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Ivan IV Vasilyevich - Ivan the Terrible

Ivan Chetvyorty, Vasilyevich; 25 August 1530 - 28 March 1584), known in English as Ivan the Terrible was Grand prince of Moscow from 1533. His long reign saw the conquest of the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia, transforming Russia into a multiethnic and multiconfessional state spanning almost one billion acres, approximately 130 km2 (50 sq mi) a day.
Ivan oversaw numerous changes in the transition from a medieval nation state to an empire and emerging regional power, and became the first Tsar of a new and more powerful nation.

Historic sources present disparate accounts of Ivan's complex personality: he was described as intelligent and devout, yet given to rages and prone to episodic outbreaks of mental illness. One notable outburst may have resulted in the death of his groomed and chosen heir Ivan Ivanovich, which led to the passing of the Tsardom to the younger son: the weak and possibly mentally retarded Feodor I of Russia. His contemporaries called him "Ivan Groznyi" the name, which, although usually translated as "Terrible", actually means something closer to "Awe-Inspiring" and carries connotations of might, power and strictness rather than horror or cruelty.

Early reign

Ivan was the son of Vasili III and his second wife, Elena Glinskaya. When Ivan was just three years old his father died from a boil and inflammation on his leg which developed into blood poisoning. Ivan was proclaimed the Grand prince of Moscow at his father's request. At first, his mother Elena Glinskaya acted as a regent, but she died of what many believe to be assassination via poison when Ivan was only eight years old. According to his own letters, Ivan and his younger brother Yuri customarily felt neglected and offended by the mighty boyars from the Shuisky and Belsky families.

Ivan was crowned czar with Monomakh's Cap at the Cathedral of the Dormition at age sixteen on 16 January 1547. Despite calamities triggered by the Great Fire of 1547, the early part of his reign was one of peaceful reforms and modernization. Ivan revised the law code (known as the sudebnik), created a standing army (the streltsy), established the Zemsky Sobor or assembly of the land, a public, consensus-building assembly, the council of the nobles (known as the Chosen Council), and confirmed the position of the Church with the Council of the Hundred Chapters, which unified the rituals and ecclesiastical regulations of the entire country. He introduced local self-government to rural regions, mainly in the northeast of Russia, populated by the state peasantry. 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 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania).

In 1547 Hans Schlitte, the agent of Ivan, employed craftsmen in Germany for work in Russia. However all these craftsmen were arrested in L??beck at the request of poland and Livonia. The German merchant companies ignored the new port built by Ivan on the river Narva in 1550 and continued to deliver goods in the Baltic ports owned by Livonia. Russia remained isolated from sea trade.

Ivan formed new trading connections, opening up the White Sea and the port of Arkhangelsk to the Muscovy Company of English merchants. In 1552 he defeated the Kazan Khanate, whose armies had repeatedly devastated the Northeast of Russia, and annexed its territory. In 1556, he annexed the Astrakhan Khanate and destroyed the largest slave market on the river Volga. These conquests complicated the migration of the aggressive nomadic hordes from Asia to Europe through Volga and transformed Russia into a multinational and multiconfessional state.

Ivan IV corresponded with Orthodox leaders overseas as well. In response to a letter of patriarch Joachim of Alexandria asking the Tsar for financial assistance for the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, which had suffered from the Turks, Ivan IV sent in 1558 a delegation to Egypt lead by archdeacon Gennady, who, however, died in Constantinople before he could reach Egypt. From then on, the embassy was headed by a Smolensk merchant Vasily poznyakov. poznyakov's delegation visited Alexandria, Cairo, and Sinai, brought the patriarch a fur coat and an icon sent by the Tsar, and left an interesting account of its two and half years' travels.

The Tsar 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 architect, postnik Yakovlev, blinded, so that he could never design anything as beautiful again. In fact, Yakovlev went on to design more churches for Ivan and Kazan's kremlin walls in the early 1560s, as well as the chapel over St. Basil's grave that was added to St. Basil's Cathedral in 1588, several years after Ivan's death.

Other events of this period include the introduction of the first laws restricting the mobility of the peasants, which would eventually lead to serfdom, and change in Ivan's personality, traditionally linked to his near-fatal illness in 1553 and the death of his first wife, Anastasia Romanovna in 1560. Ivan suspected boyars of poisoning his wife and of plotting to replace him on the throne with his cousin, Vladimir of Staritsa. In addition, during that illness Ivan had asked the boyars to swear an oath of allegiance to his eldest son, an infant at the time. Many boyars refused, deeming the tsar's health too hopeless for him to survive. This angered Ivan and added to his distrust of the boyars. There followed brutal reprisals and assassinations, including those of Metropolitan philip and prince Alexander Gorbatyi-Shuisky.

The 1565 formation of the Oprichnina was also significant. The Oprichnina was the section of Russia (mainly the Northeast) directly ruled by Ivan and policed by his personal servicemen, the Oprichniki. This system of Oprichnina has been viewed by some historians as a tool against the powerful hereditary nobility of Russia (boyars) who opposed the absolutist drive of the tsar, while others have interpreted it as a sign of the paranoia and mental deterioration of the tsar. Additionally, Ivan had made overtures to Queen Elizabeth I of England several times toward the end of his reign, inquiring about the possibility of fleeing Moscow and being granted asylum in her realm; this also has been interpreted by some as another possible sign of his deteriorating mental health.

Later reign

The later half of Ivan's reign was less successful. Although Khan Devlet I Giray of Crimea repeatedly devastated the Moscow region and even set Moscow on fire in 1571, the Tsar supported Yermak's conquest of Tatar Siberia, adopting a policy of empire-building, which led him to launch a victorious war of seaward expansion to the west, only to find himself fighting the Swedes, Lithuanians, poles, and the Livonian Teutonic Knights.

For twenty-four years the Livonian War dragged on, damaging the Russian economy and military and failing to gain any territory for Russia. In the 1560s the combination of drought and famine, polish-Lithuanian raids, Tatar invasions, and the sea-trading blockade carried out by the Swedes, poles and the Hanseatic League devastated Russia. The price of grain increased by a factor of ten. Epidemics of the plague killed 10,000 in Novgorod. In 1570 the plague killed 600-1000 in Moscow daily. One of Ivan's advisors, prince Andrei Kurbsky, defected to the Lithuanians, headed the Lithuanian troops and devastated the Russian region of Velikiye Luki. This treachery deeply hurt Ivan. As the Oprichnina continued, Ivan became mentally unstable and physically disabled. In one week, he could easily pass from the most depraved orgies to anguished prayers and fasting in a remote northern monastery.

Because he gradually grew unbalanced and violent, the Oprichniks under Malyuta Skuratov soon got out of hand and became murderous thugs. They massacred 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 the wealthy city of Novgorod, Ivan ordered the Oprichniks to murder inhabitants of this city, which was never to regain its former prosperity. His followers burned and pillaged the city and villages. As many as 60,000 may have been killed during the infamous Massacre of Novgorod in 1570; many others were deported elsewhere. Yet the official death toll named 1,500 of Novgorod big people (nobility) and mentioned only about the same number of smaller people. Many modern researchers estimate number of victims between two and three thousand. (After the famine and epidemics of 1560s the population of Novgorod perhaps did not exceed 10,000-20,000.)

Having rejected peace proposals from his enemies, Ivan IV found himself in a difficult position by 1579, when Crimean Khanate devastated Muscovian territories and even burned down Moscow (see Russo-Crimean Wars). The dislocations in population fleeing the war compounded the effects of the concurrently occurring drought and exacerbated war engendered epidemics causing much loss of population.

All together, the prolonged war had nearly fatally affected the economy, Oprichnina had thoroughly disrupted the government, while The Grand principality of Lithuania had united with The Kingdom of poland and acquired an energetic leader, Stefan Batory, who was supported by Russia's southern enemy, The Ottoman Empire (1576). Ivan's realm was now squeezed by two of the great powers of the day.

With the failure of negotiations, Batory replied with a series of three offensives against Muscovy in each campaign seasons of 1579??“1581, trying to cut The Kingdom of Livonia from Muscovian territories. During his first offensive in 1579, he retook polotsk with 22,000 men. During the second, in 1580, he took Velikie Luki with a 29,000-strong army. Finally, he started the Siege of pskov in 1581 with a 100,000-strong army.

Frederick II had trouble continuing the fight against Muscovy, unlike Sweden and poland. He came to an agreement with John III in 1580 giving him the titles in Livonia. That war would last from 1577 to 1582. Muscovy recognized polish-Lithuanian control of Ducatus ultradunensis only in 1582. After Magnus von Lyffland died in 1583, poland invaded his territories in The Duchy of Courland and Frederick II decided to sell his rights of inheritance. Except for the island of Saaremaa, Denmark was out of the Baltic by 1585. As of 1598, polish Livonia was divided into:

Ivan the Terrible And His Son Ivan, 16 November 1581 by Ilya Repin, 1885 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

In 1581, Ivan beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for wearing immodest clothing, and this may have caused a miscarriage. His son, also named Ivan, upon learning of this, engaged in a heated argument with his father, which resulted in Ivan striking his son in the head with his pointed staff, causing his son's (accidental) death. This event is depicted in the famous painting by Ilya Repin, Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan on Friday, 16 November 1581 better known as Ivan the Terrible killing his son.


In the centuries following Ivan's death, historians developed different theories to better understand his reign, but independent of the perspective through which one chooses to approach this, it cannot be denied that Ivan the Terrible changed Russian history and continues to live on in popular imagination. Ivan IV's legacy lies not in what he did, but in the consequences of his actions and how these resonated after his reign. His political legacy completely altered the Russian governmental structure; his economic policies ultimately contributed to the end of the Rurik Dynasty, and his social legacy lives on in unexpected places.

Arguably Ivan's most important legacy can be found in the political changes he enacted in Russia. In the words of historian Alexander Yanov, "Ivan the Terrible and the origins of the modern Russian political structure are... indissolubly connected." At the core of this political revolution stands the newly adopted title of tsar. By being crowned tsar, Ivan was sending a message to the world and to Russia: he was now the one and only supreme ruler, and his will was not to be questioned. "The new title symbolized an assumption of powers equivalent and parallel to those held by former Byzantine caesar and the Tatar khan, both known in Russian sources as tsar. The political effect was to elevate Ivan's position." The new title not only secured the throne, but it also granted Ivan a new dimension of power, one intimately tied to religion. He was now a "divine" leader appointed to enact god's will, "church texts described Old Testament kings as 'tsars' and Christ as the Heavenly Tsar." The newly appointed title was then passed on from generation to generation, "succeeding Muscovite rulers...benefited from the divine nature of the power of the Russian monarch...crystallized during Ivan's reign."

A title alone may hold symbolic power, but Ivan's political revolution went further, in the process significantly altering Russia's political structure. The creation of the Oprichnina marked something completely new, a break from the past that served to diminish the power of the boyars and create a more centralized government. "...the revolution of Tsar Ivan was an attempt to transform an absolutist political structure into a despotism... the Oprichnina proved to be not only the starting point, but also the nucleus of autocracy which determined... the entire subsequent historical process in Russia." Ivan created a way to bypass the Mestnichestvo system and elevate the men among the gentry to positions of power, thus suppressing the aristocracy that failed to support him. part of this revolution included altering the structure of local governments to include, "a combination of centrally appointed and locally elected officials. Despite later modifications, this form of local administration proved to be functional and durable." Ivan successfully cemented autocracy and a centralized government in Russia, in the process also establishing "a centralized apparatus of political control in the form of his own guard." The idea of a guard as a means of political control became so ingrained in Russian history that it can be traced to peter the Great, Vladimir Lenin, who "... [provided] Russian autocracy with its Communist incarnation" , and Joseph Stalin, who "[placed] the political police over the party." Yanov concludes that "Tsar Ivan's monstrous invention [i.e. the guard] has thus dominated the entire course of Russian history."

Expansionism, another key aspect of the Russian national identity, can also be traced back to Ivan IV. By expanding into poland (although a failed campaign), the Caspian and Siberia, Ivan established a sphere of influence that lasted until the 20th century. Ivan's conquests also ignited a conflict with Turkey that would lead to successive wars. "Russia's victories confined the Turkish conquests to the Balkans and the Black sea region, although Turkish expansionism continued to cast a shadow over the whole of Eastern Europe." Ivan made Russia an empire whose desire for growth and power continued, arguably, to this day.

The acquisition of new territory brought about another of Ivan's lasting legacies: a relationship with Europe, especially through trade. "In 1555, Ivan IV granted the English the privilege of trading throughout his reign without paying the standard customs fees." Although the contact between Russia and Europe remained small at this time, it would later grow, facilitating the permeation of European ideals across the border. peter the Great would later push Russia to become a European power, and Catherine I would manipulate that power to make Russia a leader within the region.

Contrary to his political legacy, Ivan IV's economic legacy was disastrous and became one of the factors that led to the decline of the Rurik Dynasty and the Time of Troubles. Ivan inherited a government in debt, and in an effort to raise more revenue instituted a series of taxes. "It was the military campaigns themselves... that were responsible for the increasing government expenses." under the new political system, the Oprichniki were given large estates, but unlike the previous landlords, could not be held accountable for their actions. These men, "took virtually all the peasants possessed, forcing them to pay 'in one year as much as [they] used to pay in ten.'" This degree of oppression resulted in increasing cases of peasants fleeing which in turn led to a drop in the overall production. To make matters worse, successive wars drained the country both of men and resources. "Muscovy from its core, where its centralized political structures depended upon a dying dynasty, to its frontiers, where its villages stood depopulated and its fields lay fallow, was on the brink of ruin." Ivan the Terrible's economic policies may have weakened an already depleted state leading to the Time of Troubles, arguably another one of his legacies, but his political changes lived on.

The final aspect of Ivan's legacy is one not readily apparent and almost never mentioned, his canonization into popular culture. Despite all his policies, Ivan was a popular ruler, "in the cycle of the historic songs of Russia, the Tsar [Ivan] holds the place of honor, and is shown by no means repulsive colors; he is open to every feeling of humanity - severe, but just, and even generous." Historian Maureen perrie attributes this popularity in folklore to a broader phenomenon she calls "popular monarchism," and concludes that, "the popular image of Ivan as a 'just tsar' was not only formed on the basis of a passive interpretation by the people of Ivan's struggle with the boyars, but that Ivan himself sought to create such an image by populist devices..." The unfortunate epithet "terrible" is a misinterpretation of the original Russian groznyi which "particularly in the context of rulership, was 'awful,' that is, awe-inspiring."

Another interesting and unexpected aspect of Ivan's social legacy emerged within Communist Russia. In an effort to revive Russia nationalist pride, Ivan the Terrible image became closely associated with Josef Stalin.

In the end, whether comparing Ivan IV's reign to that of Joseph Stalin or holding the Tsar responsible for the period of turmoil that ended the Rurik Dynasty, it is clear that Ivan the Terrible's legacy is essential to better understand Russian history. Ivan's political revolution not only consolidated the position of Tsar, but also created a centralized government structure with ramifications extending to local government. "The assumption and active propaganda of the title of tsar, transgressions and sudden changes in policy during the Oprichnina contributed to the image of the Muscovite prince as a ruler accountable only to God." Subsequent Russian rulers inherited a system put in place by Ivan. The idea of having a special guard outside traditional bureaucratic lines was very much used by rulers like peter I, Nicholas I, Vladimir Lenin and Stalin. By expanding the borders of Russia, Ivan made it an empire with a desire to grow, in the process opening the country up to new ideals from Europe. From that point forward Russia would cast its influence over its neighbors, a key concept to better understand Russian foreign policy to this day. Ivan the Terrible's economic legacy may have been disastrous, but his image lives on in popular folklore as a just ruler. All in all, Ivan's legacy lies not in what he did, but in the consequences of his actions and how these resonated after his reign, up to this day.

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