If The Shoe Fits

The Players

A Lot of Work To Kiss Your Sister…

As we explored a couple of weeks ago (do you remember that long ago? It’s not like anything significant has happened since then…), Ivan had a penchant for war and a desire to expand Russian access to trade routes. This meant collecting more land, specifically areas that belonged to Russia’s European neighbors. The most significant conflict of Ivan’s reign was known as the Livonian War and it spanned across four decades, from 1558 to 1583. The prize up for grabs was the area that is now present day Estonia and Latvia, and the opponents were essentially Russia vs. everyone – in particular, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Lithuania. And it wasn’t so much the land that was desired, but the access it afforded to the Baltic Sea. The beginning years of the war were successful for Ivan, but as drama unfolded at home, the tides turned until he was eventually forced to surrender. As a result, Ivan returned all of the territory Russia had gained over the last 24 years. The “Livonian War had proved fruitless for Russia, which was exhausted by the long struggle” (Britannica). Not to mention bankrupt. But what the Livonian War did do was set a precedent for Russia’s involvement in European affairs and this would be a main focus of Peter the Great’s rule 100 years later.

For your convenience, a little geography refresher…because I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I knew where Latvia and Estonia are.

Failure to Launch

During the failures of the Livonian War was a failure with a far more immediate impact. When Ivan created the oprichniki, essentially his personal bodyguard army, he was attempting to create a source of power and authority that was loyal to him alone, partly in an effort to feel safer and more stable in his own empire after he withdrew from society. Unfortunately, all it managed to do was create more instability and piss everyone off. In fact, “Ivan’s reign of terror eventually resulted in the weakening of all levels of the aristocracy”(Britannica) – not hard to imagine seeing as so many boyars perished under the sword of Ivan’s army. Not surprisingly, Ivan’s policies over the seven years of violence didn’t endear any of the survivors to their emperor. The oprichniki were eventually dissolved after they failed to do a key part of their job: defend the empire from enemies like the Tatars. Ivan’s short-lived bodyguards managed to do a heck of a lot of damage in a short amount of time. As the empire reeled from the violence and instability they caused, it distracted from the war in the West and gave Russia’s opponents an advantage that eventually led to Ivan’s defeat.

Center of Attention

As the first Russian Tsar, whatever decisions Ivan made were bound to have far-reaching consequences and to set a precedent for the empire moving forward. Historians agree that the most significant result of Ivan’s reign was the centralization of the Russian government. Even though Ivan had been crowned in 1547 as the “caesar” of all of Russia, the empire at the time was still made up of hundreds of territories that looked to their respective members of the aristocracy for leadership and governance. Imagine the United States in the early days of independence; each state was operating according to its own whims and rules. After the founding fathers got their shit together, wrote the constitution and appointed GW as President, there was a central point of government that the states ultimately answered to. In the same way, Ivan’s insecurities and paranoia drove him to pull the authority and powers of the government close to his chest. By the end of his reign, there was no doubt that Russia was an empire with a powerful tsar at its center.

Today, Russia’s government could not be more centralized. But it wasn’t always that way! wsj.com.

Fall Out Boy

When Ivan flipped his lid and beat his oldest son to death, the world did a collective facepalm. Here at ULTC, we have profiled many kings and queens who were desperate for sons to carry on their legacy, and here was Ivan with an adult son who was perfectly suited to succeed him as Tsar. And then he killed him. Henry Tudor is rolling around in his grave at the thought. But, he had another son, you say! There was a backup plan! Unfortunately, Ivan’s younger son Feodor was never taken seriously as a potential heir – 1. Because he of course had an older brother 2. Because he was often sick and 3. For lack of a better word, he was kind of dumb (their words not mine). 

Russia to Feodor ^

He also had no interest whatsoever in being Tsar, and so when he ascended to the throne, he left the decision making to his brother-in-law Boris Godunov. Feodor was Tsar for 14 years (in other words, Boris made decisions on his behalf for 14 years) before he died at the age of 41 with no children. And so, 50 shorts years after Russia had crowned its first Tsar, it found itself with an empty throne. The Rurik Dynasty which had shown so much promise had been snuffed out as a consequence of Ivan Jr.’s untimely death.

Trouble Maker

Since Boris had really been ruling Russia for the past decade and a half, it made sense to the group of men tasked to elect a new ruler that they should just make Boris’s title official. He was crowned Tsar in 1598 and was actually not a bad ruler all things considered. The problem with Boris is that he suffered from the same suspicions of the boyars as Ivan the Terrible, and  his policies against them similarly led to constant fighting among the aristocracy. In 1605, after being sick for quite some time, Boris died. He had a son, Feodor II, who succeeded him to the throne for a matter of weeks before he and his mother were murdered by those that weren’t happy with the current rule in Russia. The next eight years were known as the “Times of Trouble” as fighting and violence continued amid the uncertainty of who would rule. Stability was finally restored in 1613 when a man (or I should say boy – he was only 16 years old) from our favorite Russian dynasty was made tsar – Michael Romanov. 

The “Times of Trouble”, depicted here, look more like Game of Thrones. en.wikipedia.org.

As we know, the Romanovs would rule in Russia for the next 300 years. Who knows if the Romanov dynasty would ever have ascended to the throne if Ivan Jr. had lived and produced heirs of his own. It’s true that Ivan the Terrible’s paranoia and insecurities led to some pretty awful decisions for his people but it also led to the centralization of the government, quite a feat for an empire that large without modern technology. Ivan surely earned his unflattering nickname, but once the dust settled, Russia emerged as one of the world’s major powerhouses.


“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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