In English we call him Ivan the Terrible, but his Russian moniker was Ivan Grozny, meaning mighty, powerful and strict. His father died when Ivan was four, making him the Grand Prince of Moscow until 1547 when he became the proper Tsar of Russia, at age seventeen.
It seems the early years of his reign was actually quite productive and peaceful for the time. He did much to expand the trading networks of his country, and generally did more than his fair share in growing Russia’s world power. And then… things turned.
It seems his personality changed. He was himself faced with a near-death illness, and then in 1560 his wife passed. He suspected the boyers of poisoning her. (Boyers would be about the equivalent of English lords… one step below royalty) Ivan was already concerned about the boyers loyalty during his sickness, so this made things worse. It could perhaps be called paranoia.
Some of these nobles done got themselves assassinated. To further keep them out of his business, Ivan set up a special section within Russia called Oprichnina, which was exclusively his own domain, under the patrol of his private police force. The royal equivalent of “I’m taking my ball and playing over here… you can’t come.”
The latter half of his career was mostly getting himself tangled up in war. The Livonian War dragged out for 24 years, and didn’t result in any particular gain. Multiple disputes in all directions caused plenty of trouble. Moscow got invaded and lit on fire a couple times. Not to mention famines and plaques. Really stressful, I imagine. Ivan snapped.
His Oprichnina went from one of the most wealthy areas in Russia to the worst, controlled by his now out-of-control thugs, who were responsible for the Massacre of Novgorod. The official death toll was 1500 wealthy people, and at least that many “other” people.
Things weren’t so great at home either. Now on his eight wife, Ivan reportedly beat up one of his daughters for wearing immodest clothing, while she was pregnant, resulting in a miscarriage. In arguing with his son over this event, Ivan the senior hit Ivan the junior with his pointed staff. The injury caused his son’s death.
Ivan died three years later, leaving a kingdom in ruins to the only one left… his mentally deficient son Feodor. When Ivan’s tomb was renovated in modern times, his remains were found to have a high amount of mercury, suggesting that his demise was brought about by poisoning.
At the time of his rule, the word Terrible actually meant “one who inspires terror”. So to be Ivan the Terrible was actually a somewhat positive nickname (at least for a war-time Tsar). However, given the craziness, violence, and all-round behaviour, it seems the modern meaning of Ivan the Terrible is still quite relevant.
- Source: Ivan IV of Russia – Wikipedia