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Ivan The Terrible: Was He Really That Terrible?

a person riding a horse in front of a dinosaur

Ivan IV Vasilyevich (August 25, 1530 – March 18, 1584) is known as Ivan the Terrible because of his cruelty. Because of such a by-name people suppose that he was no one but a tyrant.

Could he been described as terrible if he had acted as a good ruler? Sometimes history calls names so that it is impossible to judge somebody by his merits. Some kind of it happened to Ivan IV.

The biography of Ivan IV

The childhood of Ivan affected his personality a lot. The long-awaited son of Vasily III (also Basil III) lost his father at the age of 3.

His mother, Elena Glinskaya, ruled as regent until her death in 1538 so Ivan became an orphan when he was 8 years old. Evidence indicate that he was very intelligent and sensitive boy. Further, Ivan’s regents the “boyars” that is Russian name for the nobles fought for power instead of educating the boy.

The court intrigue and constant danger that Ivan was exposed to while growing up formed much of his ruthless and suspicious nature. Moreover, Ivan IV believed that his mother was murdered and suspected the nobles of being involved in his mother’s death. He hated the royal class but had to make up his mind with them until he was underage.
Ivan the terrible head

Monomakh’s Cap

Monomakh’s Cap (also the Golden Cap) was the crown of Ivan the Terrible. According to the legend the Cap is of Byzantine origin and had been presented by the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX. As Ivan IV was crowned the 1st Russian Czar he needed to explain the title.

He told that whoever is crowned with Monomakh’s Cap is traditionally called a tsar, because it was a gift from a tsar. However, it is quite obvious that the crown is of Asian origin. The Golden Cap is currently exhibited at the Kremlin Armoury with the other crowns of Russia.

It’s believed that the miserable childhood of Ivan IV largely explains his hatred of the boyars and his later repressions against them. Ivan dreamed of unlimited power. In 1547 he was crowned Tsar (or Czar) of Russia. He was the first ruler of that title. Czar was translated into foreign languages as king or emperor that made Ivan equal to the most european rulers.

Historians view

Historians divide the reign of Ivan (1533-1584) into 2 periods: constructive period and the second one called “oprichnina”.

Ivan IV started as a reformer who modernized and centralized the country. During the first period of his government he:

  • appointed a council of advisers who helped him to institute numerous reforms;

  • implemented number of reforms such as military (Ivan IV created elite standing army); judicial reform (he revised the law code called “sydebnic”); church reform; reform of tax collection;

  • acquired the lands of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia;

  • introduced local self-management in rural regions;

  • the first printing Russian press was introduced at that time;

Ivan IV the terrible

Saint Basil’s Cathedral legend

Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow (also Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat) commemorates the conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan. The building is shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky. There are no analogues among Russian churches.

There is one legend about the Cathedral’s architect. It says that Ivan the Terrible had put eyes of the architects of St. Basil’s out after the cathedral was erected so that they would not be able to build an equally beautiful church anywhere else.

However that was not enough for Ivan the Terrible. He dreamed of being an absolute monarch and reforms implemented by him before could not ensure the autocracy in Russia. His background always reminded him of the power of the nobles who used to stage coups.

Oprichnina time

All this circumstances forced Czar to move on to another governing style. Ivan the Terrible created a centrally controlled Russian state, imposed by military dominance. That was the period of so-called “oprichnina” (1565-1572).

The term ”oprichnina” was initially used to denote payments to widows of noblemen after their death. But when oprichnina policies took over the country it became to mean mass torture and death. The country was divided into 2 parts: one also called oprichnina was the territory where Ivan the Terrible ruled directly. It was like his own fued where no law existed at all.

Ivan the Terrible picture

Ilya Repin “Ivan the Terrible and his son” 1885 (Tretyakov Gallery) . One of violent outbursts of Ivan the Terrible was perhaps the reason for his son’s death.

Controversial legacy

The role of Ivan the Terrible in Russian history is still disputed. A cruel monarch, he was also a prominent theologian, an great public speaker and one of the most well-educated people of his time.

Even Ivan has left a controversial legacy. On the one hand the country was kind of ruined after his ruling, on the other hand he was a great reformer. The cultural heritage left after him is really “must see”.

Talking about his nickname The Terrible, it is supposed that the nickname Ivan the Formidable would have described his personality better.

Post written by Yulia Savkina.