Ivan IV Vasilyevich or Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), grand prince of Muscovy (1533-1584) and the first formally proclaimed tsar of Russia (1547-1584). One of Russia’s most brutal and notorious rulers, Ivan oversaw the vast expansion of his country and then brought it to near ruin. He was the penultimate ruler of the house of Ryurik, Russia’s first dynasty.
Ivan was the first child of Grand Prince Vasily III of Muscovy (the official name of the Russian state at that time) and his second wife, Elena Glinskaya. Vasily died in 1533, leaving Ivan fatherless and nominally grand prince. Although Elena became regent, her power was continually challenged by the boyars (nobles). She died suddenly in 1538, apparently from poisoning, leaving eight-year-old Ivan an orphan. Until Ivan was 17, when he was officially crowned, feuding boyars fought each other for control of Muscovy. During his youth, Ivan is reported to have exhibited numerous acts of extraordinary sadism, an inclination toward cruelty that was displayed later in his reign.
In 1547 the head of the Russian Orthodox Church arranged an elaborate coronation for Ivan that added the title tsar (from the Roman imperial title caesar) to the traditional title of grand prince. Ivan was the first Russian prince to take that title, which was intended to convey the exalted image of the ruler as the representative of God. The idea that a Russian monarch derived the right to rule directly from God was developed in the early 1500s by the Russian Orthodox abbot Joseph of Volokolamsk, who advocated the divine right of kings. Shortly after he was crowned, Ivan married Anastasia Romanovna, the first of his seven wives.
From 1547 to 1560 Ivan is believed to have governed with the aid of a talented group of advisers dubbed the Chosen Council. It is unknown who wielded more power, Ivan or the council. During those years a number of reforms were instituted to bring stability to Muscovy after the chaos of Ivan’s minority (the years before he was crowned). The Sudebnik, the country’s law code, was expanded in 1550 and widely used. An infantry corps, known as the streltsy, was created. Armed with long guns, the streltsy bolstered the strength of the Muscovite army. Muscovy forcibly annexed Kazan’, a Tatar (a people of Turkic origin) khanate (a state ruled by a khan) on the Middle Volga in 1552, and Astrakhan’, a Tatar khanate on the Lower Volga, in 1556. These annexations removed all military threat to Muscovy’s eastern flank and cut the Turkic world in two. They also removed a major barrier to Muscovy’s eastward expansion to the Ural Mountains and into Siberia, begun by Cossack raiders under Yermak in 1581.
In the 1550s the corrupt system of provincial administration underwent major reform. Since the 1300s, governors had been sent from Moscow (the seat of the Muscovy government) to govern the provinces. Not accountable to the territories they were assigned, these governors wrung money and food from the populace while often providing little in the way of good government in return. Reform began in the 1490s when local officials were appointed to oversee the rebuilding of Muscovy's fortresses and then given other assignments. In the 1530s local police officials were appointed to try to stamp out crime, which was rampant during the disorder of Ivan’s minority years. Then in 1552, Moscow, needing revenue to invade Kazan’, embarked on a plan to sell what was left of provincial administration to the locals. This was so successful that the sale of provincial civil administration was completed in 1556 to raise funds for the Astrakhan’ campaign. The tsar’s treasury benefited, but the Russian people benefited also, as locally elected officials replaced the exploitative governors sent from Moscow. These officials were still responsible to the central government, to which they had to submit semiannual reports.
Ivan also expanded a program to increase government ownership and control of land, while bolstering his army and weakening the nobles’ power. In this program, begun by his grandfather Ivan III in the 1480s, the government confiscated privately held land in annexed principalities or set aside state property and turned it over to cavalrymen who pledged continual service to the tsar. (In some cases, land was also seized in Muscovy from princes deemed treasonous.) In 1556 Ivan exerted control over the boyars and princes who still held private lands in Muscovy by requiring them and their personal slave soldiers to serve in the cavalry as well. By forcing them into the “service class,” Ivan took away the Russian nobility’s independence. The country’s vast lower class, the peasants, also saw their lot worsened during Ivan’s reign. Much of the land turned over to the military servicemen had been state land worked by free peasants. With the introduction of a landholder, burdened himself by military obligations to the tsar, the peasants met with more restrictions and demands. The system gradually turned many peasants into serfs, bound to the land they tilled. In 1581 Ivan even issued an edict forbidding some peasants on service lands from moving.
The first big mistake of Ivan IV's reign was the Livonian War (1558-1583). After the annexation of the Volga, Muscovy had two expansionist alternatives: either to conquer and annex the Crimean khanate, which was ceaselessly raiding Russia and Poland for slaves; or to reconquer Slavic lands to the west which had been annexed by Livonia, Lithuania, and Poland. Adopting a defensive posture toward Crimea (which Russia proved unable to annex until 1783), the Russians plunged into an unsuccessful war against the Livonians on the western front that ultimately contributed to widespread ruin in Russia during Ivan’s reign.
Defeats in the Livonian War aggravated Ivan’s unstable psychological condition. He had begun to show irrational suspicion of those around him in 1553, when he fell ill and the boyars refused to take an oath of allegiance to his infant son, Dmitry. Recalling the feuds of Ivan’s minority years, they preferred an adult successor. Ivan viewed their refusal as treason. When his wife Anastasia died in 1560, Ivan believed she had been poisoned in a plot by the boyars and members of the Chosen Council, and had the council members exiled. Setbacks in the Livonian War led to the defection of some military commanders fearful of the tsar's wrath.
In December 1564 Ivan left Moscow with some of his court, supposedly to visit various monasteries. In reality, the paranoid tsar had abandoned the capital, taking valuables and relatives with him. In January 1565 he set down his terms for returning. His perceived enemies were to be punished, and the state was to be split in two: the oprichnina, which was to be Ivan’s personal domain and subject to his absolute control, and the zemshchina, which would be ruled by a council of boyars. When Ivan returned to the capital in February 1565, the hair on his head had fallen out and his beard had turned white, signs of major psychological stress.
The oprichnina (1565-1572) was one of the most bizarre episodes in all of Russian history. It is rivaled only by Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of 1936-1938, with which it is often compared. There were two main periods in the oprichnina, which mirrored the unfolding of Ivan's paranoia. In the first period, from 1565 to 1566, a number of princes were exiled to Kazan’, and all of their properties were confiscated and distributed to Ivan’s special corps of cavalrymen, the oprichniki. In 1566 Ivan allowed some of the princes to return to their devastated estates. When Ivan convened the zemsky sobor (an assembly of boyars, clergy, and cavalrymen) later that year to advise the government on whether the disastrous Livonian War should be continued, a number of the delegates complained about the oprichnina.
This set off the second and most lethal stage of the oprichnina. Among those killed in the second period (1566-1571) was the head of the church, Metropolitan Filipp Kolychëv, who had criticized the oprichnina, and Prince Vladimir Staritsky, selected as the candidate to replace Ivan had he died from his illness in 1553. In 1570 the oprichniki sacked Novgorod and massacred many of its citizens because individuals there had links to Ivan’s perceived enemies. All relatives and slaves of the victims were also murdered. Ivan talked of abdicating or fleeing to England. The second stage of the oprichnina wreaked so much havoc that the Crimean Tatars were able to sack Moscow in 1571, and much of the land around Moscow was depopulated. In 1572 the oprichniki were disbanded after their failure to defend Moscow.
That same year Ivan resumed rule over all of Muscovy, much of which was in ruins. But in 1575 he farcically abdicated in favor of a Christianized Tatar, Simeon Bekbulatovich, for a year. The tragedies of Ivan's existence were not yet over. In 1582 his daughter-in-law Elena appeared immodestly dressed and Ivan censured her. His son Ivan Ivanovich rose to defend his wife, whereupon the tsar killed his son, his only possible respectable heir. This left as heir Ivan’s feebleminded son Fyodor (reigned 1584-1598), the last Ryurikid ruler in a line that extended back seven centuries. Another son, Dmitry, was considered illegitimate because his mother was Ivan's seventh wife (the church only permitted three marriages, and recognized none of Ivan’s later wives). Dmitry either killed himself playing with a knife or was murdered in 1591. Two years after killing Ivan Ivanovich, Ivan died in Moscow while playing chess, probably the victim of a heart attack. A Soviet forensic examination of his remains revealed that he had taken mercury as medicine, but no signs of foul play were discovered.
Ivan left Russia an empire, thanks to the annexation of the non-Russian lands in the Volga region and areas east of the Volga in the Urals and Siberia. Russia would become a world power with the development of Siberia’s abundant natural resources. However, much of the old heartland was in shambles. What remained of Russian society had changed dramatically during Ivan’s rule. With the expansion of the service class, many princes and other members of the elite had to answer to the tsar and no longer rivaled him for power. A new stage in the history of the enserfment of the peasantry also began under Ivan.