In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ivan IV the Terrible, Tsar of Russia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • “Biographies”
  • Reference Works
  • Publications of Primary Sources
  • Critical Studies of Primary Sources
  • Edited Collections
  • Political Structure and Concepts
  • Political Narrative
  • Central and Local Government
  • Foreign Policy
  • Military History
  • Society
  • Women
  • Economy
  • Religion
  • Political Ideology
  • Literature, Painting, and Architecture
  • Ceremony
  • Ivan’s Private Life and Public Image

Renaissance and Reformation Ivan IV the Terrible, Tsar of Russia
Charles J. Halperin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0099


Ivan IV (Ivan Vasil’evich, Ivan the Terrible, Ivan Groznyi [the Awe-Inspiring]) was born in 1530 and ruled from 1533 to 1547 as Grand Prince of Moscow and All Russia and from 1547 to 1584 as Tsar and Grand Prince of All Russia. Ivan is among the most controversial rulers in all of Russian history. Everything significant about his life is contested. Controversy has endured partially because Ivan’s reign was politicized in his own lifetime. Anti-Russian propaganda during the Livonian War (1558–1582), in which Russia sought to acquire an outlet on the Baltic Sea, portrayed Ivan as a sadistic oriental despot. It also persists partially because Russia was a manuscript culture virtually bereft of printing, and the surviving sources, while ample in quantity, are often problematic in quality. During his minority, which marked the first phase of Ivan’s reign, first, his mother, Grand Princess Elena, and, then, after her death in 1538, various boyar (aristocratic) cliques vied for power. Ivan’s minority continued until he was crowned tsar and married in 1547, inaugurating the so-called long 1550s in which Russia undertook major domestic and foreign policy initiatives. Russia successfully expanded down the Volga River by conquering the Tatar khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan and launched the ultimately unsuccessful Livonian War. The purpose of the Livonian War may have been strategic, economic, or ideological. For reasons that are still debated, in 1564 Ivan established the oprichnina (an untranslatable word for his separate “court”) against real or imaginary enemies. The oprichniki (members of the oprichnina) imposed a reign of terror on the country, culminating in a massive assault on the city of Novgorod for “treason” and the torture and execution of hundreds of Muscovites of various classes. For equally unknown reasons, in 1572 Ivan abolished the oprichnina. Ivan was the first Russian ruler to employ mass terror for political purposes. In 1575–1576 Ivan abdicated in favor of a puppet Christian, Chingissid (descendent of Chinggis Khan), Simeon Bekbulatovich, who “reigned” as Grand Prince, not tsar, of Muscovy. The failure of Russia’s Livonian War induced Ivan to seek arbitration from the papacy to make peace with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1582; Russia lost all its territorial acquisitions in the war. After the death in 1581 of Ivan’s eldest son and heir, Tsarevich Ivan, Ivan sank into despair. The story that Ivan was responsible for his son’s death cannot be accepted as reliable. Economic collapse characterized Russia during Ivan’s remaining years. Ivan’s reign began in glory and ended in disaster at home and abroad, leaving a confused legacy for modern historians to try to sort out.

General Overviews

While the bibliography on the reign of Ivan the Terrible includes a large number of books and articles devoted entirely to the period 1533–1584, often the best discussions of specific themes are found in articles or books devoted to longer periods. Consequently, this article will cite many items whose titles do not specify “Ivan the Terrible” as their subject. Three excellent brief overviews of Ivan’s reign are available, each embedded in a textbook. The strength of Crummey 1987 is its mastery of the major historiographical schools of interpretation of Ivan’s reign. Martin 2007 concentrates on political and economic history; the author explains changes in administration very clearly. Bogatyrev 2006 personifies recent semiotic interpretations of Ivan’s reign, often incorporating the author’s own original research into his exposition. Familiarity with all three overviews will give the reader an excellent orientation to the different current approaches to the study of Ivan.

  • Bogatyrev, Sergei. “Ivan IV, 1533–84.” In From Early Rus’ to 1689. Vol. 1 of The Cambridge History of Russia. Edited by Maureen Perrie, 240–263. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521812276

    A short survey of Ivan’s reign that covers domestic and foreign affairs. The most original sections rely upon the author’s own research on ideology and symbolism. Rejects the notion of a boyar oligarchy or an illiterate or poisoned Ivan. In more recent articles, Bogatyrev has modified or expanded his analysis.

  • Crummey, Robert O. The Formation of Muscovy, 1304–1613. London: Longman, 1987.

    See pp. 143–178 for a very sound analysis of major interpretations of Ivan’s reign and the various theories that have sought to explain Ivan’s motives and policies.

  • Martin, Janet. Medieval Russia, 980–1584. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511811074

    While a broad general history, the work includes a sensible overview of Ivan’s reign in the later chapters focusing on political and economic issues and carefully explaining changes in central and local government and the impact of economic developments (pp. 364–415).

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