Ivan the Terrible and the Making of Russia

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

Ivan the Terrible was one of Russia's most controversial rulers. Learn more about Ivan's reign as the first tsar and how he made Russia into a centralized, militant empire. Updated: 10/25/2021

Russia Before Ivan

Ivan IV Vasilyevich, better known as Ivan the Terrible
Ivan the Terrible

Russia, like most countries, started as a collection of cities that developed into an empire. Early rulers of the empire expanded the area and established Greek Orthodoxy as the official religion. Divisions of power gave way to invaders like the Mongols. Moscow became a very powerful city and eventually challenged the Mongols' control. Eventually, the Mongols were defeated by Ivan the Great, the grandfather of Ivan the Terrible.

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  • 0:01 Russia Before Ivan
  • 0:30 The First Tsar of Russia
  • 0:58 Ivan's Reign
  • 2:19 Ivan's Strengths
  • 2:50 Ivan's Russia
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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The First Tsar of Russia

Ivan the Terrible, as he is known in English, is actually named Ivan IV Vasilyevich. He was the first tsar of Russia. A tsar was the supreme ruler of the Russian empire. Ivan was actually only three years old when his father died in 1533, making him the Grand Prince of Moscow. His mother helped him rule until her death when Ivan was eight years old. Ivan's appointment as tsar was the beginning of a centralized Russian government.

Ivan's Reign

Ivan introduced a self-government system to rural parts of Russia and also created church and tax reforms. He wanted to resist the attacks of the Mongols and to increase Russia's borders and create a more centralized empire.

In his attempt to expand, Ivan defeated an army in Kazan. After his victory, he commissioned the construction of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. He also expanded his empire into Siberia. Siberia contained a lot of forestry and mountains and provided a vast amount of natural resources that had not previously been available to Russia.

St. Basils Cathedral in Moscow
St Basils Cathedral

Although he saw some success in his campaigns, his methods caused disruption in the economy and Russian culture. He seized private land from his people and divided it up among his supporters. He also created a police force that was meant to stop any disputes.

Ivan was already unpopular among his people, but after his wife died in 1560, his behavior became extreme. He was suspicious that she had been murdered by a boyar (a member of the Russian aristocracy). Ivan destroyed many of the major boyar families in the region. He was also prone to violent outbursts. During a fit of rage, he beat his daughter-in-law, causing a miscarriage. In another fit of violence, he killed his son and blinded the architect of St. Basil's Cathedral.

Ivan's Strengths

Although Ivan was known for his erratic behavior, he possessed other qualities for which he was less known. He was a prominent theologian. He was also a very good public speaker. He was an avid reader and very well-educated.

Ivan's moniker has become the source of argument as well. The Russian word used to describe Ivan is grozny. The word's meaning is closer to 'inspiring fear' rather than 'to be cruel.' The term might have been intended to label Ivan as formidable rather than cruel.

Ivan's Russia

Ivan expanded Russia's landholdings quickly. The expansion opened up trade routes to the east. During his reign, Ivan also fought for 24 years in the Livonian War in an attempt at further expansion. He also fought against the Crimeans, Turks, Mongols, and, as discussed earlier, Siberia.

Ivan expanded Russian borders and opened eastern trade routes
Russia Map Ivan the Terrible

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