The Psychology of Ivan IV

As a young child, Ivan IV was a victim of the same caprice and cruelty that would later characterize his own reign. After his mother’s “haughty and arbitrary”  ((RS 101)))  regime, the young Ivan lived under chaotic boyar rule where “imprisonments, exiles, executions, and murders proliferated.” ((RS 133))  The boyars who had served Ivan as an autocrat while his mother was alive became neglectful and cruel of the young heir in his private life. Ivan seized his rule at age 13 and insisted that he be crowned as tsar (rather than Grand Prince) at age 16. Though he enjoyed a happy marriage to Anasatsia of the Romanov boyar family, Ivan’s personal traumas continued. Soon after his wedding a great fire razed Moscow, leading to riots that killed his uncle and nearly killed Ivan himself. Riasanovsky and Steinberg call the riot “one of the psychological crises that were periodically to mark his explosive reign.”

I found Ivan’s psychology intriguing, since he – like Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin – was a fearsome ruler who grew up in a home marked by violence and trauma. Ivan’s psychological profile seems to be a topic of interest in Russian history, since the 1897 portrait by Victor Vasnetov is characterized as a “psychological portrait.” The actions that characterized his Reign of Terror (such as the founding of the oprichniki) don’t seem so much like sadistic punishments of his people as a they do a measure of personal protection.


Discussion questions:

What were Ivan’s motivations for his Reign of Terror? What events in his life made him paranoid and fearful for his personal safety and hegemony?

One thought on “The Psychology of Ivan IV

  1. The second half of Ivan’s reign was a seemingly abrupt turnaround from the productive first half. The stories of aggression against animals and people from his early years could be considered warning signs, but they did not really affect the first portion of his rule. Although we cannot make any definitive diagnoses on his mental state, it is intriguing to explore the possible precursors to his “reign of terror.” His entire young life and developmental years were filled with Boyar deception and grabs for power so his suspicions were not entirely unfounded.

Comments are closed.