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Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825
1453 Through the Reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) The Time of Troubles to the First Romanovs (1598-1682) Peter the Great and His Legacy (1682-1762) The Age of Catherine the Great (1762-1801) The Reign of Emperor Alexander I (1801-1825)


Explore this Section:

From the Fall of Constantinople to the Reign of Ivan the Terrible: A Summary of Russian History
Russia Symbol Introduction
Russia Symbol Prior to 1453
Russia Symbol The Period of Mongol Invasion and Rule, 1237–1480
Russia Symbol Muscovy Emerges as a Power
Russia Symbol 1453–1584: Moscow Becomes the "Third Rome"
Russia Symbol Ivan IV Descends into Madness
From the Fall of Constantinople to the Reign of Ivan the Terrible: A Summary of World History
World Symbol
World Symbol
Special Features

Russia's Globalization:
A Key

Events marked Russia Symbol are specific to Muscovy/Russia's internal development.
Those marked World Symbol are important world historical or cultural events.
Engagement Symbol indicates specific points of sociocultural or military engagement between Muscovy/Russia and foreign powers or individuals.



  Russia Symbol    Ivan IV Descends into Madness

Russia Symbol A Russian Ladder to Heaven

A Russian Ladder to Heaven
NYPL, Spencer Collection

This picture of a pious man, energetic reformer, and successful warrior does not explain why Ivan IV earned the epithet “the Terrible” (in Russian groznyi, from the word for dread). Ivan had a dreadful childhood: his father died when he was three; his mother was poisoned when he was eight; his subsequent caretakers denied him affection, security, and even food and clothing. In reaction, the adolescent turned cruel and sadistic, torturing animals, whipping people, and engaging in sexual license. His first wife, Anastasiia, could usually keep him under control, but when she died, he believed that she, like his mother, had been poisoned, and he lived in a constant rage. He had six more wives; two were sent to a nunnery, one was drowned, and three were poisoned. He pursued Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558–1603), but the Virgin Queen rejected his offer; anyway, he wrote, she was nothing but a “common wench.” In another bizarre episode, Ivan ordered the building of the magnificent St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square to celebrate the taking of Kazan but then blinded the architects, Barma and Posnik, so that they could not duplicate the feat.

In 1564, Ivan suffered some form of illness that left him nearly bald, with dim eyes, and with paranoia firmly in place. He looked for enemies and settled on the boyars, Russia’s aristocrats who traditionally figured as government leaders and close advisers of the tsar. Ivan blamed them for torturing him in his childhood, poisoning his mother and wife, and challenging his God-given authority. To punish them, the tsar uprooted some boyar families and sent them to the frontiers, and 10,000 others were murdered in a reign of terror that lasted for about a decade. The victims were usually killed during church services by the tsar and his assistants, the notorious oprichniki, who dressed in the black garb of monks; these slaughters would end in blasphemous fashion with prayers for the slain.

Engagement Symbol The Terrible Tsar Receives a Danish Legation

The Terrible Tsar Receives a Danish Legation
NYPL, Rare Books Division

All of Ivan’s policies soon went awry. Against advice but determined to expand into the Baltic area, he insisted on carrying on a twenty-five-year war with Sweden and Poland-Lithuania that Muscovy lost. Because of the cost of the war, the treasury was depleted, towns and villages emptied as residents tried to escape onerous taxes, and serfdom, which forbade peasants to move, was instituted to stop the flight. In 1581, Ivan murdered his son, who was trying to protect his pregnant wife from his father’s wrath; this act would bring an end to the 700-year-old Rurikid dynasty. As a result, the population felt “a general fear and discontent” and was “full of grudge and moral hatred”; the foreign observer, Giles Fletcher (ca. 1549–1611), foresaw that the situation could only end in civil turmoil.

Engagement Symbol The English View Muscovy as Brutish

The English View Muscovy as Brutish
NYPL, Rare Books Division

While much of the rest of Europe was transformed by the Renaissance, embarking on bold explorations east and west, and in general engaging other states and peoples, the Muscovite Tsardom expanded its territories, and assumed the role of protector of true Orthodoxy on earth. Yet it kept the rest of the world at arm's length. Diplomatic contacts were made, embassies received and sent, goods exchanged, to be sure. Nevertheless, the political and religious institutions of Muscovy stubbornly maintained the realm's cultural and intellectual isolation from corrupting influences, east and west. Soon, however, internecine power struggles, coupled with invasions, natural calamities, and competition for foreign trade would compel a greater opening of Muscovite society.