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10 things you never knew about Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia in the 16th century as its first czar and turned Russia from a medieval state into a world empire, is one of history’s most mysterious figures. He left behind no papers, no letters, and hardly any documentation from his reign.

Ivan the Terrible by Repin

Everything we know about him comes from second-hand sources. What is known about him, however, is that his nickname was no exaggeration. Here are 10 interesting facts about Ivan the Terrible.

  1. He became Grand Prince of Moscow at the age of 3 when his father died, but due to political intrigues going on at the time, he spent most of his childhood imprisoned in a dungeon while his mother managed affairs of state. Years later when his mother died of what many believe was a poisoning, he had reached the level of education necessary to become leader of the country.
  2. Ivan was a lonely kid who was for the most part neglected by his family, who were busy poisoning and stabbing each other. He spent his time reading voraciously and torturing little animals. Hobbies included drinking beer, playing the trombone, raping and killing people, and throwing pets out of the upper windows of the Kremlin.
  3. He had his first rival executed at age 13. This execution effectively ended the political struggles within the Russian state that had persisted throughout his childhood.
  4. The Russian word grozny is translated as ‘terrible’ in English, but it didn’t have quite the same connotations of evil and badness at the time as it does now. It meant something closer to ‘dangerous’ or ‘formidable.’
  5. In addition to being a horrible animal-torturing and rival-executing scoundrel, he was also a very devout Christian. He ordered reforms to be made that would further Christianize Russia. He would sometimes go into fits of religious devotion, confessing his sins or banging his head against the floor with the same eagerness that he showed when slicing open live birds.
  6. Ivan was the first czar. He took the title from the word ‘Caesar’ and proclaimed that Russia was the new Rome. He went to great lengths to try to establish that there was a line of descent from Julius Caesar to himself.

Ivan the Terrible

  1. Although cruel, megalomaniacal, and most likely insane, he was the hero of many disenfranchised Russians because he scaled back the power and abuses of the nobility. He was seen as a champion of the poor and powerless.
  2. Ivan’s own family was like something out of a Dostoyevsky novel. He had three sons. He got angry at his oldest son and whacked him over the head with a 30-pound iron bar, killing him instantly. His second son was deemed too mentally unstable to serve as successor, and his third son died of mysterious circumstances while still a boy.
  3. His greatest achievement was to grow Russia from a small medieval state to a billion-acre empire. Not all of his conquests were successes, but he managed to stretch Russia over Siberia and the Eastern steppes, beginning the growth of Russia that would lead to the massive state it is today.
  4. He didn’t die in battle and he wasn’t poisoned by a rival. He had an attack of some kind while playing chess and fell over backwards in his chair. He was removed to his bed chamber where he took on the dress of a monk and died quietly.

Ivan the Terrible was a man of great ability, even though so much of it was directed at causing massive suffering in other people. He was remembered by others as having a flawless memory, great leadership skills, and unlimited reserves of energy. He is a unique and important figure in Russian history.

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