At the beginning of the year in the corridors of the Petit Palais in Paris, curious visitors could stroll among the works of the great Russian painter of the 19th and 20th centuries, Ilya Repin (1844-1930). One of his most famous paintings, however, was absent from this retrospective. And for good reason: Ivan the terrible and his son Ivan on November 16, 1581, painted by the artist between 1883 and 1885, is still being restored in Moscow. Three years earlier, the canvas was slashed by a Russian nationalist. The reason for his action? He could not bear to see the first Tsar of Russia represented like this: on the famous painting, the latter holds in his arms the bloodied face of his son whom he has just beaten to death with his scepter in a fit of rage.

A “lie” intended to sully the reputation of the tsar, defended the vandal during his trial the following year. Already, in 2017, Vladimir Putin himself called infanticide a “legend” invented by the West. According to the official Russian version, the son of Ivan the Terrible simply died of an illness. The hypothesis of his murder by his father is nevertheless considered credible by many historians. More than four centuries after his death, Ivan the Terrible still unleashes passions. Sometimes depicted as an energetic reformer, more often as a bloodthirsty executioner, he remains one of the most outstanding leaders in Russian history.

Before becoming “the Terrible”, Ivan IV Vassilievich was born in Kolomenskoye, not far from Moscow, on August 25, 1530. Long awaited, he was the late first son of Vassili III, Grand Prince of Moscow, and his second wife Elena Glinskaya. Parents he hardly has time to know. His father – aged 50 when he was born – died three years later, and his mother, the year of his eighth birthday.

“Ivan the Terrible certainly experienced his childhood as a trauma, suspecting, for example, that his mother had been poisoned, recounts Pierre Gonneau, professor of Russian history at the Sorbonne and author of Ivan the Terrible or the profession of tyrant (Tallandier, 2014) He grew up in a rather deleterious atmosphere and developed a mistrust both of certain members of his family, in particular his uncles who could be potential rivals, but also of boyars [members of the Russian aristocracy] and their incessant court intrigues.” Years later, in correspondence, Ivan the Terrible will himself try to explain his brutality by this painful childhood.

Already at this time, he showed inclinations for cruelty. According to some stories, he had fun at the age of twelve throwing animals from the terrace of his palace and took pleasure in seeing them die by crashing to the ground a few floors below. At the age of fifteen, he sows terror in Moscow and its surroundings by riding at full speed through the streets, ignoring passers-by jostled, even crushed, in his path. The same year, he demanded that the tongue of one of his subjects be cut out as a result of “impoliteness”, and ordered his first executions.

Ivan the Terrible finally acceded to the throne in his seventeenth year. On January 16, 1547, the Russian monarchy took on an imperial dimension when he was proclaimed “tsar of all the Russias” during a coronation ceremony inspired by those of the Byzantine emperors. Less than a month later, on February 3, Ivan IV married Anastasia Romanovna Zakharina-Yurieva, the daughter of a boyar, who would give her name, more than half a century later, to the Romanov dynasty. The first Russian tsar therefore intends to put order in the affairs of the kingdom. “A whole series of reforms are being implemented at a sustained pace and in a coherent manner, relates Pierre Gonneau. He modernizes the army, fights against corruption, reorganizes the Church and undertakes a tax reform.”

Little by little, the sovereign also distinguished himself in the art of war. And triumphed over the Tatar hordes with the annexation of the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in 1552 and 1556. To celebrate the first of these two victories, he launched the same year the construction of the famous Saint Basil’s Basilica in Moscow. His other military adventures are less successful. He first stalled in the Crimea then, in 1558, began the Livonian War, intended to take control of the territory corresponding today to Estonia and Latvia. Despite initial victories, this long conflict would end twenty-five years later, in 1583, with a Russian defeat against a coalition uniting Sweden and Poland-Lithuania.

In 1560, a shift occurred in the kingdom. The death of his first wife, the Tsarina Anastasia, plunges Ivan the Terrible into a deep depression. As with his mother years before, the Tsar believes she was poisoned. “It was the end of the happy days of Ivan and Russia. For he lost not only a wife, but also virtue”, wrote in 1820 the Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin in volume 8 of his History of the Empire from Russia. The regime hardens, the executions are linked. In October 1569, he forced his cousin Vladimir Andreyevich, his wife and children to swallow the poison he was accused of having given to his late wife.

“Ivan the Terrible’s violence increased in the early 1560s, but the terror really began with the installation of the oprichnina in the winter of 1564-1565,” said American historian Charles J. Halperin, author of Ivan the Terrible: Free to Reward and Free to Punish (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019). The term designates the part of the kingdom over which Ivan exercises absolute power, while he acquires a militia of 1,500 men – the oprichniki – who pledge unfailing loyalty to him. The real or supposed opponents of the tsar are arrested, tortured and executed. No one is immune. One day, feeling threatened, the boyar Nikita Kazarinov chose to become a monk. Ivan the Terrible has him captured, then places him on two barrels of powder which he blows up before exclaiming: “He’s an angel, he’s going to fly away to heaven!”

Several mass crimes are committed, including the massacre of Novgorod, the prosperous merchant city (south of present-day Saint Petersburg), accused of plotting against the tsar. In 1570, Ivan the Terrible ordered his oprichniki to storm the city. At least 2,000 people are killed, including hundreds, including women and children, drowned in the Volkhov River. Eventually doubting the loyalty of his militia, Ivan the Terrible finally put an end to the oprichnina in 1572 and ordered the dissolution of his troop. The end of his reign is disastrous. “Russia is economically exhausted, faces a political and military defeat in Livonia, and the death of her first son Ivan, in 1581, leaves as heir to the throne Fyodor, her second son, who suffers from a physical and mental disability. “, explains Charles J. Halperin.

At the end of this life punctuated with atrocities, Ivan the Terrible died on March 18, 1584 during a game of chess. But he continued to inspire many Russian leaders throughout the centuries, including Stalin who, in the middle of World War II, commissioned Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein to make a film about the life of the tyrant. “Ivan the Terrible was very cruel, declared the communist dictator in 1947, it is good to show it. But it is absolutely necessary to show what makes his cruelty necessary.” Today, Ivan’s imprint remains vivid. In 2017, a three-meter-high bronze statue was erected to his glory, right in the heart of Moscow.