Ivan the Terrible

Learning Objective

  • Outline the key points of Ivan IV’s policies and examine the positive and negative aspects of his rule

Key Points

  • Ivan IV is often known as Ivan the Terrible, even though the more correct translation is akin to Ivan the Fearsome or Ivan the Awesome.
  • Ivan IV was the first Rus’ prince to title himself “Tsar of All the Russias” beginning the long tradition of rule under the tsars.
  • Lands in the Crimea, Siberia, and modern-day Tatarstan were all subsumed into Russian lands under Ivan IV.
  • The persecution of the boyars during Ivan IV’s reign began under the harsh regulations of the oprichnina.



A state policy enacted by Ivan IV that made him absolute monarch of much of the north and hailed in an era of boyar persecution. Ivan IV successfully grabbed large chunks of land from the nobility and created his own personal guard, the oprichniki, during this era.

Moscow Print Yard

The first publishing house in Russia, which was opened in 1553.


A member of the feudal ruling elite who was second only to the princes in Russian territories.

Ivan IV

Ivan IV Vasileyevich is widely known as Ivan the Terrible or Ivan the Fearsome. He was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547 and reigned as the “Tsar of all the Russias” from 1547 until he died in 1584. His complex years in power precipitated military conquests, including Kazan and Astrakhan, that changed the shape and demographic character of Russia forever. He also reshaped the political formation of the Russian state, oversaw a cultural Renaissance in Russia, and shifted power to the head of state, the tsar, a title that had never before been given to a prince in the Rus’ lands.

Rise to Power

Ivan IV was born in 1530 to Vasili III and Elena Glinskaya. He was three when he was named the Grand Prince of Moscow after his father’s death. Some say his years as the child vice-regent of Moscow under manipulative boyar powers shaped his views for life. In 1547, at the age of sixteen, he was crowned “Tsar of All the Russias” and was the first person to be coronated with that title. This title claimed the heritage of Kievan Rus’ while firmly establishing a new unified Russian state. He also married Anastasia Romanovna, which tied him to the powerful Romanov family.


18th-century portrait of Ivan IV. Images of Ivan IV often display a prominent brow and a frowning mouth.

Domestic Innovations and Changes

Despite Ivan IV’s reputation as a paranoid and moody ruler, he also contributed to the cultural and political shifts that would shape Russia for centuries. Among these initial changes in relatively peaceful times he:

  • Revised the law code, the Sudebnik of 1550, which initiated a standing army, known as the streltsy. This army would help him in future military conquests.
  • Developed the Zemsky Sobor, a Russian parliament, along with the council of the nobles, known as the Chosen Council.
  • Regulated the Church more effectively with the Council of the Hundred Chapters, which regulated Church traditions and the hierarchy.
  • Established the Moscow Print Yard in 1553 and brought the first printing press to Russia.
  • Oversaw the construction of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

St. Basil’s Cathedral. This iconic structure was one cultural accomplishment created under Ivan IV’s rule.

Oprichnina and Absolute Monarchy

The 1560s were difficult with Russia facing drought and famine, along with a number of Tatar invasions, and a sea-trading blockade from the Swedes and Poles. Ivan IV’s wife, Anastasia, was also likely poisoned and died in 1560, leaving Ivan shaken and, some sources say, mentally unstable. Ivan IV threatened to abdicate and fled from Moscow in 1564. However, a group of boyars went to beg Ivan to return in order to keep the peace. Ivan agreed to return with the understanding he would be granted absolute power and then instituted what is known as the oprichnina.


1911 painting by Apollinary Vasnetsov. This painting represents people fleeing from the Oprichniki, the secret service and military oppressors of Ivan IV’s reign.

This agreement changed the way the Russian state worked and began an era of oppression, executions, and state surveillance. It split the Russian lands into two distinct spheres, with the northern region around the former Novgorod Republic placed under the absolute power of Ivan IV. The boyar council oversaw the rest of the Russian lands. This new proclamation also started a wave of persecution and against the boyars. Ivan IV executed, exiled, or forcibly removed hundreds of boyars from power, solidifying his legacy as a paranoid and unstable ruler.

Military Conquests and Foreign Relations

Ivan IV established a powerful trade agreement with England and even asked for asylum, should he need it in his fights with the boyars, from Elizabeth I. However, Ivan IV’s greatest legacy remains his conquests, which reshaped Russia and pushed back Tatar powers who had been dominating and invading the region for centuries.

His first conquest was the Kazan Khanate, which had been raiding the northeast region of Russia for decades. This territory sits in modern-day Tatarstan. A faction of Russian supporters were already rising up in the region but Ivan IV led his army of 150,000 to battle in June of 1552. After months of siege and blocking Kazan’s water supply, the city fell in October. The conquest of the entire Kazan Khanate reshaped relations between the nomadic people and the Russian state. It also created a more diverse population under the fold of the Russian state and the Church.

Ivan IV also embarked on the Livonian War, which lasted 24 years. The war pitted Russia against the Swedish Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Poland. The Polish leader, Stefan Batory, was an ally of the Ottoman Empire in the south, which was also in a tug-of-war with Russia over territory. These two powerful entities on each edge of Russian lands, and the prolonged wars, left the economy in Moscow strained and Russian resources scarce in the 1570s.

Ivan IV also oversaw two decisive territorial victories during his reign. The first was the defeat of the Crimean horde, which meant the southern lands were once again under Russian leadership. The second expansion of Russian territory was headed by Cossack leader Yermak Timofeyevich. He led expeditions into Siberian territories that had never been under Russian rule. Between 1577 and 1580 many new Siberian regions had reached agreements with Russian leaders, allowing Ivan IV to style himself “Tsar of Siberia” in his last years.


Ivan IV’s throne. This decadent throne mirrors Ivan the Terrible’s love of power and opulence.

Madness and Legacy

Ivan IV left behind a compelling and contradictory legacy. Even his nickname “terrible” is a source for confusion. In Russian the word grozny means “awesome,” “powerful” or “thundering,” rather than “terrible” or “mad.” However, Ivan IV often behaved in ruthless and paranoid ways that favors the less flattering interpretation. He persecuted the long-ruling boyars and often accused people of attempting to murder him (which makes some sense when you look at his family’s history). His often reckless foreign policies, such as the drawn out Livonian War, left the economy unstable and fertile lands a wreck. Legend also suggests he murdered his son Ivan Ivanovich, whom he had groomed for the throne, in 1581, leaving the throne to his childless son Feodor Ivanovich. However, his dedication to culture and innovation reshaped Russia and solidified its place in the East.