How  Ivan  became terrible

Ivan IV was one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants in history. He more than merits his nickname: 'the Terrible'. But early in his reign it seemed that he was going to a benevolent and enlightened tsar. So what made Ivan into the monster that he was, and how did it all go so dreadfully wrong for Russia?

On November 19th, 1581, Ivan beat his son's wife because he felt that she was wearing the wrong clothes. The son also named Ivan - went to his father to remonstrate. The tsar lost his temper and struck his son with the iron-tipped staff he always carried. One blow made a deep hole in the prince's temple, and he died a few days later.

The character of Ivan the Terrible was as complex as it was cruel. His bouts of unrestrained bloodlust alternated with periods of equally extreme public repentance. He was deeply religious, but thought nothing of butchering priests who displeased him or ransacking churches for their gold. He was perhaps the most erudite and intelligent man in all Russia, but his political and personal judgment was disastrously flawed. One need not look far to uncover the first source of his ills: it was his appallingly violent and unhappy childhood.


It was Ivan's great misfortune to come to the throne when he was just three years old. His father's death in 1533 caused a three-way power struggle between his forceful mother and the two leading families of the boyars (noblemen), the Belskys and the Shuiskys. The tussle for control of Muscovy was played out murderously in the corridors of the Kremlin. Ivan regularly witnessed beatings and assassinations as one or other faction set out to destroy its enemies. One night, the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church was chased into the room where Ivan slept. As he was beaten and dragged away, the priest begged the boy to protect him.

When Ivan was eight, his mother was poisoned by the boyars, and her lover Obolensky was walled up in a dungeon and left to starve. Obolensky's sister was Ivan's nurse, and the boy loved her dearly. When the soldiers came to take her away, he had to be prized weeping from her neck. He never saw her again. And so the boy grew up horribly neglected. 'My brother Yuri and I were orphans in the absolute sense of the word,' he later wrote. The boyars who ruled in Ivan's name abused or ignored him: 'They treated us like foreigners or beggars. How many privations we endured! We often lacked both food and clothing. We were not brought up as children should be.'

Ivan was keenly aware that the suffering he endured was all due to men who were supposed to be his subjects. The injustice of it ate into his soul like acid. At the same time, he was daily afraid that he would be the next to be poisoned or hacked or cudgelled to death. One historian has remarked that long before he became Ivan the Terrible, he was Ivan the Terrified.


Everything that Ivan witnessed as a boy taught him that mercilessness was the key to survival, and now he began to teach himself the rudiments of cruelty. At the age of nine or ten, his greatest pleasure (apart from reading works of theology) was torturing birds. He would hurl cats and dogs from the battlements of the Kremlin, and then run down after them and watch their death throes. He became fascinated by the effects of pain. As a young teenager he and his gang would ride out like bandits to terrorise peasants in the surrounding countryside. By the age of 13 he was a practised thug and an experienced rapist. At the same age Ivan finally felt strong enough to challenge the boyars. During a banquet in the Kremlin he stood up and accused Andrei Shuisky, the head of the Shuisky clan, of usurping his royal powers. It was an eloquent denunciation that stunned the boyars into silence. Shuisky was dragged from the hall by Ivan's bodyguards and thrown to his ravenous hunting dogs. They tore him apart in the street.


Three years later, in 1547, Ivan had himself crowned. His predecessors had styled themselves Grand Dukes of Muscovy, but Ivan insisted on the title 'tsar', a contraction of the Latin caesar. He believed that he was descended from Caesar Augustus, and that autocratic power was his imperial birthright. The term tsar also had religious connotations. In the Russian translation of the Bible it is the word used for anointed kings: David, the builder of the holy city of Jerusalem, is Tsar David in Russian. Jesus, King of the Jews, is the tsar iudeisky - the 'Jewish Tsar'. To Ivan, both the glory of Rome and the mystery of the Kingdom of God were represented in the concept of 'tsar', with him as its earthly embodiment.

Despite Ivan's cruel streak and growing megalomania, the first decade or so of his reign was peaceful and progressive. In these years he codified Russia's laws; he created a standing army of musketeers; he clamped down on the ungodly behaviour of the priesthood, and drew attention to the many copying errors in the holy texts being produced in the monasteries - usually the fault of drunken monks. To combat the debasement of the Holy Writ he introduced the printing press to Russia. He gathered around himself some good advisers, not least his devout and kindly wife Anastasia, whom he chose from a family of minor Russian nobles. He also established the zemsky sobor, a 'Council of Nobles' which, in another land, might have developed into something like a parliament. If Ivan had died at this point he would be remembered as one of Russia's better rulers.


Ivan did in fact fall gravely ill in 1553. As he lay close to death, the boyars plotted the succession. They were certain he would not survive, and had no intention of allowing Ivan's son to take the throne. But they were reckless enough to speak of their plans within hearing of the delirious tsar. When, to their horror, Ivan recovered, the vengeful, suspicious side of his character came to the fore. From this point on his character began to deteriorate in the most alarming way. This degeneration was possibly due in part to mental damage caused by his illness, which may have been a form of encephalitis, a swelling of the brain. Ivan's first victims were the boyars who had hoped for his death. They were arrested one by one and brutally tortured. The bloodletting might have ended with that, but for another misfortune. In 1560 Ivan's beloved wife died suddenly. He was distraught, and he naturally suspected murder by poison. Another crop of suspects was harvested from among the ranks of the nobles, then yet another from the names they provided under agonies of torture. The killings took on a momentum of their own, and continued long after their original pretext, the search for Anastasia's assassins, was forgotten. This purge swallowed up the last of Ivan's gifted counsellors: he killed them all.


Anastasia had probably been the only person who ever loved Ivan; she was certainly the only one who could calm his rages and his paranoia. Now that she was gone, he began to plummet towards insanity. In 1564 Ivan did the most extraordinary thing. Without a word of warning, he left the Kremlin in a cavalcade of sleighs laden with treasure. He did not say where he was going, or when he was coming back. It looked like a wordless, aimless abdication, and it horrified the Russian people: what would happen if there were no tsar? Who would protect them? A harsh father is surely better than no father at all! A delegation of boyars was sent to find Ivan and beg him to return. They caught up with him at the monastery of Alexandrovsk, about 60 miles from Moscow. After a month of pleading, Ivan agreed to return - but on one condition: from now on his every word would be absolute law. No one - not the Church, not the nobility - would have any right to criticize him or disobey his commands. The boyars gratefully agreed to Ivan's demands.


Back in Moscow, Ivan created a novel instrument of government to enforce this new deal. It was a mounted police force made up of ruthless and ambitious young men whose job was to root out Ivan's enemies. The oprichniki, as they were called, were fanatical Ivan-worshippers, a kind of cross between a monastic order and a Gestapo unit. Each man carried a broom and a dog's head on his saddle to symbolize their cleansing mission and their faithfulness to the tsar. They patrolled the countryside, and wrought indiscriminate terror and death wherever they went.

The worst episode in the nightmare that descended on Russia was the sack of Novgorod. Ivan decided that the entire town was plotting against him, and he went with his oprichniki to punish it. An orgy of murder and torture lasted days, and outdid anything inflicted on Russia by the Mongol horde. So many were butchered that the river was clogged with mutilated bodies. Ivan's personal sadism reached new heights. The torments seemed to give him a sexual thrill - and to bring on a spiritual ecstasy too. He often went straight from the bloodsoaked dungeons to his harem, or to prayer in the nearest church.

From Novgorod Ivan went to Pskov. On arrival, he visited the cell of a renowned hermit named Nikolai. Nikolai turned out to be a wildman, naked except for the chains he draped around himself. The hermit looked at the tsar and offered him a piece of raw meat. 'I am a Christian' said Ivan, 'I do not eat meat during Lent.' 'You do worse' said Nikolai, 'You feed on human flesh and blood.' Ivan left the monk in peace, and left Pskov too, leaving the people convinced they had been spared by a miracle.


By now, Ivan was known among his people by the soubriquet grozny. This word, usually translated as 'terrible', contains no moral judgment in Russian. A closer rendering would be 'fearsome' or 'awe-inspiring'. The word is related to the Russian for 'thunderstorm', and perhaps this provides a clue to the meaning of Ivan's reign. To the people, his behaviour was as elemental and unpredictable as lightning. The tsar's wrath came directly from God, and it was not for any mortal to question his blessing or his curse. Ivan certainly saw himself as a divine force. The torments he inflicted on his enemies were the judgment of God, they were the torments of hell that awaited his victims in even fuller measure the moment they were dead.

Ivan felt genuine remorse for one death only - that of his first-born son - caused by one of his terrible rages. Ivan wept for his son, but also for himself. He had destroyed his own bloodline. His royal house became extinct when he died in 1584. There followed an interregnum so chaotic and homicidal that even by comparison with Ivan's reign it is called 'The Time of Troubles'. This period ended when the boyars elected a new tsar, a relative of Ivan's wife Anastasia. The new ruler was Mikhail Romanov. His dynasty ruled Russia, for good or ill, for more than 300 years - until the Russian Revolution put an end to tsardom altogether.