March 28th

On March 28th, 1584, Ivan IV Vasilyevich, Tsar of of All the Russias, died. Infamously known as Ivan the Terrible, his life is remembered for his mental instability and his brutal and autocratic control over his people.

Ivan killing his son Ilya Repin

Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16th, 1581 by Ilya Repin (1885) shows Ivan the Terrible after accidentally killing his son.

In 1533, Ivan’s father Vasili III died from blood poisoning, allowing his 3-year-old son to succeed him as Grand Prince of Moscow. Ivan was to hold this prestigious title until January 1547 when, to aggressively extend his powers, Ivan was coronated as Tsar of All the Russias.

In  ‘Medieval Russia 980–1584′, Martin Janet notes that Ivan’s ascension to the title of Tsar “symbolized an assumption of powers equivalent and parallel to those held by former Byzantine Emperor and the Tatar Khan, both known in Russian sources as Tsar. The political effect was to elevate Ivan’s position.”

The achievements of Ivan’s early reign include the creation of the Subebnik of 1550 which modernised the Russian legal code; the creation of a standing (permanent) army; the establishment of the first Russian parliament (the Zemsky Sobor); and the concession of some autonomous powers to rural regions.

In the 1860s, due to heightened economic and agricultural hardship, Ivan’s domestic policy drastically changed. The onset of drought and famine, combined with several military defeats in foreign wars, devastated Russia. These developments also prompted some members of the nobility to betray Ivan, such as his adviser Prince Andrei Kurbsky who took command of Lithuanian troops and ransacked the Russian region of Velikiye Luki. Devastation, backstabbing and the suspected assassination of Ivan’s wife culminated in his abdication in 1564. Unable to govern without the Tsar, Ivan remained in power but was granted absolute power.


Ivan the Terrible Showing His Treasures to Jerome Horsey by Alexander Litovchenko (1875).

From this point onward, Ivan earned his suffix of ‘the Terrible’. The Tsar implemented the policy of Oprichina which set up a secret police, initiated public executions, introduced mass repression and legalised the confiscation of land from nobility. The repression began with the initiation of a wave of persecution against clans suspected of conspiring against the ruler. This resulted in countless executions including that of Philip II (Metropolitan of Moscow) and the warlord Alexander Gorbatyi-Shuisky. The policy was extended in 1866 and resulted in the expulsion of 11,000 noblemen and created the Oprichniki. The Oprichniks were essentially feudal landlords but they were not accountable for the actions, allowing the serfs to be financially violated; many were stripped of all possessions and wealth. This oppressive policy is believed to have caused the price of grain to increase tenfold. Ivan’s oppression intensified in 1570 with the Sack of Novgorod. Suspecting that the nobility planned to defect to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ivan ordered that the city was raided and destroyed. Contemporary documents placed the death toll at 60,000 and 1,500, however historians have estimated that it was, in fact, between 2,000 and 3,000.

Ivan’s death occurred when he had a stroke during a game of chess against his close associate,Bogdan Belsky, on March 28th, 1584. The Tsar was succeeded by his son Feodor I, who reigned for another 14 years.

The Oprichniki Nikolai Nevrev

The Oprichniki by Nikolai Nevrev. This painting shows the arrest of a boyarin clansman, Feodorov. His arrest was due to suspicions that he wished to steal the Tsar’s title.


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