What’s In a Name?

The Players

This week we travel 500 years back to a place familiar to us – Russia. In 1547, Ivan IV was crowned the empire’s very first tsar. But you may know Ivan by a different name — Ivan the Terrible, a member of the Rurik Dynasty which had held power in some capacity in Russia for 700 years. With a name like that, who knows where this story will take us!

Ivan Vasilyevich was born into a world of drama and intrigue and there was pressure on him from the very beginning. The grandson of Ivan the Great, Grand Prince of Moscow for 50 years (this was the position that existed before tsar), Ivan was only 3 years old when his father (and the current Grand Prince) died. He inherited the title and his mother was made regent in his place until he was old enough to rule. Unfortunately, she died 5 years later, and her passing would have a profound effect on her son and his relationships with the rest of the aristocratic class in Russia. He believed, probably rightly, that she had been poisoned (Agrippina at work again…) by a group called the boyars: men “drawn from about 200 families, descended from former princes, old Moscow boyar families, and foreign aristocrats (Britannica).” They were essentially meant to be the tsar’s right-hand men in the government, but their betrayal meant he would distrust them for his entire life. 

Pressure Point

As an orphan prince, Ivan was thrown into the middle of a great power struggle amongst the boyars, and as an impressionable boy, this only served to make him more distrustful of this group of nobles. Historians agree that as a young child, Ivan was “a sensitive, intelligent boy, neglected and occasionally scorned by members of the nobility who looked after him after his parents’ death” (Biography). Losing both parents by the age of 8 would shape any child’s journey to adulthood, but in Ivan’s cases, his grief was compounded by the pressure of his public role and the constant violence and bickering that he witnessed. The boyars were a brutal group and the point of contention was a tale as old as time – power and influence. According to the law at the time, military and government officials “were ranked in a definite genealogical order according to their relative seniority” (Britannica), and this caused a lot of drama when a man who deserved a position based on skill was bypassed in favor of a man of higher societal status. This law was eventually changed, but not for another century. 

Ivan IV doesn’t look so terrible here…but just wait. Britannica.

When Ivan was 17 he was deemed old enough to rule on his own and he was crowned “tsar and grand prince of all Russia” (Britannica). The word “tsar” was derived from “caesar”, like our friend Julius, which means “emperor”. That same year he married a woman by the name of Anastasia Romanovna. Sound familiar? Anastasia was the great-aunt of the future first tsar of the Romanov dynasty, Michael I, but her name will forever be linked to Princess Anastasia who suffered a cruel death that ended the Romanov line. Ivan and Anastasia had two children, Ivan (we will call him Ivan Jr.) and Feodor. 

Show Me the Access!

Like most rulers of his time, Ivan was bent on expanding his empire. Admittedly, the politics and geography of medieval Russia and its surrounding territories is a tough topic to absorb. The number of tribes, nationalities, languages and factions were numerous to say the least, so for the purposes of this post I am going to give a VERY high-level overview of the conflicts that had the biggest effect on Ivan’s rule and subsequent legacy. These conflicts were all about access — access to important bodies of water and control over the land that surrounded them. There were no cars, no trains, and no airplanes. Travel was done one of two ways: by foot/horseback via land or by boat. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather sail than walk through the Siberian tundra.                 

During the 1550’s, Ivan’s military campaigns were focused on a group called the Tatars, who lived in territories called “khanates” (see map below). Today you can find Tatars from Uzbekistan and Bulgaria to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Ivan was heavily focused on conquering the khanates with access to the Volga River, which runs from central to southern Russia and lets out into the Caspian Sea. Many of Ivan’s campaigns were successful, and he commemorated his victories by ordering the building of one of the world’s most iconic churches – Saint Basil’s Cathedral. There is no building that compares to Saint Basil’s in all of Russia, before or after its construction, and legend has it that Ivan was intent on keeping it that way. He blinded one of the architects so that “[the man] could never build anything so beautiful again” (Wikipedia). While this story is most likely not true, it is nonetheless an indicator of Ivan the Terrible’s infamous reputation for violence.

Ivan led many successful campaigns against the Tatar khanates in the 1550s. He ordered the construction of St. Basil’s Cathedral in celebration of conquering the Astrakhan khanate. The History Files.

In 1558, Ivan embarked on a war that would last until his death 24 years later (spoiler alert), with virtually nothing to show for it by the end. Over the course of two decades, “Russia unsuccessfully fought Poland, Lithuania, and Sweden for control of greater Livonia” (Britannica), an area we would refer to as Eastern Europe today. The access up for grabs this time was the Baltic Sea. We will explore the long term effects of this war in the coming weeks, but Ivan poured endless resources into this conflict and in the end was forced to return all of the land he had conquered in the process. This war would also become a major source of strife between Ivan and Ivan Jr. 

The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, commonly known as Saint Basil’s Cathedral. ancient-origins.net.

Ain’t Nobody Fresher Than My Clique

Tragedy hit in 1560 when Ivan’s beloved wife Anastasia died. The tsar was absolutely convinced that she had been poisoned by the boyars, but it is possible that this was just the ghost of his mother’s death coming back to haunt him. Whether she actually was poisoned or not, the effect on Ivan’s state of mind was dramatic. His immediate reaction was to withdraw from society, physically removing himself from Moscow. His anger and grief were even enough for him to threaten to abdicate his throne, a scenario that would have thrown the empire into chaos, given that his heir, Ivan Jr., was only six years old at the time.  

Ivan did agree to remain on the throne, but only with dramatic changes. It was clear that he did not trust the boyar class and given that he believed they were responsible for the death of two women in his life, he probably did not feel safe either. His solution was to create what was known as the “Oprichnina”, a new court that did not consist of the boyars and was under Ivan’s direct control. He also took large amounts of land from the boyar nobility and redistributed to the people of his new court. The creation of this second and separate Russian “system” in 1565 began the period known as Ivan the Terrible’s “reign of terror”, and it lasted until 1572. The men of Ivan’s new court, called “oprichniki”, were “primarily drawn from the lower gentry and foreign population” (Britannica), and acted more like a police or military force than companions and advisers. They executed boyars, confiscated their homes, and terrorized innocent populations across Russia. Ivan might have felt safer, but his subjects did not. His new system created massive instability throughout the empire and isolated Ivan even further from his people. 

A painting depicting villagers fleeing from the invading oprichnik. Wikipedia.

Perhaps the most horrific event to come from this “reign of terror” is what happened in the Russian city of Novgorod in 1570. Fueled by paranoia and suspicion that Novgorod, one of Russia’s leading cities at the time, was in cahoots with his enemies, Ivan let loose his oprichniki. Over the span of about a month these men murdered thousands of citizens in cold blood. Sources are not clear on the exact number of victims, with numbers reported anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000. The town was left decimated, for no apparent reason other than the delusions and mistrust of one man with great power. 

Sins of My Father

Ivan’s self-imposed isolation from the Russian people apparently did not extend to his love life. In true Henry VIII fashion, the tsar took 5 wives in less than ten years. A couple of these wives died of natural causes, but Ivan was convinced they were the victims of more poison attacks and he was driven deeper into paranoia. Unfortunately, none of the marriages resulted in giving him another heir. Ivan Jr., in addition to being the oldest, was clearly the better suited for the throne – the younger son Feodor had a reputation for being sickly and slow-witted. That is why it was so shocking when in 1581, Ivan killed his oldest son and heir, Ivan Jr. It wasn’t a calculated killing; there was no plotting or planning. It was just a burst of anger that caused Ivan to hit Jr. over the head so hard that he died from his wound several days later. The reasons behind this rage are thought to be two-fold: (1) Ivan and Ivan Jr. had been butting heads about Russia’s policies towards other countries, particularly as it related to the Livonian War and (2) Ivan had reportedly beaten Jr.’s pregnant wife, causing a miscarriage. So needless to say, tempers were clearly heightened when father and son crossed paths on that fateful day. The fact that the tsar would jeopardize the entire future of his empire and his legacy by killing the tsarevich (and his own son) was the cherry on top for history’s branding of Ivan as “the Terrible”. 

Ivan is said to have immediately regretted striking his son and was constantly at his side in the days leading up to his death. Wikipedia.

Ivan lived for only two more years after he murdered his son, and the last years of his life were colored by poor health and increasing paranoia. It is said that he was obsessed with death, “calling upon witches and soothsayers to sustain him” (Biography). When the tsar died in 1584 at the age of 53, his younger son Feodor became Feodor the I of Russia. But there was a reason why this son had never been expected to rule, and so began the beginning of the end for the ancient Rurik Dynasty. 

It’s a wonder Ivan could sleep at night with all of the ghosts of his victims coming back to haunt him. Wikipedia.


“Boyar.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/topic/boyar.

“Ivan the Terrible.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 16 June 2020, http://www.biography.com/royalty/ivan-the-terrible.

“Ivan the Terrible.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/biography/Ivan-the-Terrible.

“Ivan the Terrible.” Sky HISTORY TV Channel, http://www.history.co.uk/biographies/ivan-the-terrible.

“Livonian War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/event/Livonian-War.

“Oprichnina.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/topic/oprichnina.

“Tatar.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/topic/Tatar.

“This Day In History: Ivan The Terrible Orders A Massacre In Novgorod (1570).” HistoryCollection.com, 8 July 2017, historycollection.com/day-history-ivan-terrible-orders-massacre-novgorod-1570/.

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