What Drove Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible Mad?

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Ivan the Terrible
Ivan IV Vasilyevich

The famous Russian, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) (1533-1584) suffered a horrific childhood. It was full of murder and intrigue. His father died of natural causes when Ivan was three. His mother may have been assassinated.

Ivan was a sickly child. He was surrounded by the Boyars who held collective power. They controlled him. Despite such things, when Ivan gained command, his rule was one of peace and reform.

From Ivan to Ivan the Terrible

In 1547 Ivan was proclaimed Tsar of Russia. This was a title of great power. It could enable a good ruler to achieve much. It would empower a bad one to engage in bloody dominion. This article does not rehash Ivan’s life and exploits. Those are covered in our cited references. We will say in later life Ivan became harsh, even paranoid. He tortured and killed even close friends. In one outburst he murdered his son!

Ivan the Terrible and son.
Ivan murders his son…

What caused the change from his passive personality to one of aggression and violence? For Ivan turned maniacal. He became suspicious of everyone. The change coincided with the death of his beloved wife.

What Went Wrong?

Despite the timing, historians pinpoint Ivan’s sickly nature. In view of the medicine of those times, they exhumed his body. Tests proved conclusive. Ivan’s remains were full of mercury. Ivan seems to have died of syphilis. Syphilis was treated with mercury.

While his childhood cannot be ignored, it seems mercury was the cause of madness. Effects include nervousness, irritability, change of temperament, and tremor.

Ivan the Terrible
Library of Congress

Is There Evidence?

Consider this description found on page 377 of the book Ivan the Terrible, by Kazimierz Waliszewski (1904). Then you decide.

“During the second half of the Sovereign’s life, as to which we possess most information, his habitual expression struck the majority of witnesses as being threatening and gloomy, though he often burst into roars of laughter….

“Ivan was energetic to the point of violence, and yet timid down to outright cowardice; his pride amounted to positive madness, and his humility occasionally descended to baseness. He was intelligent, and yet capable of saying and doing the most foolish things.”

Note: You might also enjoy Beginner Level Russian Crossword


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