What made Ivan so terrible?



Ivan the Terrible by Vicktor Vansnetsov 

What made Ivan so terrible? How did this Muscovite Prince gain such a reputation that over four hundred years of history never forgot him or his informal namesake?  It is said that a picture speaks a thousand words. In the case of Vicktor Vansnetsov’s Portrait of Ivan, painted 313 years after he had died, it is clear that Ivan’s terrible reputation preceded him. Yet by other accounts he was a man who was deeply religious and expanded Russia’s cultural heritage. The Iconic St Basil Cathedral with it’s onion shaped domes was commissioned by Ivan to commemorate key victories in the Russo-Kazan war. He also reformed the legal codes of Russia bringing order to his vast kingdom and expanded Russian influence into Serbia.  It was said that Ivan had in his procession ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts in a secret library, some dating back to the very dawn of Christendom and it was widely known that he was a great scholar of history.

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 Ivan showing off the wonders of the Russian Empire to an english diplomat sent by Elizabeth I 

Yet despite his accomplishments he was also known to suffer violent paranoid mood swings. After a near fatal illness and the death of his wife, Anastasia, his behavior became increasingly erratic. Fearing the nobility were plotting against him he instigated a rule of terror through a newly created secret police force which enforced his dictatorial will over the Russian population. In 1570 one of the largest commercial hubs within the Russian Empire, Novgorod, was sacked and it’s inhabitants put to the sword after Ivan believed that the entire population of the town was plotting to overthrow him. Ivan led the attack himself, slaughtering thousands.

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Ivan at the bedside of his beloved first wife Anastasia  

He then accidentally killed his son, the heir apparent, with a walking stick after a disagreement – he beat him to death as he was in the throws of a violent psychotic episode.   It is said that he even had the architects of St Basil blinded, after he feared that they might build a more beautiful cathedral elsewhere.

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Ivan in the grips of madness having just beat his son to death after a disagreement 

The legacy of Ivan will always be one of controversy. He expanded the Russian Empire and consolidated rule at home through his political and cultural policies. His unstable personality on the other hand meant that he will always be remembered with infamy. Which brings us back to his legendary name, Ivan the Terrible. This too is a source of debate. According to Russian sources, terrible is a translation from the word grozny which more closely translates as ‘ inspiring fear of terror’, ‘threatening’ or ‘awesome’ rather than ‘terrible’. Could it be that his contemporaries actually wanted him remembered as a Tsar who could inspire fear rather than as a Tsar who was  terrible? Since his career was so checkered it is difficult to know for sure.