10 Facts About Ivan the Terrible | History Hit

10 Facts About Ivan the Terrible

Richard Bevan

05 Jan 2022
A 19th century painting of Ivan the Terrible showing his treasures to Elizabeth I's ambassador.
Image Credit: Public Domain

Ivan IV Vasilyevich (1530-1584), more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible, is one of history’s most notorious rulers. As the first tsar of Russia, Ivan earned infamy for his ruthlessness and cruelty.

Though his reign began in relative peace, it descended into tyranny. His rule saw the undermining of the Russian aristocracy, whom Ivan distrusted, and the introduction of a political police force who conducted countless murders and assassinations on his behalf. Perhaps most notoriously, in 1581, Ivan violently murdered his own son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich, in a fit of rage.

Ivan the Terrible’s contradictory personality demonstrated a combination of acute intelligence and religious devotion, but also a mind prone to paranoia and episodic outbreaks of violent instability.

Here are 10 facts about Ivan the Terrible.

1. He had a difficult childhood

When Ivan was just 3 years old his father, Vasili III, died from disease, leaving Ivan’s mother, Elena Glinskaya, as regent. Paranoid about assassins, she insisted her son be surrounded by armed guards. Elena died on 4 April 1538, possibly assassinated, and Ivan found himself trapped in a whirlwind of cruelty by the governors who ruled Russia.

An illustration of the wedding of Vasily III and Elena Glinskaya, Ivan’s parents.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Despite living in a palace, young Ivan was neglected, left in rags and forced to beg for food. Witnessing brutal murders and acts of torture as a child, he was to develop a sadistic nature which started with the torturing of cats when he was 12.

The young prince ordered his first murder of a boyar (aristocrat) when he was 13 and began plotting his revenge against those that treated him badly. His vengeful plans, particularly against powerful and rich boyars, were implemented shortly after he became the first tsar of Russia at 16 in 1547.

2. He was never expected to rule

Ivan the Terrible was never expected to rule. His poor health as a youth, coupled with the perceived mental failings of his deaf brother, Yuri Vasilievich, meant that the ruling elite and politicians ignored him as a contender for the throne, neglecting his wellbeing after his mother Elena died.

3. He achieved an important victory over Kazan

When Ivan was crowned tsar, the hostile khanate of Kazan sat on the fringes of the tsar’s power and was seen as a threat. The city of Kazan was the capital of a medieval Tatar Turkic state with a Muslim-Bulgar population who Ivan regarded as enemy infidels. Russia launched failed campaigns against Kazan in 1547 and 1549.

On 16 June 1552, Ivan headed a new campaign against the khanate and rode out at the head of a large army. It was Ivan’s first major war and imperative that he succeeded. On 2 September, Ivan’s army laid siege to Kazan and cut off supplies and destroyed access to drinking water before the city fell on 13 October 1552.

After Kazan’s fall, Ivan was seen as a glorious victor in Russia.

4. He created Russia’s first secret police

Ivan created the first political and feared secret police in the history of Russia, called the Oprichniki. This army consisted of around 6,000 men dressed in black, who rode black horses and drove in black carriages to instil fear. The soldiers considered themselves above the law and committed horrific acts of torture, rape and murder.

With Ivan’s blessing, the Oprichniki targeted boyar families, seizing their wealth, driving them into exile and turning many into refugees or simply killing them.

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5. He despised the boyars of Russia

Ivan grew more erratic and paranoid throughout his reign, especially after enduring traumatic events such as losing a young son to illness and believing his much-loved wife, Anastasia, was assassinated by his enemies.

His growing paranoia was compounded by a sense of distrust of close members of his circle and a belief that the boyars were out to get him. Ivan’s suspicions of the Russian aristocrats worsened when they refused to swear an oath to his young son Dimitri after rumours emerged that Ivan was dying.

6. He killed his own son

‘Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan on November 16, 1581’ by Ilya Repin

Image Credit: Tretyakov Gallery via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In November 1581, Ivan attacked his pregnant daughter-in-law, Yelena Sheremeteva, possibly due to her wearing clothing he deemed immodest. The vicious beating is thought to have caused her to suffer a miscarriage.

When his son confronted Ivan over the matter, a violent outburst resulted in Ivan striking his son’s head with his staff and continuing to violently hit him until the skull was broken. The younger Ivan died from his injuries as the remorseful tsar purportedly wailed, “may I be damned! I’ve killed my son!”

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7. He created the first publishing house in Russia

The Moscow Print Yard was the first publishing house in Russia. It was established in Kitay-gorod (a cultural and historical area of Moscow) under the instruction of Ivan the Terrible in 1553. Destroyed by fire in 1612, it was rebuilt in 1625 creating a two-story chamber that employed seven typesetters and 80 employees from the Kremlin.

A second fire in 1634 saw the complex rebuilt again with new stone chambers for the publishing house. Among producing thousands of books and manuscripts, the Print Yard also published the first Russian newspaper, Vedomosti.

8. He oversaw the construction of St Basil’s Cathedral

Ivan had the iconic St Basil’s Cathedral constructed in 1561 in Moscow’s Red Square, to commemorate the seizure of Kazan city.

One legend associated with the cathedral, although most likely a myth, is that having been so overwhelmed by the beauty of the building Ivan had the architect Postnik Yakovlev blinded so that he would never design and build anything as beautiful for anyone else. As Yakovlev did go on to construct other structures, the story about the brutal blinding can probably be taken with a pinch of salt.

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow.

Image Credit: Anton Zelenov. / CC

9. He had 8 wives

Surpassing England’s Henry VIII, Ivan married 8 women in total, although only 4 were officially recognised by the church. 3 of his wives were allegedly killed through poison or assassination, although there is no evidence of who was responsible. Most likely such murderous actions were carried out by Ivan’s enemies or aristocratic families who wanted to promote their daughters to be replacement brides.

10. He believed in his absolute right to rule

Ivan was a keen follower of Christian Orthodoxy. He encouraged the church’s freedoms to a point, providing its power didn’t encroach on his own authority. Ivan staunchly defended his right to power as a divine gift under God. This concept of the ‘divine right to rule’ would have been trusted by various monarchs, of differing denominations, across Europe at the time. Similarly, the emperors of China considered their right to rule a ‘mandate of heaven’.

Richard Bevan