Ivan The Terrible is one of the most controversial figures in Russian history. His time of reign and it’s evaluation is still a reason of many arguments between historians. A most discussed topic is probably his establishment of “Oprichnina”. So what was it really and who were it’s members? A squad of cruel daredevils that abused their authority? A religious sect of a tzar that gone mad? Or an instrument of terror?
It all started in 1564, when Ivan The Terrible left the capital for Alexandrovskaya Sloboda and abandoned his throne. He disapproved the actions of clergy and court nobility, that showed no respect for their ruler. The people, who still remembered the hectic time of the boyar ruling, send a delegation to persuade Ivan to come back. In the end he agreed but put forward some special conditions. Form now on the territory of the land was divided into two parts: Oprichnina and Zemschina. The latter, a much bigger part of the country, was under the jurisdiction of boyars. Oprichnina, on the other hand, was the ruler’s own territory with only those who he trusted.
After Ivan The Terrible returned to Moscow, he began forming a special personal guard. These people were called “oprichniki”. Some claim that most of them had a low class background but this is not exactly true. Many members of the guard actually had ties with the princely and boyar clans of the country. A noticeable shift towards the low class among the recruits occurred only later on, closer to the end of Oprichnina era. The selection process was led for the most part by nobles Aleksei Basmanov and Afanasy Viazemsky.
So who were this people and what did they do? Originally, they were created to eradicate the traitors and those who plot against tzar. The structure of the organisation closely resembled one of a European military religious order. They answered only to the Ivan himself, had unquestionable authority and carried out his direct orders. All of them had to swear an oath of loyalty to their governor and cut all connections to the Zemschina, even with their close relatives. They referred to each other as brothers and attended church services that lasted for hours.
Since this men had power of the ruler’s authority, they knew that whatever they did will go unpunished. This has became the grounds on which their cruelty grew. Oprichniki terrorised common people, raided the villages. Their black uniforms roused fear among people. Some of them even had brooms and dogs’ heads on their saddles as a symbol of sweeping and gnawing out the renegades.
The tzar himself has changed over those years of oprichnina. He was troubled by visions and nightmares, suffered from severe mood swings. Some of his guards and close people used it to manipulate him and get rid of the opponents. None was safe from the prosecution.
The most infamous was probably Grigory Lukyanovich Skuratov-Belskiy known as Malyuta Skuratov. He is considered to be Ivan The Terrible’s personal executioner, who fulfilled all the commands of his master without hesitation, however cruel they were. Afanasy Vyazemsky also had an important role in Oprichnina. He used to be one of the closest and most trusted councillor of the tzar. However, after he was accused of planning a treason, he died being tortured in the at order of the ruler. Another figure that was believed to have an influence on Ivan was the son of Aleksei Basmanov, Fyodor. He was a young proficient warrior, but mostly described by his contemporaries as a guileful boy with a terrible character and too beautiful of a face. According to some accounts, he was not simply the of tzar’s minions, but also his lover. Fyodor was also later accused of betrayal but it is not certain wether or not he was killed. It is possible that Ivan The Terrible spared him his life and exiled him with his family.
There is no denying that the years of Oprichnina were a tough time for the country and as a result of the mass terror many people were brutally killed. Although it wouldn’t be fair to consider Ivan The Terrible to be the most gruesome tyrant of the time. During the time of English king Henry VIII, around 72 000 people were hanged, The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 murdered 30 000 protestants, in the 16th century approximately 100 000 people died in the course of the folk uprising in Germany.
Be it as it may, it is a fact that this man also managed to bring positive innovations to the country, many of which are considered to be one of the most advanced of his time.