An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Monarchs of Russia (2/4): Ivan the Terrible (Formidable)

Posted on January 28, 2014


If Ivan III lit the torch paper for modern Russia, it’s no exaggeration to say that the next Ivan to rule was the most fascinating and, well, fucked up of all Russian rulers. Of course, we’re talking about Ivan the Terrible. Born in Moscow on August 25th, 1530, he was the long-awaited son of Vasiliy III the Dark, and in terms of headlines he really didn’t disappoint. In a nutshell? Grand Prince aged three, marginalized by the nobles and sexually abused by the regents, became Tsar aged 16, FUCKED EVERYONE UP. That’s about it really.

Obviously there’s a shit tonne more to all of this. Ivan Vasilyevich was made Grand Prince of Moscow aged three, but as a toddler is not really fit to run a kingdom his mother Yelena acted as a regent. She died when he was eight though, so things sort of went balls up. The nobles were hungry for power, and they took every opportunity to exercise their assumed rule. Ivan was pushed into the background, rolled out whenever he was required for a public appearance but neglected in the private world. He lived in poverty, and was frequently party to violence in the palaces, viewing many a political murder. He was constantly molested by the nobles of Moscow at the time. Unable to take his frustrations out on the attackers, he frequently fucked around with animals. He would pull the feathers off of birds, pierce their eyes and slit their bodies. He was a fairly buggered up kid.

Still, we all have our tethers, and Ivan’s came on December 29th, 1543. All of the key nobles were called to this meeting, and boy were they confused. At the meeting, Ivan condemned the nobles for mistreating and neglecting him. He announced that the time had come for him to take over. Slightly perturbed, the nobles questioned bits and pieces. Eager to quash this, Ivan had the leader of the nobles, Prince Andrew Shuisky, thrown into a pit full of hungry dogs. Needless to say, the dogs ate the man. Nobody asked any more questions after this. Ivan IV was in charge.

On January 16th 1547, Ivan IV was crowned Tsar of Russia in Moscow’s Cathedral of the Assumption. Not long after this he married Anastasia Romanovna-Zakharyina-Yurueva. Amazing name. They had a whopping six kids, but only a meager two of these managed to make it past infancy. More misery in the life of this fairly put-upon chap. Still, he was pretty darn devout, and frequently threw himself before the icons of the time. He smashed his face on the floor so much that he managed to give himself a callous on his forehead. Silly man. He was so devout that he was pretty much the only Orthodox leader of note, heck, I’d wager the only leader of any note, to public confessions of sins. This is pretty much unthinkable. Think of Cameron, Blair or whoever every now and then going out onto the streets and confessing their sins? This was a big deal, and it happened a lot.

Still, his uncles and nobles had some small modicum of power. They were still shitty at their jobs though, so Ivan did the done thing and vowed never to leave any power in the hands of others again. Ivan IV became the be all and end all of the country. The Sudebnik was in need of reforming, and as 1550 came around this was the top of his list of jobs to do. In doing so, the Russian judicial system was clearly defined for the very first time. Equality was brought in, in theory anyway, meaning if you committed a crime you did the time, regardless of social status. It didn’t really work out quite as simply as that of course, but at least he tried. We can give him that at least.

Our buddy Ivan quickly lost interest in matters at home though, and focused a little more on trying to conquer everything. Kazan and the Tatars were something of a thorn in his side as he attempted to take more land, so in 1552 he led a new army of some 100,000 soldiers and marched towards Kazan itself. Needless to say, upon arrival in the city Ivan and his boys did some major fucking up of shit. It was from this particularly brutal escapade that his nickname originates. Although we know him as Ivan the Terrible, in reality his name is more along the lines of Ivan the Awesome, or Ivan the Formidable. The ‘terrible’ comes from mistranslations through the years.

Not that I’m saying it’s okay to massacre a town of course. That is pretty terrible.

Not only did he take on more land, but he also opened Russia up to foreign trade. The northern port of Archangel was opened to British merchant ships, allowing trade with Western Europe to flourish. He brought artisans from all over the continent in to Russia to teach the people new skills, new trades. He implemented sweeping reforms in both the church and the army, both of which were lagging at the time. It’s fair to say Ivan did quite a lot of good for Russia in the 16th century.

Then 1560 came around, and things went a bit south. His wife Anastasia died that year, and despite being a total bad-ass Ivan really wasn’t prepared for this. He went mad, suffering a total emotional collapse. His hair began to fall out and his beard went white. In 1564, it got so bad that he abandoned the capital, abdicating the throne. He didn’t really abdicate of course; everyone just assumed he had gone mad. He returned fairly swiftly, and presently set up the Oprichniki. What, prey tell, is an Oprichniki?

To put it mildly, the Oprichniki were complete bastards. They were essentially a secret police type organization, only with much worse uniforms and ethics. They dressed in all black, rode black horses and had two emblems, a broom and a dog’s head. God knows why. Well, obviously the dog’s head meant death, and the broom must have meant something along the lines of cleaning, which is equally as shitty as death. Anyway, these buggers would break into churches mid-mass and murder the priests and some of the congregation, before having a great big drunken orgy. Then they’d confess all their sins and start again. It was a daily battle between drunken debauchery and passionate repentance.

Their reign of terror reached its nadir in 1570 when they swarmed on Novgorod after some cooked-up accusations, and proceeded to massacre the entire town. 60,000 folk that is, by the way. The height of this orgy of cruelty was surely when they had the Archbishop sewn up in a bearskin and then hunted to death by hounds. I’m not exactly pro-church, but damn. That is no way to die. People were tied to sleighs and then run into the freezing rivers. That’s probably better than the whole bearskin thing, but it’s still a shitty way to go. Two years later the Oprichniki were disbanded. Ivan was about to go madder.

Or at least a different type of mad. He drank and drank and drank. His lowest point came the day before my birthday in 1582, when he drunkenly attacked his pregnant daughter-in-law, causing her miscarry. When his son, her husband, rose up to defend her, Ivan killed him. Not in cold blood, he was completely distraught by the whole escapade, but certainly not as distraught as the son he had killed or the daughter-in-law whose life he had ruined in an instant. That was all pretty terrible.

Less than two years later, Ivan the Terrible died of a heart attack. It hit him not in battle, not during a mass-drinking spree. His end came as he was preparing to play chess. It was a fairly anti-climatic ending for such a bastard. It’s clear to all that Ivan IV was a legitimate psychopath. He was an expert in the art of manipulation. He had the most violent mood swings, was incredibly unreliable and egocentric. He often seemed incapable of any sort of long-lasting emotions. He had the shittest of upbringings, and as such made sure many in Russia would have the shittest of times when he was in charge.

Still, he left Russia with an empire, increasing it’s land by nearly 1,000,000km squared. With the development of Siberia’s natural resources Russia became a genuine world power. Ivan IV changed Russian society dramatically as well, all the while doing so as the first all powerful Russian Tsar, completing the break from the Golden Hordes. Whether you want to call him Ivan the Terrible or Ivan the Formidable, I’d probably just avoid referring to him by name all together.