10 Times Ivan the Terrible Really Was Terrible

Ivan the Terrible: the first Tsar of Russia, and a reign spanning from 1547 all the way up until 1584. What earnt him such a bad name in history?

Sep 3, 2023By James Keating, BA History

times ivan the terrible was terrible


An impressive list of eight marriages somehow manages to outdo the more commonly-referred Henry VIII’s six. The body count of Ivan the Terrible’s own citizens is assumed to range from the thousands to hundreds of thousands. And a few more notably intimate cases of homicide, such as his own son and yet-to-be-born grandchild. From terrible family man to atrocity-committing maniac, it’s hard to find a good word to say about the brutal leader, and luckily for us, this list is going to do the opposite of that.


10. Ivan the Terrible Blinded Postnik Yakovlev


According to legend, Ivan the Terrible rewarded his architect Postnik Yakovlev by blinding him. The legend goes that St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow was so beautiful on its completion in 1560 that Ivan was petty enough to blind his masterful architect to prevent him from building such a magnificent structure again. Fortunately for Postnik and his eyeballs, the story is likely a myth as his name is credited alongside fellow master Ivan Shirlai with designing the Kazan Kremlin and the Cathedral of the Annunciation a year and two years after St. Basil’s was finished. Although a likely fabrication, the story illustrates the sort of reputation Ivan had built in his reign, and the further examples to follow are no mere myth.


9. The Humiliation & Death of Archbishop Pimen

cathedral of saint sophia novgorod
Cathedral of Saint Sophia, Novgorod, via DeviantArt


Pimen was the archbishop of Novgorod and, at one time, a close ally of Ivan. In 1569, cities in the northwest, most notably Novgorod, planned on defecting to Poland. Ivan predictably wasn’t keen on this idea and marched into the city on January 8th, 1570. After having Pimen arrested, Ivan’s goons (the oprichniki) took Pimen’s monastic hat and “married” the disgraced archbishop off to a mare. He was then forced to ride the mare through the city accompanied by what were essentially jesters. The irony was that Pimen himself had been a supporter of Ivan’s iron-fisted policies, the same policies that led to him dying in prison in 1571. The confiscation of Pimen’s hat and the “buffoons” accompanying him were no coincidence; they were especially humiliating for an Archbishop, and Ivan knew this, displaying his sharp vindictiveness.


8. The Siege of Kazan

siege of kazan
Siege of Kazan of 1552, via kolanews

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In 1551, the Khanate of Kazan was in a period of unrest; several different Khans had come and gone. Ivan besieged the city of Kazan with a staggering 150,000-man-strong army. After Ivan’s offer of surrender had been rejected by the defenders, things got very messy. In a dramatic display, Ivan had Tatar prisoners tied to stakes before the city walls, threatening to execute them if the defenders did not yield. Shockingly, Ivan was well and truly outdone when the city’s defenders killed the prisoners themselves rather than leaving them in non-Muslim hands. Eventually, the city gave way, and Ivan, in a typical show of his capacity for violence, had the population massacred and deported.


7. Mikhail Vorotynsky’s Violent Execution

ivan the terrible viktor vasnetsov
Portrait of Ivan IV by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1897, via History


Not long after the siege of Kazan, Ivan directed his attention toward the Khanate of Crimea. Crimea was notable at this time to Russians for their raids on villages. Mikhail Vorotynsky was the man charged with leading the Russian army against the Crimean Khanate. Despite being outnumbered two to one at the Battle of Molodi, Vorotynsky displayed his characteristic courage and managed to route the Tatars against the odds and claim victory for Russia.


Most would expect the sovereign to decorate the General with effusive titles, rewards, and medals for his service. Ivan had other ideas for Vorotynsky. A servant had accused the General of plotting the Tsar’s death through the means of magic. Ivan was as paranoid as he was violent; this accusation was all he needed to turn on his General. Ivan had him “tied to a stake between two fires.” Ivan then personally led the torture, raking him over coals just up until the point of death before ordering his imprisonment. Perhaps fortunately for him, Vorotynsky died from the wounds before he could reach the prison. This specific case goes to show how fickle Ivan’s temperament could be; a general he had entrusted to lead his armies and had proved how valuable of an asset he could be was violently tortured to death on mere hearsay.


6. Ivan the Terrible had a Mercury Addiction

mercury as a medicine
Mercury used as a medicine, via Hypotheses


In the 16th century, medicine was far more rudimentary than it is today. This meant Ivan had to resort to using mercury as a painkiller in later life. In fact, the character and story of “the Mad Hatter” come from hatters in the past using mercury in their process and the toxins driving them to insanity. Ivan was likely an example of this unfortunate dependency. Mercury was found in his bones after he had died, and there is some evidence he even had a cauldron of it in his room. Common symptoms of mercury overdoses are “mood swings, nervousness, irritability, and other emotional changes.” Although Ivan displayed serious instability far earlier in life, it is possible his rapid psychological decline was in part due to his dependence on mercury.


5. Formation of the Oprichniki

oprichniki nikolai nevrev
Oprichniki by Nikolai Nevrev, 1870s, via Wikipedia


We have all heard of the infamous KGB, previously named the NKVD, and even before that, named the Cheka. But the first iteration of a secret police in Russia was Ivan’s lesser-known oprichniki. Ivan offered lower-ranking nobles a way to increase their influence, most commonly by killing Ivan’s enemies and taking their properties. One description of the oprichniki characterizes them as “black-robed riders on black horses carrying severed dogs” heads to give the appearance of the riders of hell. No one was immune to the cult-like attacks. Priests were killed during sermons, and the group often indulged in torture and atrocity, such as in the city of Novgorod.


4. The Massacre of Novgorod

massacre of novgorod
The Massacre of Novgorod, via ExecutedToday


After the persecution of Archbishop Pimen, Ivan accused the entire population of Novgorod of treason. Using his thuggish oprichniki, Ivan plundered the monasteries and churches, transferred mercantile wealth to the oprichniki, and destroyed villages that had already been strained from the war with Poland. Approximately 4,000 were killed in a bloody massacre, but predictions of subsequent deaths from homelessness and starvation reached over 100,000. Novgorod would never fully recover nor reach the status it once held after Ivan’s brutal treatment.


3. Ivan the Terrible had Eight Failed Marriages


Henry VIII’s six wives were mere piffle compared to the eight women Ivan was to marry. Only the first three of these were actually church-sanctioned, which was rather contradictory to his character for a supposed devout worshipper. Five of these wives were murdered, and the other three were imprisoned. Fortunately for his last wife, and coincidentally similarly to Catherine Parr, she outlived her brutal husband. Not exactly displaying traits of the ideal family man, his relationship with the rest of his family was suitably terrible.


2. He Caused his Daughter-in-Law to Miscarry

eastern orthodox wedding
A Traditional Eastern Orthodox Wedding, via Artmajeur


Ivan’s eight wives were a symptom of his utter obsession with rearing a male heir for the Russian throne. This obsession extended to his son to the severe detriment of his daughter-in-law. In an unsolicited and unexpected visit, Ivan walked in on his daughter-in-law partially undressed. She was pregnant and resting, of course not expecting the Tsar to appear without warning. Deeming this immodest, Ivan attacked her, beating her up until the point of miscarriage. She screamed for help from her husband, Ivan’s son Ivan Ivanovich. Her husband reportedly ran to the brutal scene in hopes of helping his pregnant wife. This led to further violence.


1. He Beat his Son to Death

ivan and his son ilya repin
Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan by Ilya Repin, 1885, via Wikipedia


Upon arriving in the room, the young Ivan demanded to know why his father was attacking his wife, especially as he had already forced his first two wives into a convent. Ivan the Terrible was apparently filled with rage at this apparent uproar of disloyalty from his son and struck him with a staff he often carried to punish servants. The strike cracked his son’s skull, and the blow ultimately killed him, leaving his other son Feodor as new the new heir. Unlike the Tsar’s previous remorseless displays of violence, he supposedly deeply regretted this.


Ilya Repin’s painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan from 1885 best shows the harrowing regret Ivan is said to have felt after this attack. Although this narrative has been questioned and possibly attributed to Polish-Lithuanian propaganda, there is some substance to it. As for the now widow, Ivan’s daughter-in-law, she was sent to a convent as her predecessors were. One difference for her was that she was kept near Moscow and treated well, perhaps a sign of Ivan’s guilt for what he did to his son.


Although there is no measuring the sins of Ivan the Terrible, there is something unnervingly unique about his brutal filicide. Unlike other rulers of similar eras whose violence was impersonal and far removed from the throne rooms they lounged in, this was an intimate display. Just like the torture Ivan enjoyed and partook in first-hand, it shows honest barefaced violence rather than the pragmatic type we see, for example, in war.

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By James KeatingBA HistoryI hold a degree in History from the University of Liverpool and have always loved reading non-fiction in my spare time. My specific interests mainly lie in Russian history but I have also been fascinated with biographies outside of Russia from the biggest names in history such as Frida Kahlo or Oliver Cromwell.