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.
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. 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
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. 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. 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!" 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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
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." His coronation also included the title of "Grand Prince Ivan
Vasil'evish, God crowned Tsar and sovereign of all Great Russia." 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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".  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…