Ivan the Terrible, formally Ivan IV Vasilyevich, was the first Tsar of Russia. His reign, one of the longest of Russian Tsars, saw Russia emerge from its position as a medieval nation state into the beginnings of the Russian Empire.

This article contains some facts about Ivan the Terrible, his life and reign.

Ivan the Terrible was three years old when he became Tsar

Ivan’s father, Valili III, died in December 1533, when Ivan was just three years old, and Ivan was proclaimed the Grand Prince of Moscow, a title he held until his death. Too young to actually rule, his mother Elene Glinskaya acted as his regent until she died (probably murdered) when Ivan was eight.

Ivan was formally crowned Tsar on 16 January 1547, aged 16 (although he only became known as Tsar Ivan the Terrible at a later date).

Ivan the Terrible died playing chess

Ivan’s reign came to an end on 28 March 1584, when he suffered a stroke while playing chess against Bogdan Belsky, his bodyguard and closest confidant.

Ivan ordered the construction of St Basil’s Cathedral

St Basil’s cathedral was constructed in Moscow on Ivan’s order, to commemorate his victories in battle, particularly the capture of Kazan. The cathedral was designed by the renowned architect of the time, Postnik Yakovlev. There are many stories that say that Ivan was so pleased with his new cathedral and wanted no others built to rival it, so he blinded his architect. There is little evidence to substantiate this story – I will only observe that Yakovlev managed to design the walls of several more churches, cathedrals and Kremlins in the following years…

Ivan the Terrible or Ivan the Great?

In English, the name Ivan the Terrible inspires… well… terror. But actually, ‘terrible’ isn’t a particularly good translation of his nickname. In Russian, he is known as Ivan Grozny, which is probably better translated as Ivan the Great, or Ivan the Formidable. Perhaps this article should be renamed Ivan the Great facts…

Ivan killed his own son

Ivan the Terrible had a formidable temper, and was prone to violent rages. In 1581, he beat his son Ivan’s wife, causing a miscarriage. In the subsequent argument between father and son, Ivan the Terrible struck his son with a staff, killing him. The painting in this article depicts Ivan cradling his dying son.

Ilya Repin painting Ivan the Terrible and his dying son

Ilya Repin’s painting of Ivan the Terrible cradling his dying son

Ivan the Terrible’s legacy

Ivan oversaw rapid expansion of Russia, largely by conquest, which opened Russia up to trade with Europe and new ideas, and his self-appointment as Tsar of Russia was a large factor in unifying Russia under one leader. He introduced new laws, many of which consolidated the power of his central government over the boyars of Russia’s past. Laws to restrict the movement of peasants helped to solidify his rule, and also laid the groundwork for serfdom, which would cause his ancestors so many headaches.

Read more about Ivan the Terrible

If you’re looking for more information about Ivan the Terrible and the Romanovs who followed him as Tsar of Russia, we recommend ‘The Romanovs’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore – available in hardback and kindle formats.