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Mysteries & Secrets - Ivan the Terrible

Russia's first Czar
Ivan IV was only three years old when he succeeded his father, Basil III, as grand prince of Moscow in 1533, and for five years his mother served as regent while the boy was educated in statecraft. But when she died, possibly a poison victim, he became the center of a power struggle among several factions of boyars, or noblemen. At the age of 13 he made a decisive move, ordering one of the rivals arrested in his presence and later executed. It was a cruel age.

Ivan the Terrible

The Good Times

Fortunately, there was a restraining influence in the person of the metropolitan Makary of the Russian Orthodox Church. At 16, Ivan took the churchman's advice on two critical matters: his coronation as czar (a shortened form of "caesar") of all Russia on January 16, 1547, and his marriage a month later to Anastasia Romanova. It was Makary's goal to make Moscow the new center of Christianity, a "third Rome" (after Rome and Constantinople). "Two Romes have fallen," he proclaimed, "but the third stands and a fourth there will not be." Ivan was thus said to be not only the direct descendant of the Roman emperor Augustus but also the principal temporal ruler of Christendom. To bolster his grandiose plan, Makary scoured church documents for legends of Russian holy men and convened two church synods to proclaim Russian saints.

In addition to this religious resurgence, political reform was in the air. Guided by a group of advisers known as the Chosen Council, Ivan instituted a new legal code, tried to improve the terms of military service, and gave local governments more power.

As for the marriage, it was apparently a happy one. Before her death in 1560, Anastasia bore six children, although only two survived infancy. She had a calming influence on her husband, helping to curb his appetites for crude entertainment, heavy drinking, cruel sports, and wanton displays of power.

The Reign of Terror

Leaving Moscow in charge of Makary, Ivan took to the field against the Tatars in a series of campaigns between 1547 and 1552 that destroyed the power of these Turkish invaders from the southeast and annexed their lands along the Volga River. Returning to his capital in triumph, he told the boyars, "Now I no longer fear you!" Henceforth, he would rule as an autocrat.

There was, however, one last challenge from the squabbling noblemen. When Ivan developed a raging fever early in 1553, the boyars demanded that he name a successor in case of premature death. Not wishing to endure another regency for a minor, they protested Ivan's designation of his infant son, Dimitri, and proposed a cousin, Vladimir. The czar was adamant, summoned the boyars to his bedchamber, and demanded that they kiss a cross in allegiance to Dimitri. Upon his recovery, Ivan made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to a remote shrine.

Ivan's next campaign, a drive to give landlocked Russia an outlet to the Baltic Sea, ended in stalemate, and he was forced to call upon Pope Gregory XIII to mediate with his adversaries, Poland and Sweden. At home, following the death of Makary in 1563, the czar sought even more absolute power with the institution of what was called the oprichnina.

In this bizarre government reform, Ivan divided his kingdom in two. One half was to be ruled in the traditional manner, with support of the boyars. But the other, called the oprich, or widow's part, was to be treated as his personal possession, defended by a force of 1,000 to 6,000 men. For the Russian people it became a reign of terror. The czar himself was said to participate in the torture and murder of opponents.

St. Basil's cathedral

A Ruler Gone Mad

Paralleling the czar's state terrorism was the chaos and tragedy of his family life. Although he had been genuinely devoted to Anastasia, he announced within two weeks of her death that he would wed again - this time seeking a political alliance through marriage to a sister of the king of Poland, Sigismund II Augustus. When Sigismund turned him down, Ivan married an Asiatic beauty named Maria, the daughter of the Circassian ruler Temgruk. Their only child, a boy, survived but five weeks, and thereafter Ivan showed no interest in her. Following Maria's death, Ivan took a third wife, Marfa, who died after 16 days, their union probably an unconsummated one. There were rumors of poison in both deaths.

Although it was against church regulations, Ivan took a fourth wife, a commoner named Anna, within two months of Marfa's death. After three years, the barren Anna was sent to a nunnery. Two more wives, mistresses in the eyes of disapproving churchmen, followed in quick succession before Ivan took Maria Nagaia, the daughter of a boyar, as his consort in 1580. The next year she gave birth to a son, Dimitri (Anastasia's son, Dimitri, having died).

In 1581 Ivan's oldest son and namesake, the czarevitch Ivan, was 27 and married for a third time. His first two wives had been banished by the czar and the third, Elena, was equally displeasing to him. When Ivan reprimanded his pregnant daughter in law for immodesty of attire, the czarevitch intervened. As their voices rose in anger, Ivan lunged out with an iron-pointed staff and mortally wounded his son with a blow to the head.

Overcome with remorse, Ivan began compiling a list of the victims of his terror, a list that grew to more than 3,000 names before his death in 1584. Copies of the list, along with donations, were sent to Russia's principal monasteries with instructions that prayers be offered for the repose of their souls.

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