When you spend your formative years locked in closets, work your way through eight wives as an adult, and go down in history as [Your Name] the Terrible, it’s fair to say you’ve had quite a run. Ivan IV ruled from Moscow between 1547 and his death in 1584, and he can be thought of as the George Washington of Russia; if, instead of chopping down a cherry tree, George Washington had killed his own son by hurling him against a wall in one of his trademark psychotic rages.
To be clear, Ivan IV Vasilyevich didn’t live in an English-speaking country, so his title – Grozny – had to be translated, and “terrible” is the closest thing to the original meaning. In Russian, however, especially 16th-century Russian, Grozny doesn’t mean “bad,” or even “evil.” A more accurate translation would be “scary as hell.” In that sense, Ivan absolutely earned every letter of his title.
Ivan was born to Basil, the Prince of Muscovy, in 1530. In those days, what we now call Russia was a patchwork quilt of duchies and principalities, every one of them running its own live-action Game of Thrones performance, and the duty of a “prince” was mainly to collect taxes for Russia’s Mongol overlords.
It’s impossible to convey the kind of damage the Mongols had inflicted on Russia during the preceding three centuries. The closest approximation would be to imagine the meanest biker gang in your town taking up military-style discipline and killing everybody you’ve ever met. Then, when you’ve miraculously survived and made new friends, the bikers kill them too. Then they kill you. Repeat for 300 years.
Given this history, it’s not surprising that Russia’s nobility, known as boyars, was more interested in looting the peasants and throttling each other than in working together to push out the declining Mongol Empire. Given that everyone who tried to do that wound up rolled in a carpet and trampled to death by ponies, it was just safer for the dukes and other gangsters to line their pockets and protect the status quo. In the early 1500s, there was no indication that that world was about to be blown to flinders, and even less that scrawny little Ivan was going to be the one to do it, especially after the three-year-old Ivan’s father died in 1533.
Possibly the Most Dysfunctional Childhood Ever
After his father’s death, Ivan was officially the Prince of Muscovy. Somewhat less officially, he was at the mercy of the local aristocracy. These men needed the cover that having a prince provided, if only to preserve the formality of local rule, but they certainly weren’t going to let Ivan grow up as some kind of leader, which is why, instead of seeing to his education and preparing him for the burden of the throne, they locked him in confined spaces for days at a time and beat him mercilessly on little or no provocation.
Young Ivan was restricted to the palace grounds, usually his mother’s bedchamber, until boyars of the Shuisky and Belsky clans poisoned her when Ivan was eight. Physically weak due to malnutrition, all alone, and probably terrified out of his mind, Ivan’s only hope was to cultivate friends among the boyars. It was probably those friends who arranged for Ivan to be crowned “Tsar of All the Russias” at age 16, in 1547. Gradually, Ivan’s freedom of movement increased, and he started making alliances across the nobility. Very slowly, he began to consolidate his power.
The state of Ivan’s realm makes you wonder why he would even bother. In addition to the still-present Mongol yoke, Russia spent the 1550s dealing with: drought, and the resulting famine, Tartar invasions, war with Lithuania (which was a bigger deal back then than it would be now), domestic disturbances, and a trade embargo organized by Poland and Sweden (which was also a much bigger deal back then).
To top things off, Ivan’s first wife was probably poisoned in 1560, sending him into a spiral of depression. With an infallible sense of timing, Prince Andrei Kurbsky chose this moment to defect to the Lithuanians, taking along a fair-sized chunk of Ivan’s army, and started laying waste to Russian territories in the northwest.
Ivan responded to these problems in what strikes a modern person as the only sane way – he quit. In 1564, Ivan retired to his country estate and sent off a couple of public letters announcing his abdication and blaming the boyars for all of Russia’s misfortunes. The letters are written in an archaic style, but the message was, basically, “you’re on your own, Russia. Hope you like not having a Tsar.”
In retrospect, the abdication seems like a cunning political gambit. By the time he quit, Ivan had spent over a decade accumulating power, to the point that the government didn’t work without him, and his high-profile flounce was probably calculated to inflame the peasantry, with which he was popular, into pressuring the boyars into surrender. In any event, it’s for sure he had his terms ready when the nobles came crawling back to him.