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Portrait of Ivan IV, the first tsar of Russia, by Viktor Vasnetsov.

Ivan the Terrible: How Did He Become the First Tsar of Russia?

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The Tsar of Russia was the title used by the ruler of the Tsardom of Russia, a state that existed from 1547 to 1721. The Tsardom of Russia was preceded by the Grand Principality of Moscow, and was succeeded by the Russian Empire. The first tsar of Russia was Ivan IV (commonly known in English as Ivan the Terrible, from the Russian Ivan Grozny ), the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and the founder of the Tsardom of Russia.

What is a Tsar?

The title ‘ tsar’ (spelled also either as ‘czar’ or ‘tzar’) was not used exclusively by the rulers of Russia, but also by other Slavic monarchs, such as the ruler of the Bulgarian Empire. This title is derived from the Latin ‘ Caesar’, an imperial title that continued to be used by the Byzantines long after the division of the Roman Empire . In Medieval Russia, this title became ‘tsar’, and had a religious connotation attached to it. Although the title was used to refer to a supreme ruler, it referred specifically to the secular head of the Orthodox Christian world, i.e. the Byzantine emperor .

Reception of the Tsar of Russia in the Moscow Kremlin. (Public Domain)

Reception of the Tsar of Russia in the Moscow Kremlin. ( Public Domain )

The Grand Principality of Moscow

The Grand Principality of Moscow (also known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow or Muscovy) was the state that preceded the Tsardom of Russia. Moscow was established as a small trading town around the 12th century and was destroyed during the Mongol invasion of Rus in the following century. In 1263, Moscow, which still was an insignificant town, was given to Daniel I, the youngest son of Alexander Nevsky, following the latter’s death. Daniel and his descendants sought to unify the Russian lands. The unification of the Great Russian lands was completed during the reign of Ivan III Vasilyevich (known also as Ivan the Great). By the time of Ivan’s death in 1505, the Grand Prince of Moscow was also the ruler of Russia proper.

Ivan III Vasilyevich. (Public Domain)

Ivan III Vasilyevich. ( Public Domain )

Ivan III was succeeded by his son Vasili III, whose reign was relatively uneventful. Vasili’s significance, however, lies in the fact that he was the father of Ivan IV, who succeeded him as the Grand Prince of Moscow at the age of three in 1533. He would be the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and the first Tsar of Russia. Although Ivan IV founded the Tsardom of Russia, and was the first Russian ruler to have been officially crowned Tsar of Russia, the concept itself can be traced back to the reign of Ivan III.

Whilst Ivan III was completing the unification of Russia, the Byzantine Empire had come to an end as Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Ottomans proceeded to invade the Balkans, thus leaving the Grand Prince of Moscow as the only remaining Orthodox monarch in the world. As a result of this, there were calls for Moscow to be recognized as the successor of Constantinople, and the ‘third Rome’. Moreover, in 1472, Ivan III married the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Zoe (later Sophia) Palaiologina, who brought the traditions of the Byzantine court to Moscow with her.

The First Real Tsar of Russia

Although Ivan III was the Tsar of Russia in all but name, it was only in 1547 that his grandson, Ivan IV, officially assumed this title. On January 16th, 1547, Ivan IV was crowned the first Tsar of Russia at the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. Ivan IV himself was a complex figure, and this is evident in the way he ruled Russia. For instance, although he was a devote Christian and made huge donations to monasteries, he had no qualms about killing priests. During his early reign, the tsar attempted to strengthen his position by limiting the power of the nobility through reforms. Later on, however, Ivan IV resorted to more brutal methods to curb the power of the nobles.

Tsar Ivan the Terrible and the priest Sylvester, June 24, 1547 (oil painting, 1856). (Public Domain)

Tsar Ivan the Terrible and the priest Sylvester, June 24, 1547 (oil painting, 1856). ( Public Domain )

Ivan IV was also prone to outbursts of mental instability, especially during his later years. It was during one of these outbursts, in 1581, that his son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich, was killed by him. As a consequence of this, when Ivan IV died in 1584, he was succeeded by his other son, Feodor I. Until the death of his older brother, Feodor was not considered to have been a candidate for the throne, and was not prepared for the task. In fact, Feodor was more interested in religious than political matters. Although Feodor succeeded his father, real power was in the hands of the powerful boyar, Boris Godunov.

Feodor died in 1598 without an heir, thus ending his dynasty, i.e. the Rurikid dynasty, and was succeeded by Godunov. The Tsardom of Russia itself continued to exist, until the establishment of the Russian Empire by Peter the Great in 1721.     

Portrait of Russian Tsar Peter I the Great by Godfrey Kneller (1698). (Public Domain)

Portrait of Russian Tsar Peter I the Great by Godfrey Kneller (1698). ( Public Domain )

Top image: Portrait of Ivan IV, the first tsar of Russia, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren

References

New World Encyclopedia, 2018. Ivan IV of Russia. Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ivan_IV_of_Russia

Strauss, B., 2018. The 10 Most Important Russian Czars and Empresses. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/most-important-russian-tsars-4145077

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012. Grand Principality of Moscow. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Grand-Principality-of-Moscow

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016. Tsar. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/tsar

www.biography.com, 2018. Ivan the Terrible. Available at: https://www.biography.com/people/ivan-the-terrible-9350679

Yegorov, O., 2016. 7 facts about Ivan the Terrible, the first Russian tsar. Available at: https://www.rbth.com/arts/history/2016/10/14/7-facts-about-ivan-the-terrible-the-first-russian-tsar_638895

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