Article abstract: Of all the Russian czars, Ivan contributed the most in giving shape to Russian autocracy as it would exist until the end of serfdom in 1861. He also conquered Kazan and Astrakhan, significantly reducing the Tatar threat and securing the important trade routes in the Volga region, and took the first steps toward the incorporation of Siberia.
Ivan the Terrible was born in the Kremlin Palace in Moscow on August 25, 1530. His father, Vasily III, had married Ivan’s mother, Princess Elena Glinskaya, when his first wife failed to provide him an heir. Vasily died in 1533, leaving the three-year-old Ivan to be reared in the world of Kremlin politics marked by violence, intrigues, and unashamed struggles for power among the hereditary nobles (boyar) and princely families. In order to forestall any threat to Ivan’s succession, especially from his two uncles, Ivan was immediately declared as the next ruler. Under Muscovite law and custom, it was his mother who now exercised power as the regent. Although the next five years, until Elena’s death in 1538, were normal years for Ivan, the Kremlin politics were far from normal. Elena faced threats from her husband’s two brothers, forcing her to order their arrest and imprisonment. Even her own uncle, Mikhail Glinsky, on whom she had relied in the beginning, appeared too ambitious; he suffered the same fate as the others.
Elena’s death in 1538 opened a new chapter in young Ivan’s life. Within a week of his mother’s death, his nanny, Agrafena Chelyadina, who had provided him with loving care and affection, was taken away. The Kremlin now reverberated with the intrigues and counterintrigues, especially of two princely families, the Shuiskys and the Belskys. Power changed hands more than once. The first round went to the Shuiskys. Of the two brothers, Vasily and Ivan Shuisky, who exercised power through the boyar Duma in succession, the latter made a special point of neglecting and insulting Ivan and his brother. Ivan later recalled that Ivan Shuisky once “sat on a bench, leaning with his elbows on our father’s bed and with his legs upon a chair, and he did not even incline his head towards us . . . nor was there any element of deference to be found in his attitude toward us.” Then, when power had passed to the Belskys and Ivan Shuisky was trying to regain it, Ivan had the horrifying experience of Shuisky’s men breaking into his bedchamber in the night in search of the metropolitan. Ivan thus developed deep hatred for the boyars, especially for the Shuiskys, who now once again controlled power. Andrey Shuisky, who became the leader of this group after Ivan Shuisky’s illness, imposed a reign of increased corruption and terror. Ivan, in a bold move in 1543, when he was only thirteen years old, ordered Prince Andrey to be arrested and brutally killed.
During these early years, Ivan not only witnessed cruel acts perpetrated around him that implanted fear and suspicion of boyars in his young heart but also engaged in such acts himself for fun and pleasure. Torturing all kinds of animals, riding through the Moscow streets knocking down the young and the old, including women and children, and engaging in orgies became his pastime.
Ivan, especially under the guidance of Metropolitan Makary, also read the Scriptures and became the first really literate Russian ruler. Some scholars have cast doubt on this, challenging the authenticity of his correspondence with Prince Andrey Kurbsky after the defection of his once-trusted adviser to Lithuania, but most evidence suggests that Ivan became a well-read person. In Makary, Ivan also found support for his belief in his role as an absolute ruler whose power was derived from God.
Toward the end of 1546, when he was still sixteen, Ivan decided to have himself crowned as czar. He also decided to search for a bride from his own realm. Although his grandfather, Ivan III, had used the title of the czar, Ivan IV was the first to be so crowned in a glittering ceremony in Moscow on January 16, 1547. On February 3, he was married to Anastasia Romanovna Zakharina, of a boyar family. She was to provide him fourteen years of happy married life and to serve as a calming influence on his impulsive personality.
The first part of Ivan’s rule as Russia’s czar was marked by several important reforms. He hated the boyars but did not try to dismantle the boyar Duma at this time; instead, he created a chosen council consisting of some of his close advisers that included Metropolitan Makary, Archpriest Silvester, and Aleksey Adashev, a member of the service-gentry class. He also called the zemskii sobor (assembly of the land), representing the boyars and the service gentry as well as the townspeople, the clergy, and some state peasants.
A major drawback that adversely affected the fighting capacity of the Russian army was the system known as mestnichestvo, by which the appointments to top positions were based on the birth and rank of various boyars, not on their ability to command and fight. As he had done with the boyar Duma, Ivan did not end the system but provided for exceptions in case of special military campaigns. He also created regular infantry detachments known as the streltsy, to be paid by the state and to serve directly under the czar, and he regularized the terms and conditions under which a nobleman was expected to serve in the army. These steps greatly enhanced the army’s fighting ability.
Some reforms in the system of local self-government were also undertaken in order to make it more efficient, especially for the purpose of tax collection. A collection and codification of laws resulted in the law code of 1550. A church council, the Hundred Chapters Council (for the hundred questions submitted to it), seriously undertook the question of reform in the Russian Orthodox church. Ivan, though not successful in secularizing church lands, was able to limit the church’s power to acquire new lands which, in the future, could be done only with the czar’s consent.
This early period of reform...
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