Most Evil Man – Ivan the Terrible

Most Evil Man – Ivan the Terrible

February 8, 2020 100 By Sebastian Fry


It’s a dark, stormy night in 16th century
Muscovy- the nation that would one day become modern Russia. Right now though the nation that would one
day arise to become a second superpower is nothing more than a small, landlocked kingdom
stuck between fierce adversaries on all borders. The problems of his nation weigh heavy on
the mind of Grand Prince Vasily III, who can’t help but shudder in his furs against the chill
of an unexpectedly cold summer storm that’s enveloped his land. Vasily III’s hold on his throne is tenuous
at best, his one and only wife had failed to provide an heir, ultimately proving to
be infertile. Against the wishes of every religious figure
in Muscovy, Vasily divorced his wife and married a much younger woman, Yelena Glinskaya. Nine months ago she had conceived, and tonight
she wails in agony of childbirth. As the raging storm’s gale rises to match
the pained screams of his wife in labor, Vasily can’t help but shudder once more as he recalls
the curse laid on him by a priest over a year ago. Muscovy was an orthodox Christian nation surrounded
by Catholics on one side and heathen Muslims on the other- in the eyes of the clergy a
single bright light in the darkness of pagan and false beliefs. Vasily III’s divorce of his wife threatened
to incur the wrath of God himself against the nation of Muscovy, and the holy man had
warned the prince that “out of this evil deed, an evil child will be born.” History would prove the priest’s prophecy
all too correct. Ivan the Terrible, or Ivan Vasilyevich, was
born on August 25th, 1530, and almost from the moment of his birth, his life was destined
to not be a happy one. Three years after his birth, his father died
of infection- this was after all the 16th century and medical technology had barely
advanced past the stage of rubbing feces into open wounds. To make matters worse, Muscovy itself was
a significantly backwards land, while Europe was in full on Renaissance mode, Muscovy was
caught in the vice-like grip of the Dark Ages. This would be a problem that plagued the Russian
state until the 20th century, as it would fight over and over again to rise above its
status as Europe’s backwater. Shortly after the death of his father, Ivan
was proclaimed grand prince- though as we’ll soon see this title meant very little in Muscovy
royal court. His mother took control of the throne on his
behalf and acted as regent, until six years later when she died suddenly and mysteriously. Even though people suddenly dying was pretty
much just a regular Sunday afternoon in 16th century Muscovy, the death of Ivan’s mother
was a little too sudden and convenient for the elite boyar- a ruling class of wealthy
merchants and noblemen who weren’t keen on taking orders from anyone they hadn’t personally
installed on the throne. Ivan and his younger brother were raised by
different boyar families, who continued their power struggles as they named themselves regents
to the throne. In effect the young Ivan- future ruler of
Muscovy- was nothing more than a pawn caught up in the boyar’s chess game, and the center
of an intense tug of war between powerful families. Some accounts state that the boys were treated
poorly, dressed in rags and forced to beg for food even while being kept in a royal
palace. Whatever the truth, the boyar’s treatment
of Ivan would add to a growing resentment and paranoia concerning the boyars which would
one day end in a lot of blood spilled. A close friend to the teenage Ivan however
came in the form of a priest named Macarius, whom would eventually be made into a Saint
by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Macarius stressed on Ivan his belief in Christianity,
and those beliefs would shape the young Ivan. Sadly, Ivan pretty much ignored all the lessons
of Christianity about charity, compassion, humility, and respect, and instead got struck
with Macarius’ idea to turn Muscovia into the new Byzantine empire by making it the
center of orthodox Christianity. Moscow, the default capital, would even come
to be known as the ‘third Rome’. Under Macarius’ tutelage, Ivan was crowned
on the 16th of January, 1547 at the age of sixteen. The Boyars had wanted Ivan to be crowned as
Grand Prince, but Ivan refused the boyars and instead, under Macarius’ suggestion, crowned
himself Tsar- the Russian equivalent of Caesar. The message was clear: Ivan wasn’t taking
anyone’s crap anymore, especially not the boyar’s. In one brilliant move, Macarius had joined
Ivan’s political powers with those of the church, granting him religious authority over
Muscovy as well. Ivan was now well and firmly out of the grasp
of the boyars, and to defy him meant to defy the will of God himself. Because you know, history is pretty stupid
sometimes. Shortly after his coronation, Ivan began to
build on his reputation in a fierce manner. A great fire swept across Moscow, destroying
much of the city which had been built of wood. In the outrage following the fire, mobs of
people took to the streets, and the blame was placed on relatives of Ivan, with some
claiming that witchcraft had been used to start the fire. It never once occurred to a single Moscow
citizen that regular fire would do a pretty good job of burning down an all-wood city,
and the witchcraft thing kind of stuck. In the ensuing riot, several of Ivan’s extended
family members were killed. Upon hearing of their murders, Ivan quickly
laid the blame for the plot on several powerful political enemies, whom he had summarily executed. Ivan had turned a disaster into a political
advantage, and slowly the terror that ruled Muscovy was becoming apparent. Ivan soon took to attempting to modernize
the backwards country he was in charge of. He revised the law to severely limit the power
of the boyars- where once a boyar could freely do as he or she wished with the common folk,
now boyars could be held accountable for murder, rape, robbery, or any other ‘common’ crime. Far from enacting reforms out of a sense of
justice though, Ivan was merely working to further weaken the boyars he distrusted so
much. In one incident when a crowd of citizens showed
up demanding justice against a member of the boyar, he had twenty of them executed. It was at this time that Ivan, still under
the influence of orthodox Christianity though literally none of its values, built the St.
Basil’s Cathedral. Always working to force Muscovy out of its
backwards roots and into the modern era, Ivan built the cathedral as a monument to Muscovite
culture, and it remains standing to this day. Ivan also turned his eyes east, raising a
standing army and going to war against the Tartars which had invaded his lands with impunity
for decades. In a stunning victory where hired Dutch engineers
blew up the walls of a major Tartar fortress, Ivan secured his eastern borders from further
incursions. Things quickly took a turn for the worse though. Consecutive droughts and famines rocked the
land, and laws were drafted to prevent peasants from leaving their lands in search of better
land to farm and settle. These laws would eventually lead to the creation
of the Russian Serf class. Military disaster also visited Ivan’s reign. A landlocked nation with no access to the
open ocean, Ivan tried unsuccessfully to invade lands to the west- what would be today modern
Latvia and Estonia. Under blockade by other European nations,
Muscovy desperately needed access to the open ocean if it was going to prosper financially. Despite some initial success. Ivan’s forces met with disaster after disaster. To make matters worse, one of Ivan’s closest
advisors- Prince Andrei Kurbsky, defected to the Lithuanians he was fighting and returned
to the region of Velikiey Luki at the head of a Lithuanian army, devastating it. This would further cement Ivan’s mistrust
and hatred for the nobility. In 1564, Ivan left Moscow and sent a letter
informing his former court that he was abdicating his throne. In the letter, Ivan stated that the continued
crimes of the aristocracy and clergy against his throne and the nation itself made it impossible
for him to rule. Muscovite citizens grew angry with the boyars,
and they were forced to ask Ivan to return to the throne. Ivan agreed, but only if he was given absolute
power with no checks or balances. Reluctantly, the boyars agreed. This would prove to be a major mistake. Upon returning to the capital, Ivan immediately
created the oprichnina, a territory within the borders of Muscovy where Ivan had complete
and total power. The boyars would rule the rest of the land,
the Zemshchina. To enforce his will and ferret out political
opponents, Ivan created the first of Russia’s famous secret police, the Oprichniki. Headed by Malyuta Skuratov, an extreme sadist,
the Oprichniki launched a wave of terror and violence against the population and the boyars
both. Always wishing to keep the boyars under his
thumb and in fear of him, Ivan allowed Skuratov to do as he pleased, and the latter was fond
of occasionally sending the Oprichniki to round up married women of Moscow so they could
all be raped. This not only kept the boyars in terror, but
with many unwanted pregnancies, would devastate many powerful aristocratic bloodlines. With the aid of the Oprichniki, Ivan arrested,
tortured, and exiled many boyars he accused of conspiracy against the crown- often on
the most flimsy of charges. In 1566, Ivan expanded the borders of the
oprichnina, the territory he ruled alone, and included eight other districts. Out of 12,000 nobles in those territories,
570 became Oprichniki, while the rest fled or were expelled. As Ivan’s secret police, the Oprichniki owed
their allegiance only to him, and were rewarded handsomely for their service. Where the treatment of peasants by the boyars
had been reined in by Ivan’s reforms years ago, the Oprichniki were given complete and
absolute immunity from prosecution. They could do as they wished in large estates
given to them by Ivan, and they often did- killing, robbing, or raping as they pleased. This led to a mass exodus of peasants from
the land, which inevitably caused a massive collapse of farming in Muscovy. Grain scarcity would lead to a massive hike
in prices, and the Muscovite economy all but collapsed. Plague and famine soon hit Muscovy, and the
ongoing Livonian war against the Western European powers only served to further take a toll
on the nation. Ivan’s paranoia escalated to truly insane
heights, and he grew fearful that the city of Novgorod was planning to defect to Lithuania. While historians believe that this was completely
false, Ivan, ever fearful and paranoid, ordered a raid of the city by the Oprichniki. Once more they were given free reign, and
Ivan’s secret police pillaged Novgorod and every surrounding village. Ancient casualty figures number the victims
at 60,000, but this is likely extremely exaggerated. What is known though is that Ivan routinely
ordered the execution of Novgorod’s citizens, tying men, women, and children to sleighs
and running them into the freezing Volkhov river. Many more were tortured, and the archbishop
was arrested, then set loose in the woods to be hunted and killed like an animal by
Ivan’s secret police. Ivan’s black legacy of torture, rape, and
murder, would spread across Muscovy. While his moniker as ‘the terrible’ was a
mistranslation of a Russian honorific, Ivan nevertheless lived up to his mistranslated
title, and remains one of the most reviled men in history. Ivan would go on to die while playing chess
in 1584, and while he was a brutal dictator his sheer determination and willpower would
serve to unify Muscovy and set it on the path to become modern Russia. Now that you’ve learned all about one of history’s
most evil men, why don’t you keep the watch party going by clicking on this video over
here. Or if that doesn’t please you, maybe Your
Tsar’ness would prefer this video instead? Either way, you can’t lose, so click now!