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Ivan the Terrible’s Impact on Russian History


The legacies of Ivan IV Vasilyevich, who is also known as Ivan the Terrible, attract close attention of many historians because this monarch considerably shaped the history of Russia, especially the political development of this country, its social structure, as well as the size of its territory. This paper is aimed at discussing such aspects as the centralization of authority, administrative changes within the state, territorial expansion of the country, and political disempowerment of many people. It should be mentioned that in popular culture, this historical figure is associated with many myths while his actual policies are relatively unknown.

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Overall, one can argue that Ivan the Terrible introduced several reforms which enabled many people to raise their social status and increased the efficiency of the state1. For example, it is possible to speak about the attempts to develop a more meritocratic governmental system. These are some of the positive aspects that can be distinguished. However, at the same time, he introduced many of the institutions such as the oprichnina that stifled any progressive changes within Russian society. This is the main thesis that should be discussed in greater detail because it is useful for understanding this period in the history of Russia.

The main reforms introduced by Ivan the Terrible and their impacts

Ivan the Terrible was crowned in 1547. Furthermore, he claimed the title of a tsar which implied that he took control over the entire Russia. In other words, his domain was not limited only to Muscovy. As a monarch, he was deeply aware that his political authority could be questioned by the most prominent Russian aristocrats who were called boyars. These people were willing to retain their political privileges. Therefore, there was a significant risk of confrontations between the monarch and noblemen. Additionally, he paid attention to external threats such as the violent conflicts with the Khanate of Kazan. Therefore, he took several steps in order to strengthen his power.

In particular, he introduced the first regular army in the Russian history. These soldiers were called the streltsi and they were directly subjugated to the monarch2. Additionally, these people were regularly paid. Previously, soldiers served only the interests of local aristocrats. Overall, streltsi could be regarded as the forerunner of the Russian army. It should be mentioned that many people wanted to join this military group in order to climb the social ladder. To a great extent, this tradition permeated in Russia for a long time, even after the reign of Ivan the Terrible. This is one of the legacies that can be singled out.

Additionally, this monarch tries to remove the system of seniority called Mestnichestvo3. The system implied that the representatives of various noble families could occupy only certain governmental positions. As a rule, the preference was given only the most ancient aristocratic families. Moreover, many people had no opportunity for raising their status in the hierarchy.

This approach led to the stagnation of the state because the positions of authority could be given to a person due to his/her seniority or lineage, rather than professionalism. As a result, the state was extremely ineffective. In his turn, Ivan the Terrible tried to introduce a more meritocratic approach to the selection of governmental officials. This reform contributed to the slow evolution of the Russian state. One should not suppose that Ivan the Terrible tried to implement these changes in order to promote equality in the society.

More likely, his task was to improve the efficiency of the state. Nevertheless, this policy had certain positive effects. Furthermore, it is critical to remember that Ivan the Terrible did not fully eliminate Mestnichestvo. This system of seniority was completely abolished only in the second half of the seventeenth century. This is one of the details that should not be overlooked since it shows that this monarch could not always achieve his goals even though his political power was virtually unlimited.

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Additionally, he introduced the legal code which is known as Sudebnik. The provisions included in this legal document limited the power of feudal lords who owned serfs. For example, it fixed the amount of payment that a peasant had to pay to landlords. Moreover, this legal code removed many privileges which had formerly been guaranteed to aristocratic families. To some degree, the existence of Sudebnik was critical for protecting peasants from oppression. Again, this objective was not critical for this monarch because its primary intention was to limit the power of aristocrats. Overall, Ivan the Terrible did not attach much importance to such concepts as equality or protection of people’s rights. This is one of the aspects that can be distinguished.

Moreover, one should bear in mind that the conquests initiated by Ivan the Terrible turned Russia into a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic society. It should be mentioned that people who lived in the Khanates of Astrakhan, Kazan, and Siberia practiced Islam. Additionally, the territorial expansion of Russia during his reign led to the inclusion of people who could represent different ethnic groups. For example, one can speak about Tatars or Bashkirs. Certainly, one should not suppose that these people could always co-exist without any conflicts because there could be hostilities based on religion. Nevertheless, in many cases, these people could reconcile their differences. Apart from that the territory of Russia grew dramatically and this country had to be considered by other states. To a great extent, these legacies remain palpable even in the modern Russia.

Apart from that, during his reign, Russian society became more open to foreign cultures. It should be noted that during that time, Russia was engaged in trade with Great Britain. For example, one can mention the foundation of the Muscovy Company which had a monopoly over trade between the two countries. This cooperation was critical for many merchants. Moreover, this monarch recruited foreign artisans who usually came from Germany. To some degree, these intercultural contacts introduced Western material culture into Russia. Yet, one should keep in mind that this country became more oriented to the Western world only when Peter the Great came to power. This is one of the details that should be considered.

Oppressive policies and their impacts

Nevertheless, one should bear in mind that many actions of Ivan the Terrible were supposed to attain the centralization of his power. Additionally, he was willing to create an autocratic regime in which he could be the only decision-maker. Moreover, many of his later policies completely undermined the development of the Russian society. For example, it is possible to argue about the formation of oprichnina4 which could be regarded as the analogue of secret police. These people suppressed any form of disagreement with the tsar.

For example, they could slaughter boyars who could question his decisions. As a result, any political evolution of the country was made impossible. One should take into account that the members of oprichnina were virtually uncontrolled; in other words, they were accountable only to the tsar. They could easily rob or kill other people without facing any risk of punishment. As a result, the majority of the population could be deprived of any civic or human rights. Therefore, the political evolution of the country was slowed down. This is one of the points that can be made.

Additionally, his policies contributed to the unequal development of the Russian regions. This argument can be partly explained by the fact that Ivan the Terrible waged wars against cities that wanted to remain more autonomous in terms of their self-government. The most atrocious example of this policy was the Massacre of Novgorod during which at least 2 700 people could be slaughtered5.

The long-term result is that many people decided to move to Moscow because in this way, they tried to ensure their security or gain at least any chance for earning their living. In turn, other regions remained underdeveloped. Furthermore, people had fewer opportunities for raising their social status because they were deprived of any economic resources. To some degree, the unequal development of Russian regions remained noticeable even after the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

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It is possible to argue that the policies of Ivan the Terrible enforced the autocratic political tradition in Russia. The monarchs, who followed him, also laid stress on the need to strengthen their authority. Additionally, they did not accept the idea that other stakeholders could take part in the political decision-making. This outcome can be viewed as the most detrimental outcome of his reign because in many cases, autocratic leaders could be driven emotions, rather than logic. Therefore, they could take decisions that could threaten the lives of many people. This is one of the arguments that can be put forward.

Apart from that, his military conflicts with other states produced disastrous economic effects on the society. Moreover, the end of reign resulted in the political and military turmoil that lasted for several decades. Thus, one can say that he did not ensure the proper succession to the throne. To a great extent, many of his policies diminished the positive effects of the reforms that he had implemented at the beginning of his reign. Nevertheless, one should not perceive this monarch only from a negative perspective because this approach cannot accurately reflect the complexity of this historical figure, and the reasons why he could take certain choices.


On the whole, this discussion indicates that the reign of Ivan the Terrible produced several profound impacts on Russian society. In particular, one should speak about disempowerment of many people who did not have any means of protecting their rights. Furthermore, one should speak about the strengthening of autocratic tradition in Russia. Therefore, his decisions stifled the political development of the society. Nevertheless, one should mention that Ivan the Terrible introduced many changes which were critical for the slow evolution of the society. For example, it is possible to speak about his efforts to introduce a more meritocratic system of governments. Apart from that, he tried to improve the efficiency of the state; however, his oppressive policies diminished the positive impacts of his reforms. These are the main issues that can be identified.


Filjushkin, Alexander. Ivan the Terrible: A Military History. London: Pen and Sword, 2008.

Kort, Michael. A Brief History of Russia. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008.

Madariaga, Isabel. Ivan the Terrible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Perri, Maureen. The Image of Ivan the Terrible in Russian Folklore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Shpakovsky, Viacheslav and David Nicole. Armies of Ivan the Terrible: Russian Troops 1505-1700. New York: Osprey Publishing, 2006.

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  1. Michael Kort, A Brief History of Russia (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008), 32.
  2. Viacheslav Shpakovsky and David Nicole, Armies of Ivan the Terrible: Russian. Troops 1505-1700 (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2006), 9.
  3. Alexander Filjushkin, Ivan the Terrible: A Military History (London: Pen and Sword, 2008), 30.
  4. Isabel Madariaga. Ivan the Terrible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 171.
  5. Maureen Perri, The Image of Ivan the Terrible in Russian Folklore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 101.

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