Russia

How terrible was Ivan the Terrible?

Just how terrible was Ivan IV the Terrible? We all know what ‘terrible’ means in English (bad, evil, not good). His name in Russian is Иван Грозный (ee-VAN GROZ-nee). ‘грозный’ means “inspiring fear/terror”, “dangerous”, or “threatening.” So his name does not necessarily suggest that he was a terrible leader. But what all did he actually do? Let’s take a look and then you can determine for yourself whether you think of him as terrible or not.

The Facts

  • Born in 1530.
  • Son of Vasili III, who died when Ivan was only three years old.
  • Crowned Grand Prince of Moscow in 1533 after his father’s death, but his mother acted as regent until her death in 1538 (possibly assassinated by poison).
  • Crowned ‘Tsar of All the Russias’ at age 16 in 1547. Seen as a divine rule empowered to do God’s will.
  • Was intelligent and devout, but prone to rages and episodic outbreaks of mental illness.
  • Reigned until his death in 1584. He died while playing chess. He left the throne to his unfit son, Feodor.
Ivan IV the Terrible
Portrait of Ivan IV by Viktor Vasnetsov (1897)

The Good

  • Early reign saw peaceful reforms and modernization. Introduced self-government to the rural regions of Russia.
  • Established close ties with the Kingdom of England.
  • Established the Moscow Print Yard, introducing the first printing press to Russia.
  • Conquest and annexation of the khanate of Kazan.
  • Conquest and annexation of the khanate of Astrakhan.
  • Ordered the construction of St. Basil’s Cathedral to commemorate the capture of Kazan.
  • Reign saw Russia transform from a medieval state to an empire and emerging regional power.
Cathedral of Saint Basil the Blessed. Author: Christophe Meneboeuf

The Bad

  • Introduction of the first laws limiting the mobility of peasants, leading to serfdom.
  • Grained absolute power after threatening to abdicate in 1564.
  • Executed and exiled many prominent boyars on accusations of conspiracy.
  • Fought the unsuccessful Livonian War against the Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles, and Livonian Teutonic Knights.
  • Ordered a raid on the city of Novgorod because he was suspicious that the noblemen of the city were planning to defect and place the city under the control of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
  • Beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for wearing immodest clothing, possibly leading to a miscarriage. He and his eldest son then engaged in an argument and Ivan struck him in the head with a staff, killing him.
Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan by Ilya Repin (1885)

I’m sure you agree with me when I say that killing your son is a terrible thing. Beating your daughter-in-law is also a pretty bad thing to do. If Ivan’s eldest son did not die, Feodor would not have became tsar, and the history of Russia would be very, very different.

After Ivan the Terrible died, the Time of Troubles began.

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