Childhood & Early Life
Ivan was born on August 25, 1530, in the Grand Duchy of Moscow, Russia. He was the grandson of Ivan III, or “Ivan the Great,” and the son of Vasili III and his second wife, Elena Glinskaya.
Ivan’s father died due to blood poisoning when he was only 3 years old. His mother ruled as a regent until her death in 1538.
It is said that she was assassinated by poisoning. Ivan was only 8 years old at the time of her death.
Ivan was a sensitive and intelligent child and an avid reader. It was certain that he would grow up to be a well-read threat.
Ivan and his younger brother, Yuri, felt neglected and ignored after their mother’s death. Their mother was replaced by noblemen who constantly fought for power and often abused and humiliated Ivan privately.
This largely explains why Ivan grew up hating nobles and later repressed them. Ivan and his deaf and mute brother, Yuri, often went to bed hungry and were molested by the boyars.
A feud started between the Shuisky and the Belsky families. Armed men roamed in and around the palace, murdering, beating, and abusing each other, many a time inside Ivan’s quarter.
Ivan often vented his frustration on animals and birds, by killing them, skinning them, and piercing their eyes. The rule of the boyars finally ended when the then-13-year-old Ivan ordered the arrest of Prince Andrew Shuisky and threw him into an enclosure full of starving dogs.
By this time, Ivan had turned into a cruel human being. It was normal for him to beat people, rape women, and throw animals from the walls of the ‘Kremlin.’ He did unspeakable things to rape victims.
He would often bang his head against the floor of his court. Amid all this insanity, he devoured his collection of books.
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Ivan was named the “Tsar of All the Russias” and became the first Russian to receive the title, on January 16, 1547. Alexej Adasjev, the priest Silvester, and the metropolitan Macarius helped Ivan reform the government.
He introduced self-government in rural regions, reformed the tax-collection process, and instituted statutory law and church reforms. The reformation helped reduce corruption and the influence of the boyar families.
His ultimate aim was to conquer all the independent regions of Russia. He started by conquering the Tartar Khanate of Kazan in 1552.
Amid those wars, Ivan fell seriously ill with high fever. He feared he would not survive the fever and thus asked the boyars and princes to swear an oath of allegiance to his baby, Dmitri, which most of them declined.
However, Ivan recovered from his illness and grew stronger with time. He understood the treacherous intentions of those around him after their reluctance to swear the oath.
Soon, he decided to transform the Russian empire and swore to establish a centralized system of government. In 1556, he conquered Khanate of Astrakhan and expanded his empire toward the east.
in 1555, to commemorate his win at the Tatar city of Kazan, Ivan commissioned the building of the ‘St. Basil’s Cathedral’ in Moscow’s ‘Red Square.’ While he won almost every war he waged, his army failed to conquer Lithuania and the Baltic regions.
He grew more unpopular after his first wife died in 1560. He sank into depression and his behavior turned worse.
He also suspected that just like his mother, his wife was also killed by the boyars. He left Moscow and threatened to step down from his throne.
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He claimed that he would only come back to his throne if he was granted absolute power in the region. He claimed that he wanted absolute power to punish anyone he thought was disloyal or corrupt.
Clearly, he did this to use his power against the boyars and to strengthen his position as the most powerful ruler of Russia. This was also because his advisor Adasjev had died in prison, Silvester had been exiled, and in 1563, Macarius had died of natural causes.
These losses had turned him into a paranoid psychopath. He came back to his throne and introduced a new rule known as the “oprichnina,” under which he totally disrupted the government and the economy of his kingdom.
The “oprichnina” or “separate estate” allowed separation of certain areas from the rest of the country, which were then administered by the “oprichniki,” a special police force that was ordered by Ivan to kill everyone who smelled of treason or disloyalty. The “oprichniki” caused total rage and terror across the country.
Dressed in black and riding black horses, the officers looked terrifying. Many of them were killers who killed without remorse. They swore an oath of allegiance to Ivan and did not shy away from murdering priests, drowning beggars in lakes, and stripping peasant women and using their bodies for target practice.
By 1570, Ivan, the Terrible had boiled his treasurer in a cauldron, had hanged his councillor to death, and had used his metal-pointed staff to kill anyone who annoyed him. He also promoted sex orgies, rape, and torture. He blew a boyar via gunpowder and burned the city of Novgorod while torturing, killing, roasting, and mutilating its people.
After dealing with an epidemic, a devastating fire, and an invasion by the Tartars, Ivan, finally dismissed the practice of the “oprichniki” and made Tartar general Simeon Bekboelatovitch the new “tsar” of Moscow. Ivan, himself retired from the throne but made regular visits to the capital to pay homage to the new “tsar.”
By the end of his terrifying reign, Ivan had been nicknamed “Grozny,” meaning “formidable” or “sparking terror or fear.”
Family & Personal Life
Ivan married Anastasia Romanovna after 2 weeks of his coronation in 1547. She became the first Russian “tsaritsa.”
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They remain married for 13 long years. In a way, Anastasia controlled his rage and anger. After her death in 1560, Ivan suffered from severe depression and lost total control over his brain.
He would often bang his head against the floor of his court. He was furious with the boyars, as he felt that they had a hand in his wife’s death.
Anastasia and Ivan had six children, of which only two survived. One of his sons, Dmitri, drowned in a river as a toddler, after his nurse dropped him.
His eldest son also became a victim of Ivan’s abnormal rage. On November 19, 1581, Ivan got angry with his pregnant daughter-in-law and beat her up. This caused her to have a miscarriage.
In an argument about the same issue, Ivan struck his son on the head with an iron rod. His son fell into a coma and eventually died.
Ivan had cried and banged his head against his son’s coffin. He had sunk in grief.. Throughout his life, Ivan had married eight times.
In 1561, he married Maria Temryukovna, who died 2 years later. He then married a lot of women. He married his eighth wife, Maria Nagaya, in 1581.
By 1584, his health had started deteriorating. However, his temper had turned terrible. His body swelled. His skin peeled and he started giving off a terrible odor.
The fear of death took over as he summoned soothsayers and witches to heal his body. On March 18, 1584, Ivan collapsed and died.
He had been preparing for a chess tournament before his death. His son Feodor took over the reins of the kingdom but was an incapable ruler.
Following this, the Romanov dynasty took control of the kingdom. There was nothing but chaos in Russia for a century, until Peter the Great took over.
Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part film on Ivan’s life, ‘Ivan the Terrible,’ is considered to be one of the finest films of the Soviet era.
Many films were made on Ivan’s reign and legacy. ‘Russka’ (1991), a novel written by Edward Rutherford, was based on Ivan’s life.