Ivan IV (August 25, 1530–March 18, 1584) was the first ruler of Russia to assume the title of tsar. He is also known as Ivan the Terrible (Ива́н Гро́зный, Ivan Grozny). This tsar retains his place in the Russian folk tradition simply as Ivan Vasilyevich (Ива́н Васи́льевич), Vasily III's son.
Ivan came to the throne at age three and was crowned tsar at age sixteen on January 16, 1547. The early part of his reign was one of peaceful reforms and modernization. Ivan revised the law code, created a standing army, established the Zemsky Sobor, the council of the nobles, and subordinated the church to the state, making a system of rituals and regulations. During his reign the first printing press was introduced to Russia (although the first Russian printers Ivan Fedorov and Pyotr Mstislavets had to flee from Moscow to Grand Duchy of Lithuania).
Ivan formed new trading connections, opening up the White Sea and the port of Archangel to English merchants. He also annexed the Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates to the east. He had St. Basil's Cathedral constructed in Moscow to commemorate the seizure of Kazan. Legend has it that he was so impressed with the structure that he had the architects blinded, so that they could never design anything as beautiful again. Other less positive aspects of this period include the introduction of the first laws restricting the mobility of the peasants, which would eventually lead to serfdom. Also problematic was the 1564 formation of the Oprichnina (or Ochrana (Охрана), meaning security). The Oprichnina was the section of Russia directly ruled by Ivan and policed by his personal servicemen, the Oprichniks. This whole system of Oprichnina was intended as a tool against the omnipotent hereditary nobility of Russia (boyars) who opposed the absolutist drive of the tsar.
The latter half of Ivan's reign was far less successful. Ivan launched a victorious war of seaward expansion only to find himself fighting the Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles, and the Livonian Teutonic Knights. For twenty-two years the Livonian War dragged on, damaging the Russian economy and military but winning it no territory. Ivan's best friend and closest advisor, Prince Andrei Kurbsky, defected to the Poles, deeply hurting Ivan. At the same time his wife Anastacia died, perhaps murdered by the boyars from mercury poisoning. Ivan also became very sick and physically disabled.
Because he gradually grew unbalanced and violent, the Oprichniks soon got out of hand and became murderous thugs. They murdered nobles and peasants, and conscripted men to fight the war in Livonia. Depopulation and famine ensued. What had been by far the richest area of Russia became the poorest. In a dispute with Novgorod Republic, Ivan ordered the Oprichniks to murder the inhabitants of this city. Between thirty and forty thousand were killed. Yet the official death toll named 1,500 of Novgorod big people (nobility) and only mentioned about the same number of smaller people. In 1581, Ivan Grozny beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for wearing immodest clothing, causing a miscarriage. His son Ivan, upon learning of this, engaged in a heated argument with his father which resulted in his (accidental) death. This event is depicted in the famous painting by Ilya Repin, Ivan the Terrible is killing his son.
Ivan died suddenly on 18 March 1584, a date which had previously been prophecised for his death. When Ivan's tomb was opened during renovations in the 1960s his remains were examined and discovered to contain very high amounts of mercury, indicating a high probability that he was poisoned, modern suspicion falling on his advisors Bogdan Belsky and Boris Godunov (the latter of whom himself became tsar in 1598). Upon Ivan's death the now ravaged kingdom was left to his unfit and childless son Feodor.
Ivan's life forms the subject of two famous films by Sergei Eisenstein.
The English word terrible is usually used to translate the Russian word grozny in Ivan's nickname, but the modern English usage of terrible, with a pejorative connotation of bad or evil, does not precisely represent the intended meaning. Grozny's meaning is closer to the original usage of terrible—inspiring fear or terror, dangerous (as in Old English in one's danger), formidable, or awesome. (Compare the city name Grozny.)
- BBC History page - Ivan the Terrible (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/ivan/ivanmain.shtml)
- "The Terrible Ivan" (http://mars.acnet.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/russia/lectures/09ivanIV.html)
- "Mad Monarchs" - Ivan IV (http://www.xs4all.nl/~kvenjb/madmonarchs/ivan4/ivan4_bio.htm)
- British Film Institute - About Eisensteins' films (http://www.bfi.org.uk/bookvid/books/catalogue/details.php?bookid=252)