mother and he began a campaign to eradicate anyone he thought might have been involved. This was followed by the death of his brother and mentor Macarius who was the head of the Orthodox Church.  A year later, Prince Andrei Kurbsky, who was one of Ivan’s main advisors and a hero of the war against the Tartars defected to the Polish-Lithuanian side, in response to Ivan’s erratic, and increasingly dangerous behaviour.

Ivan briefly threatened to abdicate in the middle of an attack instigated by Kurbsky. He moved, with his family and treasures to Alexandrovskaya, 120 km from Moscow. Fearing social upheaval and Polish invasion, the population and the Boyars urged to come back to which he agreed, upon the condition of absolute power and ability to punish anyone he believed to be disloyal.

Ivan’s return caused a rift in the population – those who sided with the Old administration in which Boyars had power, and the ‘oprichina’ or ‘separate’ who were for the new system under Ivan. Ivan had absolute power in those regions, allowing to establish a sort of military police called the ‘oprichnik’.  They implemented the ‘punish anyone believed to be disloyal’ end of Ivan’s plans and were reportedly unforgiving enough to prevent feudalism The oprichnik was abolished by Ivan himself as he suspected them of cooperating with the Polish and Lithuanians.

This kind behaviour was reflected in Ivan’s personal life. He apparently had eight wives, the first of which was killed, the second he poisoned, the third was ‘found dead’, the next three wound up in convents, the seventh was asphyxiated and his eighth and last wife survived.

One of the most famous incidents of Ivan’s life is the death of his son, Ivan. What apparently happened was that Ivan the Terrible found his pregnant daughter in law’s cloths inappropriate, lighter than usual. He beat her, causing her to miscarriage. When confronted by his son Ivan, he grew more enraged, escalating into violence – he struck his son in the head with a metal staff and killed him.

Ivan the Terrible himself died in the middle of a chess match in March 1584. He was succeeded by his youngest son, Feodor who left no children and who’s death brought an end to the Rurik dynasty.

Posted by Rina Tse

Hi! I'm Rina, I'll be interning at Liden and Denz, St Petersburg. I am currently on summer break from University in Canada. Join me in my endeavours around town!

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