Ivan the Terrible

Ivan IV or Ivan the Terrible deserves the moniker attached to his

name. However, he does not necessarily deserve the modern interpretation

of the word "terrible". Certainly, Ivan did terrible things both in his

position as the first true tsar of Russia and his position as the leader of

a family. Nevertheless, the translation for the Russian word Groznyi into

English by our modern standards is not quite accurate. In Russian during

Ivan's time, Groznyi meant something closer to formidable or fearsome.[1]

Through his political and social actions, a nation and the world had reason

to view Ivan as formidable and fearsome.

The baby destined to be Ivan IV was born to Tsar Vasily III and his

second wife, Elena Glinskaia. Vasily III was much older than Ivan's

mother. By the time Ivan was born, he was desperate for a son to be the

future tsar of Russia. Vasily's first wife, Solomonia, never produced a

child of either sex.[2] After years of marriage, Vasily pursued a

controversial divorce and re-marriage. Vasily received permission for his

new marriage from the Metropolitan Daniel in Russia, however, Vasily wanted

assurance from a higher power and sought approval from the Greek Patriarch

who may have inadvertently cursed the unborn Ivan. The Patriarch wrote to

Vasily, "if you contract a second marriage, you will have a wicked son;

your states will be prey to terror and tears; rivers of blood will flow;

the heads of the mighty will fall; your cities will be devoured by

flames."[3]

Nevertheless, Vasily re-married and Ivan was born five years after

the wedding on August 25, 1530. Ivan's entrance into the world was

followed by the birth of a second son, Iuri, on October 30, 1532 who was

deaf and dumb.[4] As expected Vasily was ecstatic at the birth of Ivan.

Thunder and lightning were said to be heard and seen at the moment of his

birth which was interpreted as a good omen for his future.[5] Others did

not look so positively on Ivan's birth. The Tatar Khan of Kazan commented

to Russian boyars who were visiting his land that, "a sovereign has been

born to you and he already has two teeth. With one, he will devour us; but

with the other, he will devour you!"[6] The Khan could not have known how

soon Ivan would rise to power.

Just a few months after Iuri's birth in February 1533, Vasily died

after receiving a hunting injury. Wisely, he saw the possible problems

that would arise with the heir to the throne being a mere three years old.

Before his death, Vasily established a Regency Council with seven members

until Ivan would be old enough to take the throne on his own.[7] The

nation that the young Ivan inherited consisted of an area that had fairly

recently pushed the Mongol Horde back to the east. Through the work of

Vasily and his father, Ivan III, the principality of Moscow had expanded

due to the annexation of the northeastern principality of Rus.[8] Ivan's

father and grandfather had done much to secure an inheritance for Ivan and

assure the integrity of Muscovy by increasing the territory, creating an

effective administration system, and making the former warriors of the

region loyal servants to the monarchy.[9]

Ivan's future was assured. However, many difficult years would ensue

for the child before he would reach a position of power. The regency

period was long and difficult as the various factions involved battled for

power. Ivan's primary guardian, Mikhail Glinski, an uncle to Ivan's

mother, was arrested a year after Vasily's death.[10] Ivan fell victim to

this resulting power struggle and suffered greatly as a child. This was

further complicated by the death of Elena Glinskaia in 1538. Ivan later

documented his life as a child and his reports are confirmed in other

chronicles of the day. Ivan claims that he and his brother were ignored,

ill-fed, and disrespected by the boyars.[11]

Despite the ill treatment and intrigues of the court, Ivan had the

freedom to roam his future kingdom which he often did as he hunted. Much

like his mother, Ivan also frequented the monasteries where he engaged in

religious discussion with the monks. He acquired much of his knowledge

through his contact with these people and others who lived within the

palace's walls. Ivan was said to be very quick and intelligent as he read,

wrote, and discussed extensively.[12]

All of this prepared him for the daunting task of being the future

tsar. Before he took power himself, Ivan had the opportunity to observe

the battle between the various clans as they vied for power. The

predominant ones were the Shuiskiis, Belskiis, and Vorontsovs. Despite

their battles with each other, these families were careful to not let the

power of the monarchy decline; they simply wanted to be part of the power.

Surprisingly, they had the best interest of the monarchy at heart. These

families and Elena before her death were responsible for beginning some

reforms and instituting positive changes such as standardizing money and

improving fortifications.[13]

At the age of 17, Ivan came into his inheritance and was officially

crowned on January 16, 1547, with much ceremony. The Metropolitan Makarii

of Moscow conducted the ceremony in the Uspenskii Cathedral that gave Ivan

the titles of "Grand Duke of Vladimir, Novgorod, and Moscow and Tsar of All

Russia."[14] His coronation also included the title of "Grand Prince Ivan

Vasil'evish, God crowned Tsar and sovereign of all Great Russia."[15] Ivan

was the first monarch in Russia to use the title of Tsar of Russia.

As befits a monarch, Ivan found it necessary to marry soon after his

coronation. On February 3, 1547, Ivan married Anastasiya Romanovna. Her

family had recently become prominent in Moscow. Ivan's predecessors had

often chosen foreign brides, but Ivan selected a Russian young lady because

he felt that they would get on well together.[16]

As it turns out, Ivan was correct in that surmise as the two seemed to

enjoy each other's company. They frequently traveled together, mostly to

monasteries, before the births of their children.[17] The Tsarina is said

to have tried to tame her new husband. She saw unpleasant qualities in him

such as violence, sadism, and scheming. Despite this, Ivan loved her

deeply and did control himself better in her presence.[18]

The year of Ivan's coronation was also to bring a major event in

Moscow that had political ramifications. On June 21, 1547, a devastating

fire destroyed much of the wooden Moscow. This would have been problematic

enough for the young monarch. It was further complicated by the fire being

blamed on Ivan's maternal grandmother, Anna Glinskaia. She was believed to

be a witch. The reality was that the fire served as an opportunity for the

other powerful families, the Shuiskiis and Romanovs, to move against the

Glinskiis.[19] Ivan's uncle was killed after being dragged out of a

church. Ivan was able to stop the violence from escalating past that, but

it was clear that the Glinskiis were done as a family at court.[20]

Despite some harrowing moments, Ivan did start on a series of

domestic reforms almost immediately after taking power. Historians

debate exactly how much of the government Ivan was running and how much

control his circle of advisors, known as the Chosen Circle, really had in

the changes that were made. Either way, Ivan was tsar at the time and the

reforms made were designed to benefit the monarchy and a strong autocratic

government.[21] Ivan had chosen his supporters based on their ability and

his feelings toward them. The two that stand out from this time period the

most were Aleksei Adashev and a priest named Sylvester.

Adashev was from a prosperous family, but not one of boyar rank.

Adashev had traveled with his father and gained knowledge about how other

governments functioned based on the Ottoman Empire. He was also a personal

guard of Ivan's when they were both young men. Adashev had the personality

and ability to communicate and mediate between different groups. Hence,

Ivan used him greatly when he was working to establish his reforms.[22]

Sylvester was a priest with a very strong pull on Ivan. He was able to

influence the young tsar to repent and confess. Ivan believed Sylvester to

be a powerful religious figure who could even predict certain events.

Apparently, Adashev and Sylvester were known to work very closely together

in their relationship to the tsar and in their work in the reforms.[23]

Ivan began the process of reform by bringing together the most

powerful entities in Russia at the time - the Boyars and the Russian

Orthodox Church. At a meeting of these two groups in February 1549, Ivan

asked the boyars to "stop oppressing the lesser nobles and peasants as they

had during his childhood". [24] The boyars agreed to this request and this

began many years of various councils being brought together to discuss and

evaluate issues in Russia. Sometimes, even the lower ranking nobility…