In the immortal words of Malcolm Forbes, "Ivan the Terrible was as bad as he sounds." But that, of course is not the whole story.
Ivan was the first Russian monarch to rule as Tsar. He expanded and united the Russian kingdom and made many essential reformations, including the creation of sea ports and initiation of a trading relationship with England. This while fighting scheming aristocrats within his own kingdom who had no notion of a "Russia" that extended beyond the needs of their own immediate enrichment.
Ivan was called "Grozny", which means "terrible" in the sense of "terrifying" or "fearsome", because he had all the qualities necessary for the job: he was ruthless, suspicious, stubborn, and cruel. The first half of his reign went pretty well, but nearly dying in 1553 and the death of his wife his personality became more and more extreme. Some examples:
- When he had St. Basil's Cathedral constructed in Moscow, he was so moved by its beauty that he had the architects blinded so that they could never design anything as beautiful again
- He formed a secret police, the Oprichniks, who owed allegiance only to him and became a bunch of murderous thugs
- He ordered the Oprichniks to murder all the inhabitants of Novgorod; the exact death toll is unknown but estimates are they succeeded in killing about 30% of the population
- He beat his daughter-in-law for wearing immodest clothing, causing a miscarriage
- In a fit of rage at his son he clubbed him with a staff, accidentally killing him
In 1584, a comet was spotted, and Ivan called together 60 astrologers to interpret the vision. They agreed that it was a sign he would die soon. Soon, Ivan's body became swollen from unknown causes. He seemed to recover, then on March 18, while playing chess with the statesman Bogdan Belsky, he suddenly collapsed and died.
In the 1960s his tomb was opened during renovations, and an examination of his remains revealed very high amounts of mercury. He was probably poisoned; the presence of mercury would explain his symptoms and, to some extent, his madness. Three days before his death he tried to rape his daughter-in-law, who was the sister of Boris Godunov, future tsar and star of Pushkin's play and Mussorgsky's opera. Modern suspicion falls on Godunov as his probably assassin.
We do, luckily, have Sergei Eisenstein's vision of him. During WWII, with morale in Russia low, Stalin (who admired Ivan) ordered the filmmaker to create a film of Ivan's life. The result is one of the greatest films of the era: It was filmed in three parts. The first part was released in 1944. The second part offended Stalin, as its depictions of Ivan's paranoia were a little too close to the mark. It was not released until after Stalin's death. The third part was seized and mostly destroyed.
Ivan Grozny himself is played brilliantly by Nikolai Cherkasov, marvellously creepy and impressive. But it is impossible to communicate anything about the film by talking about one performance, or one part. The whole structure, the costumes, all the performances, the sets, everything works together as a whole to create an unforgettable experience.
Here is an excerpt that dramatizes his struggle with Philip, a church patriarch who openly opposed him. The scene imagines the moment where he decided to become "the Terrible" as he was known by his enemies. This excerpt has French subtitles, but even if you can't read French (or understand Russian) the power of the film is palpable.
Sources: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1988.