It takes a special kind of ruler to be given a nickname which praises him as “the Good,” “the Great,” or even “the Glorious.” It takes an even more special person to branded with a nickname that cements just how awful and horrific he was. Ivan the Terrible is probably the best example of a ruler whose reputation precedes him, but just how terrible was he? Here are 43 ghastly facts about Ivan the Terrible.
Ivan the Terrible Facts
43. It’s Not What You Think!
Surprisingly, the word ‘terrible’ in its original Russian didn’t have the same negative association that the English word has. The Russian word, “grozny,” could be better defined as ‘dangerous’ or ‘formidable’ in its true meaning. So, calling him “the Terrible” wasn’t necessarily meant negatively towards Ivan—not that we would have wanted to call him that to his face.
42. Ivan the Fourth, Actually
Despite truly being one of a kind, Ivan was actually the fourth Ivan to rule Russia. In fact, his grandfather had also been named Ivan, except Ivan III had managed to acquire the title “Ivan the Great.” We can only fathom what Gramps must have thought of his grandson’s reign.
41. It Was in His Blood
Ivan was the first son of Vasili III, Grand Prince of Russia, and his second wife, Elena Glinskaya. Interestingly, his mother’s family was descended from the Mongolian warlord Mamai, who famously led the Golden Horde—better known as the people who put Russia under the yoke of the Tatars for 200 years.
40. Never Too Young to Start
Ivan became the Grand Prince of Russia at the tender age of three years old. This was because his father, Vasili, contracted blood poisoning from an abscess and an inflamed leg. We’re hoping that Ivan hadn’t made an ironic wish on his third birthday.
39. Mom’s in Charge
Because of the new Grand Prince’s inability to form sentences, his mother took on the role of Regent while Ivan was presumably charged to try and get some kind of childhood out of his life. Among Elena’s actions as Regent was the construction of a defensive wall around Moscow and a peace agreement with Lithuania in 1536. However, Elena’s time was cut short as well, as she died when her son was eight years old under mysterious circumstances.
38. Blood and Fury
One of Ivan the Terrible’s most notorious actions was his orchestration of the Massacre of Novgorod. Convinced that the leading citizens of the city were conspiring with his enemies inside and outside of Russia, Ivan launched the full might of his oprichniki on the city and its population. Fields were burned, all of the buildings were looted, and people were either killed by the oprichniki or else driven out of the city during mid-winter to die of exposure and starvation. Sources cannot agree on the number of deaths, listing them as low as 2,500 and as high as 60,000. Regardless of the number, his role in this event more than earned Ivan his historic title.
37. That Poor Orphan
With Ivan’s mother out of the way, the Shuisky and Belsky families fought for the honor of being Regent, while Ivan spent the rest of his childhood presumably playing the music, so that the game of musical chairs could continue.
36. Let’s Try This New Title Out
In 1547, at the age of 16, Ivan IV was crowned at the Cathedral of the Dormition. However, he wasn’t crowned a Prince, like the rulers of Russia had previously been. Instead, Ivan was crowned ‘Tsar of all the Russias.’ This made Ivan the Terrible the very first Tsar in Russian history.
35. There’s Still Room for Precedent
Before we go and give Ivan too much credit, however, it’s worth pointing out that Ivan’s grandfather and namesake, Ivan III, had referred to himself as a tsar in his communication with people. He just hadn’t been officially crowned as the Tsar of Russia like his grandson.
34. You Win the Contest!
On the way to becoming ruler of Russia, Ivan participated into a ball from which he was to pick his first wife. Hundreds of potential brides were hurried into the Kremlin for their chance. Ultimately, Ivan went with Anastasia Romanovna, who became the first Tsaritsa of Russia—which would not necessarily be a desirable honor, given how things would turn out.
33. Fruitful Family
After they got married in 1547, Anastasia and Ivan got busy producing children, as they were expected to do. The couple would have six children: Anna, Maria, Dmitry, Ivan, Eudoxia, and Feodor.
32. Terrible Tragedies
Sadly, the survival rate for Ivan’s children turned out to be shockingly low. Anna and Maria both died before they reached the age of one. Meanwhile, Eudoxia didn’t live to be two years old. But everything was okay for the others, right? Right?
31. Carry Me Down to the River
In 1553, Ivan took his family on a holy pilgrimage to the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. The route took them down the Sora River, which tragically led to their boat being overturned. While Ivan and Anastasia escaped drowning, their eldest son—and at the time, only surviving child—Dmitry, was dropped by his wet-nurse in the middle of all the chaos. We have no idea what happened to said wet-nurse, but part of us doesn’t really want to know what happens to a woman who fails to save the son of a ruler named Ivan the Terrible.
30. Bad Omen
Just a few months after Ivan IV was crowned Tsar in Moscow, the city was engulfed in the Great Fire of 1547. The fact that many of Moscow’s buildings were made out of wood only helped the fire spread faster. In total, more than 80,000 people were made homeless by the fire, while nearly 4,000 were killed.
29. Blame the Tsar…’s Grandma!
Surprisingly, the people who were blamed for the Great Fire consisted of Ivan’s maternal relatives, the Glinski family. In particular, Ivan’s mother was accused of using sorcery to start the fire in the first place. Strangely, the uprising which caused several Glinski family members to either go into hiding or be publicly killed only increased the power of Ivan IV. For what it’s worth, he stepped in and protected his grandmother from the mob that wanted her dead.
28. Oh, the… Domestic Improvements?
Given how tragic his personal life was even in the early part of his reign, coupled with the Great Fire making a devastation of Moscow, you’d have expected Ivan the Terrible to be foaming at the mouth with grief and rage against all of existence. However, while he was losing children at tragically young ages, he was ably ruling as Tsar. One of his most notable actions was the Sudebnik of 1550. This was a reform aimed at the legal system, removing judicial privileges which the aristocracy enjoyed and caused the elected representatives of communities to be more active in the judicial system.
27. Unprecedented Parliament
Another action which a young Ivan IV took was to set up the Zemsky Sobors. These were the first examples of Russian Parliament, with nobles and common representatives both taking part in the proceedings. Only the Tsar could summon them into being, and the Tsar often used them to push through legislation of his own making, but it was Ivan who had paved the way for later forms of parliament to take effect in Russia.
26. Russian, Not a Roman
Since Ivan wanted to impress on his subjects that he was the absolute ruler of Russia, he picked his new title wisely. “Tsar” is a Russian translation from the Latin word “Caesar,” and we don’t need to tell you what that means, do we?
25. Let Them Read!
Thanks to Ivan IV, the first printing press was introduced to Russia in 1553. The Moscow Print Yard produced a number of religious books throughout the 1550s and 1560s, run by Ivan Fedorov and Pyotr Mstislavets.
24. Everyone’s a Critic…
Unfortunately, the Moscow Print Yard caused an outrage amongst the traditional scribe community of Russia, and they proved to be a surprisingly dangerous bunch of enemies to make. An arson attack against the Moscow Print Yard would cause the original Russian printers to flee to Lithuania. Ivan IV didn’t back down on his decree, however. New owners for the Print Yard were found, and printing resumed.
23. The Last Straw
Ivan had many reasons to hate the aristocracy. However, things were pushed to their limit when his first wife, Anastasia, who many had said had provided a sobering, wise approach to Ivan’s rule, fell ill and died in 1560. This tragedy allegedly drove Ivan into a state of emotional collapse, especially since he was convinced that she had been poisoned by the boyars. Several of them were tortured to death on his orders.
22. I Quit!
The 1560s brought on a serious change in Ivan’s behavior after all the tragedies he’d endured, coupled with the paranoia he felt against his own aristocracy. In December 1564, he shocked Russia by leaving Moscow and announcing his abdication, due to a conspiracy which threatened his life. This put the boyars in a terrifying position since they were afraid of a peasant uprising (no idea why Russian nobles would ever fear such a thing). They ultimately begged Ivan to come back and be their Tsar. Ivan agreed, on the condition that he become an absolute monarch with the power to basically do whatever he wanted. Things must have been pretty bleak because his terms were accepted.
21. Hero of the People???
Bizarrely, flying in the face of all that history has tried to say about him, Ivan the Terrible was wildly popular among the commoners in Russia. Because he curbed the powers of the nobility and aristocracy, he was hailed as a man who stood up for the rights of the lower class.
20. The Thief and the Terrible
Several folktales were made depicting Tsar Ivan in a positive, even light-hearted demeanor. In one story, the Tsar goes amongst the people in disguise. He befriends a thief, who invites the stranger to join him in his robberies. When Ivan suggests they rob the royal treasury, the thief reacts with outrage, saying he would never steal from the Tsar. He prefers to steal from the boyars since they did nothing to earn their great wealth and simply inherited it. Ivan is so impressed by the thief’s—slightly lopsided—ethics, that he hired the man as one of his counselors, presumably while wacky music plays as the two men start laughing and patting each other’s backs.
19. Was He Also Named Harry?
In another folk story, Ivan befriends a poor potter who impresses the Tsar with his quick wit and his skill at riddles. Ivan becomes his ally, helping the potter in his business against the boyars who would try to keep him down. Granted, the stories may be so positive because the Tsar was basically the only benefactor that the peasants could rely on, so it could be a case of sucking up. The truth about how beloved Ivan really was—as opposed to false flattery—may never be discovered. But at least we have something to debate about when we’re bored.
18. “Secret Police” Would Have Been Too Obvious
With his newfound absolute power, Ivan set up the policy known as Oprichnina. What it entailed basically amounted to Ivan taking territory held by Russian aristocrats, reassigning to his political force known as the oprichniki, and gave the Tsar direct control over swathes of Russian land. The oprichniki, meanwhile, exploited their position as they either drove off or killed the aristocrats.
17. General Tsar, Sir!
Ivan was busy with military campaigns. As early as 1552, Ivan led an army of 150,000 to the great city of Kazan, occupied by the descendants of the Golden Horde. Ivan’s army besieged the city for over a month before the city fell. Up to 100,000 Russian slaves were liberated, while the Tartar population was slaughtered. Ivan led his forces to annex the Astrakhan Khanate, which also destroyed the biggest slave market on the Volga River.
16. Something Stuck, at Least
Soon after Ivan’s rule, the Russians went through a series of misadventures which has since been labeled as the ‘Time of Troubles.’ They finally ended when the Romanov family took power in 1613. This came about because of their relationship to Feodor and thus his parents, Ivan IV and Anastasia. As a result, Ivan’s Romanov descendants would rule Russia until 1917, when the Bolsheviks decided that 300 years was long enough for one family to rule Russia.
15. Classic Overbearing Mother-in-Law
Marfa Sobakina was the winner of twelve finalists to become the Tsar’s third wife. However, it was a case of the winner being the loser. Marfa’s mother allegedly gave her a potion to make her more fertile—given Ivan’s track record, we can’t really blame her. Unfortunately, the potion ended up poisoning her. She was so ill that she could barely stand on the day of her wedding, and she died a few days later. In the midst of such a disastrous honeymoon, Ivan became even more paranoid, even ordering his former brother-in-law to death by impalement—eat your heart out, Vlad.
14. A Modest, Economical Structure
If there’s one thing that conquerors like to do after a successful military campaign, it’s immortalizing their accomplishments with a monument. In Ivan’s case, conquering Kazan from the Khanates demanded a special kind of structure. On his orders, the architect known as Postnik Yakovlev designed St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Say what you will about Ivan, he knew who to pick to make a nice-looking cathedral.
13. I Would Have Accepted Cash!
There is a popular legend that when Ivan beheld the beautiful cathedral and he repaid Yakovlev by blinding him so that he would never make anything so beautiful again. While it’s tempting to treat this is as fact, many historians dispute this story because Yakovlev would go on to design several buildings after his work on St. Basil’s Cathedral. Then again, maybe Yakovlev was just that talented?
12. Two Annas For the Church
Unfortunately for Ivan’s luck, the Russian Orthodox Church frowned on more than one remarriage. Ivan countered that the third marriage had never been consummated, so it didn’t count. He married Anna Koltovskaya in 1572, but two years later, her inability to produce children caused Ivan to send her to live the rest of her life in a convent. This was ultimately good for her since she was only one of two of Ivan’s wives to outlive him. Ivan’s fifth wife, Anna Vasilchikova, was less fortunate, dying in 1577 despite also being sent to a monastery to live as a nun.
11. The Good Son
Ivan’s second son, also named Ivan, was a rare bright spot in his father’s life. He is alleged to have saved his father’s life when he killed a Livonian prisoner who raised a sword against the Tsar.
10. Talk About an Interfering Parent
After the Livonian War, however, things deteriorated between the two Ivans. What didn’t help was Ivan Sr.’s obsession with his son’s progeny. Ivan Jr. was married to two different women that Ivan Sr. eventually sent to become nuns instead. By the time Ivan Jr. was 27, he had married a third time, and the third time was the charm because she soon became pregnant.
9. Siberia for Senior Tsar
One of Ivan the Terrible’s most successful military campaigns was the conquest of Siberia. Giving command of the campaign to Yermak Timofeyevich, the Cossacks invaded Siberia. Timofeyevich won allies to his side against the Siberian Khans. The campaign allowed Ivan to spend his last few years calling himself the Tsar of Siberia.
8. The Sparks Before the Fire
For all his popularity with the common people, not all that Ivan did was in their favor. It was he who installed the first laws restricting peasants’ movements in Russia. This would provide the beginnings of a slippery slope that led to serfdom in Russia, which in turn would inspire the serfs to revolt against Ivan’s descendants.
7. My Son, My Son, What Have I Done?
Of course, when things finally seemed to go right with Ivan Jr. and his soon-to-be grandchild, nobody counted on Ivan the Terrible living up to his name. On the 15th of November 1581, Ivan IV witnessed his pregnant daughter-in-law wearing clothes that he determined to be less-than-appropriate. He proceeded to physically assault her until Ivan Jr. heard her screams and accosted his father. Things had already gone way too far, but then Ivan Sr. struck his son’s temple with his scepter in a fit of rage. The head wound proved fatal, much to Ivan Sr.’s horror. This, coupled with his daughter-in-law’s miscarriage due to the attack, immortalized Ivan’s image as a mentally unstable tyrant who would kill his own children.
6. Thus Died the Terrible
In March 1584, Ivan the Terrible was quietly playing chess with a statesman in his home when he suddenly collapsed and became bedridden. Even today, it’s not fully known what caused him to die. An old theory was that he was poisoned, while many modern-day historians allege that it was a stroke.
5. Unsuitable Successor
After most of Ivan’s children had either died in infancy or had been killed by Ivan himself, his son Feodor became Tsar of Russia. However, while Feodor was beloved for his good nature and his religious piety, he was alleged to have suffered from a learning disability. Regardless, this new Tsar must have given everyone a severe case of whiplash in the aftermath of his terrifying father.
4. The Empire Nearly Died With Him
After Ivan’s death, his empire nearly collapsed due to the decisions that Ivan had made when he was alive. His lack of economic skill, coupled with the many wars that the Russians had fought under his rule, meant that the economy was in a very bad state. This led to his own dynasty, the Ruriks, losing power after the death of Ivan’s son, Feodor, in 1598.
3. Rebound Remorse
A year after his first wife had died, Ivan married Maria Temryukovna, who was only seventeen and perceived as illiterate. Ivan, however, was stricken by Maria’s great beauty. The marriage was one of his least successful. Not only did their only child die young—continuing a grisly trend when it came to Ivan’s offspring—but Maria was unpopular and unable to adjust to life in Moscow. Upon her death in 1568, rumors abounded that Ivan had poisoned her, though it’s recorded that he went on a witch hunt to find out the true cause of her death, so the truth will never be known.
2. Killing Pain
One theory for Ivan’s uncontrollable mood swings and paranoia was the mercury that he began to take as a painkiller. The side effects of mercury would justify his unpredictable emotions.
1. CSI Moscow
The death of Ivan’s mother Elena in 1538 has generally been accepted as being due to poisoning, which was confirmed when her remains were exhumed and examined in more recent years. At the time, her son’s governess was arrested for poisoning Elena, but several historians have since argued that it may likely have been one of the rival boyar families—Russian nobles that were second only to the ruling princes. With Elena out of the picture, the boyar nobility competed for power.