Nov. 16, 2022

Ivan the Terrible Murders His Son

Ivan the Terrible Murders His Son

November 16th, 1581. Towards the end of a notorious reign characterized by cruelty and widespread abuse, Russian ruler Ivan the Terrible murders his own son in a fit of rage.


Cold Open

It’s August 25th, 1530, in medieval Russia.

Grand Prince Vasili III stares out of his palace window as a terrible storm batters Moscow. Vasili remains expressionless as driving rain lashes against the palace walls, and freezing wind howls through the streets of the city.

The fifty-year-old prince turns his head toward the adjoining bedroom, where his wife has been in labor for hours. After ruling without an heir for twenty years, Vasili knows that the birth of his first child should be a cause for celebration. But Vasili can’t shake off a lingering feeling of dread.

Prince walks across the room and stokes the fire crackling in the hearth.

When his first wife couldn’t produce a child, Vasili divorced her and re-married another woman. Medieval Russia is a devoutly Christian society, where divorce is considered a crime against God. So when his second wife fell pregnant, Vasili sought forgiveness from a priest. But the religious man could not soothe Vasili’s conscience. He merely warned the prince that “an evil act will produce an evil heir.” Now those words echo in Vasili’s mind as he listens to his wife moaning in pain.

A few moments later… the bedroom door opens.

Vasili turns to see a maidservant standing in the doorway, clutching a bundle of blankets in her arms. Hesitantly, Vasili approaches. The maidservant extends the bundle and the prince takes it, looking down into the face of his newborn son.

The child blinks up at Vasili, who stares back in wonderment. As he gazes into his son’s eyes, Vasili forgets all about the priest’s warning. He feels instead the weight of twenty years of uncertainty lifted from his shoulders. Finally, he has an heir. The maidservant tentatively asks what he has decided to name the child. Vasili looks up and says: “His name shall be Ivan.”

Just three years after his son’s birth, Vasili III will die from an infection, leaving the Russian throne to a very young Ivan. Ivan’s ascension begins a chapter in Russian history characterized by fierce power struggles and courtly intrigue, all presided over by a man whose name will echo through the centuries as the most notorious of all Russian rulers. Ivan the Terrible, as he comes to be known, will implement a campaign of widespread terror, devising sadistic torture methods for his many enemies. But his worst crime will come near the end of his life, when - in a fit of rage - Ivan the Terrible will murder his own son, on November 16th, 1581.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is November 16th, 1581: Ivan the Terrible Murders His Son.

Act One: The Orphan Prince

It’s December 3rd, 1533; forty-eight years before Ivan the Terrible kills his son.

A light snow falls on Moscow. Inside the palace of the Grand Prince, Vasili III lies on his deathbed. Through half-closed eyelids, Vasili watches the blurry figures huddled around his bedside. These are the boyars, the highest-ranking members of the Russian nobility. Their faces are etched with concern, but Vasili knows these nobles aren't worried for his health. All they care about is power - and how to get their hands on it.

Vasili draws a slow, rasping breath. He doesn’t want to die without first ensuring that his son and heir will not be exploited by these power-hungry nobles. So, with the last of his strength, Vasili orders the boyars to swear allegiance to the young Prince Ivan. The nobles murmur their ascent. Then, Vasili dictates that his second wife, Elena, will rule on Ivan’s behalf until the child is old enough to govern. Again, the boyars agree to honor Vasili’s wishes. But their faces betray their dark intentions. And as Vasili slips from consciousness, he fears for the future of Russia, and for the fate of the son he has left behind to rule it.

The following day, the three-year-old Ivan is appointed Grand Prince of Russia in a small religious ceremony. Ivan’s mother, Elena, watches on as an Orthodox bishop anoints the young prince with holy waters. Elena’s head is bowed, but she keeps one eye on the front row of the congregation where the boyars are assembled. At just 22, Elena is barely an adult herself. But she isn’t naïve. She knows that in the cut-throat world of the Russian court, danger lurks around every corner, knives are poised behind every back. The boyars will do anything to topple Ivan and claim the throne, so Elena does what she can to protect him. She insists that armed guards surround Ivan at all times, to defend the young prince from any violent schemes.

But while Elena succeeds in safeguarding her son’s life, she will ultimately fail to protect herself. Five years after Ivan’s ascension to the throne, Elena suddenly falls ill. Too weak to stand, she spends the final days of her life tossing and turning on her sickbed, delirious with fever. Elena suspects that she has been poisoned by the boyars and that the fate of Russia, and her son, is now in the hands of her murderers.

But the boyars do not kill the young prince. They fear that murdering the rightful heir to the throne is too great a sin. So instead, they seek to control him. They lock him away and make him a prisoner in his own palace. Soon, a regent is appointed to run the country and keep the boy in line. But Ivan will not stay a child forever. As he grows older, Ivan learns the horrible truth and comes to despise the men who betrayed his father and murdered his mother. Before long, Ivan will have his revenge.


It’s December 1543.

13-year-old Ivan sits at the head of a banquet table while the boyars gorge themselves on roast goose and honey wine. The air is filled with drunken merriment. But Ivan doesn’t participate in the festivities. His feet dangle inches from the floor, but there’s a darkness in the young prince’s eyes, and a steeliness beyond his ears.

Suddenly, Ivan stands and points at his regent: Prince Andrei Shuisky, the head of a powerful noble family, and the de facto ruler of Russia. Ivan accuses Prince Shuisky of mismanaging the country. Then he orders the palace guards to arrest him. The guards seize the speechless prince and drag him to the dungeons, where he is thrown in a cage filled with ravenous hunting dogs, torn limb from limb. In this terrible moment, Ivan has bared his teeth for the first time, and from now on, the boyars will treat the young prince with fear and deference.

Three years later, once he comes of age, Ivan assumes total power over Russia. The 16-year-old is crowned Tsar Ivan IV – a title not yet used by any other Russian ruler, word “Tsar” is derived from the Ancient Roman title of “Caesar”, and carries connotations of imperial conquest and absolute authority.

Soon, Ivan will live up to his new name. He will set about implementing wide-range reforms, reshaping Russian society as he sees fit. He will reform the penal code, establish a standing army, and introduce regional self-governance to streamline the administrative organization of Russia. But although Ivan’s domestic reforms will be popular, he will soon turn his attention to international policy, waging a series of disastrous foreign wars that will turn Ivan the Reformer into Ivan the Terrible.

Act Two: Children of Darkness

It’s January 22nd, 1558; 23 years before Ivan the Terrible murders his son.

Tsar Ivan IV rides at the vanguard of a large army, marching across the snow-dusted plains of north-eastern Europe. Ivan’s long black beard is flecked with ice, and his dark eyes glint with militaristic fervor.

The twenty-eight-year-old Tsar is at the peak of his powers. After concentrating on domestic reforms, Ivan turned his attention to territorial expansion. He led successful military campaigns against various Muslim states in the southwest of modern-day Russia. Emboldened by these decisive victories, Ivan set his sights on Russia’s northern neighbor, Livonia.

The Confederation of Livonia is a collection of Catholic city-states on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Ivan wants to gain access to the Baltic and its trade routes to Western Europe. The only thing standing in his way is Livonia. So Ivan launched this invasion, certain that his army will triumph yet again.

Ivan’s confidence is not misplaced. Over the next two years, his army presses the attack, sending the Confederation of Livonia into a state of disarray. But while Ivan continues to enjoy good fortune on the battlefield, back home in Russia, the Tsar is about to be dealt a crushing blow.


In August of 1560, his beloved wife Anastasia succumbs to a lingering illness and passes away. Ivan is distraught. Anastasia’s death triggers an emotional collapse in him and Ivan soon falls into a spiral of paranoia, convinced that his wife was poisoned by the same cabal of conspiring boyars who murdered his mother. Though he has little evidence to support the theory, Ivan nevertheless has scores of noblemen arrested and tortured for the crime he believes they are guilty of.

But while Ivan imprisons his enemies at home, those abroad conspire against him. Fearing Russia’s growing dominance, the nations of Sweden and Denmark join forces with the beleaguered Livonians, who’ve already sought an alliance with Lithuania and Poland. Soon, Ivan finds himself embroiled in a bloody conflict with multiple rival powers.

Too proud to withdraw his troops from Livonia, Ivan digs in and defends his new territories at all costs. For the next twenty years, the Russian army will be locked in a bitter war of attrition against a formidable alliance of European states.

But while Ivan wages this protracted conflict, he struggles to keep his military leaders in line. On April 30th, 1564, Ivan learns that one of his most trusted generals, Prince Andrei Kurbsky, has defected to the enemy’s side in the Livonian War. This betrayal sends Ivan into a rage. The furious Tsar institutes new reforms designed to reinforce his iron grip on power. He gives himself the authority to seize the lands of those who challenge or betray him, and to execute anyone whom he even suspects of treason - without allowing them a fair trial.

Many nobles think Ivan is going too far, but they’re afraid to stand in his way. They watch powerlessly as Ivan dramatically reshapes the manner in which Russia is governed. He divides the country into two administrative areas, one to be controlled by the nobility, and the other - the Oprichnina - to be controlled by Ivan. Ivan ensures that hisadministrative area incorporates Russia’s most affluent towns and cities, where the noble families live. Before the reforms, the Tsar was moderated by a council of nobles. But following the implementation of the Oprichnina, the Tsar alone has jurisdiction over his administrative area, giving him unbridled authority to inflict brutal vengeance on the noble families he so desperately despises.

To do his bidding, Ivan employs an army of thuggish enforcers known as the Oprichniki. Dressed in all black, the Oprichniki instill fear wherever they go, arresting, torturing, and killing at will.

Before long, the boyars have been all but wiped out. Still, Ivan’s blood lust isn’t satisfied. In 1570, Ivan falsely accuses the leaders of the Russian city, Novgorod, of conspiring to join forces with the Lithuanians in the Livonian War.

To teach them a lesson, Ivan sends the Oprichniki to punish the people of Novgorod. Ivan’s black-clad enforcers turn the city into a bloodbath, raping, and massacring the civilians with unrestrained brutality. By the end of January, the Oprichniki have killed an estimated 12,000 people.

But the Slaughter of Novgorod will prove to be the Oprichniki’s final act. In 1571, an invading army of Crimean Tatars marched on Moscow and lay siege to the city, resulting in a horrific fire. The Russian Army manages to break the siege and defeat the Crimean invaders, but 100,000 Russians die in the inferno. Ivan blames the ordeal on the Oprichniki because they failed to repel the attack. Consequently, he loses faith in the political structure he created, decides to disband the organization and abolish the Oprichnina itself.

But for Ivan, the Crimean invasion is the least of his military woes. The Livonian War is still grinding on. And for Russia, it’s turning into a disaster. The enemy is making gains into the Russian territory, and the pressure is mounting on Ivan to recall his troops and surrender. But Ivan refuses. He continues to blame military defeats on the remnants of the boyars, convinced that a shadowy conspiracy of noblemen is sabotaging the war effort. But as Ivan descends further into paranoia, there’s one Russian general who is excelling on the field of battle: the Tsar’s son, Ivan Ivanovich.

Unlike his father, Ivanovich is a capable military commander. So the young man begs his father to give up control of the Russian Army and hand it over to him. But Ivan sees his son’s request as yet another act of betrayal and his anger will soon lead to a confrontation that will result in his son’s death and his own descent into madness.

Act Three: Ivan the Terrible

It’s the night of November 16th, 1581, in Moscow.

Ivan the Terrible stalks the corridors of his palace, muttering under his breath. The Tsar has recently received a petition from the boyars to hand over the command of the Russian forces to his son, Ivan Ivanovich. The Tsar broods darkly on this heinous act of insolence and treachery. 

Lately, things have not been going well for the aging Tsar. After purging the nobility and massacring civilians, Ivan the Terrible has been left without anyone he can trust. He has grown increasingly insular, spending his days skulking around the gilded hallways of his palace. The only people he keeps close are family – especially his son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich. But now even hehas turned his back on the Tsar.

As Ivan turns a corner, he comes across a young woman walking toward him: his daughter-in-law, Yelena. The very sight of the pregnant Yelena makes Ivan simmer with rage. To Ivan, she is just another usurper trying to snatch power.

Overwhelmed by a sudden burst of anger, Ivan rushes down the corridor and strikes the young woman with his fist. Yelena falls to the ground, and Ivan begins to kick her stomach.

A few moments later, Ivan feels a pair of strong arms dragging him off Yelena. He turns around to find his son, Ivan Ivanovich, who is back from the front lines.

Ivanovich stares at the bloodied and trembling body of his wife. Then lifts his gaze to his father. The Tsar is taken aback by the unfiltered hatred glinting in his son’s eyes. With a roar of pure rage, young Ivanovich lunges for his father, grabbing the older man by the throat and forcing him to the floor.

As his son’s hands tighten around his neck, Ivan fumbles blindly for a weapon. His hand closes around his metal scepter, and he swings the object at his son’s head. With a sickening sound of metal on bone, Ivanovich falls still, as blood seeps from a gaping wound on his forehead.

Ivan the Terrible rolls his son over and stares into his child’s now lifeless face. The Tsar’s fury is replaced by an overwhelming feeling of grief and regret. Ivan the Terrible weeps.

This act of brutality will plunge The Tsar into a pit of despair from which he will not escape. Three years later, he will die a feeble and weak old man.

Ivan the Terrible’s reign will go down as one of the most notorious in Russian history. His constant warmongering, his terrorizing of his own population, and his torturing and executing of anyone he suspected of treachery established a framework for tyrannical power and dictatorial cruelty that would be emulated by the worst dictators of the 20th century.

In the 1880s, Russian artist Ilya Repin will paint the scene of Ivan killing his son. That painting will become one of the most famous of all Russian artworks. Today, it hangs in a gallery in Moscow, an enduring image of the moment just after Ivan the Terrible murdered his son on November 16th, 1581.


Next onHistory Daily.November 17th, 1894. The decades-long crime spree of H. H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer, is brought to an end when he is arrested by law enforcement in Boston.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.