The Debate Around Ivan the Terrible: A Cruel Tyrant with Tragic Past

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Ivan the fourth has been debated throughout history. Was his rule beneficial or harmful to Russia? Whatever can be said about him as a person or his rule, what cannot be argued is that his impact on Russia is still relevant to the present day. There is no doubt that Ivan was a cruel ruler and his cruel acts were by all means immoral. However, Ivan should not be remembered as simply an evil murderous ruler.

Ivan the fourth was a mixed bag in terms of harm and good for Russia. On the one hand, he was a conqueror and on the other he was a murderous tyrant. He was not an evil man by nature, instead he was a man driven to the edge of insanity by his childhood, corruption, conspiracy and sickness that would make it hard for any man to be a just ruler. Despite his madness however, Ivan was able to leave a lasting impact that would ultimately change Russia for the better. From childhood, the life Ivan led gave cause for his mental illness. After the death of his father Grand Prince of Muscovy, Vasily III, Ivan was given the role of successor. Too young to rule, his mother and others appointed by his father became regents for him.

His childhood took a turn for the worst when, in a conspiracy and struggle for power, some boyars poisoned his mother. Ivan was then cared for by the Boyars, or better said, neglected by them. The boyars treated him so poorly that he took out his frustration on animals, and thus his fascination with killing animals grew.

Already suffering psychologically as a result of the boyars, he grew a hatred for them. Later on he would come to learn the rumors of the murder of his mother on the part of the Boyars. Soon his brother would die of natural causes leaving him fatherless, motherless and without any siblings. Given his situation, it is easy to see why he became paranoid. Only a few years later, Ivan made a most memorable change at the age of 17 after being made crown prince by the Boyar regents. He decided not to be crown prince or even grand prince, instead he took on a new name for ruler. Ivan decided to rule by divine order, he chose the russian word for Caesar, “Tsar”, a change that would last for many centuries.

The change from Grand Prince to Tsar was only the first of Ivan’s rule. After marrying a russian woman by the name of Anastasia Romanovna, Ivan faced one of the worst moments in Russian history. A fire which destroyed much of Moscow, the perpetrators of which, were hung at the command of Ivan. Soon after he would make the move that would earn him his name “Ива́н Васи́льевич”, which translate to english as Ivan the Formidable or Terrible.

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Ivan had his men quickly disassemble many homes in a town, carry the wood 600 miles in order to build a fortress which would help in his quest against the Khanate. Even more impressive than his fortress, Ivan used newly incorporated gunpowder to finally bring down the walls surrounding the Citadel of Kazan, a historical moment in russian history. To honor the victory, Ivan ordered that a new cathedral be built. The russian people saw Ivan as a conqueror, which earned him his name of “Terrible”. This new cathedral is the most famous landmark in Moscow, Saint Basil’s Cathedral. The architecture in the cathedral was complex and beautiful. Ivan the terrible is rumored to have blinded the architect who built it so that he could never build anything so beautiful again.

However, things start to take a turn for the worst with the mysterious death of Anastasia. Forensic analysts today are learning that Anastasia was poisoned, giving reason for Ivan to feel even more paranoid. To understand the gravity of this situation, Ivan’s trust for others must be taken into consideration. That is to say, Ivan did not trust many people, in fact, his wife Anastasia was one of the few people he trusted and therefore one of the few people who could calm his madness. Her death is what ultimately changed the legacy of his reign.

It is important to note that Ivan suffered from a form of osteoporosis which was extremely painful and incurable. He was given a medicine to help his pain but the medicine he had been given contained mercury which is known to cause madness. In light of this fact and taking into consideration his tragic life, is it any wonder that he would descend into madness? Anastasia’s death marked a new era for russia, which some use to condemn Ivan as one of the most evil humans to have ever lived. The problem is that such a view not only ignores the context of his experience as a ruler but also dismisses his lasting positive impact in russia which has a significance that cannot be understated. Having no one to trust, Ivan was devastated by the loss of his beloved Anastasia. He developed extreme paranoia and went on a murderous rampage, killing anyone he suspected as being disloyal to him by torture. His atrocities ranged from frying his victims alive, to impalement and mutilation. He struck fear into the common russian people, but his cruelty was only beginning.

Desperate for someone to trust, Ivan formed a group of secret police in Russia called the Oprichnina. They were created to obey no one but Ivan and execute any perceived enemies. However, too much power concentrated in a minority led to many of the Oprichnina abusing their power. They became violent criminals who stole land, murdered and caused terror with the authority of Ivan. Ivan did not stop there, he led a march into Novgorod where he executed thousands. His cruelty for his own people is without a doubt something that must be condemned, but given his position, it is hard to see how others might behave differently.

What Ivan the fourth is commonly known for are the latter acts of cruelty. History always finds a way to portray the negative and obscure the positive. This is especially the case for Ivan. What often goes unmentioned is that Russia after Ivan was indeed a world power. Ivan had managed to not only reclaim land from the Tartars but also expand Russia westward. The land of Serbia was claimed under the rule of Ivan. Trade was blooming under his reign aswell, Russia was indeed growing in power despite the uncertainty of Ivan’s rule.

Many times it seems as though Ivan has a relief from his madness and acts in a sense of reason. Ivan did disband the Oprichnina after realizing the harm they were bringing to Russia. But just as quickly as he recovered his sanity, he lost it again. In, perhaps, his most infamous and most recognizable act of cruelty, Ivan struck his eldest son, whom he had been training to one day rule in his stead, with a cane. The impact was lethal, his son was killed at Ivan’s own hands. It is not certain that he meant to kill his own son

In fact, it was probably very unfortunate that he struck his son in the temple, a particularly vulnerable part of the skull. Ivan did regret this act deeply and could not forgive himself. This moment was another critical event for russia and made the russian people doubt their ruler once again. The event was so significant that artist Ilya Repin made a painting depicting the scene in detail. The devastated father quickly came to his senses after striking his son. In the painting, Ivan the terrible holds his son, Ivan, while he bleeds in his arms. The mood of the painting is dark and intense, and it is symbolic of the mood which an observer of the scene must have felt.

Ivan’s life was no doubt filled with tragedy, cruelty and violence. However, Ivan was not this way by nature, he was suffering terribly, psychologically and physiologically. It is easy to judge a historical leader without analyzing the context, however, once analyzed, it is hard to see how it would be possible for anyone to expect Ivan to have acted differently. It seems as though Ivan led a cursed life, a perfect breeding ground for misfortune. This should not distract from his accomplishments, he changed Russia for the better overall, had it not been for his mental and physical illness, he had the potential of being one of the best rulers Russia had ever known.

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