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Ivan IV (1530-1584) ruled as Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 and Tsar from 1547. Return to Tsars page. For a detailed chronology of the reign go here.

Personality and Policy

Ivan was born on 25 August 1530 to Vasilii III and Elena Glinskaia. He was three years old when his father died. His mother was regent until she was poisoned in 1537. Then various boyars were in control (or in a sense, out of control). Naturally the period included incessant struggle, murder, executions, and nest feathering by rival boyar families. Ivan witnessed all this and never forgot. He led a continual process of reducing the power of the princes and boyars and raising that of the middle service class military servitors who were beholden to the Tsar. He struck first in 1543, before being crowned Tsar, by ordering the execution of Prince Andrei Shuiskii, one of the principal boyar leaders. Upon his coronation in 1547 Ivan set upon his program to strengthen both the absolute power of the Tsar in Moscow and the power of Moscow over all the Russian lands. The first ten or more years were spent in major transformation of the state internal administrative and religious bureaucracy.
From the earliest times the conception of the ruling princes in Rus was that they were owners of all their domain including the population living on it, rather than simply rulers over other owners of property. For centuries the princes administered their territories as if they were domestic households and proprietary industrial establishments. With the dramatic increase in territory to the vast expanses obtained by Moscow, such essentially domestic administrative procedures became impossible. Ivan IV created both greatly strengthened central functional departments and local elected governmental officials. The officials, although elected locally, were responsible to the central government. He also reduced without eliminating the power of the princes and boyars by creating councils in which the membership also included service gentry and others. Above all, he brought the concept that everyone was ultimately the slave (possession) of the Tsar into practical effect. In the first centuries of Kievan and medieval Russia the prince's military personnel had received their economic support from the prince in return for their service. Granted that in those times the servicemen easily switched employment to other princes, nevertheless there was a connection between their successful service and their payment. Over the intervening centuries this connection was broken in practice when the senior personnel (boyars) received hereditary land as estates and came more and more to consider themselves independent as far as rendering military service went in fact if not in theory. Ivan III had made wide scale use of distribution of land strictly on the basis of military service, but he was not able to abolish the boyars' hereditary right to land.
In 1581 Ivan in a rage accidentally killed his son, Ivan (1554-1581), who had been a military commander and executor of his father's policies. Ivan Ivanovich might have carried on his father's program with some success. The other two surviving sons were weak and young.

Thus, when Ivan IV died in 1584 the state was likely to be thrown into the same kind of turmoil as it experienced during the first 15 years of his life. In fact the turmoil was much worse. Not only did the boyar families fight it out and resort to all sorts of evils in their efforts to seize the throne, but also a social war led by the cossacks and lower classes took as much revenge as possible on the upper classes in general, and hated foreigners from Poland, Sweden, Crimea, and elsewhere occupied Moscow, seized border territories, and plundered what they could. The most striking phenomena in this Time of Troubles was that for all the murderous fighting still there was no conception advanced or supported for the idea that Russia would not remain totally united or that its capital would be anywhere but Moscow.

Summary of Reign

Ivan IV was crowned Tsar in 1547 and immediately began political reforms with the convocation of an assembly (Zemskii sobor) representing not only the boyars but also the service military class. Among the political innovations were improved central administration and local self government. Both were necessary to shift power from the personal governing hands of the former princes and boyars (who no longer owned principalities) into an appointed bureaucratic structure serving only the Tsar. The boyars still managed to retain considerable power through their near-monopoly of appointments to the upper bureaucratic positions. Military service became mandatory and regular according to the size of the land holding.
Ivan's initial foreign policy was to eliminate the Khanate of Kazan, which he did by 1552. He then continued Russian expansion to the east as far as its power would carry it. This meant almost clear across northern Siberia where resistance was light, but only as far to the southeast as Astrakhan, because behind that town roamed the still very powerful Nogai Tatars. Many advisors and service people favored expansion due south against the Crimean Tatars, both because Tatar raids from that quarter were still a major danger and because the southern territories were a potential area for lucrative pomestie estates. Yet the reality of Muscovite military strength and weakness argued against this course. Instead, Ivan chose to regain Russian outlet to the Baltic lost in the previous centuries to the Swedes and Livonians and gather in the Russian lands to the west that had been lost to the Lithuanians. Execution of this program proved to be much more difficult than anticipated. Although Ivan's armies were initially successful against Livonia, the German knights managed to salvage their control by giving the southern half of their territories to Lithuania and letting Sweden take the northern half. This faced Ivan with a much more formidable set of foes. He went on the offensive against Lithuania again in 1562 and was making some progress when the Polish king, Sigismund II Augustus, died and was replaced (after four years) by the formidable Hungarian military commander, Stephan Bathory. As King of Poland Bathory brought Hungarian mercenaries and other troops trained in the latest western infantry and artillery tactics. Ivan's army was still essentially a cavalry one and rightly so as the devastating Tatar raid of 1570 showed. The ultimate result of Ivan's aggression in the west was the loss of even that sliver of territory Russia had held on the Baltic and a setback to western expansion that was not made good until the time of Peter the Great.
Ivan IV's aggressive programs of internal change and foreign wars brought forth strenuous opposition from the upper levels of nobility for whom both programs meant only major loss of political power and economic well being (not to mention the likelihood of death in combat). Ivan became ill in 1553. He found to his dismay that the boyars would not swear allegiance to his infant son, Dmitrii, but were plotting to give the throne to Ivan's cousin, Vladimir Staritskii. Then in 1565 his wife, Anastasia, died. Ivan believed this was due to poison. Meanwhile many boyars and some formerly independent princes were either plotting or considering doing so. Ivan's suspicions were heightened by a subversive campaign mounted by King Sigismund II, who both managed to entice some nobles to defect to Lithuania and planted erroneous incriminating evidence about others who did not. He realized that drastic measures were needed to solidify the institutional power of the monarch. He decided that he was unable in practice to administer the entire realm as a private estate so long as the administrators themselves subverted his will. He had plenty of loyal supporters in the lower military service class, but lacked the financial means in cash to pay them as a standing army. Therefore he established a private domain over as much of the territory as he could manage with the loyal servants available, taking care to select strategicly critical areas, and from this half of the Tsardom he would then wage war on the recalcitrant boyars and princes.
The result was Ivan's decision in 1564 to force the issue by moving out of Moscow to the fortified town, Aleksandrovskaia Sloboda, and by announcing his abdication. He soon was entreated to return to rule and did so, but only on his terms, which included the division of the state into two separate administrative entities. Half the country was left to the normal governmental administrative organs in which he would continue to rule as Tsar with the Boyar Duma and all the legal restraints of the customary law, but the other half was removed from all such restraints and bureaucratic interference and administered by Ivan's specially chosen Oprichnina The territories assigned to this half of the government were carefully chosen and served as the economic support for the loyal troops he based on them and used to conduct his reign of terror against the nobility. The nobility was not alone in feeling Ivan's rage. In 1569 he was led to believe by false documents that Novgorod was about to defect to Lithuania. The result was the most savage assault by the Oprichnina troops on Novgorod concluding with mass executions and the deportation of the entire remaining population followed by a somewhat less brutal repression in Pskov and further executions of government officials in Moscow. The Oprichnina did not neglect to sack and loot the entire countryside around Novgorod and Pskov either. All this created disastrous economic conditions throughout the land and disrupted the normal conduct of governmental business. The Crimean Tatars were not slow to take advantage of Moscow's disarray. In 1571 they mounted the most successful raid ever, burning almost the entire city and carrying off a hundred thousand prisoners to slavery. At this Ivan apparently had enough. With the Oprichnina implicated in the malfeasance that enabled the Tatar success he disbanded it the very next year. The military change was immediate and remarkable. When the Tatars returned in 1572 they were handed such a devastating defeat that they stayed clear of Moscow for some time.Go to top