Tsar Ivan IV, 'the Terrible'
Ivan IV Tsar of Muscovy, ruled December 1533 - March 1584. He wasthe son of Grand Prince of Moscow, Vasily III, Ivan was born in 1530, and was only three when he inherited the Russian throne following his father's death. At the age of seven, his mother was poisoned by nobles at court. By his early teens, he was already displaying sadistic tendencies. He would throw live animals from towers and derive pleasure from doing so.
Ivan was crowned Russia's first Tsar at the age of 17, posing as heir to the Byzantine Empire, using the russianised term for 'Caesar'. Three weeks later he married, having chosen his bride in a national virgin competition. Virgins over the age of twelve were brought to the Kremlin to be paraded before him. He chose Anastasia, the daughter of a minor noble, and their marriage proved to be a very close one.
Ivan had huge pretensions to imperial power. He launched a holy war against Russia's traditional enemy - the Tartars - showing no mercy to these Muslim. Ivan's conquest of Kazan and later Astrakhan and Siberia gave birth to a sixteenth century personality cult glorifying him as the Orthodox crusader.
His wife Anastasia helped to hold his cruelty in check, but in 1560 she died. He accused his nobles of poisoning her, and became even more mentally unstable, although modern forensic evidence suggests she may actually have been poisoned.
Ivan then embarked on a series of marriages. The number is uncertain but is usually given as from five to seven. His unfortunate spouses either died - Ivan claimed that they were poisoned - or were forced to take the veil.
He set up a bodyguard that has been described as Russia's first 'secret police' - the Oprichniki - as a religious brotherhood sworn to protecting God's Tsar. In reality, they became marauding thugs, ready to commit any crime in the Tsar's name. Ivan sentenced thousands to internal exile in far flung parts of the empire. Others were condemned to death; their families and servants often killed as well. Ivan would give detailed orders about the executions, using biblically inspired tortures to reconstruct the sufferings of hell. More than 3,000 people lost their lives in Ivan's attack on Novgorod alone.
Two years before his own death in 1584 Ivan quarrelled with his oldest son, the tsarevich Ivan, and in the heat of argument stabbed him to death. He never overcame the grief his vicious temper had brought him. The murder doomed the dynasty to extinction, for Ivan's sole remaining heir, his younger son Fedor, was a simpleton whose marriage was barren.
Although Ivan was a hardened despot, he often behaved like a coward, at one stage asking his ally, Elizabeth I of England, for political asylum.
Before his death, Ivan was re-christened as the monk Jonah and on his death in March 1584, was buried in his monk's habit - in the hope of finding ultimate forgiveness.