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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(oprishnina; from the ancient Russian term oprichnyi —”special”; in the 14th—15th centuries, oprishnina referred to a special domain assigned to members of the grand ducal dynasty). (1) From 1565 to 1572, the name of the tsar’s domain (territory, troops, and institutions).

(2) The term for the internal policies of the government of Ivan IV Vasil’evich the Terrible from 1565 to 1572. The oprichnina was introduced in response to the interests of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry), who sought to weaken the economic and political importance of the big feudal aristocracy and take further measures toward enslaving the peasantry.

The institution of the oprichnina was directly connected with the events of the early 1560’s. In his efforts to continue to conduct the Livonian War (1558–83) with vigor, Ivan IV encountered the opposition of certain individuals in his entourage. By breaking with the Selected Council (Izbrannaia Rada) and discrediting the kniazhata (serving princes) and boyars (1560–64), he had aroused discontent among the feudal aristocrats, the directors of the prikazy (offices), and the high clergy. Some of the feudal lords who disagreed with Ivan IV’s policies, including A. M. Kurbskii, betrayed the tsar and fled abroad. In December 1564, Ivan IV left for the Aleksandrova sloboda (a tax-exempt settlement near Moscow), and on Jan. 3, 1565, he announced that he was abdicating because of his “anger” toward the clergy, the boyars, the deti boiarskie (a class of petty feudal lords), and the prikaznye liudi (prikaz personnel). Deputations were sent to the sloboda by the boyars and clergy, as well as by the posadskie liudi (merchants and artisans) of Moscow, who agreed to concede emergency powers to the tsar.

An ukaz (decree) was prepared, in which Ivan IV announced the establishment of a “special” court with a special territory, troops, finances, and administration. The extirpation of “sedition” was proclaimed as the goal of the oprichnina. A special administrative apparatus was established, as well as an army (initially made up of 1,000 men) that owed absolute obedience to the tsar. Both the administrative bodies and the army were directly subordinate to the tsar. The oprichnina included Mozhaisk, Viaz’ma, and Suzdal’ in the central part of the country; Kozel’sk, Peremyshl’, Belev, and Medyn’ in the southwest; Dvina, Velikii Ustiug, Kargopol’, and Vologda in the north; and the crown possessions. The revenue from this territory went to the state treasury and was used to maintain the oprichnina troops and administrative apparatus.

As many as 5,000–6,000 men were in the oprichnina army. Kostroma, Staritsa, part of Novgorod, Obonezhskaia and Bez-hetskaia piatiny (regions of Novgorod Land), and other lands were added to the oprichnina territory. An oprichnina duma and finance prikazy called Cheti were part of the administrative apparatus of the oprichnina. Most of the officers of the oprichnina came from the royal court. The government exempted the oprichniki from the jurisdiction of the national administrative and judicial bodies.

The part of the state not included in the oprichnina was called the zemshchina. It continued to be administered by the Boyar Duma, which, however, was obliged to ask for the tsar’s approval on all the most important questions. To pay for the organization of the oprichnina, a single, huge tax of 100,000 rubles was exacted from the zemshchina.

Many local feudal lords and landowners who did not belong to the special court moved from the territory of the oprichnina, and their lands were transferred to dvoriane (members of the gentry or nobility) oprichniki. Dvoriane who were taken into the oprichnina received more land and peasants than other landlords, as well as generous privileges. To a considerable extent, the economic and political importance of the big landed aristocracy was undermined by the redistributions of land. With the oprichnina, the discrediting and execution of the kniazhata intensified. Active agents of oprichnina repression included the boyar A. D. Basmanov, the arms bearer Prince A. I. Viazemskii, and M. L. Skuratov-Bel’skii. The establishment of the oprichnina, as well as Ivan the Terrible’s actions, which were directed at the physical destruction of his political opponents and the confiscation of their land, aroused protest from some members of the dvorianstvo and clergy. At the zemskii sobor in 1566 a group of dvoriane submitted a petition calling for the abolition of the oprichnina. The petitioners were executed. Dissatisfaction with the oprichnina was expressed by Metropolitan Afanasii, who abdicated on May 19, 1566. His successor, Metropolitan Philip Kolychev, also voiced his opposition to the institution. He was strangled by M. L. Skuratov-Bel’skii in 1569.

In 1568 a great wave of repression began with the case of the boyar I. P. Fedorov and culminated in the elimination of the Staritskii appanage (1569) and the defeat of Novgorod (1570). The case of I. P. Fedorov resulted in more than 400 executions. During the Novgorod campaign the oprichniki, acting merely on information supplied by Skuratov-Bel’skii, killed 1,505 men in Tver’ and Torzhok (towns through which they passed) and in Novgorod. (In fact, the number executed and killed was many times greater.)

Oprichnina repression was accompanied by the murder and plundering of the people of the towns and votchiny (patrimonial estates). Among those who perished in Novgorod, many were from the common (chernye) posadskie liudi. The population was burdened with excessive taxes. To exact payment, Ivan the Terrible resorted to torture and executions.

As a result of the oprichnina, Ivan IV greatly strengthened the autocratic authority, which took on features of Oriental despotism. The oprichnina policy, which in its essence and methods was based on serfdom, was an important stage in the evolution of peasant enslavement. Under the oprichnina, the government was generous in distributing state and crown lands to pomesh-chiki (landlords), especially those who were oprichniki. During the same period, peasant obligations increased sharply, and the oprichniki drove peasants from the zemshchina “violently and suddenly.”

The sharp increase in state taxes and seignorial obligations led to the ruin of the peasants. The oprichnina terror was made more intolerable by military operations in Livonia, raids by Crimean Tatars, famine, epidemics, and the flogging of insolvent debtors. During the reign of the oprichnina terror, when the slightest protest was nipped in the bud, mass flight and nonpayment of taxes were the chief forms of peasant resistance. The division of the state into the oprichnina and zemshchina had many negative consequences for the ruling class.

In 1572 the oprichnina was abolished, and some of the confiscated lands were returned to their former owners. The oprichnina was revived for less than a year, under the name udel (“portion”), in 1575–76, when Ivan IV met with opposition from the ruling estate. Appointing the vassal Tatar Khan Simeon Bekbulatovich head of the zemshchina, Ivan IV adopted the title Prince of Muscovy and embarked on another series of land redistributions.

Since the 16th century, various reasons for the introduction of the oprichnina and evaluations of its essence have been proposed. In Soviet historiography, the oprichnina has been interpreted in a number of different ways.

Research by Soviet historians (P. A. Sadikov, S. B. Veselov-skii, A. A. Zimin, I. I. Polosin, I. I. Smirnov, L. V. Cherepnin, S. O. Shmidt, R. G. Skrynnikov, V. B. Kobrin, S. M. Kash-tanov, and N. E. Nosov, for example) has shown that the oprichnina should be understood as a number of military, administrative, financial, and social measures of Ivan IV’s government and as a specific policy, the significance of which was the surmounting of the vestiges of feudal fragmentation, the elevation of the dvorianstvo, and the intensification of peasant enslavement. In practice, the measures and policy known as the oprichnina were accompanied by mass repression that affected not only the kniazhata and boyars but also the dvoriane and the broad popular masses.


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Sadikov, P. A. Ocherki po istorii oprichniny. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950.
Veselovskii, S. B. Issledovaniia po istorii oprichniny. Moscow, 1963.
Zimin, A. A. Oprichnina Ivana Groznogo. Moscow, 1964.
Polosin, I. I. Sotsial’no-politicheskaia istoriia Rossii XVI-nachala XVII v. (collection). Moscow, 1963.
Cherepnin, L. V. “Zemskie sobory i utverzhdenie absoliutizma v Rossii.” In the collection Absoliutizm v Rossii (XVII–XVIII vv.). Moscow, 1964.
Kobrin, V. B. “Sostav oprichnogo dvora Ivana Groznogo.” In Arkheograficheskii ezhegodnik za 1959 g. Moscow, 1960.
Skrynnikov, R. G. Nachalo oprichniny. Leningrad, 1966. Skrynnikov, R. G. Oprichnyi terror. Leningrad, 1969.
Nosov, N. E. Stanovlenie soslovno-predstavitel’nykh uchrezhdenii v Rossii. Leningrad, 1969.
Kashtanov, S. M. “K izucheniiu oprichniny Ivana Groznogo.” Istoriia SSSR. 1963, no. 2.
Koretskii, V. I. Zakreposhchenie krest’ian i klassovaia bor’ba v Rossii vo vtoroi polovine XVI v. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The word appears neither when the chronicler recounted Ivan's order in 1565 to construct a separate oprichina court (dvor) in Moscow outside the Kremlin, nor when Ivan moved to it in January 1567.