Who was Ivan the Terrible? The son of Vasili III, who was ruler of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, Ivan was chosen from a young age to become something new—not just the ruler of the principality of Moscow, but of a united and centralized Russian state. Such a burden was a heavy weight to put upon a child, and perhaps it contributed to Ivan’s fearsome reputation. For he did indeed gain one, even while he was also hailed as the father of an enduring empire.
Born Ivan IV Vasilyevich, the tsar came to be known as Ivan Grozny among his people. Though he's better known to English speakers as Ivan the Terrible, this translation is more akin to an archaic meaning of the word terrible and not our modern usage indicating poor character. The legendary Russian lexicographer and Turkologist Vladimir Ivanovich Dal summarized the meaning of the Russian epithet “grozny” as “courageous, magnificent, magisterial and keeping enemies in fear, but people in obedience.” That seems more like something a powerful ruler wouldn’t mind having appended to the end of his name.
And yet, there’s no doubt that there are elements of Tsar Ivan’s life that suggest that our more modern interpretation of the moniker “Terrible” is plenty apt.
Ivan was tall, athletic, and probably very physically strong. In fact, one of the only surviving contemporary accounts of his appearance comes from an envoy of the Holy Roman Empire, who described Ivan as “tall, stout, and full of energy. His eyes are big, observing, and restless.”
He also had a temper. That could be a volatile and even deadly combination for a person being groomed as the tsar of all of Russia. Starting at the age of 13, Ivan became suspicious that others were conspiring against him and demanded that his enemies, whether real or imagined, be put to death.
The most egregious of his violent outbursts came in 1581. The story goes that Ivan, who was then around 51 years old, began beating his pregnant daughter-in-law because she was dressed in what he saw as immodest clothing. He beat her so badly that she miscarried, thereby effectively killing his own unborn grandchild.
Naturally, this didn’t go over well with the child’s father, Ivan’s oldest surviving son, named Ivan Ivanovich. In the course of the resulting argument, Ivan the Terrible struck his son in the head with his staff, fatally wounding him—an act that was immortalized centuries later in a famous painting by Ilya Repin.
That isn’t to say that Ivan’s notorious temper didn’t have its roots in a tumultuous upbringing of his own. Ivan’s parents had both died when he was a child, and he had seen numerous family members killed by everything from boyars to rioting Muscovites. He had witnessed repeated raids by the neighboring Kazan Khanate (more on them in a moment), and been on the inside of sometimes deadly court intrigues. This led him to develop a paranoia that was perhaps unhealthy but not unfounded—especially given that his own mother and three of his wives are believed to have been fatally poisoned.
In addition to fatally attacking his own family members, another likely source of Ivan the Terrible’s nickname can be traced to his activities as a conqueror. Indeed, his reign is characterized by numerous campaigns of conquest which considerably expanded Russian lands, at the obvious expense of the empire’s neighbors. Perhaps the greatest of these was the defeat of the Kazan Khanate, the greatest remaining stronghold of the famed “Golden Horde” in the north.
It wasn’t long after he was declared tsar that Ivan launched a campaign against the Kazan Khanate, gaining notoriety and admiration for riding at the head of his army, rather than commanding his troops from his palace in Moscow while they fought and died in his name many miles away. His crusade was helped by Russian priests, who declared that the war was not merely between Russia and a neighboring state, but between the Christian and Muslim faiths, with those who perished as martyrs in the conflict guaranteed eternal bliss in the afterlife.
When the stronghold of the Kazan Khanate fell, it was Ivan who entered the city and subdued it, bringing Kazan lands under Russian rule. The victory was commemorated with the construction of numerous churches, with the most famous being the onion domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square, which still stands today as one of the most famous of all Russian landmarks. Legend has it that Ivan had the architect's eyes gouged out so he could never recreate the masterpiece elsewhere.
Nor did he stop there. In the years that followed, Ivan ordered countless skirmishes and larger battles to claim lands across the Middle Volga, eventually leading to the conquest of the Astrakhan Khanate at the mouth of the Volga River, where it flowed into the Caspian Sea. These conquests not only secured Russia’s status as a continent-spanning empire, they also cemented Ivan’s fearsome reputation abroad, as many of the civilians in his newly-conquered territories were massacred by his troops. While there are many conflicting historical accounts of when Ivan was first given the nickname “grozny”, one of the most common theories asserts that he began to be called Ivan Grozny or Ivan the Terrible after his conquest of the eastern khanates.
So, was Ivan called terrible because he was an unpredictable murderer, capable of killing his own flesh and blood in a homicidal rage? Was it because he was a grand conqueror, who threw down enemy empires and expanded by leaps and bounds the Russian state, “keeping enemies in fear, but people in obedience"? Or, like so many things in history, was it some combination of the above—a mixture of fear and respect, something more complex than can simply be boiled down to a catchy sobriquet, remembered centuries after his own death?
Hundreds of years later, it’s impossible to ever really know for sure. What we do know is that Ivan the Terrible certainly earned his nickname, whether it meant dangerous, unpredictable, and violent, or “courageous, magnificent, [and] magisterial”. Either way, what we know of Ivan today fits his moniker.