It is not common knowledge that sixteenth-century Russia was crucial to the direction of the state as a whole, but the changes that the country underwent during the 1500s undoubtedly changed the course of the world’s history. During the sixteenth century, Russia’s newly united government was shaped into the centrally controlled military power still seen today as a product of heavy reforms. This, among many other government shifts and political evolution, occurred because of the first Tsar of All Russia, Ivan IV Vasilyevich.
However, Ivan IV also carries a more sinister name as a result of his acts of war and slaughter during his rule over Russia that has somehow become more defining of his legacy than his position as the first Tsar of Russia; he is, in English, referred to almost exclusively as Ivan the Terrible. Ivan the Terrible’s reign over Russia, as depicted in biographies and historical nonfiction books like Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible by Benson Bobrick was relentlessly power hungry, temperamental, and awe-striking in the magnitude of its accomplishments.
Many scholars have agreed that Benson Bobrick’s biography Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible is the most extensive and comprehensive description of Ivan IV’s life in English. However, the magnitude of this claim cannot truly be understood until the book has been read. Each chapter sets up the context behind the topic at hand in excruciating detail, even to the extent of derailing previous points to elaborate on why the next event in history occurred.
This is only proven by the fact that Ivan IV does not make an appearance until chapter four, wherein Bobrick writes that his mother takes control after his grandfather, Ivan III, dies (Bobrick 74). Even so, he only becomes relevant to the story at the end of the aforementioned chapter, where he raids and kills his relatives so he can assume uncontested power. At a said point, the book turns to describe even the smallest facets of young Ivan IV’s personality. Bobrick describes Ivan as “bookish” and having a “timid nature” (Bobrick 76), quickly pointing out that this disposition towards studying only aided his immense intellectual understanding of the country he was to govern, It cannot be overstated, however, how important this context is. Were there not to have been three to four chapters about Muscovy, Ivan III, and Ivan IV’s unfortunate childhood of frequent deaths of relatives, the reader would have no way of understanding the state of the country, nor the effects that such an upbringing had upon Ivan IV.
Once Ivan IV became the Grand Prince, he quickly transcended that title by becoming the first Tsar of All Rus. His grandfather had united Russia, but Ivan IV was the first to rule it officially. One of the most well-known aspects of his rule was his seemingly contradicting morals. For example, he was noted by many historians to be a devoted Christian, but he was also described to have no hesitation in killing monks and priests who did not pay him their required fees. Bobrick writes, “as to whether or not he served God one dares not surmise, but that he delighted in conquest is quite beyond doubt” (176). Yet, he still donated vast and sizeable amounts of his wealth to monasteries and churches in shows of charity. Once in power, Ivan IV created extensive reforms to the form of government by weaving a close circle of trusted advisors with his secret police to enforce his strict military leadership. Even the reforms that seemed to be primarily economy based seemed to be written with a government agenda. “The new legislation had one overriding aim: to increase the revenue of the state…” (Bobrick 108). Ivan the Terrible was constantly worried about attacks from within his own country, but that paranoia was equally matched by his frenzied obsession with wars and conquests against Lithuania and the Tartars in Kazan and Astrakhan. In his older years, Ivan IV was prone to increasingly violent urges; many modern scholars agree that this was a worsening of mental illness caused by his less-than-hospitable childhood and the resulting traumas. Many from that time believe that in 1581, he had an extremely violent episode wherein he beat his son to death with a walking stick. Ivan’s life cannot be spoken of without mention of his crimes. Consistently over his life, the tsar made a point of killing those who opposed or threatened his power.
These preventative measures only worsened after the death of his second wife, when Ivan began going insane in an era now known as the Reign of Terror (not to be mistaken for the french event bearing the same name). His secret police and massive military alone are sufficient to prove that point. However, the atrocity that occurred at Novgorod and Pskov. Ivan, having had a lingering grudge against the authorities in Novgorod since his childhood, falsified evidence of treason and pinned it upon the local Archbishop and similar authorities. As it was known that Ivan was constantly fearful of being overthrown, many at the time believed this ‘evidence’ to be true. Once he had a reason, Ivan ordered thousands of his military to “capture the fleeing traitors” and destroy anything that got in their way (Bobrick 273). In the chaos that followed, soldiers assumed that any citizens running from them must have been of them guilty. Tens of thousands of innocent people were executed, tortured, or thrown from the city into the cold Russian winter to die.
Estimations of death counts are impossible to prove or dispute, but most reports from the time aim that the numbers lie between twenty-seven thousand and sixty thousand. Benson Bobrick’s biography, Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible is a well-rounded, detailed, and painstakingly exact recount of the life of Russia’s first tsar. Ivan IV was an unyielding emperor who both protected and controlled his people. Perhaps, in the review of this elaborate description of the life of Ivan IV, it is worth noting that the English translation of his common moniker is not exact. Though the most common translation is sure “Ivan the Terrible”, the word ‘terrible’ was not meant to mean awful and evil, but rather ‘inspiring fear in others. Ivan IV was undeniably a strict emperor; a man who ruled his country with a tight hold to stay in power and keep it from any outside damage. Nevertheless, it should not go overlooked how profoundly his fifty-year reign filled with reforms, wars, and monarchy shaped the path of Russia’s history.