Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible


  • The rule of Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) spanning over 50 yearsis consideredone of the most dramatic in Russia’s history.
  • Synonymous with cruelty, thet sarepitomized brutality and arbitrary power.
  • The Kremlin, the village of Kolomenskoye, Kitay-gorod and St. Basil’s Cathedral are some of the Moscow landmarks associated with Ivan the Terrible.
  • The village of Kolomenskoye- the birthplace of Ivan the Terrible – is now part of the Kolomenskoye Open-Air Museum.
  • The Ascension Church in Kolomenskoye, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List,was built on the site of Ivan the Terrible’s birth by his father, Grand Prince Vasily III of Russia.
  • Another church erected to commemorate the tsar’s birth is the Church of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, patron of Russiants ars.

The reign of Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) was one of the most dramatic periods in Russia’s history. This tsar has long been a household name, personifying atrocity and the arbitrary abuse of power. Quite a few places in Moscow and around it are associated with this enigmatic ruler. The Kremlin, the village of KolomenskoyeRussian: Коломенское, St. Basil’s CathedralRussian: Khram Vasiliya Blazhennogo or Храм Василия Блаженного and Kitay-gorodRussian: Китай-Город are but a few of Moscow’s landmarks that are unimaginable without Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan IV was the first and long-awaited son of Grand Prince of Moscow Vasily III. On his father’s side, Ivan descended from Prince Rurika Varangian chieftain of the Rus' who in the year 862 gained control of Ladoga, founder of a dynasty of Russian rulers. On his mother’s side, Grand Princess Elena Glinskaya, he descended from Lithuanian princes. Moreover, Ivan’s grandmother was a niece of the last Byzantine emperor.


1382_image2_sThe future tsar was born in the village of Kolomenskoye. Today, it is part of Moscow, and back in the early 16th century it was one of the suburban residences of Moscow’s grand princes. On 25 August, 1530, the future ruler of Russia came into the world in the royal chambers located on a high bank of the Moskva River. Legend has it that a terrible storm broke out the moment he was born, and bolts of lightning struck the ground. Shortly before that, Dementy the Holy Fool had predicted that ‘a son named Titus, a broad mind’ would be born. Indeed, Ivan was born on the feast day of St. Titus, who was a disciple of St. Paul the Apostle.

On the site of his son’s birth, Grand Prince Vasily III erected the Church of the Ascension in KolomenskoyeRussian: Khram Vozneseniya v Kolomenskom or Храм Вознесения в Коломенском, located at 39, Andropova AvenueRussian: prospekt Andropova or проспект Андропова, on the territory of the Kolomenskoye Open-Air MuseumRussian: muzey-zapovednik «Kolomenskoe» or музей-заповедник «Коломенское». This beautiful church, one of the first Russian tent-shaped churches and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was in 1532 under the supervision of Italian architect Petrok Maly (Pietro Francesco Annibale). Inside the church, there once was a staircase leading all the way up to an observation post arranged right under the bell. The 62-metre-high church also served as a watchtower. Its ‘octagon-placed-on-the-quadrangle’ design makes it look like a pillar, and the whole structure sits on a high basement (‘podkletRussian: подклет’). The interior of the church has no columns, and the entire weight of the structure is supported by walls that are 2.5 to 3 metres thick. The 28-metre tent-roof is adorned with a net of white-stone bead threads and rows of keel-like kokoshniksa traditional Russian headdress worn by women and girls. A white stone throne, with fine views of the Russian capital, can be seen from the side of the Moskva RiverRussian: Moskva-reka or Москва-река. According to legend, it is here that the throne of Ivan the Terrible once stood, allowing the tsar to overlook Moscow.

1383_image3_sIn the 19th century, the French composer Hector Berlioz wrote about the Church of the Ascension: ‘Nothing in my life has astonished me as much as the old Russian architectural monument in the village of Kolomenskoye… Here before my eyes appeared beauty in its purest form. It was mysterious silence. Harmonious beauty of finished forms. I beheld architecture of a new kind. I saw aspiration heavenward and long remained amazed’.

On the other side of the ravine that splits the Kolomenskoye open-Air Museum stands the Church of the Beheading of St. John the BaptistRussian: Khram Useknoveniya chestnoy glavy Ioanna Predtechi or Храм Усекновения честной главы Иоанна Предтечи (bld. 7, 39, Andropova Avenue). It was built to mark the birth of Ivan the Terrible. The church’s shape is highly unusual, resembling the world famous St. Basil’s Cathedral, which was to be built several decades later. Small side chapels dedicated to patron saints of the tsar’s family surround the central church consecrated in honour of Saint John, the holy Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord, who was venerated not only by grand princes, but also by commoners. He was believed to be the patron and protector of tsars and the greatest of all people who had ever lived on earth, the ‘angel of the desert’. It is after this saint that the tsar-to-be was named.


The Imperial Ascension Temple placeTragic events marred the life of Ivan the Terrible from a very young age. He lost his father when he was three. His mother, Grand Princess Elena Glinskaya, ruled the country for five years before dying, too. 8-year-old Ivan was left an orphan, and the boyarsmembers of the highest rank of the feudal society in Russia began to rule the country on behalf of the young tsar. As the tsar himself later wrote, his brother Georgi and himself were ‘treated […] as though we were foreigners or the most wretched menials’, ‘my relatives did not care for me’. Palace politics, continuous reprisals, and a struggle for power had a heavy impact on the mind of the little prince, shaping the violent and grudge-holding character of the tsar.

Ivan IV was crowned on 16 January, 1547 and became Russia’s first tsar. Meanwhile Moscow became the capital of the Tsardom of Muscovy, which was traditionally compared to the Roman and the Byzantine empires. According to the official ideology of the time, Russia was seen as a one-of-a-kind state where ‘all the Christian kingdoms have come together’; the might of Rome merged with the Orthodoxy of Constantinople and the holiness of Jerusalem. The idea of an autocratic Orthodox Christian empire defined the tsar’s worldview, underpinning many of his acts.

1384_image4_sIvan the Terrible spent most of his reign at the Kremlin (‘Moscow Kremlin’ Museum ReserveRussian: Muzey-zapovednik «Moskovskiy Kreml» or Музей-заповедник «Московский Кремль»), the official residence of Muscovite rulers. All ceremonial events took place at the principal church of the Russian state, the Dormition CathedralRussian: Uspenskiy sobor or Успенский собор on the Kremlin’s Sobornaya SquareRussian: Sobornaya ploschad or Соборная площадь. It was here that Ivan IV was crowned with Monomakh’s Capa symbol-crown of the Russian autocracy, currently on display at the Moscow Kremlin ArmouryRussian: Oruzheynaya palata or Оружейная палата). The Kremlin’s Cathedral of the AnnunciationRussian: Blagoveschenskiy sobor or Благовещенский собор, the house church of Muscovy’s tsars and grand princes, was also completed and decorated during his reign.

Грановитая палатаThe tsar resided in a palace built in the 15th century, during the reign of his grandfather Ivan III, and expanded on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, the Palace of the FacetsRussian: Granovitaya palata or Грановитая палата is the only surviving part of the original 15th– and 16th-century palace. It was where Ivan the Terrible held feasts and ceremonial receptions, met with foreign ambassadors, and celebrated his coronation in 1547.

The reign of Ivan the Terrible is usually divided into two periods: before and after the implementation of the Oprichninaincluded institution of secret police, mass repressions, public executions, and confiscation of land from Russian aristocrats state policy in 1565. The first period saw the reforms of the ‘Select CouncilRussian: Izbrannaya rada or Избранная рада’, the elaboration of new laws and regulations compiled in StoglavRussian: Стоглав, and the establishment of a system of ‘prikazes’, or ministries. Military victories over the Kazanone of the successor states of the Golden Horde and Astrakhan khanates resulted in the annexation of vast territories to the east and south of Muscovy. The size of the Russian state doubled by the end of Ivan the Terrible’s reign, reaching 5.4 million sq. km.

Along with the heritage of world-famous people and great museums, there are many sights in Moscow, which are not so popular, but still very remarkable. Beautiful temples in the Orthodox style, the unusual architecture of the Russian Middle Ages or the recent Soviet era, ballet and drama theaters – on our website you can learn more about Moscow sightseeing


1385_image5_sIvan the Terrible practically abandoned Moscow in the second half of his reign, when he came into open conflict with noble boyar families and took personal charge of one part of the state. Bloody persecutions and confiscation of property from those who fell out of favour with the tsar continued for several decades. This policy was accompanied by failures in the Livonian Warprolonged military conflict, during which Russia unsuccessfully fought Poland, Lithuania, and Sweden for control of greater Livonia and eventually led to chaos and the decline of Russia’s economy. Despite all this, Ivan the Terrible succeeded in establishing diplomatic relations with many West European and Asian countries, from England to Persia.  Numerous foreign professionals came to Russia, which allowed Russians to master new military techniques and speed up the technological progress.

The main architectural landmark in Moscow dating back to the time of Ivan the Terriblee is the Pokrovsky CathedralRussian: Pokrovskiy sobor or Покровский собор, commonly known as St. Basil’s Cathedral, located at 2, Red SquareRussian: Krasnaya ploschad or Красная площадь. It was erected in memory of the conquest of the Kazan Tsardom, an event that played a major role in Russian history. The tsar decreed that a memorial cathedral be constructed, bringing together eight nearby churches dedicated to religious feasts that happened to fall on the dates of decisive battles for Kazan. In 1588, St. Basil’s side chapel was added to the Cathedral. It was built above the burial place of the relics of a Moscow fool-for-Christ highly venerated by Ivan the Terrible.

The State Historical MuseumRussian: Gosudarstvennyi istoricheskiy muzey or Государственный исторический музей (1, Red Square) hosts a large exhibition devoted to the history of Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible and taking up four exhibit rooms on the first floor. Room 18 displays a copy of the tsar’s throne from the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral. You can also see exact replicas of the tsar’s clothes, weapons, icons, books, and household items of the time.

First mentioned during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, Lobnoye MestoRussian: Лобное место on Red Square is so named after the Old Russian word ‘vzlobye’, meaning ‘on top of a steep hill’, and alludes to Calvary (Golgotha) in Jerusalem. It is from here that the tsar’s decrees were announced, and metropolitans and patriarchs used it to hold services and to bestow their blessings on the people during religious processions. In 1547, the 16-year-old tsar stood right here as he addressed the Muscovites.

Romanov Dvor oven-kitchenThe area around present-day VozdvizhenkaRussian: Воздвиженка and Okhotny RyadRussian: Охотный Ряд Streets was once occupied by the tsar’s Oprichny DvorRussian: Опричный двор (‘court’ or ‘yard’), which presumedly resembled a castle, surrounded by a solid and tall wall built of ashlar stone and brick. The gate overlooking the Kremlin Moscow was bound with iron strips and adorned with a figure of an open-mouthed lion. Two-headed black eagles were mounted on spires. At night, the tsar greeted audiences at the Oprichny Dvor and negotiated domestic and foreign policies. The archaeological excavations carried out in the late 20th century revealed fragments of the Oprichny Dvor’s ovens many metres below ground level. 16th–17th century Russian coins and other archaeological artefacts are on display at a small exhibition housed by the Romanov Dvor Business CentreRussian: delovoy kompleks «Romanov dvor» or деловой комплекс «Романов двор», currently located on the site (4, Romanov LaneRussian: Romanov pereulok or Романов переулок).

Another landmark related to the time of Ivan the Terrible are the Chambers of the Boyars RomanovRussian: palaty boyar Romanovykh or палаты бояр Романовых (10, VarvarkaRussian: Варварка Street), who were relatives of the tsar’s first spouse. It was in these chambers that ‘kind tsarina Anastasia’ was born and raised. According to historians, she was the only woman whom Ivan the Terrible truly loved. This marriage made possible the accession to the Russian throne of a member of the Romanov family 66 years later.

The Chambers of the Old English CourtRussian: Palaty Starogo Angliyskogo dvora or Палаты Старого Английского двора (4, Varvarka Street) are another monument from Ivan IV’s time. The tsar granted this courtyard on Varvarka Street to Englishmen in 1556, after having established Russian-English maritime commerce.

1387_image7_sIn 1572, the Russians battled the Crimean Tatar army near the village of MolodiRussian: Молоди on the Rozhayka RiverRussian: reka Rozhayka or река Рожайка (Moscow RegionRussian: Moskovskaya oblast or Московская область, Chekhovsky DistrictRussian: Chekhovskiy rayon or Чеховский район, highway route M2) and by late July and early August, Khan’s forces were defeated and put to flight after heavy fighting. An obelisk was erected in the village of Molodi in memory of this battle, often referred to as ‘the 16th-century Battle of Borodinoa battle fought in 1812 in the Napoleonic Wars during the French invasion of Russia’.

One of the most curious legends related to Ivan the Terrible is that of the tsar’s library (‘LiberiaRussian: libereya or либерея), which contained unique books brought to Russia by Ivan’s grandmother, Byzantine Tsarina Sophia Paleologue. Старый английский дворThese manuscripts of ancient and medieval authors, and works by ancient philosophers and historians, are believed to have been lost during many wars and unrest. Some scholars question the very existence of this library. A number of chroniclers, however, asserted that the library amounted to nearly 800 vellum manuscripts. Authors represented there included Livy, Cicero, Tacitus, Aristophanes, along with some others, such as Heliotrop, Zamoret, and Efan, whose names are completely unknown to present-day sholars. It is widely believed that the library is hidden either beneath the Grand Kremlin PalaceRussian: Bolshoy Kremlyovskiy dvorets or Большой Кремлёвский дворец in Moscow, or somewhere around the .
Vagankovsky HillRussian: Vagankovskiy kholm or Ваганьковский холм


1388_image8_sThe State Tretyakov GalleryRussian: Gosudarstvennaya Tretyakovskaya galereya or Государственная Третьяковская галерея (10, Lavrushinsky LaneRussian: Lavrushinskiy pereulok or Лаврушинский переулок) has one of the most enigmatic masterpieces in Russian painting, namely Ilya Repin’s Ivan the Terrible and his son IvanRussian: Ivan Groznyi i syn ego Ivan or Иван Грозный и сын его Иван. One can’t help but feel terrified when looking at it. The painting’s historical background is the death of Tsar Ivan’s elder son from his marriage to Anastasia Romanova. Ivan the Terrible killed him on 9 November, 1581 in the village of AleksandrovoRussian: Aleksandrovskaya sloboda or Александровская слобода. As evidenced by the papal legate Antonio Possevino, on that day the tsar came across his pregnant daughter-in-law in the inner parts of the residence and saw her scantily clad; he started screaming and beating her up with a stick for being dressed so inappropriately.  His son, Tsarevich Ivan, heard the screams and rushed out of his room to stand up for his wife. In a fit of rage, the tsar hit his son on the head with a pointed staff, and a few days later the young man died. The tsar was totally devastated and mourned his son day and night for a long time. Tsarevich Ivan was buried on 19 November inside the Cathedral of the ArchangelRussian: Arkhangelskiy sobor or Архангельский собор on the Kremlin’s Sobornaya Square.

1389_image9_sIvan the Terrible died at the Kremlin Palace on 18 March, 1584. Legend has it that he died while playing chess; however, there were persistent rumours that the tsar had been murdered. The private lives of the tsar and his sons were also complicated. Ivan the Terrible is believed to have had seven wives, only the first four of whom he married officially. He had more wives than King Henry VIII Tudor, famous for his polygamy. Englishman Jerome Horsey described Ivan the Terrible as ‘a true Scythian’ – ‘cruel, bloody, merciless’ and, at the same time, ‘witty’. According to English ambassador Gils Fletcher, Tsar Ivan used to compare his people with his beard: ‘The more you trim it, the thicker it grows’.

Overall, Ivan IV’s reign lasted 50 years and 105 days, an absolute record in Russian history. The tsar’s tomb is inside the Moscow Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Archangel, next to the sarcophagi of his sons, Ivan and Feodor.

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