Ivan the Terrible, Redone


The end of this rewrite project is in sight!  For this section I did not add or change as much as I did in the others.  Again, this is from Chapter 3 of my Russian history series.

Ivan the Terrible

1533 to 1584

Ivan IV was only three years old when his father Vasili III died. From that time until he grew up, the government was run first by his mother, then after her death by the boyars. The latter had seen enough of autocracy from the two previous tsars, so they tried to regain their lost privileges while they had the opportunity. According to Ivan’s own account, the boyars treated him with contempt verging on cruelty. They kept him separated from his friends and favorite servants and lolled about on his late father’s bed with their boots on. A group of them once burst into the boy’s chamber at dawn and engaged in a furious argument, frightening him into a panic. In public they beat their foreheads on the ground before him, but when alone Ivan had to go hungry and without proper clothes. Perhaps as a result of this, Ivan began very early to display the streak of sadism that marked him all his life; his earliest amusement was throwing small animals from the window of a Kremlin tower. In 1543, at the age of thirteen, Ivan had the most troublesome boyar murdered by the Kremlin dogkeepers, and thereafter he was ruler of Russia in fact as well as in name.

The early part of Ivan’s reign, up until about 1560, was his "good" period; most of the time he was rational, an able ruler who surrounded himself with advisors from all walks of life, including those from a peasant background; Ivan knew that ability and status are not necessarily found in the same people. He rewrote the law code and asked for forgiveness, both from God and from the people, for the past sins he had committed. Up until this time the boyars had been a most difficult group to control, since they had inherited large amounts of land and felt that they had no responsibilities to the tsar and the state beyond paying taxes. Many of them had private armies and dispensed justice within their own territories, making their lands virtually independent states within the state. Moreover, they could look across the border into Poland-Lithuania and see how much the nobility can do when the king is not watching them all the time; sometimes only anti-Catholic prejudice could keep them loyal to Muscovy. Ivan required the boyars to supply officers and men for his military campaigns, and used arbitrary confiscations and an occasional murder on those who disobeyed. Since the boyars were not trustworthy even when they complied, Ivan created a new nobility that was: the service gentry. Those who made up the service gentry were officers, given small to medium-sized estates as a reward for their service. Since the tsar could give or take away their lands at the drop of a hat, the service gentry remained loyal to him, and he used them as a check against the hereditary nobility.

Another way to limit the influence of the boyars was to limit what the boyars’ assembly, the Duma, could do. In 1550 a new assembly, the Zemsky Sobor ("Assembly of the Land"), convened for the purpose of checking the Duma. Its membership was made up of service gentry, clergy, merchants and a few loyal boyars. This was not a true parliament in the Western sense; its members were appointed, not elected, and it was meant to approve the tsar’s proposals, not debate or veto them. Still Ivan listened carefully to the grievances that were presented and took steps to remedy the causes of some of them.

Ivan IV

Ivan IV.

It was in his military campaigns that Ivan acquired his epithet, "the Terrible"; not because he was terrible to the Russians (though he was), but because he was terrible to Russia’s enemies. The introduction of gunpowder weapons had eliminated the old superiority of the mounted archer vs. infantry, and now the numerically superior Russians took the offensive. The Mongol Khanate of Kazan was conquered in 1552.(1) In 1554 Ivan installed a puppet ruler over the Khanate of Astrakhan, and when this individual rebelled, the Russians conquered Astrakhan, too (1556).

After the Volga conquests, Ivan IV gave tax breaks and vast land grants between the Volga and the central Urals, to Anikey Stoganov, one of the country’s richest merchants, who in turn organized settlement of the lands, farming, hunting, saltworks, fishing, ore mining, trade with Siberian tribes — whatever brought a profit. The local tribes gave the Stroganov family no trouble until 1563, when a member of the Shaybanid family, Kuchum, took over the nearest state, the Khanate of Sibir. In the 1570s he sent raids against the nearest Russian communities, including Perm. Ivan’s land grants included authorization to defend the lands against attacks by Russia’s enemies, so the sons of Anikey Stroganov hired a Cossack hetman named Yermak Timofeyevitch to command the defenses. A military expedition was organized, and 840 armed men crossed the Urals in late 1581. Following a three-day battle with Kuchum’s forces (the battle of Chuvash Cape, 1582), they captured Qashliq/Sibir; Yermak presented the Khanate, along with 5,200 furs collected from the natives, as gifts to the tsar. However, Kuchum could still gather reinforcements; in 1584 they attacked at night, took back Sibir and killed Yermak. The Cossacks had to withdraw to the European side of the Urals — their biggest gain at this point was the knowledge gained from exploring Siberia’s northwest corner — and this area saw a seesaw struggle between Russians and Siberians until 1598, when Kuchum conceded he was getting too old to keep on fighting, and went into exile. In 1587 Tobolsk was founded, where the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers meet and about twelve miles from the ruins of Sibir; this was the first Russian city in Siberia.

The one Mongol state remaining, the Khanate of the Crimea, could not be conquered because as we saw earlier, it was backed by the the Ottoman Empire. In fact, a devastating raid on Moscow by the Crimean Tatars in 1571 killed 100,000 people, showing that Russia’s weak spot was in the south.

Russia 1598

Russian expansion under Ivan IV and Fyodor I.

Ivan first turned his eyes toward Europe in 1553, when the English explorer Richard Chancellor, while searching for a "northeast passage" to the Orient, sailed into the White Sea. We will talk more about this expedition in the next section. From the White Sea Chancellor journeyed overland to Moscow and "discovered" Russia, a nation his countrymen knew almost nothing about. There was a political reason for this isolation; all of the states on Russia’s western frontier–Sweden, Poland, and the Ottoman Turks–were enemies, and they would not allow commerce between Russia and the rest of the world to pass through their territories. The king of Poland made this clear when he told England’s Queen Elizabeth I, "Up to now we could conquer him only because he was a stranger in education and did not know the arts." Despite this a trade agreement between England and Russia was signed, and the seaport of Archangel was built at the mouth of the Northern Dvina River to handle the trade. For most of the time between Ivan IV and Peter the Great, this would be Russia’s only port.(2)

On the shores of the Baltic, the Protestant Reformation finished off the Teutonic Knights; the last Grand Master dissolved the Order when he became a Lutheran in 1525, and while he continued to rule Prussia, he did so as a secular duke. However, the branch of the Order that had ruled Estonia and Latvia, the Livonian Knights, stayed in business, and now reappeared on the map of eastern Europe. Ivan looked west, saw that the Baltic lands were loosely organized and poorly defended, and thought this was an opportunity for an easy western victory to match his nearly bloodless ones in the east. At first it looked like it might work that way; the Livonian Knights suffered a crushing defeat in 1560 and were dissolved a year later. But Sweden, Poland and Denmark were in agreement that the eastern shore of the Baltic must not become Russian, so all of them now entered the fight. Thus, the Livonian War dragged on for 24 years (1558-82), and ended with a division of the disputed territory among the three Baltic powers: Sweden got northern Estonia, Denmark got the Estonian island of Saaremaa, and the rest went to Poland.(3)

In the same year that Ivan met the English expedition, he began slipping into the "bad" period of his life. First he suffered a nearly fatal illness, and he called the boyars to swear loyalty to his infant son. None of them did, and when he recovered he hated them more than ever. Then in 1560 his wife died, and Ivan really went crazy. Convinced that the boyars had poisoned her, he conducted a bloody purge in which not only boyars but their families and servants were murdered or imprisoned. Then he took his treasures and a few trusted servants, and moved to the town of Aleksandrov, 60 miles away. He stayed there in seclusion for a month, until thousands of people, both rich and poor, came there and begged Ivan to return; to them even a mad tsar was better than no tsar at all.

Ivan agreed to return on condition that he be given unlimited power against the "traitors" to the state. To do this he divided the country into two states within the state; the loyal half of Russia became the Oprichnina, and the rest was called the Zemshchina. The borders between Oprichnina and Zemshchina were a fantastic gerrymander that almost defies description; some streets in Moscow were part of the Oprichnina, for instance, but not others. Even individuals were divided; service gentry, the Stroganov family and English traders were classified as Oprichniks while most boyars and other Russian merchants were not. Then the citizens of the Oprichnina were turned loose to destroy all potential rebels, and anyone in the Zemshchina was fair game. For the next eight years (1564-72) lawlessness and terror swept the land, with people killed and dispossessed everywhere. Ivan went back to Aleksandrov and ruled a weird parody of a monastery. His Oprichniks were "monks" and he was the "abbot." After prostrating himself before an altar with such vehemence that his forehead would be bloody and covered with bruises, he would preach sermons on Christian virtues to his drunken retainers, fresh from torturing and raping victims in the cellars (He often participated in that, too.). Afterwards he would send lists of the victims to the Church so that prayers could be said for their souls; when the bloodbath killed so many that he lost track of the victims, Ivan merely remarked, "God knows their names."

When Ivan finally dissolved the Oprichnina, all resistance to his rule was dead, but the hereditary aristocracy had not been eliminated as a class; after they recovered they would cause trouble in the next generation. Ivan returned to Moscow and spent his last days wandering and howling through the palace, his cries audible to those outside. No longer even pretending to be a Christian, he brought in witches from parts of the far north where paganism still existed. One day in 1584 he looked better and called for his chessboard, but before he could begin the game he suddenly toppled backward and died. He was only 54.


1. Russia’s most famous building, the dazzling St. Basil’s Cathedral, was built to commemorate the victory over Kazan. Legend says that when it was finished, its beauty made Ivan so jealous that he blinded the architect, so that he would never build anything as gorgeous for somebody else.

2. Ivan once sent a marriage proposal to England’s Queen Elizabeth I, which she promptly turned down. It’s just as well; neither of them knew what they were missing!

3. In case you are wondering what happened to Lithuania, the Lithuanian government was dissolved with the signing of the Treaty of Lublin in 1569. Henceforth the Polish-Lithuanian union, now run by an elective monarchy, will be referred to as simply Poland.

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