Ivan the Terrible – A Statesman or a Madman?


Ivan the Terrible was one of the most famous and influential Russian rulers in its history. He is remembered for his reforms of the Russian state, which strengthened the central power of the monarch and weakened the nobility and the Boyars, as well as for his expansion to the East (Grey 13). However, his name is also associated with various atrocities committed by him towards commoners and the nobility alike. Ivan’s eccentric and bipolar behavior was attributed to schizophrenia, triggered by his traumatic personal history and an atmosphere of constant danger and distrust. The purpose of this paper is to highlight Ivan the Terrible’s descent into madness, which substantially undermined Russia, depriving it of an otherwise talented and competent ruler.

Ivan the Terrible (1547-1584)

Ivan the Terrible was forced to take the reign of the country from a very young age. He lost his father when he was three, from an abscess. His mother died when he was 8 years old, thus putting him in a position of absolute power, making him a prime target for assassination and manipulation (Grey 25). Several powerful Boyar families fought for control over the young Tsar. Resentment evolved into a desire for revenge against the Boyars later during his reign. Paranoia, fear, and corresponding madness reflected in Ivan’s domestic and foreign policies (Goodrich et al. 2). Other factors that contributed to Ivan’s slow descent into madness were the death of his first wife, Anastasia, in 1560, as well as several coups organized against him by Andrei Kurbsky, who later defected to the Lithuanians, as well as (allegedly) Metropolit Phillip and Alexander Gorbaty-Shuisky (Grey 58).

Muscovy Expansion

Although he bears the title of a Great Expander due to his conquest of Siberia, he also waged a plethora of unsuccessful wars between 1558 and 1581, which brought the country further into debt and had directly caused the crisis that followed after (Grey 103). Ivan waged wars with Livonians, Lithuanians, Ottomans, Tatars, and various Siberian natives for expansion, control, and economic leverage. While he was successful at repelling the Ottomans and the Tatars by defeating them in the Battle of Molodi, which resulted in the complete annihilation of the Turkish host, his efforts in the west, aimed at breaking out of the land-lock, were largely unsuccessful. To improve trade relations, Ivan conducted diplomacy with England and established good relationships between the two nations. English merchants were given exclusive rights.

Domestic Policy 1558-84

Paranoia and fear of betrayal caused Ivan to create the Oprichniki, which was a secret service loyal only to him. Created in 1564, this group was responsible for persecuting the nobility and running personal estates, accountable to nobody. Their activities among the peasants caused the price for grain to inflate tenfold (Grey 129).

One of the greatest examples of Ivan’s madness was the sack of Novgorod in the wake of the plague epidemic that raged in central Russia during the 1570s (Grey 100). Suspecting treason from the citizens of Novgorod, Ivan ordered the Oprichniki to sack the city. Over 60,000 people died in the massacre, many of them being innocent women and children (Grey 101). Other acts of madness included beating his daughter-in-law, causing a miscarriage, and later killing his son in a heated argument. In both cases, Ivan seemed to have dangerously lost his temper, indicating further loss of his ability to control himself (Goodrich et al. 1).


It is unclear what caused Ivan the Terrible’s madness. It could have been his difficult and tragic upbringing. It is possible that the Tsar’s madness was hereditary. Nevertheless, Ivan established the Russian monarchy as it was later known in the world, solidifying the quintessential role of the Tsar as the head of state. However, in his madness, he made Russia suffer through devastating wars, economic crises, and abuse at the hands of the Oprichniki. His influence brought the end to Rurik Dynasty just one generation later, bringing about the Dark Times.

Works Cited

Grey, Ian. Ivan the Terrible. New Word City, 2016.

Goodrich, James T., et al. “(In)famous Neurological Injuries And Disease: Cases and Events of Historical, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Impact: Part 2.” Journal of Neurosurgery, vol. 41, no. 1, 2016, 1-2.