Ivan IV (1530-1584), known as Ivan the Terrible, was the first Russian sovereign to be crowned czar and to hold czar as his official title in addition to the traditional title of grand duke of Moscow.
The reign of Ivan IV was the culmination of Russian historical developments that began with the rise of Moscow in the early 14th century. The results of these developments were the growth of a unified centralized state governed by an autocracy and the formation of a dominant class of serving gentry, the pomeshchiki.
Very little is actually known about Ivan. None of his papers, notes, or correspondence has survived. It is not possible to establish a precise chronology or to give a trustworthy factual account of Ivan's personal life. There are whole successions of years without a single reference to Ivan himself. All that is possible under these circumstances is to make surmises that are more or less in accord with the evidence of the scanty material that has survived.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to contemporary students of Russian history in understanding Ivan is the epithet accorded him—"the Terrible" or "the Dread." This epithet indicates sadistic and irrational traits in his character, and there is sufficient evidence to make Ivan's reign a study in abnormal psychology. It is said that as a boy he took delight in throwing young animals to their death from high rooftops. He also formed the habit of robbing and beating the people of his capital. There is also the terrible event in 1581, when Ivan, in a fit of anger, lashed out at his 27-year-old son, Ivan Ivanovich, and struck him dead with an iron-pointed staff.
It would, therefore, be foolish to argue that the personality of Ivan IV is irrelevant to an understanding of his reign. It has been shown, in fact, that there was a very real cause for the monstrous aspects of Ivan's personality. A contemporary study of Ivan's skeleton showed that he must have suffered horribly for many years from osteophytes, which virtually fused his spine.
Ivan was born on Aug. 25, 1530, in Moscow. His father was Basil III and his mother Helen Glinsky, a Russian of Lithuanian origin. Ivan was only 3 years old when his father died in 1533. His mother became regent, and the throne rapidly degenerated into a center of wild violence, intrigue, and denunciation as rival boyar families disputed the Glinksy regency. At times they brought their feuds into the Kremlin itself.
Evidence indicates that Ivan was a sensitive, intelligent boy with a remarkably quick and intuitive mind. He became quite aware of all the intrigues around him and of the precariousness of his own position. He was neglected and at times treated with scorn. Apparently, he was even short of food and clothes. This environment, therefore, nourished a hatred for the boyars that revealed itself in Ivan's later policies toward them.
In 1538 Glinsky died suddenly, and years of strife and misrule ensued. In 1547, however, Ivan decided, much to the astonishment of those around him, to be crowned, not as grand prince, but as czar (God's anointed). In the same year Ivan married Anastasia Romanov. The marriage seems to have been a happy one, and when Anastasia died in 1560, deep grief overcame Ivan. Although he married four more times, he was never able to recapture the happiness he had enjoyed with Anastasia.
In 1547 Ivan also appointed the Selected Council, largely dominated by men of modest social standing. He allowed himself to be both directed and restrained by this Council, even agreeing to do nothing without its approval. The period following the Council's creation is generally considered the constructive period of Ivan's reign.
In 1550 Ivan called the first of two zemskii sobors (consultative assemblies) to meet during his reign. Although knowledge of the assemblies is fragmentary (some historians even deny that there was an assembly in 1550), they appear not to have been elected but appointed by Ivan himself and to have served in a purely advisory capacity. Approval was given, however, to several of Ivan's projected reforms. In 1552 a reform in local government was instituted. In those areas where the local population could guarantee a fixed amount of state dues to the treasury, officials elected from and by the local inhabitants were given the right to collect taxes in lieu of the old governors, who were abolished in such areas.
The Law Code of 1550 was another important reform of the early part of Ivan's reign. It was concerned primarily with discouraging the use of customary law in the courts, and it introduced the principle of statutory law.
Ivan, a devout churchman, called a church council in 1551. Among other matters, the council considered liturgical questions and passed reforms which tightened and perfected the organization of the Church. Ivan was also concerned with standardizing and organizing the responsibilities and duties of the service class. In 1556 he issued a decree which provided new regulations concerning the length, nature, and form of service which a member of the nobility was expected to render.
Among Ivan's military accomplishments was the destruction of the Tatar khanates of Kazan in 1552 and Astrakhan in 1556. Thus, of the three Tatar states in the region of Russia, only the Crimean Tatars remained unconquered by Muscovy. With the addition of Kazan and Astrakhan, Muscovy now extended to the Urals in the east and to the Caspian Sea in the south. Russia also began its expansion to the east beyond the Urals at this time and before Ivan's death had established itself in Siberia. Ivan's ambition to restore to Muscovy the western territories which had been annexed by Lithuania in the 16th century, however, was unrealized.
Another of Ivan's ambitions, contact with the West, was achieved. In 1553 an English sea captain, Richard Chancellor, landed on the Russian shore near the mouth of the Northern Dvina River and made his way to Moscow. Upon his return to England, Chancellor became one of the founders of the Muscovy Company, to which Ivan gave special trade privileges. Although traders of other nations, Dutch and French, began to appear, the English dominated the Russian trade with centers in many Russian towns.
Despite governmental improvements at home and successes abroad, the constructive or early period of Ivan's rule was not to endure. He broke with his Selected Council, turned against many of his former advisers, and introduced a reign of terror against the boyars. The major turning point came in 1560, when Anastasia died quite suddenly. Convinced that his advisers, backed by the boyars, had caused her death, Ivan condemned them and turned against the nobility. In 1564 he abandoned Moscow. What his intentions were is not clear, although he threatened to abdicate and denounced the boyars for their greed and treachery. Confused and frightened, the people of Moscow begged the Czar to return and rule over them. His eventual agreement to return was dependent upon two basic conditions: the creation of a territorial and political subdivision—the oprichnina—to be managed entirely at the discretion of the Czar; and Ivan's right to punish traitors and wrongdoers, executing them when necessary and confiscating their possessions.
The area encompassed by the oprichnina was a large one, constituting about one-half of the existing Muscovite state. It also included most of the wealthy towns, trading routes, and cultivated areas and was, therefore, a stronghold of wealthy old boyar families. Ivan's establishment of his rule over the area necessarily involved, then, displacement (and destruction) of the major boyar families in Russia. This task fell to his special bodyguards, a select group known as the oprichniki.
In 1584 Ivan's health began to fail. As portents of death came to obsess him, he called on witches and soothsayers to aid him, but to no avail. The end came on March 18, 1584. In a final testament he willed his kingdom to Feodor, his oldest surviving son. Although the transition from Ivan to Feodor was relatively easy and quiet, Muscovy itself was, according to most observers, on the verge of anarchy.
Further Reading on Ivan IV
There are several biographies of Ivan in English. The best is probably K. Waliszewski, Ivan the Terrible (trans. 1904). Robert Wipper justifies Ivan's actions in Ivan Grozny (trans., 3d ed. 1947). Other biographies include Stephen Graham, Ivan the Terrible: Life of Ivan IV of Russia (1933), and A. M. Kurbsky, Prince A. M. Kurbsky's History of Ivan IV, edited and translated by J. L. I. Fennell (1965). For a vivid self-portrait of Ivan as well as a justification of his actions see The Correspondence between Prince A. M. Kurbsky and Tsar Ivan IV of Russia, 1564-79, edited and translated by J. L. I. Fennell (1955). A contemporary account of Ivan's Russia is Giles Fletcher, Of the Rus Commonwealth, edited by Albert J. Schmidt (1966). British trade with Russia can be studied in T. S. Willan, The Early History of the Russia Company, 1553-1603 (1956).