This week in history: The first Tzar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, crowned

16 January 2015

16 January 1547: the first Tzar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, crowned

Ivan Vasilyevich was born in the Russian royal estate of Kolomenskoye outside Moscow in 1530. The grandson of Ivan the Great, his own father, Vasily III, died when he was just three years old. His mother, Elena Glinskaya, then acted as regent, until she too died five years later, most likely poisoned by one of the many Russian nobles hoping to supplant the boy, or use him to further their own ends.

In turn neglected and abused by his regal handlers, Ivan’s eventful reign could be seen as one long act of revenge against the old ruling elite, since he did his utmost remove their privileges. In the process, he bolstered his own autocracy and created a whole new hereditary establishment from the ranks of his most loyal followers.

Expected at sixteen to assume the throne as Ivan IV, Grand Prince of Moscow, he chose instead to crown himself Tzar of all the Russias. The title, which endured until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, was a nod to the Roman Caesars and spoke of the scale of the teenager’s ambitions. Over the course of his long reign, he would extend Russia’s dominions to an imperial scale, swallowing up Siberia, Kazan and the Tartar feudal state of Astrakhan Khanate.

Intelligent and extremely well-read, Ivan was also ruthless, paranoid and quite possibly mad. As a child he tortured animals. He killed his eldest son with an iron bar in a fit of rage. Convinced that whole city of Novgorod was plotting against him he had it sacked. In 1565, he established the oprichniki, a particularly vicious roving police force who were tasked with routing out traitors, a job they carried out with murderous zeal. And legend has it that Ivan had the architects he commissioned to design the new St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow blinded to prevent them building anything more beautiful elsewhere.

Still, if the sobriquet ‘terrible’ seems more than deserved in these instance, a more accurate English translation of the nickname, ‘Grozny’, as it was first conferred in Russian, would be ‘Ivan the Formidable’.