Stepping up to the altar of the Cathedral of the Dormition, the 16-year-old Ivan Vasilyevic, Grand Prince of Moscow, assumed the throne on January 16, 1547. Known to history as Ivan the Terrible, he was the first to receive the title “Tsar of All the Russias” and would go on to turn Russia into a vast empire through nearly 40 years at the helm.
Named Ivan IV at birth, he and his younger brother Yuri were orphaned at a young age — father Vasili III died of an infection in 1536 and mother Elena followed him in 1541, some believe, through assassination by poison. Waiting in the wings to receive his position as monarch, young Ivan often felt as though the wealthy Shuysky and Belski families ignored his claim while fighting over who would be his guardian. (Prince Andrey Shuysky, one of Ivan’s caretakers, would be thrown in a jail cell with a pack of hungry dogs for his disrespect.)
On January 16, 1547, Ivan had risen to ruling age (“majority”) and would receive his title officially. In the elegant Cathedral of the Dormition, still located in Cathedral Square of the Kremlin to this day, he received the distinctive Monomakh’s Cap. With the heavily-jeweled and fur-trimmed crown upon his head, Ivan initiated a new political era.
By demanding to be called the “Tsar of All the Russias” when he was, in effect, little more than the Duke of Moscow, he made a statement of intent — to unite modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — and signalled his position as a divine appointment. Up until that moment, the word “tsar” was associated with royalty in the Old Testament. By applying it to himself, he created a link between the Russian Orthodox Church and the monarchy, one which would come in handy for him and those who followed him as ruler.
Having made it clear his reign would be one of change — even if only he understood how much at first — Ivan focused on bringing his country onto similar footing with the rest of Europe at the start. He updated laws and formed a professional army, going so far as to create local councils to oversee day-to-day life in faraway sections of his territory. In order to facilitate his people’s religious education, Ivan ordered a printing press and instituted the Moscow Print Yard in 1553.
From there, however, his actions shifted to include more force than diplomacy. Over the next 35 years Ivan managed to conquer Kazan and Siberia, while negotiating the acquisition of the Astrakhan Khanate, expanding his nation into a vast, multicultural melting pot covering more than 1.5 million square miles. Frequently engaged in combat with neighboring armies from the Ottomans and an allied Polish-Lithuanian force, Muscovite soldiers spent decades at war — 24 years against Livonia alone.
On the home front, Ivan deftly outmaneuvered the Russian ruling class and consolidated his authority. From the mid-1560s, when he temporarily abdicated due to church officials and nobles allegedly undermining him, until 1572, he used his “total power” to ferret out those who opposed him. This oprichnina (“setting apart from”) would be used to persecute his enemies and hijack their lands. Tens of thousands of peasants were forced from their homes, spending the rest of their lives running in fear from the next assault by the secret police.
Paranoid to a fault, Ivan spent much of his life suspicious of the intent behind the actions of Russia’s wealthiest citizens, right up until his death in March 1584. Despite the long arc of history affected by his coronation — a Tsar was at the head of the nation until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, some 370 years — his nickname keeps him in the popular imagination more than anything.
Also On This Day:
1492 – Queen Isabella I receives the first official structure for a modern Spanish (Castilian)
1581 – English Parliament outlaws Roman Catholicism
1969 – Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 perform the first-ever docking mission and exchange of passengers in space
1979 – The Shah of Iran flees to Egypt, opening the door for the Islamic Revolution
2006 – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, is sworn in as Africa’s first elected female leader
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