Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

Ivan IV, the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible


When Vassili died in 1533, he left two infant sons, Ivan and George, the elder three years old. His widow, Helena Glinski, assumed the regency. She was a woman remarkable for spirit and beauty, and showed her courage in ruthlessly suppressing every attempt of high nobles to contest her authority. She sent her husband's brother George to prison, and let him die there. One of her own uncles, who had been in her confidence, showed too much ambition and suffered the same fate. Andrew, another brother of Vassili, tried to make his escape; he was promptly brought back and placed in confinement. This caused an unimportant war with Poland, ending in a truce in 1537. The Tartars of Kazan and the Crimea were frequently defeated. But Helena was cordially hated by the great nobles at Moscow; she was poisoned, and died in 1538.

Ivan, the oldest son and heir, was then eight years old. It must be placed to the credit of his mother that he had learned to read, for the children were sadly neglected after her death, and it was the boy's principal solace and occupation. In later years Ivan wrote of this time, "We and our brother Ioury (George) were treated like strangers, like the children of beggars. We were ill-clothed, cold and hungry." What impressed the child especially, was that when foreign envoys arrived he was placed upon the throne and the same nobles who showed him such contemptuous indifference, were respectful and even servile on such occasions. He noticed, too, that when these proud nobles needed anything, it was necessary that the papers should be signed by him. All this set the child thinking, and being a manly, bright boy, he came to the conclusion that, after all, he was the real master.

After many quarrels among themselves, Andrew Chou´ski, the head of a noble family, had become all-powerful; all important offices were occupied by his favorites and friends. Ivan noticed it all, but said nothing. He was thirteen years old when, after the Christmas celebration of 1543, he suddenly summoned the boyards before him, and in a threatening tone sternly accused them of their misdeeds. "There are among you many guilty ones," he said, "but this time I am satisfied with making one example." He ordered the guards to seize Andrew Chou´ski, and had him then and there torn to pieces by dogs. After this terrible punishment, he ordered the arrest of the most disobedient nobles, who were transported to distant places.

The thirteen-year-old boy then assumed the government, relying chiefly upon his mother's relations, the Glinskis. In 1547, at the age of seventeen, he directed the Metropolitan to crown him, not as Grand Duke but as Czar. In a Bible printed in the Slavonic language, he had read of the Czar  Nebuchadnezzar, the Czar  Pharaoh, David, Czar  of Israel, etc. He knew, besides, that the former masters of the grand dukes, the khans, had been addressed by that title. Perhaps it was because he wished it to be known that he considered himself the equal of any Tartar ruler; perhaps because he desired to have a title superior to that of the nobles who descended from former grand dukes, and who inherited the rank without the power; at any rate Ivan IV was crowned as the first Czar.

Young as he was, and since his thirteenth year beyond control, Ivan's life had been the reverse of good. But when, soon after the coronation, he married Anastasia Romanof, he made an earnest effort to reform. The relatives of his mother and of his wife, the Glinskis and the Romanofs, enjoyed his favor at this time.

There was much suppressed dissatisfaction among the nobles, and many plots were hatched against him. In the year of his coronation, a fire swept wooden Moscow, and about 1,700 people perished in the flames. Ivan ordered an investigation, and withdrew to Vorobief. Crowds gathered in the thoroughfares, when mysterious persons appeared among them declaring that the Glinskis had set the city on fire. Soon after shouts were heard, "It is the Princess Anne Glinski who, with her two sons, has bewitched the city; she has taken human hearts, plunged them in water, and with this water has sprinkled the houses. This is the cause of the destruction of Moscow!" A mob collected and made for the palace of the Glinskis and one of them, George, was stabbed. They went on to Vorobief, where they demanded the life of Ivan's uncle. The czar's own life was in danger and the mob had to be dispersed by force.

Ivan did not forget this, and terrible was his vengeance upon the boyards. At this time he gave his confidence to two men, one a priest named Silvester, who had the reputation of being a very honest man; the other, a member of the smaller nobility, named Adachef who, in 1551, as Minister of the Interior, gave to Russian cities the first municipal liberties. Ivan showed an unusual interest in the people; it was under his orders that a new code of laws (Soudebnik) was prepared, and many reforms were made in the Church.

This rather increased than diminished the hostility of the nobles. Ivan's favorites, Silvester and Adachef had grown ambitious and the former especially was over-bearing. He openly opposed the czar, and tried to sow discord between him and his wife. When Ivan's favorite son died, Silvester told him that it was a punishment from heaven for his disobedience. The two men tried to procure the dismissal of the Glinskis and Romanofs, and for that purpose made friends with the boyards whom Ivan suspected. In 1553, the czar fell dangerously ill; he called in the boyards and ordered them to swear loyalty to his infant son Dmitri. They refused. He was informed that the nobles were conspiring with his cousin Vladimir, whose mother was distributing money in the army. He was in terror for the lives of his wife and son. Once he said to the boyards who had remained faithful, "Do not, I pray you, forget that you have sworn an oath to my son and to me; do not let him fall into the hands of the boyards; fly with him to some foreign country, whithersoever God may guide you." Ivan recovered but he never could forget the anguish of those days.

Ivan's character at this time was far from bail. He was only twenty years old, and on several occasions showed that he was compassionate instead of cruel. It was only natural that his nature should be perverted, surrounded as he was by men of whom he was suspicious. Still, such a change could only be gradual. The immediate consequence of the conduct of his nobles, was that it drew him closer to the people. This was shown in 1506, when he convoked the three orders, nobles, priests, and people, to discuss public affairs.

His first act, after his recovery, was to banish his former favorites. Silvester was ordered to the monastery of St. Cyril, and Adachef was sent to Livonia. Soon afterwards the Czarina Anastasia died: there was a strong suspicion that she had been poisoned. To add to his bitterness, Prince Andrew Kourbski, a descendant of Rurik and a great friend of Silvester and Adachef, permitted 15,000 Russians to be defeated by the Poles with whom Ivan was at war. Kourbski deserted to the King of Poland.

It appears that Ivan at this time feared for his life, for he withdrew to a neighboring castle with his friends, servants, and treasures. From there he wrote his abdication in two letters, one addressed to the Metropolitan, the other to the people of Moscow. This action struck terror among the nobles and the people. The former dreaded that the people might rise and avenge the czar, and the people were afraid that the nobles would once again usurp the government. The nobles and priests consulted and decided to beg Ivan's pardon and to submit to any punishment he might impose. Ivan consented to return to Moscow but on his own terms. This was accepted. After his arrival in the capital he established a special guard of one thousand men who had a dog's head and a broom hanging from their saddles, to show that they were ready to bite and ready to sweep the czar's enemies from off Russian soil.

It was then that Ivan began to earn the surname of The Terrible, which has clung to him ever afterwards. We have his own record in a letter to the Monastery of St. Cyril, in which he asks the prayers of the Church for the victims of his vengeance. He appears to have kept a careful account, as we read, "Kazarine Doubrofsky and his two sons, with ten men who came to their assistance;" "Twenty men of the village of Kolmenskoe;" "Eighty of MatveichÚ." It amazes us to read, "Remember, Lord, the souls of thy servants, to the number of 1,505 persons, Novgorodians." The boyards lived in a state of terror; few among them knew how long they would keep their heads on their shoulders. Neither rank nor title was a safeguard. The Archbishop of Moscow was dismissed, and probably murdered. Alexander, George's widow, and Ivan's sister-in-law, went to the scaffold. Prince Vladimir and his mother, Ivan's uncle and grand-aunt, were also executed. It was on this occasion that the "Novgorodians, to the number of 1,505 persons" were put to death, because Ivan suspected them of a plot to open the gates to the King of Poland. In 1571, there was another wholesale execution, in which several of Ivan's latest favorites were victims.

The burden of his wrath fell upon the boyards. It may have been for the purpose of humiliating them and the Churchmen that he assembled delegates of those two classes to confer with representatives of the merchants of Moscow and Smolensk, about the war with Poland. Ivan addressed the assembly in person, and it was decided that the war should continue.

It was under his reign that British traders accidentally discovered the White Sea and the mouth of the Dwina. They came overland to Moscow where they were well received and secured several privileges. Ivan was anxious to conclude an offensive-defensive alliance with Elizabeth of England, and proposed an agreement to furnish each other with an asylum if either of them should be compelled to fly from the country through being defeated by an enemy or the rebellion of their subjects. Elizabeth did not fancy such an alliance, and declined the offer of an asylum, "finding," as she declared, "by the grace of God no dangers of the sort in her dominions." Ivan never ceased recurring to, and pleading for, such an agreement, thus showing his ever present suspicions.

After commercial intercourse was established with England, and British traders settled in Moscow, Ivan continued to show them his favor. He was himself the greatest merchant of Russia. The furs which he received from Siberia were sold to the foreign merchants at the fairs. His agents went into the provinces where they compelled the people to sell him furs, wax, honey, etc., at such prices as he chose to pay, and the foreign merchants had to buy them from him at a high price. He also bought the imported goods and sold them to Russian merchants. They were not permitted to buy from anybody else, until the goods of the czar were sold.

At the beginning of his reign, in 1551, Ivan was preparing an expedition to Kazan, and in June of the following year he descended the Volga and laid siege to that city. It was captured after a brave defense, when a number of the people were massacred and the rest sold as slaves. This conquest was followed by that of Astrakhan in 1554; the Volga from its source to its mouth was thereafter a Russian river. The Cossacks of the Don also submitted to him.

The European countries bordering on Russia dreaded that country's growing power. Ivan, after his coronation, sent to western Europe to engage a number of engineers and mechanics; these men were stopped on the road, and none of then ever reached Moscow. Sigismund of Poland even threatened to kill the British merchants on the Baltic, "because," he said, "if the Muscovite, who is not only our present adversary, but the eternal enemy of all free countries, should provide himself with guns, bullets, and munitions; and, above all, with mechanics who continue to make arms, hitherto unknown in this barbaric country," he would be a menace to Europe. Ivan, on the other hand, was equally anxious that the Russians should possess all the advantages of Europe's superior civilization. This, added to the inherited hostility between the two countries, caused many wars.

While Ivan was pursuing his conquests in the south, he was attacked by Gustavus Wasa, Sweden's famous king, who entertained the same fears as the King of Poland. The war ended by a commercial treaty whereby Swedish merchants might trade with India and China by way of Russia, and those of Russia with Holland, England, and France by way of Sweden. This war had scarcely ceased before envoys of the Livonian Order arrived to request a renewal of the truce. Ivan demanded tribute for Iourief which he claimed as his "patrimony." This was refused, and war was declared. It was owing to Ivan that this brotherhood was dissolved and its territory divided. In 1566, a truce was proposed by Poland.

It was on this occasion that he called the assembly referred to on page 116. The war continued. Ivan was attacked also by Sultan Selim II of Turkey, in 1569, and the Khan of the Crimea marched straight upon Moscow, set fire to the suburbs, and destroyed the capital except the Kremlin. He carried off a hundred thousand prisoners. (1571.) As he withdrew, he wrote to Ivan: "I burn, I ravage everything on account of Kazan and Astrakhan. I came to you and burned Moscow. I wished to have your crown and your head, but you did not show yourself; you declined a battle and you dare call yourself a Czar of Moscow! Will you live at peace with me? Yield me up Kazan and Astrakhan. If you have only money to offer me, it will be useless were it the riches of the world. What I want is Kazan and Astrakhan! As to the roads to your empire, I have seen them—I know them." The khan made another invasion the next year, 1572, but was defeated.

In the same year Sigismund Augustus II of Poland died. There was a party at Warsaw that proposed to elect Ivan's son, but the czar wanted Poland for himself. He failed in the attempt, and the Duke of Anjou, brother of the King of France, was chosen. He did not like the people and fled; his place was filled by Stephen Batory, Governor of Transylvania, a young, capable, and energetic noble. Batory took in his service a number of trained German and Hungarian soldiers, and took Polotsk after a brave defense. He also captured several other towns, but was repulsed at Pskof.

Ivan sought the mediation of Pope Gregory XIII, and a truce was concluded in 1582; Ivan ceded Polotsk and all Livonia.

Ivan, in his manhood, was a man of violent temper. He was never seen without an iron-tipped staff, which he used freely and recklessly upon the people around him. Nobody, whatever his rank, was safe from corporal punishment. He killed his eldest son Ivan with a blow, and suffered from remorse ever afterward. He left a lasting impression upon Russia by his reforms. He made a law whereby neither church nor convents could acquire new lands. He was wonderfully well educated, considering the neglect of his early youth, and tolerant of religious opinions. A Presbyterian and a Lutheran church were built at Moscow with his consent, but in deference to the opposition of the people, they were removed to the suburbs. He was also the founder of the streltsi  or national guard.

Ivan died in 1584, after a reign of forty-one years.