Born in 1530, Ivan IV succeeded to the imperial throne at age three. He became known in Russia as Ivan Grozny, which has traditionally been translated into English as “Ivan the Terrible.” However, this is a misleading translation; grozny means “terrifying” rather than “terrible.” The czar is more accurately called “Ivan the Formidable” or “Ivan the Awe-Inspiring.”
Because the new emperor was only a toddler, the boyars seized control of the administration. However, they could not agree on any chain of command or choose a leader among themselves; for a decade, Russia somehow functioned with total chaos in the capital city. Ivan proved his formidable qualities as soon as he turned thirteen; he asserted his authority in a manner that impressed everyone and convinced his subjects of his strength and determination. Four years later, he became the first Russian ruler to have himself crowned Czar of All the Russias. (Ivan III had used the title “czar” only in his private correspondence.)
Ivan’s early experience of the boyars taught him that they were unreliable; he believed, with justification, that they were likely to quarrel among them- selves, conspire against him, and overthrow him if they could. This distrust of the boyars convinced Ivan that he must rule as an absolute autocrat. Rather than allowing the boyars to play any role in government policy, Ivan chose advisers he felt were personally loyal to him as the head of the state. Partly to counteract the boyars’ resentment and partly to protect his own place on the throne, Ivan also passed the first laws restricting mobility of the peasant class. Similar actions taken by his successors would eventually lead to their becoming serfs—the literal property of their noble landlords, with few rights of their own.
The policy of territorial expansion begun under Ivan III continued under Ivan the Terrible. Over a nearly forty-year reign, the czar conquered the last remaining Tatars and extended Russia’s eastern border far beyond the Volga River, taking over a swath of territory stretching from the Caspian Sea in the south to the Arctic Ocean in the north. With the Tatars finally crushed, the way was open for expansion to the Pacific Ocean.
Under Ivan, the large Russian army began improving in quality. His predecessors had enlarged the army but had not trained it. Under Ivan’s rule, military commanders created specialized divisions such as musketeers and artillery.
The Fall of Ivan IV
After a promising beginning, Russia’s strong czar collapsed during the second half of his reign. His behavior grew more and more eccentric and his decisions more strange. In 1581, he struck and killed his son and heir Ivan in a fit of rage in front of several witnesses. Historians believe that Ivan IV suffered from paranoia, severe mental illness, and possibly also a spinal disability that meant constant physical pain.
Everyone close to the throne could see that Ivan the Formidable was no longer capable of ruling, but there was no peaceful means of deposing him. Russia was an absolute monarchy with no legislative or representative assembly, no constitution, no balance of powers, and no apparatus in the government for replacing an unstable or incompetent czar.
In 1564, Ivan mapped out an area covering about half the czardom and decreed that he would rule this area as his personal absolute kingdom. He created a bureaucracy for his new realm, confiscated land and property at will, and dismissed and executed any authority figures he saw as a threat. Ivan also formed the Oprichnina, an organization of secret police whose members were called oprichniki. The oprichniki were officially civil servants; in fact, they were murderous thugs, responsible to no one but Ivan, with total authority to crush anything they saw as opposition to the czar’s authority. The oprichniki would operate until 1572. Creating a climate of fear and secrecy, they proved ruinous to the stability of Russian society, and Ivan was finally persuaded to disband them.
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