Before becoming a brutal and ruthless figure, Ivan the Terrible was soothed by the love of his wife, Anastasia Romanovna.
The pain of getting our heart broken can make us do things we regret later. But can you imagine a heartbreak so intense it changes the fate of an entire country as well as the sanity of a person? You don’t have to come up with any fictional scenarios, because that’s what happened with Russia’s first tsar, Ivan IV Vasilyevich, better known as Ivan the Terrible.
A veil of mystery and controversy surrounds the story of this man, so it’s difficult to determine which stories are true and which were made up to feed rumors about Ivan’s brutality. For instance, one of the most famous rumors is that he was so mad that when St. Basil’s Cathedral was finished, he was so happy with the final product that he blinded the architect, so that he would never be able to create something as beautiful as that masterpiece. Nevertheless, there are historical records that prove that the architect worked in other churches after completing St. Basil. A more accurate translation of his nickname in modern English would be the “formidable,” so he wasn’t as dreaded and feared as we think. Still, it's very probably that Ivan suffered from some mental illness (most likely paranoia), which was triggered both by a difficult childhood as well as the death of his beloved wife Anastasia Romanovna.
Sergei Kirillov, Ivan the Terrible (1988)
Ivan was the son of Basil III, who died when he was three years old, and Elena Glinskaya, who ruled until she was murdered, when her son was eight. Even as a child, Ivan was well acquainted with the plots and intrigue of the nobility, also known as boyars, and he suffered the consequences of it. Apparently, Ivan was intelligent, pious, and sensitive, and showed a strong interest in the arts, literature, music, and religion since he was a teen. Nonetheless, the hardships that the boyars made him go through made him become violent and thirsty for revenge for his mother’s death. In his correspondence with Prince Kurbski, Ivan talks about how he and his younger brother, Yuri, suffered from the boyars' negligence, to the point that they often went hungry.
Nonetheless, when Ivan was crowned in 1547, at the age of sixteen, a ray of light seemed to shine in his rather dark life. After proclaiming himself “Tsar of all Russias” (“tsar” meant “Caesar,” a title that later rulers of that country would inherit due to its symbolical meaning), he married his first wife Anastasia Romanovna Zakharyina-Yurieva, with whom he’d have his longest and happiest marriage. Anastasia Romanovna was the daughter of a boyar, and her second name would also be the name of Russia's longest and most famous dynasty. Ivan had six children with her, among whom he chose his most suitable heir, the Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich.
Grigory Sedov, Ivan the Terrible Admires his Sixth Wife Vasilisa Melentyeva (1875)
During his marriage to Anastasia, Ivan’s hot-tempered personality was under control. In fact, many people at the time believed that Anastasia’s gentleness soothed her husband and that he was happy living by her side. That’s why, when she died unexpectedly due to a mysterious illness in 1560, Ivan’s character went downhill. The tsar was convinced that, just like his mother, Anastasia had been poisoned by the boyars. So, in 1564, he left Moscow and threatened to abdicate, but as soon as the boyars realized they couldn’t control the population (Ivan was popular with Muscovite citizens then), they begged him to return. He accepted it with one condition: he would have absolute power. After he was granted this power, he tortured and executed all those boyars who he believed were responsible for the death of his beloved wife.
Anastasia’s death was the beginning of a series of events that would shape Ivan’s reputation as a cruel and ruthless ruler. Although Ivan married five more times, none of his wives would have the influence Anastasia had, so the rest of his reign would be characterized by scandals, repression, and abuses on the population and the nobility caused by his paranoia and aggressiveness.
One of the events that sealed the fate of his empire was the murder of his heir, Ivan. It all happened when, in a fit of rage, Ivan (the father) kicked his daughter-in-law, who was pregnant, causing a miscarriage. Ivan (the son) went to his father to confront him, and the discussion was so heated that the father hit his son with his staff and killed him. Ivan would regret this action forever, not only because he killed his heir, but also because he ended the life of one of the few surviving children he had with Anastasia.
Klavdiy Lebedev, Ivan the Terrible Seeks Forgiveness for his Crimes (1898)
Ivan Ivanovich’s death would mark the end of Ivan the Terrible’s dynasty. Before his death, he made his son Feodor the new heir, but he wasn’t as capable as Ivan, so when the first tsar died, Feodor couldn’t keep the throne and control the vast empire he inherited, and died without an heir. Before chaos could take over the land –more than it had during Ivan the Terrible’s downfall–, the boyars found a new heir in Anastasia’s family, her nephew Mikhail, who would mark the beginning of Russia’s most important dynasty: the Romanovs.
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