Nor his pulse trembled when he ordered his enemies to be scalded in boiling water or to have the phrase inscribed on their skin with fire: “Without such terror, justice in the world is not possible.” Tsar Ivan IV boasted of having raped a thousand virgins and of having sacrificed the children he had with them. After a short nap he used to visit the dungeons to attend the torture of some prisoners. He felt immense pleasure in the sight of agony.
On one occasion he met his daughter-in-law Elena at the palace, whom he beat for dressing inappropriately. His son’s protests angered his father so much that he killed him with a brutal blow to the head with his iron staff. Although he was a remorseless monster, he never got over the murder of his own heir.
Locked up and persecuted in childhood
His biographers assure that his bloodthirsty character was forged in his childhood, when he was subjected to all kinds of humiliations by the boyars, the feudal lords of ancient Russia who wanted to destroy his family. They were the ones who forced him to seclude himself in the Kremlin Palace, where he lived almost like a beggar. He was at his mercy and he knew it.
Years later, in a letter addressed to Prince Kurbski, the Tsar recalled his fateful childhood years: “Many were the occasions when my food was not brought on time. And what about the paternal treasure, which belonged to me by right? They plundered it… The sons of the boyars stole the treasure, melted it down to make gold and silverware, and engraved their parents’ surname on it as if it were hereditary property!”
Ivan IV Vasilyevich, better known as Ivan the Terrible, was the son of Basil III, Prince of Moscow, and Elena Glinskaya. Before dying, his father named him his successor to the throne when he was only 3 years old and placed him under the guardianship of his mother, who died five years later, probably poisoned by the boyars.
Elena’s disappearance left the country powerless and fueled intrigues between the great boyar clans, the Glinskis, Shuiskis, Belskis, and Obolenskis, who continued to regard the little prince as a nuisance. When he turned 13, the young man hatched a plan to take revenge on him. He summoned the members of the Shuiski family to the palace, whom he reprimanded for having abused him when he was just 3 and 4 years old.
At just 13 years old, he ordered a pack of hungry dogs to devour his great enemy, Prince Andrei, before the horrified gaze of the nobles
The pent-up hatred gave him the courage to do what he set out to do. At a signal from him, the guards seized the head of the Shuiski family, Prince Andrei, and dragged him out into the street, where they had arranged a pack of hungry dogs that devoured him before the horrified gazes of the nobles. Despite everything, the boyars continued to harass Ivan until he was 17 years old.
In his chambers in the Kremlin, the young prince had read sacred books that gave the title of tsar to the kings of Babylon and to great Roman leaders and emperors, such as Julius Caesar and Augustus. For Ivan, the word ‘tsar’ enjoyed the prestige of the Bible and of the great ancient empires, such as the Babylonian and the Byzantine. He believed that whoever was crowned with that title would be the heir to those emperors and the forger of modern Great Russia.
The head of the Moscow Church, Macarius, knew of the young Ivan’s imperialist dream and fully supported his coronation ceremony as Tsar, which took place in Moscow’s Assumption Cathedral on January 16, 1547. Shortly after, he married Anastasia Romanovna, who influenced many of her husband’s decisions for years to come.
piercing blue eyes
Iván was a tall guy, with an aquiline nose and a red beard on his face. “He fascinated his interlocutors with his little blue and penetrating eyes, sunk in his orbits,” says Henri Troyat. This member of the French Academy and biographer of the Russian monarch reveals that he “drank too much and that alcohol disturbed his nerves, already shattered by an unhappy and constantly threatened childhood.” Despite his violent character and his constant paranoia, the young tsar promoted the arts and letters, introduced the printing press in his country. In addition, he was a devout Christian who scrupulously complied with the rituals of the Orthodox Church, although his pulse did not tremble when he ordered the execution of some cleric who had been disloyal to him.
The year of his coronation as Tsar, a fire destroyed much of Moscow. The city was almost entirely built of wood, making it very vulnerable to flames. Rumors spread through its streets that the culprits had been the boyars. The Tsar took advantage of the chaos to consolidate the central administration and reduce the power of the great nobles.
His triumphal entry into Moscow
His kingdom, the principality of Muscovy, as Russia was then called, was surrounded by a series of Tatar states (khanates) that slowed down its expansion and constituted a permanent threat. The most important were Kazan, in the middle course of the Volga, Astrakhan, in the lower course of that same river, and Crimea, north of the Black Sea.
In 1552, taking advantage of a truce in the military conflict with Poland and Lithuania, the sovereign besieged the capital of Kazan with more than 150 cannons. A month later, Russian troops entered the city and killed all the Tatar nobility of that khanate. The Tsar ordered that the Muslim population be replaced by Russian settlers and that the mosques be demolished in order to build Orthodox churches on their ruins.
When he made his triumphal entry into Moscow, Ivan IV wore a blue robe over which he wore shining silver armor. After being subjugated by the Tartars for three centuries, the Russians showed their gratitude to the lord of him, whose armies had “destroyed the dragon in its lair”, as Archbishop Macarius pointed out.
Some historians point out that it was from then on that the Tsar began to be known as Ivan the Terrible, a nickname that he earned by hand. Two years after his great deed against the Kazan Tatars, he launched his armies against the Astrakhan Khanate, whose leaders surrendered after a short military campaign. Those victories added almost a million kilometers to the domains of Russia, a country that was beginning to transform itself into a great power.
Inflamed with the idea of building a huge Empire, the Tsar invaded Livonia, a small and wealthy nation located on the coast of the Baltic Sea (part of whose territories correspond to present-day Latvia and Estonia). But that adventure was quite expensive for him, since he had to endure a long 25-year war against Lithuania, Poland and Sweden that ended in a draw and depleted his coffers.
Building an empire and the first KGB
In those years his beloved wife, Anastasia, died, which plunged him into a deep paranoia. He was convinced that noble boyars and her own advisers had poisoned her. He thought that if God had allowed his enemies to take his wife from him, he had the right to behave like a bloodthirsty madman again. He believed that no matter how horrible his excesses were, they would be well seen by God, that in his infinite wisdom he appreciated violent natures against lukewarm and timid.
He created the Oprichnina, a police force that spread terror and destroyed the power of the boyars, whose possessions passed to the Crown
Moved by his desire for revenge, he created the Oprichnina, a police force that spread terror and destroyed the power of the boyars, whose possessions passed to the Crown. From that purge a new bureaucracy arose and large estates remained in the hands of the Tsar. The people understood that it was no longer the arrogant boyars who ruled, but the Tsar himself through his agents.
The Russians began to fear the extreme violence and sadism of the 6,000 members of the Oprichnina, whose repression in Novgorod, where hundreds of people were mutilated to death, was remembered for centuries. Thanks to that praetorian guard, Ivan the Terrible got rid of his enemies, including the Church, which he brought to heel to stop his dizzying enrichment.
Courts were set up ordering suspects to be mercilessly tortured. “The mere rumor allowed the judge to begin the disarticulation and breaking of the bones, to lacerate the body with lashes and to burn the victim”, affirms the Russian writer Benson Bobrick.
In his last years, Ivan IV sent military expeditions to conquer Siberia. He died on March 18, 1584, believed to be of syphilis. But they analyzed his remains in 1960 and found high doses of mercury, so it is not ruled out that he was poisoned. He was buried next to his son whom he had killed in a fit of insane rage. His other offspring, Theodore, lost-minded and weak-willed, leaned on his ambitious brother-in-law Boris Godunov, who would soon rule Russia in his place.