What Was So Terrible About Ivan the Terrible?

'Ivan the Terrible and the Ghosts of His Victims'
This painting by Mikhail Petrovich Klodt titled 'Ivan the Terrible and the Ghosts of His Victims' shows the czar surrounded by the ghosts of some of the many, many people he had killed. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

History has witnessed incredible atrocities committed by world leaders, like Genghis Khan, Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, the Blood Countess. Yet only one of them is known as Terrible – Ivan the Terrible. But what did this medieval Russian icon do to earn his foreboding nickname?

For starters, he bloodied his own subjects in a series of horrifying repressions. He also fought unending wars that cost his nation dearly in life and wealth.


But as it turns out, Ivan didn't begin his reign as a bloodthirsty tyrant.

Ivan Vasilyevich was born in 1530, and when he was just 3 years old, his father, Grand Prince Vasily III of Moscow, died of an infection. Ivan immediately became the grand prince, destined to become the country's ruler once he came of age.

Throughout his childhood he was targeted by power-hungry boyars (elites) hoping to expand their influence and wealth. Meanwhile, the boy himself was essentially neglected, sometimes to the point where he didn't even have enough food to eat.

The boyars were clannish landowners, upper-crust types who wielded control in civil affairs and the military. As they bickered and murderously conspired against each other, the young Ivan grew to dislike them. It was a sign of things to come.

When he turned 16 in 1547, Ivan was handed the reins to the country, given the title of czar and grand prince of all Russia. He was the country's first czar, a title that lent a divine element to his powers.

In his first years as leader, Ivan was less terrible and more peaceful and progressive. He attempted to reform and modernize Russia. He and his council, the Elected Rada, updated and improved the law code, created the streltsy (standing army), and implemented the practice of self-government in some regions of the country. He even embraced Christian theology and worked to improve justice throughout the nation.

Maybe Ivan was not so terrible, after all?


Ivan the Awe-Inspiring?

"During his own life he was not referred to as 'Terrible,' says Michael Khodarkovsky, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, in an email interview. "It is not clear when this sobriquet 'Terrible' appeared, but certainly after Ivan's death."

"'The Terrible' is actually a translation issue," says James Pickett, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, via email. "In Russian 'Groznyi' means something more like 'inspiring awe or fear,' similar to the way the English 'terrible' can be used as in the 'terrible wrath of God,' i.e., inspiring fear. Ivan did some nasty things, to be sure; but then so did 'Greats' like Catherine and Peter, who were every bit as 'terrible' in their own rights."


So maybe Ivan wasn't so bad after all? Well, hold that thought. He was just getting started.

He soon disbanded the Elected Rada and moved toward an autocracy. He split the country in two: the zemschina and the oprichnina. The zemschina was ruled as usual. But the oprichnina was where Ivan became the ultimate czar of everything, where he could rule by fear, destroy the boyars that he'd come to hate as a child, take their wealth and consolidate his power.

"To achieve his goals, he drowned Russia, or Muscovite Rus as it was then known, in blood," says Khodarkovsky. "He murdered thousands of boyars, Russia's landed aristocracy and high church officials. The lands and property belonging to both were taken into his own treasury. He burned down and killed thousands of civilians in Russian cities that were deemed to be rebellious."

To carry out these deeds, Ivan created the oprichniki, which some historians liken to a type of secret police. They were chosen for their extreme loyalty, dressed in black and rode in black carriages driven by black horses.

This ominous display wasn't just for show – they were given the freedom to purge anyone deemed traitorous however they saw fit. They displayed symbols of a dog's head and a broom, meant to symbolize their willingness to chase and bite their enemies and sweep them away.

You can probably see where this is going.

All sorts of atrocities ensued, ranging from imprisonment to execution and impalement. Even women and children were killed. (Ivan had at least six wives, several of whom were poisoned or sent to monasteries.)


Ivan the Insane?

Ivan's mental state only exacerbated these appalling acts.

"Ivan IV saw treasonous plots everywhere, and like all dictators past and present, he inevitably crossed the line into the world of paranoia, where one could not tell a reasonable suspicion from a product of his sickened mind," says Khodarkovsky. "Some believed he became mentally ill, and he probably was by modern standards."


Ivan the Terrible Killing His Son
Another famous painting, 'Ivan the Terrible Killing His Son' by Ilya Repin, depicts an incident where Ivan struck his son in the head with his pointed staff, during an argument. The son was fatally wounded.

Ivan also warred constantly during his reign. His unsuccessful wars with Poland, Lithuania and Sweden took many lives.

But some of his conflicts succeeded in growing Russia into a larger country.

"What I find most fascinating about his legacy in Russia is his state-building," says Pickett. "Before Ivan IV, in the 15th century, Russia was under various degrees of Mongol control (or at least Mongol successor state control, i.e., the Golden Horde), gradually becoming more autonomous."

Pickett adds that a lot of people assume that Russia's centralized fiscal-military state came from the Mongols, i.e., a kind of "Oriental despotism."

"But in fact, the Mongols practiced a kind of consultative rule (not the same as democratic, as is sometimes claimed). So in centralizing rule in Muscovy, Ivan was actually doing something quite novel; Muscovy was far more centralized than either the Kievan Rus (who came from a 'first among equals' Viking tradition of rule), or Poland or Novgorod, and Ivan's rule was critical for building this centralized fiscal-military state."

Still, Ivan's adept political maneuvering was overshadowed by his willingness to remove his opponents by force. The last decade of his reign was characterized by savage brutality. A slight suspicion of disloyalty, a rumor, a wrong word could lead to the suspect's arrest, cruel torture and execution.

"After he died, his body was found to have large amounts of mercury," says Khodarkovsky "There were speculations that he was severely ill and used it as medicine or that he participated in some rituals that involved alchemy or that he was poisoned. As with all dictators who surround themselves with secrecy and suspicion, his end was as predictable as it remains uncertain."

Even now, hundreds of years later, Ivan's legacy has an impact on the country.

Khodarkovsky especially stressed two components of Ivan's reign. One, of course, is that he forcefully moved Russian toward an autocracy, killing even elite members of society who opposed him.

"Two, his image was later used by the Soviet dictator, Stalin, to justify his own bloodbath in the country and claim that Russia needed a strong leader and that sacrifices for the sake of Russia's glory were inevitable," he says. "Just as Russia's current President Vladimir Putin relies on the images of Ivan IV and Stalin to convey the same message and validate his own dictatorial rule."