Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich Grozny 1530-1584
Ivan the Terrible.
You don’t exactly earn a moniker like that without being a comic-book level super-villain. Ivan Vasilyevich Grozny would certainly fit the bill. But, what dastardly deeds did this malicious fiend dish out? Glad you asked. Ivan was a genius, an evil genius, both in accumulated knowledge and tactical skill, he was unmatched during his time, except for by his own insanity. Throughout his notorious reign, Ivan would repeatedly go out of his way to demonstrate just how crazy he was.
It all started with Ivan’s notoriously terrible childhood…
Ironically Ivan the Terrible’s grandfather was Ivan the Great. Our good friend Ivan was born into Russian nobility. When his father, Vasily III died, Ivan became the Grand Prince of Moscow, at the age of 3. Yelena Glinskaya, his mother acted as regent in his stead until her subsequent death, when Ivan was only 8 years of age. A council of noblemen replaced his absent parents. However, they were far more interested in fighting over power, than raising a young and deeply disturbed child. Thus, Ivan’s effed-up up-bringing was surrounded by violence and loneliness in the halls of the palace, the Kremlin. His hobbies included music, literature, and torturing small animals. Ivan IV was crowned the first Czar of All-Russia at the age of 16 and immediately set his sights on unlimited power, and began his evil scheming whilst presumably twirling his beard and cackling madly in the dark.
He actually didn’t start out so terrible, considering his rather dubious origin story. Ivan took on the title of Tsar, which is the russian term for Caesar, and united all of Russia. Czar Ivan the Fourth was a reformer. He set about modernizing his country, revising laws, and restructuring while expanding its reach, opening new trade routes, and beefing up his military might. A devout christian, he would prove to be one of the biggest hypocrites in history.
“I will not see the destruction of the Christian converts who are loyal to me, and to my last breath I will fight for the Orthodox faith.”
Ivan used the christian faith to unite Russia, and as an excuse to conquer the lands of Siberia…
Here’s where things start to go a little off the deep end.
After absolutely crushing his Tatar enemies at Kazan and Astrakhan, Ivan decided to build a huge-ass church in celebration of Russia’s victory and newly annexed borders: Saint Basil’s Cathedral. St. Basil’s (located in the Red Square today) was said to have been such a work of beauty that Ivan congratulated the two architects on their magnificent achievement… by having them both blinded?!
Wait, what?! Hold up a sec, how is that a reward for a job well done?
Supposedly it’s because he didn’t want them to be able to build anything that gorgeous anywhere else. I can’t even imagine what he would’ve done if he didn’t like their work…
In 1553 things took a turn for the worst for our favorite, seemingly benevolent, Russian monarch. Ivan nearly died from a serious illness that left him a changed man, for the worse. Following the death of his beloved wife, Anastasia, Ivan pulled a Jekyll and Hyde. Some historians have attributed this two-face twist to the ‘medication’ his personal doctors prescribed during his near-death experience: high-doses of mercury. Mercury, as in the poisonous liquid metal element known to cause hallucinations, paranoia and sheer crazy pants. FAIL! This Mercury-madness may have amplified his already fragile psyche like a schizophrenic on LSD, which was only fueled by a horrendous childhood, and several personal tragedies.
Seriously, Batman’s got nothing on this dude. Ivan had two choices left in life: fight crime dressed as an overgrown flying rat, or become such a cold, hardcore bastard that nothing would ever be able to hurt him ever again. He decided to use his anger ‘constructively’… er destructively?
Following the unexpected demise of his wife, Ivan became enraged and paranoid. Without any proof, Ivan blamed the nobles of poisoning her and conspiring to take the throne from him. In response to his delusions he vowed to eliminate any and all perceived threats. His inner circle was just the beginning, Ivan Grozny began targeting all of Russia’s nobility. Soon after, in 1564, the psychotic ruler randomly decided to abdicate the throne. Ivan literally packed his duffel bags of fur coats, and left Moscow in the dead of winter.
In his absence, the Russian people panicked.
Their mercury-drinking Tsar had abruptly moved out without warning after removing any possible replacements. The populace begged for his return. Ivan refused. Still his subjects insisted. Ivan thought about it for a long moment, and then declared that he would return to his people on one condition: he would be granted Total Absolute Power, and specifically demanded the ability to punish those he believed were disloyal to him. This of course should have sent some red flags. Rather than reconsider their former Czar’s proposals, Russia welcomed their tyrant back with open arms.
This would prove to be an unwise decision.
Ivan (the terrible) immediately set about creating his own ‘separate estate’ of government: the Oprichnina. This was a private police force of handpicked goons that answered only to Ivan himself. These horse-riding henchmen in black spread terror across all of Russia. This elite guard symbolically carried with them a dog’s severed head to ‘sniff out’ traitors and a broom to ‘sweep them away’. That’s not all folks, these ‘cops’ were given free reign to torture, confiscate property, steal wealth from those listed as traitors, and executed anyone who even so much as displeased the great and terrifying Ivan.
In 1570, Ivan got all paranoid and started suspecting the entire city of Novgorod of treasonous activity. In response to the voices in his head, Ivan unleashed his guard dogs, the oprichniki, on the wealthy city. There was no battle, it was a sheer massacre claiming the lives of thousands.
During Ivan’s incursions in the West, the people at home suffered devastating droughts, epidemics, severe famine, and economic downturn. Then Prince Andrey Kurbsky, Ivan’s closer advisor betrayed him and defected to Lithuania. While Ivan was away their capital was nearly burned to the ground. Things seemed to go from bad to worse.
This turn of events didn’t exactly help Ivan’s already fragile state of mind, leading to frequently violent outbursts of insanity often accompanied by excessive binge drinking, which typically preceded desperate prayers and fasting. One of these particularly erratic instances occurred in 1581. In one of Ivan’s terrible outbursts he beat his son’s wife causing a miscarriage. Following this fit of rage, his son, Ivan Ivanovich confronted him. During the heated argument that followed with his son, Ivan Vasilyevich grabbed a pointy staff and swung it at his heir. Ivan murdered his own son.
Following this particularly unpleasant happenstance, Ivan became obsessed with his own demise as his health began to fail him. He called upon witches and prophets alike, but none could avail his declining condition, as he began chugging mercury by the liter-full. This jerk-tacular d-bag’s death finally came from a stroke during a game of chess with his bodyguard, and closest confidant, Bogdan Belsky, in 1584.
The country fell into disarray under Ivan’s remaining son, the ineffectual Feodor, leading to what is known as the aptly named ‘Time of Troubles’. Russia spiraled into catastrophic disarray which lasted until Peter the Great Alcoholic and the peaceful prosperity of the Romanov Dynasty that followed, which lasted until Tsar Nicholas II and his family were all assassinated during the Russian Civil War of 1918, after which communism took hold of the nation and STALIN happened.
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“Ivan the Terrible” (Parts 1 and 2) – Sergei Eisenstein (1944-1947)
“Deadliest Warrior” – Season 3 (Ivan the Terrible vs Hernando Cortez)