The Oprichnina of Ivan the Terrible: Part 1 - Creation

The Oprichniks by Nikolai Nevrev
The Oprichniks by Nikolai Nevrev. Wikimedia Commons

Ivan IV of Russia's oprichnina is frequently portrayed as some sort of hell, a time of mass torture and death overseen by sinister black-robed monks, who obeyed their insane Tsar and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent people. The reality is somewhat different, and although the events that created, and eventually ended, the oprichnina are well known, the underlying motives and causes are still unclear.

The Creation of the Oprichnina

In the final months of 1564 Tsar Ivan IV of Russia announced an intention to abdicate; he promptly left Moscow with much of his treasure and only a few trusted retainers. They went to Alekandrovsk, a small, but fortified, town to the north where Ivan isolated himself. His only contact with Moscow was through two letters: the first attacking the boyars and the church, and a second reassuring the people of Muscovy that he still cared for them. The boyars were the most powerful non-royal aristocrats in Russia at this time, and they had long disagreed with the ruling family.

Ivan may not have been overly popular with the ruling classes - numerous rebellions had been plotted - but without him a struggle for power was inevitable, and a civil war probable. Ivan had already had success and turned the Grand Prince of Moscow into Tsar of All the Russias, and Ivan was asked - some might say begged - to return, but the Tsar made several clear demands: he wanted to create an oprichnina, a territory within Muscovy governed solely and absolutely by him.

He also wanted the power to deal with traitors as he wished. Under pressure from the church and the people, the Council of Boyars agreed.

Where was the Oprichnina?

Ivan returned and divided the country into two: the oprichnina and the zemschina. The former was to be his private domain, constructed from any land and property he wished and run by his own administration, the oprichniki.

Estimates vary, but between one third and one half of Muscovy became oprichnina. Situated mainly in the north, this land was a piecemeal selection of wealthy and important areas, ranging from whole towns, of which the oprichnina included about twenty, to individual buildings. Moscow was carved up street by street, and sometimes building by building. Existing landowners were often evicted, and their fates varied from resettlement to execution. The rest of Muscovy became the zemschina, which continued to operate under the existing governmental and legal institutions, with a puppet Grand Prince in charge. (16th Century Account)

Why Create an Oprichnina?

Some narratives portray Ivan's flight and threat to abdicate as a fit of pique, or a form of madness stemming from his wife's death in 1560. It is more likely that these actions were a shrewd political trick, albeit tinged with paranoia, designed to give Ivan the bargaining power he needed to rule absolutely. By using his two letters to attack the leading boyars and churchman while also praising the populace, the Tsar had placed great pressure on his would-be opponents, who now faced the possibility of losing public support. This gave Ivan leverage, which he used to create a whole new realm of government.

If Ivan had been acting simply out of madness, he was brilliantly opportunistic.

The actual creation of the oprichnina has been viewed in many ways: an isolated kingdom where Ivan could rule by fear, a concerted effort to destroy the Boyars and seize their wealth, or even as an experiment in governing. In practice, the creation of this realm gave Ivan the chance to solidify his power. By seizing strategic and wealthy land the Tsar could employ his own army and bureaucracy, while reducing the strength of his boyar opponents. Loyal members of the lower classes could be promoted, rewarded with new oprichnina land, and given the task of working against traitors. Ivan was able to tax the zemschina and overrule its institutions, while the oprichniki could travel through the whole of the country at will.

But did Ivan intend this? During the 1550's and early 1560's the Tsar's power had come under attack from boyar plots, failure in the Livonian war, and his own temperament. Ivan had fallen ill in 1553 and ordered the ruling boyars to swear oaths of loyalty to his baby son, Dimitrii; several refused, favouring Prince Vladimir Staritsky instead. When the Tsarina died in 1560 Ivan suspected poison, and two of the Tsar's previously loyal advisors were subjected to a rigged trial and sent away to their deaths. This situation began to spiral, and as Ivan was growing to hate the boyars, so his allies were growing concerned with him. Some began to defect, culminating in 1564 when Prince Andery Kurbsky, one of the Tsar's leading military commanders, fled to Poland.

Clearly, these events could be interpreted as either contributing to vengeful and paranoid destruction, or indicating a need for political manipulation. However, when Ivan came to the throne in 1547, after a chaotic and boyar led regency, the Tsar immediately introduced reforms aimed at reorganising the country, to strengthen both the military, and his own power. The oprichnina could well have been a rather extreme extension of this policy. Equally, he could have gone completely mad. (Reformer or Tyrant?)


The Oprichniki

The oprichniki played a central role in Ivan's oprichnina; they were the soldiers and ministers, the police and the bureaucrats. Drawn mainly from the lower levels of the military and society, each member was questioned and their past checked. Those that passed were rewarded with land, property and payments. The result was a cadre of individuals whose loyalty to the Tsar was without question, and which included very few boyars.

Their numbers grew from 1000 to 6000 between 1565 - 72, and included some foreigners. The oprichniks precise role is unclear, partly because it changed over time, and partly because historians have very few contemporary records from which to work. Some commentators call them bodyguards, while others see them as a new, hand-picked, nobility designed to replace the boyars. The oprichniks have even been described as the 'original' Russian secret police, an ancestor of the KGB.

The oprichniki are often described in semi-mythical terms, and it's easy to see why. They dressed in black: black clothes, black horses and black carriages. They used the broom and the dog's head as their symbols, one representing the 'sweeping away' of traitors, and the other 'snapping at the heels' of their enemies; it is possible that some oprichniks carried actual brooms and severed dogs heads. Answerable only to Ivan and their own commanders, these individuals had free run of the country, oprichnina and zemschina, and a prerogative to remove traitors.

Although they sometimes used false charges and forged documents, as in the case of Prince Staritsky who was executed after his cook 'confessed', this was normally unnecessary. Having created a climate of fear and murder, the oprichniki could just exploit the human propensity to 'inform' on enemies; besides, this black clad corps could kill anyone they wished.

The Terror

The stories associated with the oprichniks range from the grotesque and outlandish, to the equally grotesque and factual. People were impaled and mutilated, while whipping, torture and rapes were common. The Oprichniki Palace features in many tales: Ivan built this in Moscow, and the dungeons were supposedly full of prisoners, of which at least twenty were tortured to death everyday in front of the laughing Tsar. The actual height of this terror is well documented. In 1570 Ivan and his men attacked the city of Novgorod, which the Tsar believed was planning to ally with Lithuania. Using forged documents as a pretext, thousands were hanged, drowned or deported, while the buildings and countryside were plundered and destroyed. Estimates of the death toll vary between 15,000 and 60,000 people. A similar, but less brutal, sacking of Pskov followed this, as did the execution of zemschina officials in Moscow.

Ivan alternated between periods of savagery and piety, often sending great memorial payments and treasure to monasteries. During one such period the Tsar endowed a new monastic order, which was to draw its brothers from the oprichniks. Although this foundation did not turn the oprichniki into a corrupted church of sadistic monks (as some accounts might claim), it did became an instrument interwoven in both church and state, further blurring the organisation's role.

The oprichniks also acquired a reputation in the rest of Europe: Prince Kurbsky, who had fled Muscovy in 1564, described them as "children of darkness...hundreds and thousands of times worse than hangmen." (Bonney, The European Dynastic States, Oxford, 1991, pg. 277).

Like most organizations that rule through terror, the oprichniki also began to cannibalize itself. Internal quarrels and rivalries led many oprichniki leaders to accuse each other of treason, and increasing numbers of zemschina officials were drafted in as replacements. Leading Muscovite families attempted to join, seeking protection through membership. Perhaps crucially, the oprichniki did not act in a pure orgy of bloodshed; they achieved motives and aims in a calculating and cruel manner.  


The End of the Oprichniki

After the attacks on Novgorod and Pskov Ivan may well have turned his attention to Moscow, however, other forces got there first. In 1571 an army of Crimean Tartars devastated the city, burning large tracts of land and enslaving tens of thousands of people. With the oprichnina having clearly failed to defend the country, and growing number of oprichniks implicated in treachery, Ivan abolished it in 1572.

The resulting process of reintegration was never entirely completed, as Ivan created other similar bodies throughout his life; none became as notorious as the oprichnina.

Consequences of the Oprichniki

The Tartar attack highlighted the damage that the oprichnina had caused. The boyars were the political, economic and social heart of Muscovy, and by undermining their power and resources the Tsar began to destroy the infrastructure of his country. Trade decreased and the divided military became ineffectual against other troops. Constant changes in government caused internal chaos, while the skilled and peasant classes began to leave Muscovy, driven out by rising taxes and almost indiscriminate murder. Some areas had become so depopulated that agriculture collapsed, and the Tsar's external enemies had begun to exploit these weaknesses. The Tartars attacked Moscow again in 1572, but were comprehensively beaten by a newly reintegrated army; this was a small valediction of Ivan's change in policy.

What did the oprichnina ultimately achieve? It helped centralise power around the Tsar, creating a rich and strategic network of personal holdings through which Ivan could challenge the old nobility and create a loyal government. Land confiscation, exile and execution shattered the boyars, and the oprichniki formed a new nobility: although some land was returned after 1572, much of it remained in the hands of the oprichniks.

It is still a matter for debate among historians as to how much of this Ivan really intended. Conversely, the brutal enforcement of these changes and the constant pursuit of traitors did more than simply split the country in two. The population was markedly reduced, economic systems were damaged, and the strength of Moscow reduced in the eyes of its enemies.

For all the talk of centralising political power and restructuring landed wealth, the oprichnina will always be remembered as a time of terror. The image of black clothed investigators with unaccountable power remains effective and haunting, while their use of cruel and brutal punishments has guaranteed them a nightmarish mythology, only enhanced by their monastic connections. The actions of the oprichnina, coupled with the lack of documentation, have also greatly affected the question of Ivan's sanity. For many, the period 1565 - 72 suggests that he was paranoid and vindictive, although some prefer plain mad. Centuries later, Stalin praised the oprichnina for it's role in damaging the boyar aristocracy and enforcing central government (and he knew a thing or two about oppressing and terror).  


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Wilde, Robert. "The Oprichnina of Ivan the Terrible: Part 1 - Creation." ThoughtCo, Feb. 12, 2016, Wilde, Robert. (2016, February 12). The Oprichnina of Ivan the Terrible: Part 1 - Creation. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Oprichnina of Ivan the Terrible: Part 1 - Creation." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 21, 2017).