Ivan came to the throne at age three and was crowned tsar at age sixteen on January 16, 1547. The early part of reign was one of peaceful reforms and modernization. Ivan revised the law code, created a standing army, established the Zemsky Sobor, the council of the nobles, and subordinated the church to the state, making a system of rituals and regulations.
Ivan formed new trading connections, opening up the White Sea and the port of Archangel to English merchants. He also annexed the Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates to the east. He had St. Basil's Cathedral constructed in Moscow to commemorate the seizure of Kazan. Legend has it that he was so impressed with the structure that he had the architects blinded, so that they could never design anything as beautiful again. Other less positive aspects of this period include the introduction of the first laws restricting the mobility of the peasants, which would eventually lead to serfdom. Also problematic was the 1564 formation of the Oprichina. The Oprichina was the section of Russia directly ruled by Ivan and policed by his personal servicemen, the Oprichniki. This whole system of Oprichina was intended as a tool against the omnipotent hereditary nobility of Russia who opposed the absolutist drive of the tsar.
The latter half of Ivan's reign was far less successful. Ivan launched a victorious war of seaward expansion only to find himself fighting the Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles, and the Livonian Teutonic Knights. For twenty-two years the war dragged on, damaging the Russian economy and military but winning it no territory. Ivan's best friend and closest advisor, Prince Andrew Kurbsky, defected to the Poles, deeply hurting Ivan. At the same time his beloved wife died, perhaps murdered by the Boyars. Ivan also became very sick and physically disabled.
He gradually grew unbalanced and violent. The Oprichniki soon got out of hand [indeed, they had always been out of hand] and became murderous thugs. They murdered nobles and peasants, and conscripted men to fight the war in Livonia. Depopulation and famine ensued. What had been by far the richest area of Russia became the poorest. In a dispute with Novgorod republic, Ivan ordered the Oprichniki to murder the inhabitants of this city. Between thirty and forty thousand were killed. Yet the official death toll named 1,500 of Novgorod big people (nobility) and only mentioned about the same number of smaller people. In 1581, Ivan Grozny in a feat of rage accidentally killed his capable son, Ivan (following confrontation after beating the latter's pregnant wife so hard that she miscarried). Upon Ivan's death the now ravaged kingdom was left to his unfit son Feodor.
Ivan's life forms the subject of two famous films by Sergei Eisenstein.
|List of Russian Tsars||