Ivan the Terrible: Bite and bark were equal

Ivan_Terrible painting

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.

"The street in the town," by Apollinary Vasnetsov, 1911, shows residents of Novgorod fleeing at the arrival of the Oprichniki.

“The street in the town,” by Apollinary Vasnetsov, 1911, shows residents of Novgorod fleeing at the arrival of the Oprichniki.

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.

(Ivan the Terrible And His Son Ivan, 16 November 1581, by Ilya Repin, 1885, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.)

8 thoughts on “Ivan the Terrible: Bite and bark were equal

  1. One of my favourite quotes from a BBC journalist when I was working for a Govt press office at the time, was ‘there’s nothing new in journalism’. There’s nothing new in history or politics either is there? Just sometimes we occasionally get to hear about what’s going on.

    Sorry that sounds a bit tangential, but like you, I immediately thought of later dictators and state police forces, punishment (aka death) without trial, etc etc etc. Doesn’t matter whether the state is facist (Hitler, Franco) or communist (Russia, China), the end result is the same. I remember one course I studied pointed out that fascism and communism were nearer to each other than people realised.

    I do like Russian history and Russian politics, art, literature, music etc. Quite brilliant and so colourful – look, even those paintings above are colourful.

    • I too remember learning that fascism and communism were like the ends of a horseshoe on the political spectrum – they very nearly touched in the end results even though they viewed themselves as being polar opposites.

      Unfortunately, you have to be around – and have paid attention – for several decades before you begin to pick up on the fact that there isn’t a whole lot new under the sun. Whatever claptrap politicians spout off today to get elected has been spouted off before, many times, in many different ways. Charisma is the only difference, oftentimes. Which is why we end up with what we end up with.

      Russia is definitely a different creature. Even Solzhenitsyn, who I admired for his honesty, admitted as such. Fascinating, but different. I don’t know that it will ever fit into the “Western” mold.

  2. absolute power is never a good thing. in any situation. i have always been fascinated by russian history, especially the tsars and families and am happy to have learned more today from you.

  3. In our pluralist society, and with the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely, to find out who runs it we need to see who is totally corrupt…and my money is on the media empires.

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