Ivan IV "the Terrible" of Russia (1530-1584) was a cruel tyrant, who never knew the meaning of moderation; he drank too much, laughed too loudly and hated and loved too fiercely. And he never forgot anything. Ivan was definitely smart and despite his cruelty, his reign is a great one in Russian annals. In Russia Ivan was called "Grozny", which has always been translated to "the Terrible", but actually means "the Awesome".
Ivan was only 3 years old when his father died. His uncle Yuri challenged his rights to the throne, was arrested and imprisoned in a dungeon. There he was left to starve. Ivan's mother, Jelena Glinsky, assumed power and was regent for five years. She had Ivan's other uncle killed, but a short time afterwards she suddenly died, almost surely poisoned. A week later her confidant, Prince Ivan Obolensky 1, was arrested and beaten to death by his jailers. While his mother had been indifferent toward Ivan, Obolensky's sister, Agrafena, had been his beloved nurse. Now she was sent to a convent.
Not yet 8 years old, Ivan was an intelligent, sensitive boy and an insatiable reader. Without Agrafena to look after him, Ivan's loneliness deepened. The boyars alternately neglected or molested him; Ivan and his deaf-mute brother Yuri often went about hungry and threadbare. No one cared about his health or well being and Ivan became a beggar in his own palace. A rivalry between the Shuisky and the Belsky families escalated into a bloody feud. Armed men roamed the palace, seeking out enemies and frequently bursting into Ivan's quarters, where they shoved the Grand Prince aside, overturned the furniture and took whatever they wanted. Murders, beatings, verbal and physical abuse became commonplace in the palace. Unable to strike out at his tormentors, Ivan took out his frustrations on defenceless animals; he tore feathers off birds, pierced their eyes and slit open their bodies.
The ruthless Shuiskys gradually gained more power. In 1539 the Shuiskys led a raid on the palace, rounding up a number of Ivan's remaining confidants. They had the loyal Fyodor Mishurin skinned alive and left on public view in a Moscow square. On December 29, 1543, 13-year-old Ivan suddenly ordered the arrest of Prince Andrew Shuisky, who was reputed to be a cruel and corrupt person. He was thrown into an enclosure with a pack of starved hunting dogs. The rule of the boyars had ended.
By then, Ivan was already a disturbed young man and an accomplished drinker. He threw dogs and cats from the Kremlin walls to watch them suffer, and roamed the Moscow streets with a gang of young scoundrels, drinking, knocking down old people and raping women. He often disposed of rape victims by having them hanged, strangled, buried alive or thrown to the bears. He became an excellent horseman and was fond of hunting. Killing animals was not his only delight; Ivan also enjoyed robbing and beating up farmers. Meanwhile he continued to devour books at an incredible pace, mainly religious and historical texts. At times Ivan was very devote; he used to throw himself before the icons, banging his head against the floor. It resulted in a callosity at his forehead. Once Ivan even did a public confession of his sins in Moscow.
In 1547 Ivan was finally crowned Tsar of all Russians. He had taken methodical and meticulous care in preparing for his coronation. Later, when he decided to choose a wife, Ivan had eligible young Princesses and daughters of noblemen presented to him in a kind of 'Miss Russia Contest'. He instantly fell for the beauty and charm of Anastasia Romanovna and married her. By all accounts Anastasia had a quieting effect on Ivan. He called her his "little heifer" and they were to have 13 years of wedded bless. Anastasia bore him six children of whom only two survived infancy.
In the first years of his reign Ivan was advised by three devote men: Alexei Adasiev, the priest Silvester and the metropolitan Macarius. Ivan reformed the government and reduced both corruption and the influence of the boyar families. He also reformed the church and the army, creating an elite force, the Streltsi. Subsequently, Ivan conquered the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan near the Wolga River. In 1558 he conquered the Baltic cities Narva and Polotsk and started trading directly with England.
In the midst of these wars, in March 1553, Ivan had fallen ill Shortly before Christmas in 1564, Ivan suddenly packed his belongings and treasures, secretly left Moscow and announced his intention to abdicate. The populace called for his return. After a month of negotiations Ivan agreed to come back, demanding absolute power to punish anyone he considered disloyal and to dispose of their estates as he wished. It is likely that Ivan deliberately used his threat as a weapon against the boyars' resistance to strengthen his position as absolute ruler of Russia.
The instruments of Ivan's new rule were the 'Oprichniki', who were handpicked by Ivan and had to swear him a personal oath of allegiance. The mere sight of the Oprichniki instilled fear: they dressed in black and rode black horses3. Many were criminals4 without any remorse about killing anyone Ivan disliked.
In 1570, on the basis of unproved accusations of treason, Ivan sacked and burned the city of Novgorod and tortured, mutilated, impaled, roasted, and otherwise massacred its citizens.
Ivan's married life had become unstable, underlining his egocentricity, insecurity and manic temperament. In 1561 he had married a Circassian beauty, Maria Temriukovna, but he soon tired of her. Two years after her death in 1569 he married Martha Sobakin, a merchant's daughter, but she died two weeks later. Ivan's fourth wife was Anna Koltovskaya, whom he sent to a convent in 1575. He married a fifth time to Anna Wassilchikura, who was soon replaced by Wassilissa Melentiewna. She foolishly took a lover, who was impaled under Wassilissa's window before she, too, was dispatched to a convent. After his seventh wedding day Ivan discovered that his new bride, Maria Dolgurukaya, was not a virgin anymore. He had her drowned the next day. His eight and last wife was Maria Nagaya, whom Ivan married in 1581.
Ivan's mistrust, sadism and uncontrolled rages suggest an abnormal personality. His disturbing behaviour can be traced back to his traumatic childhood. After his illness of 1553, which could have been pneumonia or encephalitis5, and the death of his first wife in 1560, Ivan's erratic and cruel behaviour increased. He had some psychopathic characteristics; his quick mood shifts, unreliability, egocentricity and his impersonal sex life and lack of lasting emotions. His first mock abdication shows that he was a master at manipulating other people, while convincing them of his good intentions. He was without any compassion for his subjects, whom he beat up, robbed or raped just for fun. His personal friendships were of short duration and his friends usually ended up dead.
By the end of his life, Ivan was habitually bad tempered. Daniel von Bruchau stated that in his rages Ivan "foamed at the mouth like a horse". He had long looked older than his years with long white hair dangling from a bald pate onto his shoulders. In his last years, he had to be carried on a litter. His body swelled, the skin peeled and gave off a terrible odour. Jerome Horsey wrote: "The Emperor began grievously to swell in his cods, with which he had most horribly offended above fifty years, boasting of a thousand virgins he had deflowered and thousands of children of his begetting destroyed." In 1584, as he was preparing to play a game of chess, Ivan fainted suddenly and died. During his reign hardly a family of noble birth had not been touched by his murders, and some had been completely eliminated. Countless acres of cultivated land had been abandoned by farmers during the terror of the Oprichniki, and forests had begun reclaiming the land.