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Ivan The Terrible

By James Donahue

Crowned as the first tsar of Russia, Ivan IV, the grandson of Ivan the Great, has been called one of the most evil men that ever lived. After beginning his rule at the age of just 16, Ivan ruled the largest nation on Earth from 1547 to 1584. While Ivan’s reign was marked with much achievement, he fell into a form of insanity during his later years during which he ordered the brutal murder of thousands, including children and animals.

Given the nickname "Ivan The Terrible," the man ruled with what was described as a "deep-seated paranoia and ruthlessness." He was brutal in the way he killed, having his victims strangled, beheaded, blinded, stabbed, hung, buried alive, boiled and fried. It is said he even pulled out people’s ribs with red hot pinchers.

Ivan organized an elite army known as the Streltsy, and a police force known as the Oprichniki to suppress rebellion and expand his rule. While in power his army conquered surrounding territories, including Siberia and established the system of serfdom, assigning "masters" to force peasants to work the lands.

In his effort to seize lands to the Baltic Sea and control major trade routes, Ivan began what was later known as the 24-year Livonian War against the Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles and Livonian Teutonic Knights. The Russian forces were unsuccessful.

In spite of the warfare, the early years of Ivan’s reign was marked as a time of peaceful reform. Ivan revised the laws code, established the first Russian parliament, a Chosen Council of nobles, and confirmed the position of the Church through unification of the rituals and ecclesiastical practices of the nation. He also introduced local regional governments and introduced the first printing press to Russia. The Moscow Print Yard published several religious books and is still operating today.

The magnificent St. Basil’s Cathedral, a popular tourist spot in Moscow, was commissioned by Ivan and completed in 1561. There is a story that Ivan ordered the architect blinded to prevent him from ever designing a cathedral that beautiful for anyone else.

Ivan was married to seven wives during his long reign. It was said that he was in such despair over the death of his first wife, Anastasia that he began showing early signs of insanity.

In 1581, Ivan murdered his second son, also named Ivan, in a heated rage. The son was verbally attacking his father for beating his pregnant daughter-in-law. The beating led to a miscarriage.

Ivan was believed to be a genius living on the constant edge of insanity. He wrote poetry, did creative things in establishing a form of government that still has a strong influence on Russia, yet went into episodic outbreaks of rage in which he murdered thousands of people. They say his mental illness became more severe with age.

In 1570, after learning that the people of Novgorod were attempting to break away from the tsar’s rule, Ivan sent his army into Novgorod and executed everyone. One description of the massacre reads as follows:

"He ordered that each man be tied to a sled, be dragged to the Volokhov bridge behind the fast-moving sleds, and be thrown into the Volkhov River from the bridge. The Tsar ordered that their wives and children be brought to the Volkhov bridge where a high platform had been erected. He commanded that they be chained on the arms and legs and that the children be tied to their mothers and then be thrown from the platform. Meanwhile the Tsar’s men, the nobles and soldiers, moved about in small boats armed with spears, lances, hooks and axes. When people, men and women of all ages surfaced, they were stabbed by the soldiers."

Thus we have a brief glimpse of an insane ruler whose genius changed history, but his cruelty became the thing he is most remembered for.

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