Ivan the Terrible possesses one of history’s great nicknames, and he apparently came by it honestly.
While Ivan (1530-1584) oversaw the transformation of Russia from a medieval state to an emerging regional power and was the first ruler to be crowned as Tsar of All the Russias, he was also given to bouts of cruelty and in fact killed his own son, the heir apparent, when he struck him with his scepter during an argument (depicted above).
Ivan was assumed power in 1547, but it wasn’t until later that his malevolent character became clearer.
In 1553 Ivan suffered a near-fatal illness and a few years later his wife Anastasia died.
In what would appear to be a common theme among Russian tyrants, Ivan suspected treason, specifically that nobles had poisoned Anastasia and were plotting to remove him from power.
Russia was already experiencing difficult times and Ivan’s mood was further darkened when one of his advisors, Prince Andrei Kurbsky, defected to a rival power, Lithuania, where he took command of the Lithuanian troops and devastated the Russian region of Velikiye Luki.
This only made Ivan more paranoid of Russian nobility.
In the winter of 1564, Ivan secretly left Moscow, declaring that he wanted to abdicate.
The panicked populace called for his return and, after some time, Ivan agreed but on his own terms – demanding absolute power to punish anyone he believed was disloyal, according to the website Russiapedia.
“The next year, an instrument of his new rule was set up: a system called Oprichnina or ‘separate estate,’” according to Russiapedia. “Certain territories and cities across Russia were separated from the rest of the realm, administered by Russia’s first police force, also called Oprichnina – from the obsolete oprich (“apart from,” “except of”).”
Members of the Oprichniki, the 16th century equivalent of the NKVD or KGB, were handpicked by the Tsar and spread terror across the country.
Dressed in black and riding black horses, they carried dog’s heads and brooms – to symbolize the sniffing out treason and sweeping away the Tsar’s enemies.
“Known for their cruelty and use of torture, the Tsar’s loyal servants executed anyone who displeased Ivan, confiscating their lands and riches,” the website added. “The system dealt a mighty blow to the influence of the nobility while Russia’s monarchy grew stronger than ever.”
Among the more notable aspects of the Oprichnina was the 1570 sacking of Novgorod. Suspecting its citizens of treason, Ivan personally led the troops, and the wealthy city was ravaged and thousands murdered.
Ivan would rule for another 14 years, expanding and modernizing the Russian state, and also leaving chaos in his wake.
Ivan left a mixed legacy and his role in Russian and European history continues to be debated today.
Given Ivan’s willingness to take whatever steps were necessary to accomplish his goals, it is not surprising that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was an admirer.
Stalin did his best to personally highlight Ivan’s role in Russia’s past, even going so far as to create aspects of the first Russian Tsar’s life where none had existed before.
Ivan, as much as any single individual, led his country down the unique path that Russia has traversed these past few centuries.