Skip to main content

Ivan the Terrible

The tsar who lived up to his name

Ivan the Terrible after killing his son. Culture Club/Getty Images

Ivan the Terrible was the first “tsar of all Russia”, says Greg Jenner on Radio 4’s You’re Dead to Me podcast, featuring historian Peter Frankopan and comedian Olga Koch. Born in 1530, he was an orphan at eight and was crowned tsar aged 16. As a teenager, he liked to throw dogs and cats off tall buildings, and beat up peasants. He was a boy “in need of an Xbox”. Over the course of his reign, from 1547 to 1584, he expanded Russia’s borders and brought it under centralised control, making numerous enemies in the process.

Having nearly died himself in 1553, he lost his first wife, Anastasia Romanova, a few years later. She’s thought to have been poisoned; her death left him haunted by paranoia. He went on to have six or seven more wives and formed a black-robed militia called the Oprichnina, armed with brooms “to sweep away injustice”. With their help he killed his enemies in “gruesome and horrifying” ways. He sewed one archbishop into a bear suit to be set upon by wild dogs, and scalded a treasury minister with boiling water so his “skin peeled off like an eel”. He even killed one of his sons. But Frankopan points out that in a world where violence is “ubiquitous”, killing on this scale was often seen as necessary to maintain political control, rather than as a sign of insanity.

Listen to the podcast here.