Ivan the Terrible was a sadistic despot who had thousands killed and brought ruin to his country. So, do Soviet-era claims that he was actually a wise statesman stand up? Ivan had the architect of Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow blinded so that he could never create a building as beautiful again. Or did he?
Ivan the Terrible is an imprecise translation from the Russian "Ivan Grozny", which more accurately means "Ivan the Dread" or "Ivan the Awesome". Nevertheless, "Dread" is a pretty serious nickname to earn yourself. Tragically for those who fell foul of Ivan, his reputation as a sadistic tyrant is substantially deserved, at least during part of his reign. But attempts to explain why he followed the path he did have challenged historians for centuries.
Most of them agree that the young Ivan had a rotten start. His father died in 1533 and he lost his mother in 1538. Throughout his youth, when he was known as the Grand Prince of Moscow, rival nobles fought for control of the regency. The experience left him with a deep mistrust of the nobility. In 1547, he was crowned Tsar of all Russia. Now an adult, he was determined to rule as he saw fit.
Ivan the Reformer
At first, Ivan's reign produced a series of administrative reforms aimed at centralising and stabilising the sprawling state. Government departments were reorganised along functional lines, legal codes were updated and the armed forces were overhauled. The Church was streamlined and brought into line with Orthodox doctrine.
Abroad, Ivan began to campaign against the Tatars. By 1556, he'd annexed the lands of Kazan and Astrakhan, cementing Russian control of the Volga Rover and access to the Caspian Sea. But he was far less successful when he attempted to subdue the Baltic territory of Livonia. First Lithuania, then Poland and Sweden sided with Livonia and the war dragged on for 24 years, exhausting Russia and its people. In 1560, Ivan's first wife, Anastasia, died. Ivan suspected that she had been poisoned and, from this point onwards, he became consumed by periodic bouts of extreme paranoia.
Determined to stamp out treason, Ivan created the "oprichnina" – an amalgamation of territories over which he ruled absolutely without recourse to any instruments of state. Land was confiscated from nobles, families were expelled from their homes – and countless executions of those Ivan suspected of treason took place. In some cases, thousands were slaughtered at once, in scenes of utter depravity. Men, women and children were horribly tortured and mutilated, often at the hands of a specially created royal bodyguard, known as the oprichniki.
Ivan himself took part in public events of stylised cruelty and torture. In private, his debauchery and sadism appeared limitless. And yet, because at least in part Ivan was directing the oprichnina against Russia's nobles, Stalin ordered that the Tsar was to be regarded as a visionary leader who had been forced to crush treasonous opponents. This was one myth that didn't stand up over time: it began to fade as soon as Stalin was dead. Modern historians suggest that the oprichnina was as much down to Ivan's personal paranoia as it was an attempt to reign in the nobles.
Decline and Fall
In 1572, Ivan dissolved the oprichnina and even tried to reverse some of its excesses. But his later years were characterised by a withdrawal from wider society, failing health (he had chronic back problems) and episodes of mental instability that brought on incontrollable fury. During one of these fits of rage he killed his elder son and heir, in 1581. The tragedy accelerated his decline. By the time of his death in 1584, he had to be carried in a chair.
Amid all the torture and killing, one gruesome myth is often retold. In 1554, Ivan ordered the construction in Moscow of the cathedral that became known as Saint Basil the Blessed (pictured, above left). The building's ornate, colourful domes were a dazzling success and popular legend had it that Ivan ordered the architect blinded, so that he could never create anything as beautiful again. Though Ivan was guilty of acts of equivalent barbarity, this myth is almost certainly untrue.