What was the impact of Ivan the Terrible on Russia

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Ivan IV from a contemporary print

Ivan the Terrible is one of the best-known Russian Tsars and is commonly regarded as one of the cruelest men in history. He has been portrayed countless times in books and movies. However, the legend that is Ivan the Terrible often obscured the historical leader, who was one of the most important figures in Russia's history.

He may have been mentally unstable and a brutal autocrat, but he was a brilliant leader who modernized Russia and laid the foundations for the later Russian Empire. This article discusses the impact of Ivan the Terrible on Russia. It analyses his impact on the development of Russia as a state and as an Empire. The piece also discusses Ivan’s policy failures and tyranny, which were to have very tragic consequences for the Russian people.


The Mongols had conquered Russia in the 13th century, and for many years they imposed a tribute system on the Russian princes. The Golden Horde, as the Mongols were known dominated, Russia from their bases in Crimea and the South of Russia. These years changed Russia and its culture. By the 15th century, the Khanate of the Golden Horde had broken up after Tamerlane's massive defeat. However, the successor states of the Golden Horde dominated much of modern Russia. The weakening of the Mongols allowed the state of Moscow to emerge. Under a succession of Grand Princes, members of the Rurik Dynasty, the State of Muscovy, had been able to expand mostly at the expense of the Mongols' descendants, often known as the Tartars.[1]

By the mid-sixteenth century, Muscovy, centered on Moscow, was in a precarious strategic position. Tartar Khanates bordered it to the south and east. To the west was the massive kingdom of Poland-Lithuania. However, the State of Muscovy was able to command a vast territory rich in resources and a large army. Under successive able Grand Princes’ it had dominates the other Russian princedoms and city-states such as Novgorod. However, many of these princes only were technically part of Muscovy, and the hereditary nobility often opposed the will of the Grand Princes and even intrigued with his many enemies. It was widely believed that the nobles or Boyars poisoned Ivan’s father and his mother, the queen regent. At the time of Ivan’s birth, Muscovy was a sprawling but fragmented entity covering large areas of central Russia.

The reign of Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible at the siege of Kazan

The early life of Ivan was harsh. His regency was passed among the feuding nobility. Ivan and his brother often went hungry and were neglected. During this time, Ivan developed hatred and distrust for the nobility.

At the age of sixteen, he was crowned, and he took the title Tsar of all Russia. His claim to Tsar of all Russia was absurd because both Ivan's and Moscow's political power were non-existent. Ivan, despite his youth, proved to be a capable administrator. He rebuilt Moscow after a fire. He introduced the first parliament, founded a standing army known as the Streltzi, reformed the Church, and stamped out many clerical abuse cases.[2]

Ivan was also a modernizer and introduced the printing press into Russia. However, he was concerned about the peasantry's mobility and was the first to launch a series of regulations that limited their freedoms and tied them to the lands. Ivan also introduced a measure of self-government into areas that had been recently colonized by peasants to encourage the colonization of virgin territories. Ivan also sought to develop trade links with western Europe and win allies in the west he once proposed to Elizabeth I.

Reforms and peace marked the first years of Ivan's reign. However, this was to change, and many have even claimed that this resulted from some undiagnosed mental health issues. More likely, the drastic change in Ivan’s policies was due to external and internal threats. In the 1560s, Russia was involved in several wars, and drought caused widespread famine. There were rumors of revolt and conspiracies. Ivan decided that he needed to strengthen his position, especially against the Boyars. He found the Oprichnina a military and a police force that was soon given free rein against Ivan’s many real and imagined enemies. There were several waves of persecution launched by the Oprichnina. This involved mass arrests and executions, mainly of Boyars and their supporters. The Oprichnina significantly extended Ivan's hold over the hereditary nobility, but its members increasingly enriched themselves and became a ‘state within a state.’

Later, Ivan disbanded the force in 1572. The Tsar became increasingly paranoid, especially after his beloved wife's death, and he suspected the city of Novgorod was going to betray him.[3] He attacked the city and had it sacked in an orgy of bloodshed and brutality that lasted weeks. Soon Ivan IV had earned the name ‘The Terrible.’ Throughout much of his reign, the Tsar was engaged in wars with the various Khanates to the south and the east. In a series of wars, he conquered of forced the submission of three Muslim Khanates. Ivan not only vastly increased the extent of the territory of Muscovy, but he transformed it into a multi-faith and a multi-ethnic state.

In effect, Ivan IV had founded a new Russian Empire. Despite being a devout Orthodox Christian, Ivan pursued a policy of toleration towards his numerous Muslim subjects. For many years, Ivan was involved in a brutal war to the west, called the Livonian War.[4] Ivan sought to expand Russia to the Baltic Sea and led to a series of wars with Sweden, Denmark, and Poland, among others. The wars were inconclusive.

During Ivan's reign, Russia started the exploration and colonization of Siberia. In 1555, shortly after Kazan's conquest, the Tartar Khan in western Siberia pledged allegiance to Ivan. He failed to pay tribute, and Ivan engineered his downfall. Instead of establishing another tributary state in Siberia, Ivan decided that he would rule it directly.

In 1558 Ivan gave the Stroganov merchant family the patent for colonizing an area east of the Urals. They built many forts and later hired Cossacks to protect their lands. The Tartars had by then established another Khanate in Siberia.[5] The Cossack leader in 1580 began the conquest of Siberia, and he forced many local tribes to pay tribute to Moscow. Later, Ivan sent a large force of Streltsi or his army members to assist in the conquest. By 1590 Ivan was also calling himself Tsar of Siberia. Ivan died of a stroke while playing chess and his middle son Feodor succeeded him. Russia, at the time of his death, was at the strongest it had in several centuries.

Ivan and the Orthodox Church

Ivan the Terrible with the body of the son he murdered

Ivan was a deeply religious man. He reformed the Church and introduced a unified liturgy. He also did much to ensure that the Patriarch of Moscow was the leading prelate in Russian lands. This was partly inspired by religious belief, and political necessity as the Orthodox Church could help unify the far-flung and diverse lands of Russia.[6] The Tsar ensured that the Church was tightly controlled, and he appointed the Patriarchs. Like everything else in Russia, the Orthodox Church was tightly controlled, and while it was enriched, it was very much subordinated to the Tsar's wishes. The Tsar saw himself as God’s deputy on Earth and that he could interfere with the Church and shape it to his will. Despite this, Ivan was a great patron of the Church, and he builds many magnificent Churches and Cathedrals. He also commissioned many religious Artworks and was the first Tsar to have the Orthodox bible printed. Ivan was to shape the nature and the role of the Orthodox Church for many centuries.

Concept of Tsar

Ivan was the first true Russian Tsar, and this was possibly his greatest achievement. Ivan believed in the divine right of Kings. Russian inherited this idea from the Byzantine tradition. However, Ivan was the first in many centuries to seek to ensure that he did reign as God’s deputy and was unquestioningly obeyed.[7] This does much to explain his apparent unlimited cruelty. He saw himself as an instrument of divine punishment, which was punishing sinners. He believed that by punishing them terribly in this life, he might have been saving their souls. Ivan’s concept of the role of the Tsar was very influential. A Tsar was expected to be an autocrat and was entitled to order cruel punishments. Furthermore, there will be a law. He made autocracy central to the Russian state. The authoritarian ideas of Tsar Ivan IV promoted a political culture in Russia that accepted and even welcomed autocracy, and this has arguably continued up to the present. Moreover, his use of terror tactics to stay in power was emulated by many subsequent rulers, including Peter the Great and Stalin. There are undoubted similarities between Ivan's persecution and the ‘purges under Stalin in the 1930s.’[8]


Ivan changed the nature of the Russian army and was the first Tsar to establish a standing army. This was to revolutionize the strategic situation and directly lead to a series of conquest. Ivan was the first to introduce western military technology into Russia, which was one of his greatest innovations. Tsar Ivan IV was one of the greatest conquerors of his era. His professional army was able to conquer several Khanates.

These Muslim kingdoms had terrorized Russia for many centuries, and they had frequently raided the territory of Muscovy. These were often highly organized slave raids, and many thousands of Russians usually ended up in the slave markets of Astrakhan. The conquests of Ivan ended this and allowed the Russian lands to develop in relative peace. Furthermore, the annexation of the Khanates turned Russian into a huge Empire.

For the first time since the Mongol invasion, one Russian Slavic Ruler was the dominant political figure in the region, and this has not changed to this date. Despite his reputation for brutality, Ivan was quite tolerant, and the many Muslims in his Empire soon came to accept his rule and became integrated into his state.[9] Then there was his colonization and conquest of Siberia, which allowed Russia to expand to the east and exploit the many resources that changed the nature of Russia forever. It turned the new Russian Empire into a transcontinental power and both a European and Asian power. The resources of Siberia were to help to turn Russia into a great power. Ivan’s military campaigns were not always successful, and he made no significant gains in the west. However, an important trade and cultural contacts were established necessary for the Russian Empire's future development.

The great failures of Ivan

The Tsar’s ambitious plans and policies had exhausted Russia. The population had suffered greatly, and the army could not recruit sufficient soldiers, and the treasury was almost empty. Russia was a mighty power, but it was also almost bankrupt and weak. After the death of Ivan, he was succeeded by his ineffectual son Feodor. Ivan had killed his heir in a fit of rage, and this was to prove disastrous. Tsar Feodor was incompetent and was to die childless, and this ended the Rurik Dynasty. The instability produced by an uncertain royal succession and a crippled economy resulted in internal instability, which was soon exploited by Russia’s neighbors. This became known as the ‘Time of Troubles’ when the Russian Empire almost collapsed. [10] The emergence of the Romanov Dynasty only saved the state. Many historians have argued that the Time of Troubles was a result of Ivan’s policies.

The impact of Ivan on Russia

The achievements of Ivan are great. He developed a modern Russian state and laid the foundations for a great Empire. However, this had all come at a terrible cost. He had ended the threat to Russia from the Muslim Khanates and had developed a modern state apparatus. Ivan had reformed the Orthodox Church and was also a patron of the arts. He began the colonization of Siberia, a region that helped to turn Russia in later centuries into a global power. However, countless suffered because of his savagery, and his wars and schemes bankrupted the state and weakened Russia. He also established and elaborated the concept of an autocracy used by successive Tsars and even Communists to justify their power, leading to many centuries of the repressive government in Russia. Ivan transformed Russia, and his achievements, both negative and positive, continue to shape Russia to this day, even in Putin's era.


  1. Madariaga, Isabel de. Ivan the Terrible. First Tsar of Russia. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 56
  2. Madariaga, p. 23
  3. Bobrick, Benson. Ivan the Terrible. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1990), p. 156
  4. Bobrick, p. 114
  5. Bobrick, p. 116
  6. Troyat, Henri. Ivan the Terrible. New York: Buccaneer Books, 1988), p. 216
  7. Hunt, Priscilla. "Ivan IV's Personal Mythology of Kingship," Slavic Review, Vol. 52, No. 4. (Winter, 1993), pp. 769–809.
  8. Perrie, Maureen. The Cult of Ivan the Terrible in Stalin's Russia (New York: Palgrave, 2001), p. 115
  9. Troyatt, p. 234
  10. Troyatt, p. 314

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