Absolute Terror:  Ivan the Terrible
(And You Thought Your Nickname Was Bad. . .)
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources



Ivan the IV, or Ivan the Terrible, was tsar of Russia from 1530-1584 and established a tradition of absolute rule. After a childhood of abuse and repression he destroyed his rivals and claimed the throne of Tsardom. He beat back the last of the Mongols, provided some large territotial expansion, and centralized the bureacracy. At the same time his blood thristy habits and cruel personality have made him infamous in history's annals as a lunatic ruler whom even his own people called "Terrible."

Historical Background

 In the 1500's while the rest of western Europe was revealing in the glories of the Renaissance, Russia was still struggling to establish its own identity after just emerging from the Mongol yoke in 1480. The princes of Muscovy had traditionally been tax collectors for the Mongols and it was not until Ivan the I managed to amass a large personal fortune and conquer surrounding rivals, furthering his power and gaining the trust of the Mongols, that any single ruler began to emerge in Russia. In 1480, Ivan the III managed to buy up all the surrounding territory around Moscow and proclaim himself tsar and not subject to Mongol rule

Research Report

Ivan IV Vasilyevich (1530-1584), was the first of two children of Basil III and Elena Glinskaya. Ivan came into the world on August 25, 1530. Nearly a year after this Ivan's father died when he was only three. Basil had died due to a small, little pimple on his thigh that had developed into a deadly sore. Basil requested at his deathbed that his son Ivan would become the ruler of Russia when he became a man at age 15. Once Basil died the boyars took over Russia, denying Ivan's right to the throne. Ivan's mother then with other trusted boyars took over the ruling party. Elena was able to successfully rule Russia for four years, until she died suddenly in 1538, apparently from poisoning, leaving eight-year-old Ivan an orphan.

Through all this Ivan had remained isolated, Ivan's brutal behavior later on in life is testimony to his never having forgotten nor forgiven the childhood indignities he had suffered. The boyars would only pay attention to him when his presence was required at a ceremony. As the rivalry in the Palace for the power of Russia escalated into a bloody feud, Ivan witnessed horrible things. Living in poverty he watched and heard murders, beatings, and verbal and physical abuse regularly. The boyars alternately neglected or molested him; Ivan and his deaf-mute brother Yuri often went about hungry and threadbare. Incapable to strike at his tormentors, Ivan took out his terrible frustrations on defenseless animals, He tore feathers off birds, pierced their eyes and slit open their bodies.

On December 29, 1543 Ivan surprised his boyars by calling them to a meeting. He condemned them for their neglect of him and the nation, and denounced them for their misconduct. Prince Andrew Shuiksy, the leader of the boyars was thrown to a pack of hungry hunting dogs as an example to the others. After this the boyars conceded that their rule had ended and that Ivan had complete power. On Sunday, January 16, 1547, Ivan was crowned czar in Moscow's lavish Cathedral of the Assumption. Ivan soon married Anastasia Romanovna-Zakharyina-Yurueva. Anastasia bore him six children of whom only two survived infancy.

At times Ivan was very devote; he used to throw himself before the icons, banging his head against the floor. It resulted in a callosity at his forehead. Once Ivan even did a public confession of his sins in Moscow.

During the beginning of Ivan's reign, the administrative functions of the government were handled by two brothers of Ivan's mother, Prince Yuri Glinsky and Prince Mikhail Glinsky abused their position in the government, mistreating the boyars and the citizens. Ivan vowed to no longer leave administration duties in the hands of others.

From 1547 to 1560 Ivan is believed to have governed with the aid of a talented group of advisers dubbed the Chosen Council. It is unknown who wielded more power, Ivan or the council. In 1550, Ivan announced a reformed code of laws and a new system for justice, the Sudebnik. Criminal acts now were clearly defined, and punishments were prescribed for each. In addition, judges who were appointed by Moscow, would share their benches with representatives elected by local populations, in an effort to curb the practice of corrupt judges that sold justice to those who could afford it. Now magistrates would, at least in theory, enforce the laws equally, without discrimination against persons of low status. The central Moscow government also became more professional through a division of labor responsibilities. The Foreign Office was established, as was the Bureau of Criminal Affairs, the Land Office, and the Office of Military Affairs. Local officials were appointed to oversee the rebuilding of Muscovy's fortresses and then given other assignments. In the 1530s local police officials were appointed to try to stamp out crime, which was rampant during the disorder of Ivan's early years.

In June 1552 Ivan led his newly formed army of 100,000 troops down the Volga toward Kazan, the fortified capital of khanate. Ivan besieged the Tartar stronghold in late August and waited for its surrender. After Ivan's victory over Kazan he received, from his troops, the second part of his name that still remains today. This name that he received is Grozny, which has been taken to mean "the terrible" or "the dread," but most accurately translated as "the awesome."

Ivan's victories over Kazan and Astrakhan extended the Russian nation to the Caspian Sea in the south and to the Ural Mountains in the east, adding nearly 1,000,000 square kilometers to Ivan's realm.

When Moscow needed revenue to invade Kazan, Ivan planned to sell what was left of provincial administration to the locals. This was so successful that the sale of provincial civil administration was completed in 1556 to raise funds for the Astrakhan campaign. The tsar's treasury benefited, but the Russian people benefited also, as locally elected officials replaced the exploitative governors sent from Moscow.

In 1556, Ivan exerted control over the boyars and princes who still held private lands in Muscovy by requiring them and their personal slave soldiers to serve in the cavalry as well. By forcing them into the "service class," Ivan took away the Russian nobility's independence. The country's vast lower class, the peasants, also saw their lot worsened during Ivan's reign. Much of the land turned over to the military servicemen had been state land worked by free peasants. The system gradually turned many peasants into serfs, bound to the land they tilled. In 1581 Ivan even issued an edict forbidding some peasants on service lands from moving.

Looking to further expand his empire, Ivan targeted Livonia, a small, Baltic-coast nation in 1558. After the annexation of the Volga, Muscovy had two expansionist alternatives: either to conquer and annex the Crimean khanate, which was ceaselessly raiding Russia and Poland for slaves; or to reconquer Slavic lands to the west which had been annexed by Livonia, Lithuania, and Poland. Adopting a defensive posture toward Crimea the Russians plunged into an war against the Livonians on the western front.

With the Livonian monopoly on trade between Russia and Western Europe broken, merchants from as far away as Holland and France rushed to Narva to negotiate trade agreements with the Russians. Ivan had pursued relations with England, opened the port of Archangel to British merchant ships, and started trading directly with Western Europe. He brought Moscow a wide variety of artisans to teach his people the new trades that were essential for success in the modern world. He instituted sweeping reforms in the Church and the army, as well as in the way the country was governed

Ivan's much-loved wife Anastasia withered away due to a lingering illness in of 1560. Ivan suffered a severe emotional collapse. He banged his head on the floor in full view of the court and smashed his furniture. His suspicion deepened into paranoia. Angry and depressed, with his old cruelty resurfacing. Ivan had alternately violent fits of temper and feelings of remorse.

In December 1564 Ivan left Moscow with some of his court supposedly to visit various monasteries. In reality, the paranoid tsar had abandoned the capital, taking valuables and relatives with him. Ivan returned to the capital in February 1565, the hair on his head had fallen out and his beard had turned white, signs of major psychological stress.

Shortly after Ivan returned, he set up the Oprichniki, which became a separate police state within Russia. They dressed in black, the traditional colors of death, and rode black horses, from whose saddle hung two emblems - those of a broom and a dog's head. The broom signified the rider's mission to sweep Russia clean of Ivan's enemies; the dog's head symbolized that he was watchful for the czar.

The Oprichniki didn't hesitate to burst into a church during mass, either abducting the priest or murdering him in front of the altar. Subsequently, Ivan founded a pseudo-monastic order: he was the 'abbot' and his Oprichniki were the 'monks'. Supposedly they regularly performed sacrilegious masses that were followed by extended orgies of sex, rape and torture. Drunken licentiousness was alternated with passionate acts of repentance. After throwing himself down before the altar with such vehemence that his forehead would be bloody and covered with bruises, Ivan would rise and read sermons on the Christian virtues to his drunken retainers.

Among those killed were the head of the church, Metropolitan Filipp Kolychëv, who had criticized the Oprichnina. In1570, on the basis of unproved accusations of treason, Ivan massacred the 60,000 citizens of Novgorod with his Oprichniki. Novgorod's archbishop was first sewn up in a bearskin and then hunted to death by a pack of hounds. Men, women and children were tied to sleighs, which were then run into the freezing waters of the Volkhov River. The mass of corpses made it flood its banks. In the same year, there were mass public executions in Moscow. Crimean Tatars were able to sack Moscow in 1571, and much of the land around Moscow was depopulated.

In 1572 the Oprichniki were disbanded after their failure to defend Moscow. Ivan abdicated and placed a Tartar general, Simeon Bekboelatovitch, on the Moscow throne, while he retired to a country estate. Ivan made regular visits to the capital to pay homage to the new Tsar. This strange game lasted for a year. 

Ivan grew increasingly vicious and blood thirsty. So much that on November 19, 1582 his pregnant daughter-in-law Elena appeared immodestly dressed and Ivan attacked and caused her to miscarry. His son Ivan Ivanovich rose to defend his wife, whereupon the tsar killed his son, his only possible respectable heir. This left as heir Ivan's feebleminded son Fyodor. Ivan left behind a joyless Russia on March 18, 1584, when he died suddenly of a heart attack while preparing for a game of chess.

Scholars believe that Ivan manifested psychopathic characteristics; his quick mood shifts, unreliability, egocentricity and lack of lasting emotions. His first mock abdication showed that he was a master at manipulating other people, while convincing them of his good intentions. His personal friendships were of short duration and his friends usually ended up dead.

Later the exhumation of his body showed he suffered from mercury poisoning. It has also been suggested that Ivan suffered from syphilis; his sexual promiscuity with both sexes, his last illness and many features of his personality support such a diagnosis. However, it can not be determined indisputably if Ivan's problems were basically organic or psychological.

Historical Significance

Ivan left Russia an empire, thanks to the annexation of the non-Russian lands in the Volga region and areas east of the Volga in the Urals and Siberia. Russia would become a world power with the development of Siberia's abundant natural resources. However, much of the old heartland was in shambles. Countless acres of cultivated land had been abandoned by farmers during the terror of the Oprichniki, and forests had begun reclaiming the land. What remained of Russian society had changed dramatically during Ivan's rule. A new stage in the history of the enserfment of the peasantry also began under Ivan. With the expansion of the service class, many princes and other members of the elite had to answer to the tsar and no longer rivaled him for power. Most importantly however was that Ivan set up the example for the absolute and all powerful tsar, establishing clearly that Russia had completely broken away from its days as a Mongol colony. Ivan's example that would be emulated (minus sociopathic tendencies) by such great Russian leaders as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.


Bobrick, Benson. Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1987.

Grey, Ian. Ivan the Terrible. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1964.

Platonov, S.F. Ivan the Terrible. Gulf Breeze: Academic International Press, 1974.

Skrynnikov, Ruslan. Ivan the Terrible. Gulf Breeze: Academic International Press, 1981.

Troyat, Henri. Ivan the Terrible. New York: Dutton,1984.

Web Resources

http://www.russia.net/history/tce.html   Good page on russian culture both today and in the past.

http://www.xs4all.nl/~kvenjb/madmonarchs/ivan4/ivan4_bio.htm   Basic information on Ivan as well as on other "mad monarchs." Good pictures.

http://members.vip.fi/~flax/history/russia/ivan4/   Good general information.

http://woods.bianca.com/shacklet/Mad_Ivan_the_Terrible/terrible.html   Interesting opinion about Ivan from what a appears to be a translated source.

http://www.byu.edu/ipt/projects/middleages/People/IVAN.html   A short but informative biography.

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+ru0017).html   Shows the growth of the Tsardom under Ivan.

http://users.utu.fi/jalehto/terrible.html   Two good pictures of Ivan, one of them is Repin's famous painting.

Site created by:  Susan Haarman