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Ivan The Terrible

Ivan The Terrible

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Ivan Mykolaiovych Demjanjuk is known in history for his cruelty. Some historians attribute his actions to a mental break after the death of his first wife. Others believe that he was always cruel. Who was the first Czar of Moscow? What did he accomplish? Let’s take a closer look at Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan The Terrible Biography

Ivan Mykolaiovych Demjanjuk was born on August 25, 1530. His father, Vasili III Ivanovich, was the Grand Prince of Moscow, and his mother was Elena Glinskaya. Elena was Vasili’s second wife; he separated from his first because she couldn’t provide him with an heir.

Vasili died when young Ivan was only three. The Grand Prince made his Boyars swear loyalty to Ivan while making Elena his regent. Elena placed many guards around her son to prevent the Boyars from assassinating him, but Ivan wasn’t their target. Elena died on April 4, 1538; she was probably poisoned.


Moscow’s nobility was beneath the Grand Prince in rank.


Someone who would rule on behalf of the heir until they were of age to rule on their own.

With Elena out of the picture, the Boyars could seize power. There are many misconceptions about Ivan’s childhood. Many believed he was neglected, wore rags, and had to beg for food. Ivan took his anger out on small animals by tossing them from towers. This is untrue.

Ivan did witness the deaths of those around him. For example, his tutor was skinned alive in front of him. Ivan himself was not tortured, nor did he beg for food. A political enemy spread the misconception that he tortured animals later in Ivan’s life. Historian Charles J. Halperin theorized that Ivan had a poor childhood but no more complicated than his contemporaries who had similar experiences.

Ivna the Terrible Ivan the Terrible StudySmarterFig 1: Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan The Terrible Religion

When Ivan was thirteen years old, he singled out the leader of the Boyars, Prince Andrei Shisky. On December 29, 1543, Ivan sent his guards to capture the prince,, who was fed to the dogs. The following year, Ivan met Macarius, the Metropolitan of Moscow, and the archbishop of Novgorod, a nearby city. Macarius convinced young Ivan that Orthodox Christianity was important.

Ivan the Terrible Marcarius StudySmarterFig 2: Macarius

Ivan would remain a devout Orthodox Christian for the rest of his life. He emphasized the importance of the Divine Right to Rule. Ivan wanted to be an absolute monarch whose word was law.

Divine Right to Rule:

The belief that God granted a ruler’s right to rule and that they were acting on God’s behalf

Tsar Ivan the Terrible

On January 16, 1547, Ivan was crowned the Tzar of Moscow by Macarius. The decision to change the name of the ruler of Moscow from Grand Prince to Tzar was a strategic choice. The word “tzar” referred to the rulers of the fallen Byzantine Empire, the defenders of Christianity. It was also a nod to the Caesars of Rome Ivan began calling Moscow the “Third Rome.”

On February 3, Ivan married Anastasia Romonav. The two would have six children, but only two survived infancy, Ivan Ivanovich and Fedor. Tzar Ivan believed that Ivan Ivanovich was his only choice for an heir because Fedor had Down Syndrome.

Does the name Anastasia Romanov ring a bell? Anastasia was the ancestor of the Romanov family that ruled Russia. Tzar Nicholas II, the last Russian Tzar, was a descendant of Anastasia!

Ivan the Terrible Actions

Ivan initially found success as Tzar of Moscow. He created new legislation that would prevent Boyars from murdering peasants without reason. This tactic weakened the Boyars, and Ivan would continue to do so throughout his reign.

The Tzar also conquered some surrounding areas like Khazan and Astrakhan. In 1553, Ivan fell ill, possibly from pneumonia, but no one knew what the illness was. Like his father before him, Ivan was near death and demanded that the Boyars swear loyalty to his son, Dmitri, but the Boyars refused.

Why wouldn’t the Boyars swear loyalty to Dmitri?

The Boyars refused because they preferred Ivan’s cousin and feared that an infant Tzar would create a power vacuum. Ivan refused to hear their complaints and demanded that they swear loyalty to his son and, by extension, his wife, who would be regent.

The Boyars wouldn’t budge and refused. Ivan recovered but became even more paranoid. He believed that the Boyars were out to get him. This fear increased when Dmitri died later that year. Ivan wanted to continue to trade with Western Europe but needed access to the sea.

Livonian War

Ivan had access to the Caspian Sea through acquired territory but needed a path to the Baltic Sea. To accomplish this, Ivan invaded Livonia. Moscow had a better military and should’ve quickly overcome Livonia, but that wasn’t the case. The Grand Master of Livonia surrendered to the Lithuanians and invited other Protestants to join the war. This war ended up lasting over twenty years.

Anastasia had been sick for a long time and succumbed to her illness in 1561. At this point, it is believed that Ivan had a mental breakdown.1 Ivan believed that one of his enemies had poisoned Anastasia. Two years later, Macarius died. Ivan responded by killing one of his soldiers.


In 1565, one of Ivan’s best generals betrayed Moscow and joined the Lithuanian army. A furious and humiliated Ivan threatened to abdicate the throne. The Boyars understood that the power vacuum created by this action would cost Moscow the war. Ivan agreed to stay under one condition. Ivan wanted Russia divided into two sections. One portion would remain as it was, while Ivan would rule the other with the power of an absolute monarch.

The Boyars agreed, and Russia was divided. The unchanged side was called Zemschina, and the other was Oprichnina. The division wasn’t created city by city but road by road. Someone might live in Zemshchina while their neighbor was in Oprichnina.

Ivan created Russia’s first form of secret police, the Oprichniki. They were allowed to do whatever they wanted without repercussions. Murder, theft, and sexual assault were regular activities for them. The Oprichniki exiled merchants and Boyars and then took their property.

The Massacre of Novgorod

Novogrod was the second largest city in Russia, with Moscow being the first. Ivan suspected the Novgorod citizens were traitors. He sent the Oprichniki to desolate the city. Adults, children, rich, poor, no one was spared. The Oprichniki violently tortured and murdered the citizens.

Anyone who could flee went to different cities, and Novgorod would never reach the same level of success.

In 1571, the Tartar army invaded Russia. The Oprichniki told Ivan that they were not a threat. Ivan didn’t prepare, and the invading army reached Moscow. The army was so large that Ivan gathered his wealth and fled from the city. Moscow was sacked, and the Oprichniki was punished and disbanded when Ivan returned.

The Death of Ivan Ivanovich

Ivan Ivanovich, the son of Tzar Ivan the Terrible, was fighting on behalf of Moscow in the war over Livonia. To make things a little bit easier, we will refer to Ivan Ivanovich as Ivanovich.

Ivan the Terrible Death of Ivanovich StudySmarterFig 3: Death of Ivanovich

Ivanovich proved to be an excellent warrior and general. When Ivan got wind of this, he believed that Ivanovich was planning to replace him. In 1581, Ivan attacked Ivanovich’s pregnant wife and caused her to lose the child. When Ivanovich returned from the war, he confronted his father. Ivan beat his son to death using a staff.

With Ivanovich dead, Fedor was left as Ivan’s only heir. Ivan ended the war over Livonia; some believe it was because of the guilt over killing his son. On March 18, 1584, Ivan died in his sleep. Though, some speculate that he was assassinated.

Ivan The Terrible: History

Ivan the Terrible did many horrible things throughout his lifetime. Many historians believe that to understand his actions better, one must know his mental illness. Many studies on Ivan dedicate large sections to his mental illness.

Ivan the Terrible Ivan the Terrible Thinking StudySmarterFig 4: An older Ivan the Terrible

A psychiatrist must speak with someone before they can properly diagnose them. Ivan died a very long time ago, so that isn’t possible. Historian Charles J. Halperin sums it up: Ivan’s mental illness isn’t an excuse for his crimes. One must study the Tzar to understand his actions.1

Tzar Ivan Mykolaiovych Demjanjuk began his reign positively by defining crimes. After the death of his first wife, Ivan became crueler. The creation of the Oprichnina, the Oprichiniki, the murder of his son, and the Massacre of Novgorod cemented his legacy as Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan The Terrible - Key takeaways

  • Ivan Mykolaiovych Demjanjuk was born on August 25, 1530.
  • On January 16, 1547, Ivan was crowned the Tzar of Moscow by Macarius.
  • Ivan initially found success as Tzar of Moscow. He created new legislation that would prevent Boyars from murdering peasants without reason. The Tzar also conquered some surrounding areas like Khazan and Astrakhan.
  • Ivan the Terrible did many horrible things throughout his lifetime. Many historians believe that to understand his actions better, one must know his mental illness. Many studies on Ivan dedicate large sections to his mental illness.


  1. Charles J Halperin, "Ivan's Insanity", Russian History, 34 (7007), 207 - 218.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ivan The Terrible

Ivan the Terrible expanded Russia by conquering surrounding areas like Khazan and Astrakhan.

Ivan the Terrible created legislation that prevented the Boyars from killing innocent peasants. He conquered Khazan and Astrakhan as well. Ivan was also responsible for the Massacre of Novgorod. 

Ivan the Terrible influenced the nation by laying the ground work for Russia to become an empire. He was a patron of the arts and of religion. He strengthened the Orthodox Church. 

Ivan the Terrible centralized his power by creating the position of Tzar for himself. This new title connected him to the fallen Byzantine Empire and was also a nod to the Roman Caesars. 

Ivan is called the terrible because he was respond for the deaths of many people. Ivan was responsible for the Massacre of Novgorod. He created secret police that abused their power and murdered people. Ivan also murdered his own son and heir Ivan Ivanovich. 

Final Ivan The Terrible Quiz

Ivan The Terrible Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


How old was Ivan the Terrible when his father died?

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Who were the boyars?

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Moscow's nobility

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True or False:

After meeting with Macarius, Ivan was convinced that Roman Catholicism was the true version of Christianity.  

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After meeting with Macarius, Ivan was convinced that Orthodox Christianity was the true version of Christianity. 

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_____ ________ is the belief that a ruler was given the right to rule by God and acted on God's behalf. 

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Divine Right 

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When did Ivan become Tzar? 

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January 12, 1547

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Which of the following was Tzar a reference to?

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Byzantine Empire

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_________ was Ivan's wife. She was the ancestor of the last ruling family of Russia.

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Anastasia Romanov 

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What was the name of the Secret Police that Ivan created? 

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Which city was pillaged and the citizens massacred because Ivan believed that they were traitors?

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Which of Ivan's sons was his heir by 1584?

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