What was the impact of Ivan the Terrible on Russia?

Ivan IV from a contemporary print

Ivan the Terrible is one of the best-known Russian Tsars and commonly regarded as one of the cruelest men in history. He has been portrayed countless times in books and movies. However, the legend that is Ivan the Terrible often obscured the historical leader, who was one of the most important figures in the history of Russia. He may have been mentally unstable and a brutal autocrat but he was a brilliant leader who modernized Russia and who also laid the foundations for the later Russian Empire. This article discusses the impact of Ivan the Terrible on Russia. It analyses his impact on the development of Russia as a state and as an Empire. The piece also discusses Ivan’s policy failures and tyranny which were to have very tragic consequences for the Russian people.


Russia had been conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century and for many years they imposed a tribute system on the Russian princes. The Golden Horde as the Mongols were known dominated, Russia from their bases in Crimea and in the South of Russia. These years changed Russia and its culture. By the 15th century, the Khanate of the Golden Horde had broken up after a massive defeat by Tamerlane. However, the successor states of the Golden Horde dominated much of modern Russia. The weakening of the Mongols allowed the state of Moscow to emerge. Under a succession of Grand Princes, members of the Rurik Dynasty, the State of Muscovy, had been able to expand mostly at the expense of the descendants of the Mongols, often known as the Tartars.[1]

By the mid-sixteenth century the state of Muscovy, centered on Moscow was in a precarious strategic position it was bordered by Tartar Khanates to the south and east. To the west was the huge kingdom of Poland-Lithuania. However, the State of Muscovy was able to command a large territory that was rich in resources and a large army. Under successive able Grand Princes’ it had dominates the other Russian princedoms and city-states such as Novgorod. However, many of these princes only were technically part of the state of Muscovy and the hereditary nobility often opposed the will of the Grand Princes and even intrigued with his many enemies. It was widely believed that the nobles or Boyars poisoned Ivan’s father and his mother the queen regent. At the time of Ivan’s birth, Muscovy was a sprawling but fragmented entity that covered large areas of central Russia.

The reign of Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible at the siege of Kazan

The early life of Ivan was harsh. The regency was passed among the feuding nobility and the young boy and his brother often went hungry they were so neglected. It was at this time that Ivan developed a hatred for the nobility. At the age of sixteen, he was crowned and he took the title Tsar of all the Russia’s. This claim at the time was ludicrous as Ivan and Moscow were very weak. Ivan despite his youth proved to be a capable administrator. He rebuilt Moscow after a fire. He introduced the first parliament, found a standing army, known as the Streltzi, reformed the Church and stamped out many clerical abuses.[2] Ivan was also a modernizer and he introduced the printing press into Russia. However, he was concerned about the mobility of the peasantry and was the first to introduce a series of regulations that limited their freedoms and tied them to the lands. Ivan also introduced a measure of self-government into lands that had been recently colonized by peasants to encourage colonization of virgin territories. Ivan also sought to develop trade links with western Europe and in order to win allies in the west he once proposed to Elizabeth I.

The first years of Ivan’s reign were marked by reforms and peace. However, this was to change and many have even claimed that this was a result of some undiagnosed mental health issues. More likely the drastic change in Ivan’s policies was due to external and internal threats. In the 1560s, Russia was involved in several wars and a drought caused widespread famine. There were rumors of revolt and conspiracies. Ivan decided that he needed to strengthen his position, especially against the Boyars. He found the Oprichnina a military and a police force that was soon given free reign against Ivan’s many real and imagined enemies. There were several waves of persecution launched by the Oprichnina. This involved mass arrests and executions mainly of Boyars and their supporters. The Oprichnina greatly extend the hold of Ivan over the hereditary nobility but its members increasingly enriched themselves and became a ‘state within a state’.

Later, Ivan disbanded the force in 1572. The Tsar became increasingly paranoid, especially after the death of his beloved wife and he suspected the city of Novgorod was going to betray him.[3] He attacked the city and had it sacked in an orgy of bloodshed and brutality that lasted weeks. Soon Ivan IV had earned the name ‘The Terrible’. The Tsar throughout much of his reign was engaged in wars with the various Khanates to the south and the east. In a series of wars, he conquered of forced the submission of three Muslim Khanates. He not only vastly increased the extent of the territory of Muscovy he also turned it into a multi-faith and a multi-ethnic state.

In effect, Ivan IV had founded a new Russian Empire. Despite being a devout Orthodox Christian Ivan pursued a policy of toleration towards his many Muslim subjects. For many years Ivan was involved in a brutal war to the west, this was the Livonian War.[4] It was an attempt by Russia to expand to the Baltic Sea and this involved it in a series of wars with Sweden, Denmark, and Poland among others. The war was inconclusive. During Ivan's reign, Russia started the exploration and colonization of Siberia. In 1555, shortly after the conquest of Kazan, the Tartar Khan in western Siberia pledged allegiance to Ivan. He failed to pay tribute and Ivan engineered his downfall. This left a power vacuum in the region and the Tsar instead of establishing another tributary state in Siberia, decided that he would rule it directly.

In 1558 Ivan gave the Stroganov merchant family the patent for colonizing an area east of the Urals. They built many forts and later hired Cossacks to protect their lands. The Tartars had by then established another Khanate in Siberia.[5] The Cossack leader in 1580 began the conquest of Siberia and he forced many local tribes to pay tribute to Moscow. Later Ivan sent a large force of Streltsi or members of his army to assist in the conquest. By 1590 Ivan was also calling himself Tsar of Siberia. Ivan died of a stroke while playing chess and he was succeeded by his middle son Feodor. Russia at the time of his death was at the strongest it had in several centuries.

Ivan and the Orthodox Church

Ivan the Terrible with the body of the son he murdered

Ivan was a deeply religious man. He reformed the Church and introduced a unified liturgy for the first time. He also did much to ensure that the Patriarch of Moscow was the leading prelate in Russian lands. This was partly inspired by religious belief but also by political necessity as the Orthodox Church could help to unify the far-flung and diverse lands of Russia.[6] The Tsar ensured that the Church was tightly controlled and he appointed the Patriarchs. Like everything else in Russia, the Orthodox Church was tightly controlled and while it was enriched it was very much subordinated to the wishes of the Tsar. The Tsar saw himself as God’s deputy on Earth and that he could interfere with the Church and shape it to his will. Despite this Ivan was a great patron of the Church and he build many magnificent Churches and Cathedrals. He also commissioned many religious Artworks and was the first Tsar to have the Orthodox bible printed. Ivan was to shape the nature and the role of the Orthodox Church for many centuries.

Concept of Tsar

Ivan was the first true Russian Tsar and this was possibly his greatest achievement. Ivan believed in the divine right of Kings. This idea was inherited by Russian from the Byzantine tradition. However, Ivan was the first in many centuries to really seek to ensure that he did actually reign as God’s deputy and was unquestioningly obeyed.[7] This does much to explain his apparent unlimited cruelty. He saw himself as an instrument of divine punishment who was punishing sinners. In fact, he believed that by punishing them terribly in this life he may have been saving their souls. Ivan’s concept of the role of the Tsar was very influential. A Tsar was expected to be an autocrat and was entitled to order cruel punishments, furthermore there will was law. He made autocracy central to the Russian state. The authoritarian ideas of Tsar Ivan IV promoted a political culture in Russia that accepted and even welcomed autocracy and this has arguably continued up to the present. Moreover, his use of terror tactics to stay in power were emulated by many subsequent rulers including Peter the Great and Stalin. There are undoubted similarities between the persecution of Ivan and the ‘purges under Stalin in the 1930s.’[8]


Ivan changed the nature of the Russian army and was the first Tsar to establish a standing army. This was to revolutionize the strategic situation and directly lead to a series of conquest. Ivan was the first to introduce western military technology into Russia and this was one of his greatest innovations. Tsar Ivan IV was one of the greatest conquerors of his era. His professional army was able to conquer several Khanates. These Muslim kingdoms had terrorised Russia for many centuries and they had frequently raid the territory of Muscovy. These were often highly organized slave raids and many thousands of Russians often ended up in the slave markets of Astrakhan. The conquests of Ivan ended this and allowed the Russian lands to develop in relative peace. Furthermore, the annexation of the Khanates turned Russian into a huge Empire.

For the first time since the Mongol invasion one Russian Slavic Ruler was the dominant political figure in the region and this has not changed to this date. Despite his reputation for brutality Ivan was actually quite tolerant and the many Muslims in his Empire soon came to accept his rule and became integrated into his state.[9] Then there was his colonisation and conquest of Siberia and this allowed Russia to expand to the east and to exploit the many resources that changed the nature of Russia forever. It turned the new Russian Empire into a transcontinental power and both a European and an Asian power. The resources of Siberia were to help to turn Russia into a truly great power. Ivan’s military campaigns were not always successful and he made no significant gains in the west. However, important trade and cultural contacts were established that were important for the future development of the Russian Empire.

The great failures of Ivan

The Tsar’s ambitious plans and policies had exhausted Russia. The population had suffered greatly and the army could not recruit sufficient soldiers and the treasury was almost empty. Russia was a mighty power but it was also almost bankrupt and weak. After the death of Ivan, he was succeeded by his ineffectual son Feodor. Ivan had killed his heir in a fit of rage and this was to prove disastrous. Tsar Feodor was incompetent and was to die childless and this ended the Rurik Dynasty. The instability produced by an uncertain royal succession and a crippled economy resulted in internal instability which was soon exploited by Russia’s neighbors. This became known as the ‘Time of Troubles’ when the Russian Empire almost collapsed. [10] The state was only saved by the emergence of the Romanov Dynasty. Many historians have argued that the Time of Troubles was a result of Ivan’s policies.

The impact of Ivan on Russia

The achievements of Ivan are truly great. He developed a modern Russian state and laid the foundations for a great Empire. However, this had all come at a terrible cost. He had ended the threat to Russia from the Muslim Khanates and had developed a modern state apparatus. Ivan had reformed the Orthodox Church and was also a patron of the arts. He began the colonisation of Siberia, a region that helped to turn Russia in later centuries into a global power. However, countless suffered because of his savagery and his wars and schemes bankrupted the state and weakened Russia. He also established and elaborated the concept of an autocracy that was used by successive Tsars and even Communists to justify their power and which lead to many centuries of repressive government in Russia. Ivan transformed Russia and his achievements both negative and positive continue to shape Russia to this day, even in the era of Putin.


  1. Madariaga, Isabel de. Ivan the Terrible. First Tsar of Russia. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 56
  2. Madariaga, p. 23
  3. Bobrick, Benson. Ivan the Terrible. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1990), p. 156
  4. Bobrick, p. 114
  5. Bobrick, p. 116
  6. Troyat, Henri. Ivan the Terrible. New York: Buccaneer Books, 1988), p. 216
  7. Hunt, Priscilla. "Ivan IV's Personal Mythology of Kingship", Slavic Review, Vol. 52, No. 4. (Winter, 1993), pp. 769–809.
  8. Perrie, Maureen. The Cult of Ivan the Terrible in Stalin's Russia (New York: Palgrave, 2001), p. 115
  9. Troyatt, p. 234
  10. Troyatt, p. 314


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