*Disclaimer: I do not own any of the photos used in this blogpost and all credits goes to their respective owners.*

Portrait of Ivan the Terrible,
By Viktor Vasnetsov (c. 1897)

“It’s not entirely Ivan the Terrible’s fault for being terrible, hear me out.”

Ivan IV: The First Tsar of Russia

Ivan the terrible was the first tsar (also known as emperor) of Russia, and one of the last rulers of Russia that belonged to the Rurik dynasty. He was a “superstar” ruler in Russian history who was so immensely infamous that historians literally dubbed him “terrible”.

Known for founding the Oprichniki, his “secret police” fleet, the massacre of Novgorod, and killing his son, He had an established image of a brutal, war-hungry, ruthless tyrant that ruled with an iron fist.

Indeed, he did.

But how did he become such a terrible person? Nobody is born a devil, and there has to be a reason why he was so twisted. As we delve into Ivan’s dramatic life, let’s unveil how Ivan’s childhood trauma eventually turned him into a monster, and bring light to the not-so-terrible parts of him that were often neglected.

Church of the Ascension, Kolomenskoye
Constructed in 1532 by Vasily III to celebrate Ivan’s birth

What a life he lived. 

In 1533, Ivan’s father died, hastily passing Muscovy to the 3-year-old Ivan. Ivan was proclaimed Grand Prince of Moscow, with his mother, Elena, as his regent. 

5 years after his to the throne, his mother passed away, likely poisoned by boyars. Both of his parents, who worked to shelter and secure him, were gone. The 8-year-old Ivan was now an orphan. 

Without his mother’s protection, Ivan’s life and fate now lie in the hands of the boyars. They ruled on behalf of the Grand Prince and took on the role of protecting the tsar, which they were horrible at.

All vying for more power and fortune, the boyars were in constant feuds with each other. Everyone was too engaged in their fights and no one cared about the prince.  

The boyars dressed him in rags, made him beg for food, and would even lock or beat him up as they pleased. Except for living in a gilded prison, nothing in Ivan’s life was befitting to his title.

Ivan the terrible’s childhood

Ivan’s childhood in three words: Unloved, unprotected, and unhappy. Losing his parents from a young age, he was deprived of the love and care a normal child would receive from his/her parents. He had no shoulder to lean on. To make things worse, the boyars mistreated and abused the boy frequently. 

He was to be a treasure of his parents, the rising hope and future of his nation. Yet the prince, the most prestigious man of Muscovy, was merely a toy to the boyars who amused themselves by torturing him. All the misery he experienced had crushed his dignity, damaged his fragile mental health, leaving his mind and soul forever scarred from the trauma of childhood abuse. 

In correspondence to his experiences, he developed an untrusting, self-protective, irritated and unpredictable character. In his later life, anger, rage and thirst for revenge would drive him and his nation to a path of destruction.

Tsar of Russia 

At the age of 13, Ivan was ready to bite back by stirring up the court in a violent storm of revenge. He sent a group of wild dogs to tear apart the leader of boyars, killing the boyar in a brutal manner that suited his cruelty towards the prince. Victorious in his revenge, he finally seized his rightful power, and he craved for more. 

The Cathedral of the Dormition, Moscow Kremlin
Venue of Ivan IV’s coronation

When he was 16, he decided to ditch the title of the Grand Prince of Moscow. Instead, was crowned “Tsar of all Russians” in a fancy ceremony, marking the end of Boyar’s regency. The title was derived from “Caesar”, the title belonging to Roman emperors. The new Tsardom of Russia became the successor of the Byzantine Empire(Equal to the Eastern Roman Empire) that fell in 1453, under the rule of the Tsar, the protector of the Orthodox Christian faith. 

2 weeks following the coronation, the new nation welcomed its first-ever Tsarina. Ivan married Anastasia Romanovna Zakharyina-Yurieva, the daughter of a minor noble family who won the bride show. 

He and Anastasia had a happy marriage, the Tsar loved his wife dearly, and so did she. Anastasia’s affection may have, to some extent, healed the volatile, unpredictable Tsar from his traumatizing childhood. 

“He being young and riotous, she ruled him with admirable affability and wisdom.”

This was how an English diplomat at the Russian court described the relationship between Ivan and Anastasia. 

The early, glorious days of the new Tsardom of Russia

While Anastasia was by his side, Russia thrived under Ivan’s reign. In terms of modernizing the country, he established the first printing press in Russia, the Moscow Printing Yard. With the printing yard focusing solely on religion, religious knowledge became more accessible. This helped in spreading the Orthodox faith to the Russian people, consolidating the Tsar’s position as the pious protector of Orthodox Christianity. 

Together with his parliament, the Zemsky Sobor, he expanded and revised the Sudebnik(a law code). Members of the aristocracy could no longer enjoy privilege in the judicial system and would bear legal responsibility if they committed crimes. The court system was also modified in order to relieve corruption and enforce laws equally. 

Other than modernizing and reforming the country, Ivan’s military campaigns expanded the boundaries of the empire. Ivan led his army to defeat the tartar Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan along the Volga river. With the Khanate of Astrakhan now part of the nation, The tsardom now has access to the Caspian Sea, which opened up some trade routes for Russian merchants.

Siege of Kazan
By Pyotr Korovin (c. 1890)

Ivan, along with his family and nation were doing great. Until tragedy struck him once again. 

Rage, revenge and misfortune

Death of Anastasia Romanonvna

On the 7th of August, 1560, Ivan’s wife Anastasia departed to god. Ivan’s beloved wife’s death tore him apart and shattered his heart. His world, along with the Tsardom, was never the same again. He suspected that his wife was poisoned to death by the boyars. Although it is unknown who poisoned Anastasia, later research did prove that Ivan’s suspicions were correct.

Sounds familiar? Ivan’s mother was also(likely) poisoned by the boyars. Throughout his life, he lost two of the most important women in his life, all due to poisoning, and all due to boyars. His paranoia about losing his loved ones became real. The tsar was back to his old suspicious, restless, and violent self.

The angry, grief-stricken Tsar took out his anger on the boyars, whom he had hated for his whole life. He had many of them executed for murdering his wife.

But you thought this was over? Hell no, this was just the beginning.

Siege of Narva by the Russians in 1558
By Boris Chorikov (c. 1836)

About the same time as Anastasia’s death, the country was at war with neighboring states of Poland-Lithuania and Sweden(Livonian War). The Tsar desperately wanted access to the Baltic Sea to open up more trading and to expand Russian territories by gaining control over the nearby weaker Baltic countries. It was then that the tsar’s most trusted friend/advisor, Andrei Kubsky, decided that he had had enough of the Tsar’s increasingly violent demeanor. Correspondingly, he defected to Poland-Lithuania in 1564 and led their army to success in clashes with Russia. 

The death of his wife and the betrayal of his best friend devastated the Tsar. He grew ever more paranoid of being betrayed, and so did his hatred for the nobility grow. His devastation soon turned into a deadly storm, and he had to find an outlet to let out his emotions.

And who other than the people would be a better choice? 

Storming terror

Secret Departure of Ivan IV before the Oprichnina
By Mikhail Panin

In 1564, Ivan left Moscow to live in the countryside and announced that he would like to abdicate. Boyars and the peasants panicked, how can the nation function without the Tsar? Frantically, The boyars begged the tsar to return to power. The tsar agreed to do so but on one condition. 

He demanded the boyars to grant him absolute power, that he can do anything he wanted without the interference of the boyars. Reluctantly, the boyars agreed, and his reign of terror began. 

Swiftly after returning to Moscow, he split the nation into two parts. One was the Oprichnina, where the Tsar had absolute power over everything in the territory; the other was the Zemshchina, where the boyars ruled just like before. Inside the Oprichnina, the Tsar set up the Oprichniki, a fleet of 6000 men that swore allegiance to the Tsar. 

The tsar used the Oprichniki to oppress, torture and murder anyone who dared challenge the Tsar. Under the leadership of Malyuta Skuratov, a famed sadist who enjoyed raping married women, the Oprichniki achieved massive success in terrorizing the Oprichnina. 

The black robes and dog heads of the Oprichniki became a symbol of tragedy as the fearless fleet marched on roads, flooding them with crimson blood. Regardless of social class, every person in the country lived in fear. 

At the height of Ivan the Terrible’s continuous fear and paranoia, he received “news” that the city of Novgorod was plotting to betray Russia and join Lithuania. As Ivan succumbed to rage, he led his troops to raid Novgorod. 

It was Oprichniki’s most vicious masterpiece. They looted and massacred anyone or anything in the city, sending the once-prosperous city into decline. It was estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 died in the unfortunate event. 

Killing his son

As the Tsar grew older, his mental health was getting more and more unstable. One day, he came across his son Ivan(yes, another Ivan)’s wife. Believing that she was dressing inappropriately, the Tsar beat his pregnant daughter-in-law until she miscarried. 

Furious, Ivan the younger went to confront his father. Infuriated by his son’s behavior and driven by rage, the Tsar hit his son’s head with a scepter. Consequently, his son fell unconscious from the powerful hit, with blood gushing out of his forehead. Not long later, he lay dead in the old Tsar’s arms. 

Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16th November 1581
By Ilya Repin (c. 1883-1885)

The old, mad Ivan had killed his own son, one of his only remaining children with dear Anastasia. 

Realizing what he had done, the tsar hugged his son’s fresh corpse in his arms and drowned himself in tears. 

“My God, what have I done!” He wailed. 

Because he killed his own son, the tsar’s sole heir was now his younger son by Anastasia, the sick, unprepared Feodor. After Ivan’s death in 1984, Feodor ascended to the throne.

Feodor’s childlessness at the end of his reign caused the opening of the Time of Troubles. Another chaotic period in Russian history, but that’s a story for another time.

Conclusion

Ivan’s wild, impulsive and bitter outburst of fury and revenge on his people earned him the nickname “the terrible”. Although he fully deserved and lived up to the title, it is hard to ignore the unfortunate events that deeply harmed him. 

Since he was a boy, he did not grow up in a safe, protective, and loving environment. He was an unloved and lonely child. His early life was literally Hunger Games in real life, even though he was a prince, he had to fight to survive. During the crucial years of character development, he spent his life in misery, despair, fear, and bitter anger. This mixed pot of negative feelings integrated into his personality, becoming a part of him. 

Research showed that many unloved children developed problems such as lack of trust and mental health issues as they grew up. Ivan was no exception, he was constantly suspicious of the boyars and his people for plotting against him and trying to take his throne. 

Undoubtedly, Anastasia’s death and Kurbsky’s betrayal took a heavy toll on the Tsar’s frail mental health. In the end, his inability to control his rage arising from personal issues eventually harmed the entire nation, and even his own beloved ones.

Silver lining

The only silver lining we could learn from Ivan the Terrible’s story is that scars from childhood abuse and trauma can be healed, or at least relieved. From the great policies enacted during Ivan’s early reign and how things took a dramatic twist swiftly after Anastasia’s death, we can conclude that his loving relationship with his wife may be related to his great reign in the early days. 

Anastasia’s mild, gentle character and affection for Ivan may have influenced the tsar. Had she lived longer, she might be able to change his twisted character that was full of angst. Unfortunately, she died young. The Tsar reverted back to his unloved past, plunged into the abyss of rage. 

Abusive behavior can have a long term impact, and the children affected by such traumatic experiences would take a long time to recover, or even never recover. A more concerning issue is that many people who experienced child abuse would go on and abuse others, causing even more traumatizing experiences for people. 

Therefore, it is crucial for us to stop neglecting the problem of child abuse in order to prevent anyone from entering the vicious cycle. In a world full of unrest, we must take action to combat social problems. 


That brings us to the end of this post.

What part of Ivan the Terrible’s legendary life did you find fascinating?

Let me know by leaving a comment!


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1 comment on First Tsar of Russia: Why was Ivan the Terrible so terrible?

To learn more about Ivan the Terrible, check out my references for this article attached below!

Documentaries/Videos:

Ivan the Terrible (2014)

Biographics—Ivan the Terrible: The first Stalin

History Tea Time with Lindsay Holiday—The 6 to 8 wives of Ivan the Terrible

Articles:

Britannica—Ivan the Terrible

Russia Beyond—‘Dog-headed people’: What was Ivan the Terrible’s ‘oprichnina’ force

How Being Unloved in Childhood May Affect You as an Adult

Books:

Medieval Russia. 980-1584, by Janet Martin

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