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Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Ivan the Terrible


Ivan IV Vasilyevich was born August 25, 1530 at Kolomenskoye, a royal estate situated several miles to the southeast of the city center of Moscow. At his birth a holy man prophesied Ivan would be an evil son whose nation would fall prey to terror and tears.

Ivan was the son of Vasili III and his second wife, Elena Glinskaya, who was of half Serbian and half Russian descent.

When Ivan was three-years-old, his father died from a boil, which became infected and grew gangrenous.

Elena Glinskaya died in 1538. Ivan's governess, Agrippina Fedorovna Chelyadnina was arrested in connection with her death. It is probable that she was poisoned by the Shuiskys, who usurped power after her passing.

As a child Ivan took a grim pleasure in throwing live animals to their deaths. He ordered his first murder at 13 and had a man’s tongue cut out at 15 for swearing.


When Ivan decided to marry he ordered all his nobles in his realm to send their marriageable daughters to Moscow. Those who refused faced execution. Over 1500 maidens were gathered and in the end he chose Anastasia Romanovna, the daughter of Boyar Roman Yurievich Zakharyin-Yuriev, Okolnichi, who gave his name to the Romanov Dynasty of Russian monarchs.

Ivan and Anastasia married on February 3, 1547 at the Cathedral of the Annunciation.

In the summer of 1560, Anastasia fell ill to a lingering illness and she died om August 7th aged 30.
Ivan was convinced his nobles had murdered her and there is evidence that she may have been poisoned. Anastasia was his confidante and her death devastated the tsar and sent him into a spiral of cruelty and insanity.

After the deaths of Ivan's first two wives, his third, Marfa Sobakina, was chosen in the same manner. She became mortally ill  after her selection, and died before the marriage was consummated.

When his sixth wife Vasilisa Melentyeva took a lover, Ivan had the boyfriend impaled on a stake beneath her bedroom and had her packed off to a convent.

Tsar Ivan IV admires his sixth wife Vasilisa Melentyeva. 1875 painting by Grigory Semyonovich Sedov (1836–1886)

Ivan's beloved, beautiful Anastasia bore him six children, only two survived, Ivan Ivanovich, and the simple-minded Fydor, who succeeded the Tsar.

In 1580 Ivan killed his favourite son and heir Ivan Ivanovich with his own hands in a burst of anger at Uglich on the Volga. The church of St Demetrus was built on the spot where his body was found.


When his father died, Ivan was proclaimed the Grand Prince of Moscow. However, as he was just 3-years-old when he came to the throne, his country was ruled by his mother, then after she died, a regency council.

Ivan was crowned with Monomakh's Cap at the Cathedral of the Dormition at the age of 16 on January 16, 1547. He rejected the title “Crown Prince” and under advice of the church took the title of “Tsar.”  Prior to Ivan, the rulers of Muscovy had been crowned as Grand Princes, although Ivan III the Great, his grandfather, styled himself "tsar" in his correspondence.

Ivan took the title “Tsar” (the Russian form of Caesar) as he claimed to have descended from the Roman Emperor Augustus.

After conquering Kazan, the Tartar fortress city and gateway to Persia in 1552, Ivan started the building of St Basil's Cathedral as a thank offering. A dome was added for each defeated Kazan chieftain.

After the construction of St Basil's Cathedral had been completed, Ivan the Terrible blinded the unfortunate architects Postnik and Barma who designed it to ensure they would never be able to duplicate this unique building.

The death of his beloved wife Anastasia, unhinged Ivan and his sudden outbursts grew more and more violent. On one occasion a foreign ambassador refused to take off his hat in front off the Tsar, so Ivan nailed it to the unfortunate diplomat's head.

18th century depiction in the State Historical Museum

In 1565 Ivan the Terrible set up the Oprichnik, who were the forerunner of the KGB. Riding black horses and led by Ivan himself, the private army terrorized the populace. After seven years of abuse Ivan disbanded them.

The worst atrocity carried by the Oprichnik was the Massacre of Novgorod, an attack launched by Ivan IV’s private army on the city of Novgorod in 1570. Thousands of people were killed, many by being thrown into the icy river. The Archbishop of Novgorod, Bishop Pimen, was sewn into a bearskin and hunted to death by a pack of hounds. (According to the The First Pskov Chronicle the number of victims was 60,000). This atrocity came about because of a conspiracy between the boyars of the city, aided by the Archbishop of Novgorod, to surrender the city to the king of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

During the famine of 1575 Ivan the Terrible invited some starving beggars to his palace to eat. Instead of feeding them, he killed them and threw them into the river just for his amusement.

Ivan's outbursts were accentuated in his old age by the mercury he took to cure the pain of chronic arthritis. He often foamed at the mouth like a rabid dog and tore clumps of hair out until his scalp bled.

During his life, Ivan IV was the wealthiest monarch in all of Europe.


In 1552 Ivan conquered Kazan, a Tartar fortress city and gateway to Persia. It was a stronghold which had never been breached. The Tsar achieved this by hiring Dutch engineers to build tunnels under the walls. He then rolled some gunpowder into the tunnels, ignited the powder and boom!

In 1556 Ivan annexed the Astrakhan Khanate and destroyed the largest slave market on the River Volga, which extended his Russian empire as far south as the Caspian Sea.  As a result of the Kazan campaigns, Muscovy was transformed into the multinational and multi-faith state of Russia.

By the mid 1550s, Ivan's conquering deeds had earned him the nickname of 'Grozny' meaning 'Terrible.'

In January 1558, Ivan embarked on the invasion of Livonia (modern day Estonia and Latvia) in an attempt to gain access to Baltic Sea and its major trade routes. During the 24-year Livonian War,  the Tsardom of Russia faced a varying coalition of Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles and the Livonian Teutonic Knights and Ivan failed in his aim of claiming an outlet to the west.

In 1581 the Cossack leader Yermak Timofeyevich conquered Siberia for Russia. The conquest expanded Ivan's empire to the east and allowed him to style himself "Tsar of Siberia" in the tsar's very last years.

The first Russian Embassy opened in London on February 27, 1557. Ivan engaged in a long correspondence with Queen Elizabeth of England and invited her merchant adventurers to trade in his domains. He even asked the English queen for a guarantee to be granted asylum in England should his rule be jeopardized.


The Great Fire of Moscow began on June 24, 1547 several months after Ivan was officially crowned as first Tsar of Russia. The fire destroyed sections of Moscow which had been built almost entirely of wood. It swept into the Kremlin and blew up the powder stores in several of the Kremlin's towers. The fire displaced about 80,000 people and killed about 3,200 (not including children).

Ivan spent most of his life in the candlelight rooms of the Kremlin.

Ivan had a passion for music and was a composer of considerable talent. His Orthodox liturgical hymn, "Stichiron No. 1 in Honor of St. Peter" was put into music by the Soviet composer Rodion Shchedrin.

Despite his atrocities, as Ivan grew older prayer and monastic retreats more and more became part of his routine. Frequently whilst attending Mass, fearing the torments of hell, the Tsar in a sort of mystical delirium flogged himself.


In his last years Ivan issued posthumous pardons to the many thousands that he’d executed.

A few weeks before his death Ivan drew up a will, naming his second son, Fydor, as heir. He urged him to rule with kindness and give thought to tax relief.

Ivan died from a stroke after sitting down to play a game of chess with his adviser, Bogdan Belsky on March 28, 1584 (O.S. March 18). The Tsar died in Belsky's arms.

Death of Ivan the Terrible by Ivan Bilibin (1935)

The March 28th date had previously been prophesied for Ivan's death. (Belsky was in charge of the fortune tellers, who had been gathered from all over Russia after the appearance of a comet and who had foretold the tsar's passing)..

When Ivan's tomb was opened during renovations in the 1960s, his remains were examined and discovered to contain very high amounts of mercury, indicating a high probability that he was poisoned, modern suspicion falling on Bogdan Belsky and his fellow advisor Boris Godunov (who himself became tsar in 1598).

The Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein made two epic films based on the life of the Great Tsar – Ivan the Terrible in 1944 and 1946. Made on the orders of Stalin to boost morale, they were two of the greatest biopics ever made.

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