Biographies Russian Rulers Rurikid Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible

Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible painted by Victor Vasnetsov
Born: 1530, Kolomenskoe
Died: 1584, Moscow

Ivan IV was the first child and first son of Basil III and Elena Glinska. He was born on 25 August 1530 in the village of Kolomenskoe near Moscow. When he was three, his father died and was succeeded by his mother. Elena Glinska was an energetic and ambitious woman who concentrated power in her own hands. Her reign was a long line of palace intrigues, power struggles and violence – all witnessed by the young prince.

Elena suddenly died at the age of thirty-five in 1538, inspiring rumours that she had been poisoned. Ivan was orphaned and Russia entered a period of “boyar rule,” with different clans fighting for power and murdering their rivals. Surrounded by intrigues and bloody reprisals, the young boy grew suspicious, sadistic and revengeful. At the age of thirteen, he set a pack of dogs on Prince Andrei Shuisky and enjoyed torturing people. In his later letters to Prince Kurbsky, the tsar recalls his childhood as a time of insults and humiliations.

Ivan spent much of his childhood in the libraries of the tsar and metropolitan, reading books on autocratic power. On 16 January 1547, he received the chance to put this knowledge into practice when he was crowned at the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. During the ceremony, Metropolitan Macarius handed him the attributes of supreme power – the cross, regalia collar and cap of Monomachus. After taking the holy sacrament, Ivan was anointed with myrrh. In 1561, he was officially recognised as “tsar” by the patriarch of Constantinople and Moscow became the successor to the Byzantine capital or the “Third Rome.”

Two weeks after his coronation, Ivan IV married Anastasia, the daughter of Roman Zakharin-Yuriev. Now officially confirmed as the sovereign, he began to rule the country. Ivan had all the qualities needed to be a good tsar. He had a shrewd mind and an excellent grasp of politics and diplomacy. His hot temper and despotic nature, however, earned him the epithet of “terrible.”

Ivan initially relied on the help of a “select assembly,” consisting of Alexei Adashev, Prince Andrei Kurbsky, Metropolitan Macarius and Father Sylvester. He also convened the Land Assembly (Zemsky sobor), which included representatives of all classes. The tsar sought to centralise the government and to limit the power of the duma of boyars.

In the early 1560s, Ivan dissolved the select assembly and persecuted the former members. In 1565, he introduced a form of dictatorship known as the oprichnina – a state within a state under his own personal control. This personal fiefdom was ruled by the oprichniki – an elite corps of lifeguards who wore black robes similar to monks’ habits. They tied dogs’ heads and brooms to their saddles, symbolising their intention of brushing or tearing away their enemies.

Ivan’s reign of terror was a period of executions, plots and open gangsterism. In 1570, the oprichniki murdered almost the entire population of Novgorod, including all the infants. The total number of victims was more than fifteen thousand people.

Led by a man called Grigory (Malyuta) Skuratov-Belsky, the only strength of the oprichniki was their ability to terrorise the local population. They were unable to repel foreign invasions and in 1571 the suburbs of Moscow were burnt by the Crimean khan, Devlet-Girei. The oprichnina was eventually dissolved in 1572.

Although chiefly known as a tyrant, Ivan IV was one of the best educated men of his time. He had an excellent memory and a good knowledge of theology. Besides his letters to Prince Kurbsky, he also composed music, the text of the church service in honour of Our Lady of Vladimir and the canon to the Archangel Michael. He printed the first Russian books in Moscow and built St Basil’s Church on Red Square.

Ivan the Terrible had at least eight wives – Anastasia Zakharina-Yurieva, Maria Temryukovna, Martha Sobakina, Anna Koltovskaya, Maria Dolgorukaya, Anna Vasilchikova, Vasilisa Melentieva and Maria Nagaya. When he wanted to marry for the fourth time, the Russian Orthodox Church reminded him that a man was not allowed to have more than three wives. The tsar simply disregarded the church laws, forcing the church council to grant him permission or entering into common-law marriages.

In 1567, Ivan wrote to Queen Elizabeth of England suggesting they sign a military alliance. He also proposed that they marry and offer each other political asylum in the event that any of them was overthrown. When Elizabeth only offered asylum, Ivan took away all privileges of English merchants in Russia in 1569 and upbraided the Queen for putting other interests above “our highnes affairs.”

When Elizabeth would still not agree to marry Ivan, he wrote her a rude letter in 1571, claiming that she was no autocrat, but a “vulgar maiden.” She replied that “We Ourselves take care of Our affairs as is appropriate for a virgin and a Queen.” The queen invited him to England for a personal meeting “with his loving sister,” so that she could show him that her land was “a second Russia.”

Ivan IV continued his attempts to marry an English lady of royal blood. In 1581, his choice fell on Lady Mary Hastings, sister of the Earl of Huntingdon and a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth. The following year, he sent an ambassador to England to inspect Mary and negotiate the rights of any children to the Russian throne. But Mary had no wish to marry the fifty-two year-old tsar, even though her friends had already began to call her the “empress of Muscovy.”

Rejected for the second time, Ivan announced that he would go to England himself and find a bride. Soon after that, in 1583, he began to suffer from a strange disease – a rotting of his internal organs. The illness spread and he allegedly died while playing a game of chess with the English ambassador, Sir Jerome Horsey, on 18 March 1584.

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