Ivan IV, called “The Terrible,” was the first tsar of Russia. Ivan was born in Moscow on August 25, 1530. His father was Basil III, sovereign of the principality of Moscow. Ivan lost his father when he was 3. His mother became regent of the principality, but died a mere five years later. She was probably killed by the Boyars, members of the Russian nobility involved in bloody battles to acquire influence in the court. Young Ivan grew up in a climate of violence and developed a ferocious hatred for the aristocracy. At 13 he began systematically eliminating the Boyars.
Ivan was crowned Tsar at 16. He was the first monarch to use this title, a derivation of the Latin term “Caesar.” One month later he married Anastasia Romanovna Zacharina, a bride chosen from more than 1,000 girls of marriageable age called to court. Over the years, Ivan demonstrated an inclination for frequent excesses of rage and gratuitous cruelty. His psychological situation worsened with the deaths of his son Demetrio and his wife Anastasia, both under suspicious circumstances. Left a widower, he would marry seven more times. Ivan’s foreign policy was aggressive. In less than 10 years he conquered the cities of Kazan and Astrakhan. He then started a long war for Livonia, an area including modern-day Estonia and Latvia. The conflict would end in defeat more than 20 years later.
Continuing his endless battle against the nobility, Ivan enacted a drastic reform aimed at removing land and power from the Boyars. He also formed the Oprichniki, a personal army responsible for the deaths of more than 4,000 people over the course of a decade. The peasants supported his battle against the nobility, giving Ivan the nickname “fearful,” which was eventually transformed into “Terrible.” In 1581, Ivan conquered Siberia. It would be the last success of his long reign. That same year, Ivan’s mental instability became increasingly dangerous. He shook his daughter-in-law violently, causing her to miscarry, because her dress was too low-cut. His son, heir to the throne, clashed violently with his father over the affair. During their fight, Ivan struck his son a mortal blow. The Tsar’s guilt over the event brought Ivan close to semi-delirious mysticism. He forced the court to engage in hours of prayer, usually followed by a series of executions. During the last years of his life, he decided to become a priest. Ivan IV died in Moscow on March 18, 1584, probably as a result of poisoning. He was 53. He left his son Feodor an empire that was strong and growing, but riddled with deep-rooted and violent tensions.