Soviet Union Table of Contents
The development of the tsar's autocratic powers reached a culmination during the reign of Ivan IV. Ivan, who became known as "the Terrible" or "the Dread," strengthened the position of the tsar to an unprecedented degree, thus demonstrating the risks of unbridled power in the hands of an unbalanced individual. Although apparently intelligent and energetic, he suffered from bouts of paranoia and depression, and his rule was prone to extreme violence.
Ivan IV became grand prince of Muscovy in 1533 at the age of three. Various boyar (see Glossary) factions competed for control over the regency until Ivan assumed the throne in 1547. Reflecting Muscovy's new imperial claims, Ivan was crowned tsar in an elaborate ritual modeled after the coronation of the Byzantine emperors. Ivan continued to be assisted by a group of boyars, and his reign began a series of useful reforms. During the 1550s, a new law code was promulgated, the military was revamped, and local government was reorganized. These reforms were undoubtedly intended to strengthen Muscovy in the face of continuous warfare.
During the late 1550s, Ivan became angry with his advisers, the government, and the boyars. Historians have not determined whether his wrath was caused by policy differences, personal animosities, or mental imbalance. In any case, he divided Muscovy into two parts: his private domain and the public realm. For his private domain, Ivan chose some of the most prosperous and important districts in Muscovy. In these areas, Ivan's agents attacked boyars, merchants, and even common people, summarily executing them and confiscating their land and possessions. A decade of terror descended over Muscovy. As a result of the oprichnina (see Glossary), Ivan broke the economic and political power of the leading boyar families, thereby destroying precisely those persons who had built up Muscovy and were the most capable of running it. Trade was curtailed, and peasants, faced with mounting taxes and physical violence, began to leave central Muscovy. Efforts to curtail the mobility of the peasants brought Muscovy closer to legal serfdom. In 1572 Ivan finally abandoned the practices followed during the oprichnina.
Despite domestic turmoil, Muscovy continued to wage wars and to expand. Ivan defeated and annexed the Kazan' Khanate in 1552 and later the Astrakhan' Khanate. With these victories, Muscovy gained access to the entire Volga River littoral and Central Asia. Muscovy's expansion eastward encountered relatively little resistance. In 1581 the Stroganov merchant family, interested in the fur trade, hired a cossack (see Glossary) leader, Ermak, to lead an expedition into western Siberia. Ermak defeated the Siberian Khanate and claimed the territories west of the Ob' and Irtysh rivers for Muscovy (see fig. 3).
Expanding northwest toward the Baltic Sea proved to be much more difficult. In 1558 Ivan invaded Livonia, which eventually embroiled him in a twenty-five-year war against Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, and Denmark. Despite occasional successes, Ivan's army was pushed back, and Muscovy failed to secure a position on the Baltic Sea. The war drained Muscovy. Some historians believe that the oprichnina was initiated to mobilize resources for the war and to counter opposition to it. In any case, Ivan's domestic and foreign policies were devastating for Muscovy, and they led to a period of social struggle and civil war, the so-called Time of Troubles (1598-1613).
Data as of May 1989