Ivan IV Vasilevich

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Ivan IV Vasil’evich


(Ivan the Terrible). Born Aug. 25, 1530, in the village of Kolomenskoe; died Mar. 18, 1584, in Moscow. Grand prince from 1533. First Russian tsar (from 1547).

Ivan IV was three years old when his father, Vasilii III Ivano-vich, died and seven years old when his mother, Elena Glinskaia, died. His character was formed during the years of boyar rule (1538–48), which were marked by the dominance of favorites, by intrigues and murders, and by the struggle for power between two hostile boyar groupings—the Shuiskiis and the Bel’skiis. Even in his youth, Ivan IV dealt mercilessly with people in his milieu whom he found objectionable. His active role in affairs of state began with the creation of the Select Council (Izbrannaia Radd) in 1549, whose actual leader was A.F. Adashev. Ivan IV’s government, whose composition was heterogeneous, endeavored to strengthen the autocratic regime and make the state more centralized. To achieve these goals, a number of reforms were carried out between 1549 and 1560. In central and local government, the major prikazy (administrative offices) were established, and the kormlenie system (the practice of retention by local administrators of part of the tribute and judicial fines collected from the people) was abolished. A general state code was compiled. In the army, restrictions were imposed on the mestni-chestvo system, and the foundations were laid for the establishment of the streVtsy (semiprofessional musketeers). These reforms reflected the interests of all the feudal lords.

As a result of military campaigns launched by Ivan IV between 1547 and 1552, the Khanate of Kazan was annexed. In 1556 the Khanate of Astrakhan was annexed. The Siberian khan Ediger became a dependent of Ivan IV in 1555, and the Great Nogai Horde became a dependent of the tsar in 1557.

After the fall of the Select Council in 1560, Ivan IV personally implemented the policy of strengthening the autocracy. His foreign policy was designed to carry through to its conclusion the struggle against the successors of the Golden Horde, expand the state’s territory in the east, and seize the shores of the Baltic Sea in the west (the Livonian War of 1558–83). In domestic policy he struggled against real and imagined enemies and strengthened the autocratic regime. After Russia’s initial first successes in the Livonian War, which led to the utter defeat of the Livonian Order, the country had to wage war simultaneously against Lithuania, Poland, Denmark, and Sweden. The forays of Khan Dev-let-Girei’s Crimean Tatars on the southern frontiers of the state diverted many troops. Nonetheless, Ivan IV refused an armistice in 1566, and without allies he continued the struggle against the bloc of states, pursuing policies that exacerbated the situation inside the country to the point of crisis.

In the late 1570’s and early 1580’s, Russian forces had to abandon all the territory that they had previously conquered. The Livonian War ended in failure. Even during the war, Ivan IV had accelerated the struggle against the vestiges of feudal fragmentation in the country. Disgrace, execution, and banishment became increasingly prevalent methods used against political opponents; and in 1565 the oprichnina was introduced. The tsar began to order the execution of supporters of Vladimir Andreevich Staritskii, and in 1569 he forced Staritskii to drink poison. In the same year, acting on the tsar’s orders, Maliuta Skuratov-Bel’skii strangled Metropolitan Philip, who had opposed the oprichnina. In 1570, the tsar launched a heavy attack on Novgorod and Pskov, accusing them of attempting to transfer allegiance to the “Lithuanian king.”

The excesses of Ivan IV’s oprichniki and the ruinous Livonian War had a disastrous effect on the economy and on the condition of the Russian people, particularly the peasants. The tsar’s social policy was characterized by an intensification of feudal oppression through such measures as the abolition of Iur’ev Day and the introduction of the zapovednye leta (years when peasants were forbidden to leave their estates). Among the people, Ivan IV acquired the nickname of “the Terrible,” which reflected their conception of him as a tyrannical tsar and a despot as well as a powerful ruler. Ivan IV played an important role in the elaboration of the official ideology of autocracy, which he adhered to in his relations with his subjects, in negotiations with foreign ambassadors, and in strengthening the powerful centralized regime in Russia.

In the projects and actions of Ivan IV, foresight, energy, and purposefulness were combined with impulsive outbursts and vacillations. The tsar carried out bloody reprisals and mass repression, killing both his political opponents and tens of thousands of peasants, kholopy (male slaves), and posadskie liudi (merchants and artisans). As he grew older, his mistrustfulness and suspiciousness increased, as was reflected in his persecution mania, sadistic inclinations, and outbursts of unbridled rage, during one of which, in 1582, he killed his son Ivan Ivanovich.

For his time, Ivan IV was an educated man whose remarkable literary gifts are revealed in his widely-known letters to such officials as A.M. Kurbskii and V. Griaznoi. He apparently exerted considerable influence on a number of literary works of the mid-16th century (collections of annals, the Tsar’s Genealogical Directory, 1555, and The Tsar’s Register, 1556), and he played an important role in organizing book publishing in Russia. On his initiative St. Basil’s Cathedral and other structures were built in Moscow and the paintings of the Hall of Facets executed. Despite his education, Ivan IV believed in magic and sorcery.

Historical scholarship offers contradictory evaluations of Ivan IV’s activity. N.M. Karamzin, M.N. Pogodin, to a certain extent V.O. Kliuchevskii, and N.G. Ustrialov and N.I. Kos-tomarov are among the historians who have characterized Ivan IV negatively. The Soviet historians R. Iu. Vipper, S.V. Bakh-rushin, I.I. Smirnov, and P.A. Sadikov strongly emphasized the positive aspects of Ivan’s activity. Thorough, concrete studies of the domestic and foreign policies of Ivan IV that take into account both positive and negative aspects have been made by a number of Soviet historians, including S.B. Veselovskii, M.N. Tikhomirov, A.A. Zimin, and S.O. Shmidt.

The figure of Ivan IV has appeared in folklore, in the works of M. Iu. Lermontov, A.K. Tolstoy, and A.N. Tolstoy, and in paintings and sculpture by I.E. Repin, V.M. Vasnetsov, and M.M. Antokol’skii.


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Skrynnikov, R.G. “Nachalo oprichniny.” Leningrad, 1966.(Uch. zap. pedagogicheskogo in-ta im. Gertsena, no. 294.)
Skrynnikov, R.G. “Oprichnyi terror.” Leningrad, 1969.(Ibid., no. 374.)
Kliuchevskii, V.O. Soch., vol. 2. Moscow, 1956.
Bakhrushin, S.V. Nauchnye trudy, vol. 2. Moscow, 1954.
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