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Ivan the Terrible: The Bloodthirsty 1st Tsar of Russia

Barbaric Russian ruler Ivan the Terrible was the Grand Prince of Moscow and the 1st Tsar of Russia. He slaughtered thousands of people.

A forensic reconstruction of Ivan the Terrible, 1st tsar of Russia.

A forensic reconstruction of Ivan the Terrible, 1st tsar of Russia.

Ivan the Terrible of the Rurik Dynasty

Ivan the Terrible was also known as Ivan Grozny, Ivan IV and Ivan Vasilyevich. He was born on the 25th August 1530 in Kolomenskoye just outside Moscow to Grand Prince Vasily III of Moscow and his 2nd wife Yelena, nee Glinskaya.

Ivan was the penultimate Rurik dynasty ruler and as the Grand Prince of Moscow and the 1st Tsar of Russia he became infamous for his barbarity. In the 16th century Ivan “the Terrible” meant something like “Ivan the Formidable” or “Ivan the Awe-Inspiring”, and not the understanding of the word “terrible” that we have today.

Conversely, this mass murderer was also an accomplished composer and poet who developed Russia culturally.

The Rurik Family Tree.

The Rurik Family Tree.

Grand Prince of Moscow

Ivan became the Grand Prince of Moscow aged 3 when his father died of blood poisoning. Ivan's mother Yelena ruled in his name for 5 years until her suspicious death in 1538, said to have been a case of strategic poisoning. True or not, her absence compelled the nobility, known as boyars, to create factions and lobby for control of the Grand Prince of Moscow.

For the next 9 years, his minority, the court at Moscow was the scene of tumultuous power struggles that destabalised the region. The boyars’ machinations and their neglect of Ivan and his younger brother Yuri’s welfare left Ivan with a deep aversion to the Russian nobility.

As a teenager, Ivan was influenced considerably by the Metropolitan of Moscow Makary who urged Ivan to focus on justice, reforms and promoting Christianity. Ivan tailored religion to suit his whims. He was openly anti-Semitic but was more tolerant of Muslims.

Ivan the Terrible's throne. It was constructed from wood, metal and ivory.

Ivan the Terrible's throne. It was constructed from wood, metal and ivory.

The Chosen Council

The “Chosen Council” of reformers was established by Ivan and led by Makary. It achieved many of its goals.

  • The church was given greater powers and a generous number of saints were created.
  • Ivan instigated reforms that enabled more efficiency and standardisation across Russia for the legal and administrative management of the country.
  • He introduced government departments that had designated core tasks.
  • He created the zemski sobor or national assembly comprised of clergymen, elected politicians and boyars. This body limited the power of the nobility as a ruling and decision-making class. Ivan strived to instill the realisation in the boyars that they should be grateful for and dependent upon his displays of mercy.
  • The military was overhauled. For the 1st time in Russian history, a person’s merit rather than their money and titles was used to evaluate and promote capable personnel up through the ranks.
  • It was on the councillors initiative that Ivan was proclaimed the 1st ever “Tsar of All Rus” on the 16th January 1547. The crowning ceremony was held at the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin and it was officiated by Makary.
  • On 3rd February 1547, Makary conducted the marriage ceremony of Ivan to Anastasia Romanova. She became the 1st tsarina in Russian history and was the great aunt of Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov, the 1st Romanov dynasty tsar from 1613. Anastasia died in 1560, she was the 1st of Ivan's 6, perhaps 8 wives. Ivan’s outgoing living wives were not always legally divorced from him or he didn’t bother with a church wedding so the true number of wives he had remains unclear.

The Chosen Council lost its influence over Ivan as the years passed and with Makary's death in 1563 it ceased to exist.

The Oprichnina and the Oprichniki

Tsar Ivan enjoyed military successes in conflicts with Kazan and Astrakhan but the lingering Livonian War that he triggered lost Russia territory. Ivan used the losses to assert greater control over his boyars.

He became the fearsome and autocratic ruler of legend as between 1565 and 1572 he coordinated the Oprichnina, oprich meant “apart ” or “special”, in which countless boyars and clergymen were tortured, repressed, impoverished and publicly and brutally slaughtered.

The tsar declared that he was the “Hand of God” and his 6000 agents named the Oprichniki carried out his wishes enthusiastically and with no mercy. They viewed their deeds as fulfilling the wishes of God. Ivan kept a personal force of 300 oprichniki around him. These men were considered his “brotherhood.”

The Oprichniki were identifiable by their long-length black cloaks and the severed head of a dog or wolf that they bore on their horses’ saddles. The jaws of the attached heads would chillingly swing open and shut as the horses moved. A constant supply of fresh heads was required.

The Oath Sworn by the Oprichniki:

“I swear to be true to the Lord, Grand Prince, and his realm, to the young Grand Princes, and to the Grand Princess, and not to maintain silence about any evil that I may know or have heard or may hear which is being contemplated against the Tsar, his realms, the young princes or the Tsaritsa. I swear also not to eat or drink with the zemshchina, and not to have anything in common with them. On this I kiss the cross.”

[The zemshchina were the boyars Ivan allowed to remain].

Ilya Repin's 1885 work "Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581".

Ilya Repin's 1885 work "Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581".

Ivan Was Terrible Until His Death

In November 1581 Ivan beat his pregnant daughter-in-law Yelena, married to Ivan’s son, another Ivan. The tsar decided that she was dressed immodestly and his punishing blows led her to suffer a miscarriage. Ivan the son and tsarevich (heir) challenged his father and he was killed in the resulting fight. The widow Yelena found herself dispatched to a convent in the city.

On the 18th March 1584, Ivan suffered a fatal stroke as he played chess with his statesman Bogdan Yakovlevich Belsky. As he’d killed his heir Ivan, the next son in line was the good-natured and easily manipulated Feodor. He died childless in 1698 and the Rurik dynasty’s rule of 700 years and 21 generations ended.

Russia entered its anarchic “Time of Troubles” which ended in 1613 with the Romanovs seizing the tsardom.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle