When Ivan IV Vasilyevich became Grand Prince of Moscow in 1533, the principality was a landlocked country. By the time of his death in 1584, he managed to conquer vast stretches of land and expand his inheritance into a huge empire, covering 4,050,000 km2 (1,560,000 square miles) on two continents and became the first Russian Tsar, earning his nickname Ivan the Terrible in the process.
Ivan IV fought several wars in the first half of his rule, increasing his lands by conquering Kazan and Astrakhan, rich Tatar states on Volga river. This put Moscow on the map but also brought it on a collision course with formidable Ottoman Empire. The Russo-Turkish War has begun in 1568 and lasted two years, but without any significant result for either side.
Seeking access to Baltic Sea and its trade routes, the new ruler cast his eyes on rich Livonian princedom that separated Muscovy from lucrative trade routes. The neighboring powers Sweden and Poland-Lithuania were wary of Moscow’s ambitions. To them, Muscovites were barbarians from the East, and they took every chance they had to thwart their attempts at establishing a direct link with the West and modernizing their country and especially their army. Both countries had waged wars against Moscow in the past and were ready to do it again.
Livonia was a middleman for all northern trade to Russia. This meant they could impose tariffs as they choose and there was nothing Moscow could do about it. Livonian cities Riga, Reval, and Narva all belonged to the Hanseatic League, an association of rich trading cities in the Baltic. However, the League was in decline, threatened by the growing power of new national states like Denmark and Sweden. The only organized resistance to foreign invaders was the Livonian Order of Knights, created to spread Christianity in the region. By the time Ivan ascendant to the throne, they also lost much of its power and political backing from the West. Sweden and Poland also looked forward to carving a piece of Livonia for themselves, and Ivan knew he had to act fast. All he needed was an excuse to go to war.
In 1558, Ivan found his casus belli. A small town of Dorpat was obliged to pay tribute to Moscow by some obscure treaty from 1503. The treaty was never enforced, and Ivan came calling for 50-years-worth of tribute. He personally led a 40,000-strong army which initially had some success. However, Denmark, Sweden, and Lithuania soon decided they also want chinks of Livonia and the all-out war in the North was looming. By 1564, Ivan’s fortunes had changed, and he had suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Ula.
Combined with the death of his beloved wife Anastasia Romanovna four years earlier, it was enough to push him into madness and paranoia. He established Oprichnina, a Russian name for the policy of repression that encompassed every aspect of the society, enforced by secret police called oprichniki. Their symbol was a dog’s head, representing their loyalty to the Tsar himself. It was one of the darkest periods in Russian history, filled to the brim with dark times. Obsessed with domestic enemies, Ivan neglected the foreign ones, and his forces in Livonia suffered a defeat after defeat.
Fortunately for him, his enemies were also fighting among themselves, and nobody was able to gain a decisive advantage. That changed in 1576 when Stephen Báthory took the throne of Poland-Lithuania. He led his forces to Livonia, pushed Russians out and by 1581 was laying siege to Pskov, the second-largest city in Russia and important trading center. The assault was interrupted by a peace treaty signed by Stephen Báthory and Ivan, which ceded all Livonia to Lithuania. 25 years of wars and countless casualties, were all for naught.
It was during this period that one of the worst incidents of Ivan IV’s rule happened. In 1581, Ivan’s oldest son Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich had a quarrel with his father. In anger, Tsar hit him on the head with his scepter, causing him an injury that would eventually kill him a few days later. The Tsar was inconsolable. The killing of Tsarevich Ivan had far-reaching consequences, as his younger brother Fedor, who inherited the throne, had neither his political nor military prowess. Three years later, Ivan the Terrible died from a stroke.