Tuesday, January 16, 2007

January 16

Ivan IV Vasilyevich -- otherwise known as Ivan Grozny or "Ivan the Terrible" -- formally assumed the title of tsar on this date in 1547. The 17-year-old had technically become Russia's ruler at the age of three when his father Ivan III died, but a series of regents conducted the nation's affairs until the young Vasilyevich asserted his authority over the boyars, the Slavic feudal aristocracy. During the period of his regency, Ivan was often beaten and molested by the two families of boyars -- the Shuiskys and Belskys -- who fought one another for the power to rule in his stead. By his teenage years, Ivan was known as a prolific drinker and a torturer of small animals. In 1543, Ivan ordered the arrest of one of the boyars, a prince named Andrew Shuisky who was then, according to legend, tossed into a pit with starving dogs. Ivan was a renowned rapist and an avid reader of books about history and religion. He beat up farmers and purged his sins while banging his head against the altar. As a result of his bizarre confessional style, he developed a callus on his forehead.

After assuming the title of Russia's first tsar, Ivan's early years were marked by impressive degrees modernization and territorial consolidation; during his nearly 40 years in power, Russia's legal code was revised and the printing press was introduced, and the country's first standing army was developed, in part to check the expansion of nomadic tribes from Asia. Less happily for the fate of millions, Tsar Ivan also restricted the movement of peasants, setting into motion a process of that would virtually enslave the propertyless classes of Russia. From 1558 to the early 1580s, the Livonian War -- which pitted Russia against Sweden, Poland, Denmark and Lithuania -- exacted a heavy toll upon the Russian people as Ivan waged a reckless and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to control Greater Livonia (modern day Estonia and Latvia). Famine and disease killed perhaps hundreds of thousands during the 1570s, while the Tsar's thuggish Oprichniki -- a black-robed regional security force that oversaw much of northeastern Russia -- massacred thousands of people in Novgorod, where the archbishop was sewn into a bearskin and hunted by a pack of hounds. The town of Pskov was offered similar treatment, though the fate of their clergy is unclear.

Near the end of his life, Ivan the Terrible beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for wearing what he regarded as provocative clothing; she subsequently miscarried. When his son (also named Ivan) confronted the Tsar over the beating, he was bludgeoned to death with a metal rod. The elder Ivan, wracked with grief and remorse, banged his head repeatedly on his son's coffin and foamed at the mouth like a horse, according to eye-witnesses.

Tsar Ivan himself eventually succumbed during a friendly chess match in 1584, quite likely the victim of poisoning by mercury, which he was ingesting to offset the effects of tertiary syphilis.