Biography of Ivan the Terrible, First Tsar of Russia

Ivan united Russia under autocratic rule

Portrait of Ivan the Terrible in royal regalia
1897 painting of Ivan the Terrible by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov.

Wikimedia Commons / Tretyakov Gallery

Ivan the Terrible, born Ivan IV Vasilyevich (August 25, 1530 – March 28, 1584), was the Grand Prince of Moscow and the first Tsar of Russia. Under his rule, Russia transformed from a loosely connected group of individual medieval states into a modern empire. The Russian word translated “terrible” in his name carries positive connotations of being admirable and formidable, not evil or frightening.

Fast Facts: Ivan the Terrible

  • Full Name: Ivan IV Vasilyevich
  • Occupation: Tsar of Russia
  • Born: August 25, 1530 in Kolomenskoye, Grand Duchy of Moscow
  • Died: March 28, 1584 in Moscow, Russia
  • Parents: Vasili III, Grand Prince of Moscow, and Elena Glinskaya
  • Spouses: Anastasia Romanovna (m. 1547-1560), Maria Temryukovna (m. 1561-1569), Marfa Sobakina (m. October-November 1571), Anna Koltovskaya (m. 1572, sent to monastery).
  • Children: 3 daughters and 4 sons. Only two survived to adulthood: Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich (1554-1581) and Tsar Feodor I (1557-1598).
  • Key Accomplishments: Ivan IV, aka "Ivan the Terrible," was the first tsar of a united Russia, previously an assortment of duchies. He expanded Russian borders and reformed its government, but also laid the foundation for absolute rule that would eventually bring down the Russian monarchy, centuries later.

Early Life

Ivan was the eldest son of Vasili III, Grand Prince of Moscow, and his second wife Elena Glinskaya, a noblewoman from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Only the first few years of his life were anything resembling normal. When Ivan was only 3 years old, his father died after an abscess on his leg led to blood poisoning. Ivan was named the Grand Prince of Moscow and his mother Elena was his regent. Elena’s regency only lasted five years before she died, most likely in a poisoning assassination, leaving the realm in the hands of feuding noble families and leaving Ivan and his brother Yuri alone.

The struggles that Ivan and Yuri faced are not well documented, but what is certain is that Ivan had very little power of his own growing up. Instead, politics were handled by the noble boyars. Upon turning sixteen, Ivan was crowned at the Cathedral of the Dormition, the first ruler to be crowned as “Tsar of All the Russias” rather than as a Grand Prince. He claimed ancestry going back to Kievan Rus, an old Russian kingdom that had fallen to the Mongols centuries earlier, and his grandfather, Ivan III, had consolidated many Russian territories under Moscow’s control.

Expansions and Reforms

Only two weeks after his coronation, Ivan married Anastasia Romanova, the first woman to bear the formal title of tsarina and a member of the Romanov family, who would come to power after Ivan’s Rurik dynasty faltered after his death. The couple would go on to have three daughters and three sons, including Ivan’s eventual successor, Feodor I.

Almost immediately, Ivan was faced with a major crisis when the Great Fire of 1547 swept through Moscow, devastating huge portions of the city and leaving thousands dead or homeless. Blame fell on Ivan’s maternal Glinski relatives, and their power was all but destroyed. Aside from this disaster, however, Ivan’s early reign was relatively peaceful, leaving him time to make major reforms. He updated the legal code, created a parliament and a council of nobles, introduced local self-government to rural areas, founded a standing army, and established the use of the printing press, all within the first few years of his reign.

The onion spires of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow
St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow is one of the iconic images of Russia to this day. WorldWide Images / Getty Images

Ivan also opened up Russia to a certain amount of international trade. He allowed the English Muscovy Company to access and trade with his country and even struck up a correspondence with Queen Elizabeth I. Nearer to home, he took advantage of pro-Russia sentiments in nearby Kazan and conquered his Tatar neighbors, leading to annexation of the entire Middle Volga region. To commemorate his conquest, Ivan had several churches built, most famously St. Basil’s Cathedral, now the iconic image of Moscow’s Red Square. Contrary to legend, he did not force the architect to be blinded after completing the cathedral; architect Postnik Yakovlev went on to design several other churches. Ivan’s reign also saw Russian exploration and expansion into the northern region of Siberia.

Increased Turmoil

The 1560s brought major turmoil both domestically and internationally. Ivan launched the Livonian War in an unsuccessful attempt to gain access to the Baltic Sea trade routes. At the same time, Ivan suffered personal losses: his wife Anastasia died in suspected poisoning, and one of his closest advisors, Prince Andrei Kurbsky, turned traitor and defected to the Lithuanians, destroying a region of Russian territory. In 1564, Ivan announced he intended to abdicate due to these ongoing betrayals. Unable to rule, the boyars (nobles) begged him to return, and he did so, under the condition that he be allowed to become an absolute ruler.

Upon returning, Ivan created the oprichnina, a sub-territory that owed allegiance solely to Ivan, not to the government as a whole. With the help of a newly-formed personal guard, Ivan began persecuting and executing the boyars who he claimed were conspiring against him. His guards, called oprichniks, were given the lands of the executed nobles and were not held accountable to anyone; as a result, the lives of the peasantry suffered greatly under their new lords and their subsequent mass exodus drove up the prices of grain.

Depiction of the Oprichniki reporting to Ivan the Terrible
Ivan's Oprichniki reported only to him (Painting by Nikolai Nevrev, circa 1870). Wikimedia Commons

Ivan eventually remarried, first to Maria Temryukovna in 1561 until her death in 1569; they had a son, Vasili. From then on, his marriages were more and more disastrous. He had two more wives who were officially married to him in the church, as well as three unsanctioned marriages or mistresses. During this period, he also launched the Russo-Turkish War, which lasted until a 1570 peace treaty.

That same year, Ivan carried out one of the lowest points in his reign: the sacking of Novgorod. Convinced that the citizens of Novgorod, who were suffering from an epidemic and a famine, were planning to defect to Lithuania, Ivan ordered the city destroyed and its citizens captured, tortured, and executed on false charges of treason–including children. This atrocity would be the last stand of his oprichniks; in the Russo-Crimean war of 1571, they were disastrous when faced with a real army and were disbanded within a year or so.

Final Years and Legacy

Russia’s conflicts with its Crimean neighbors continued throughout Ivan’s reign. In 1572, however, they overextended themselves, and the Russian army was able to decisively end the hopes of Crimea—and their patrons, the Ottomans—to expand and conquer into Russian territory.

Ivan’s personal paranoia and instability grew as he aged, leading to tragedy. In 1581, he beat his daughter-in-law Elena because he believed she had dressed too immodestly; she may have been pregnant at the time. His eldest son, Elena’s husband Ivan, confronted him, frustrated over his father’s interference in his life (Ivan the elder had sent both of his son’s prior wives to convents when they failed to produce heirs immediately). The father and son came to blows, with Ivan accusing his son of conspiracy, and he struck his son with his scepter or walking stick. The blow proved to be fatal, and the tsarevich died a few days later, to his father’s intense grief.

Painting of Ivan beside where his son Ivan lies in state.
Painting by Vyacheslav Schwarz of Ivan beside his dead son Ivan, circa 1864. Wikimedia Commons / The York Project 

In his final years, Ivan was plagued by physical weakness, nearly unable to move at some points. His health deteriorated, and he died of a stroke on March 28, 1584. Since his son Ivan, who had been trained for ruling, was dead, the throne passed to his second son, Feodor, who was an unfit ruler and died childless, leading to Russia’s “Time of Troubles” that would not end until Michael I of the house of Romanov took the throne in 1613.

Ivan left behind a legacy of systemic reform, laying the groundwork for the Russian state apparatus going forward. His obsession with conspiracy and authoritarian rule, however, also left a legacy of imperial absolute power and autocracy, which, centuries later, would chafe the Russian population to the point of revolution.

Sources

  • Bobrick, Benson. Ivan the Terrible. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1990.
  • Madariaga, Isabel de. Ivan the Terrible. First Tsar of Russia. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Payne, Robert, and Romanoff, Nikita. Ivan the Terrible. Lanham, Maryland: Cooper Square Press, 2002.