Ivan the Terrible
Name at birth: Ivan Chetvyorty Vasilyevich
Ivan the Terrible -- Ivan IV -- was the first Russian ruler to adopt the title czar (caesar), and one of history's great bad guys, known for making Russia a world power while being a brutal, paranoid tyrant. His father died when he was three, and his mother died when he was eight, so Ivan grew up as a neglected prince until 1547, when he was crowned -- at the age of 17. Within a few years, his armies had defeated the invasive Tartars (Ivan commissioned the building of St. Basil's Cathedral in celebration), and Ivan earned the nickname Grozny. It's been translated as "terrible," but its meaning was closer to "awesome" or "fearsome." Ivan's wife, Anastasia Romanovna, died in 1560, and they say he went nuts after that -- he suspected she'd been poisoned, and Ivan ended up creating a secret police force that terrorized the citizenry and punished those he considered disloyal. In the plus column, Ivan IV expanded Russian territory and brought it up to speed with Europe in terms of foreign trade and political status. In the minus column, Ivan IV terrorized, tortured and killed so many people -- including his own son and heir -- he's now remembered as one of history's craziest rulers. He left his kingdom to his son Feodor, who was considered unfit and went on to prove it, plunging Russia into political chaos that lasted until Peter the Great came along a century later.
One of the many stories about Ivan the Terrible’s cruelty is that he blinded the architect of St. Basil’s Cathedral, just so the guy couldn’t then build any structure equally beautiful.
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