Reign of Tsar Ivan IV, “The Terrible”

Ivan IV (1533 – 1584), known as “The Terrible” completed the centralization of Russia that begun with his predecessors. Though his influence is unquestioned, it is difficult to determine which of his actions were motivated by the cool rationalism of a power politician raised in an age of intrigue and sudden death and which were the act of a paranoid who felt beset by traitors.

“Ivan the Terrible And His Son Ivan, 16 November 1581” by Ilya Repin, 1885
Early life

Ivan ascended the throne at the age of three. When Ivan was just three years old his father died from a boil and inflammation on his leg which developed into blood poisoning. Ivan was proclaimed the Grand Prince of Moscow at his father’s request. At first, his mother Elena Glinskaya acted as a regent, but she died of what many believe to be assassination by poison when Ivan was only eight years old. According to his own letters, Ivan and his younger brother Yuri often felt neglected and offended by the mighty boyars from the Shuisky and Belsky families. He was fortunate to survive his minority, as boyar families struggled to reassert their authority. In 1547 he became the first ruler to take formally the title Czar of all Russians, and he moved quickly thereafter to extend the authority and to destroy boyar independence.

Territorial Expansion

Ivan  followed the expansionist trail blazed by his father Vasili III. His conquest of Kazan (1552) and Astrakhan (1556) brought the entire Volga River and the shore of the Caspian Sea under Muscovite control, while expansion to the east brought a tenuous hold over western Siberia. In the West the protracted Livonian War (1558 – 1583), fought in an attempt to gain the Baltic providences of Lithuania, won no long-term gains. For twenty-four years the Livonian War dragged on, damaging the Russian economy and military and failing to gain any territory for Russia. In the 1560s, Russia was devastated by the combination of drought and famine, Polish-Lithuanian raids, Tatar invasions, and the sea-trading blockade carried out by the Swedes, Poles and the Hanseatic League. The price of grain increased by a factor of ten. Contact with the West was obtained, however, through the English merchants of the Muscovy Company, who carried out extensive trade from there White Sea outposts after initial contact in 1553.

Battle of Kazan Cenralization of Government

Instead of using the boyar council (Duma), Ivan relied on a select council of lower-ranking men and created a consultative assembly (zemski sobor), which, though little used, was designated to provide the government with information from a relatively large cross section of appointed advisers. He also created administrative offices (prikazy) to provide bureaucratic support for the expanding empire.

Ivan IV showing his treasure to English ambassador Jerome Horsey

Local councils (zemstva) were created to enforce government decisions and collect taxes.The Oprichnina Ivan lost confidence in most of his intimate advisers after 1560. His belief that his wife had been murdered triggered a deep depression marked by growing suspicion of a treasonous conspiracy against him. In 1564 he abruptly renounced the throne and withdrew from Moscow. He agreed to resume his authority only on the conditions that many of the leading boyars be executed and that he be granted a vast royal estate (oprichnina) that he could rule without reference to regular administrative structure.The 1565 formation of the Oprichnina was also significant. The Oprichnina was the section of Russia (mainly the Northeast) directly ruled by Ivan and policed by his personal servicemen, the Oprichniki. This system of Oprichnina has been viewed by historians as a tool against the powerful hereditary nobility of Russia (boyars) who opposed the absolutist drive of the Tsar, while some have also interpreted it as a sign of the paranoia and mental deterioration of the Tsar.

The oprichniki, faithful servants to their tsar

During the subsequent reign of terror, thousands of boyars were slaughtered and their lands within the oprichnina distributed as service estates of Ivan’s supporters. Although this was a calculated technique of definitely eliminating challengers to czarist authority, the sadistic tortures of his captured opponents can be attributed only to the work of a deranged mind. Epidemics of the plague killed 10,000 in Novgorod. In 1570 the plague killed 600–1000 in Moscow daily.

Tsar Ivan IV admires his sixth wife Vasilisa Melentyeva

Depopulation and famine ensued. What had been by far the richest area of Russia became the poorest. In a dispute with the wealthy city of Novgorod, Ivan ordered the Oprichniki to murder inhabitants of the city, and it was never to regain its former prosperity.Ivan IV died from a stroke while playing chess with Bogdan Belsky on 28 March [O.S. 18 March] 1584. Upon Ivan’s death, the ravaged kingdom was left to his unfit and childless son Feodor. Ivan was a patron of the arts and himself a poet and composer of considerable talent.

Ivan’s death during the chess play

In the centuries following Ivan’s death, historians developed different theories to better understand his reign, but independent of the perspective through which one chooses to approach this, it cannot be denied that Ivan the Terrible changed Russian history and continues to live on in popular imagination. His political legacy completely altered the Russian governmental structure; his economic policies ultimately contributed to the end of the Rurik Dynasty, and his social legacy lives on in unexpected places.

Famous St basil cathedral in Moscow, Built on the order of Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan

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