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Ivan the Terrible – a two-part historical epic – was Sergei Eisenstein’s last film. Part I was filmed between 1942 and 1944 in Alma Ata, where Eisenstein was evacuated to during the Second World War. The film stays relatively true to historical events but shouldn’t be relied upon as entirely accurate. It is, however, stunningly beautiful. Here are 20 of my favourite scenes from the film with some historical notes. Stay tuned for Part II.
Note: the English translation of Ivan IV of Russia’s name “Ivan Grozny” as “Ivan the Terrible” isn’t entirely accurate. “Grozny” means “Dangerous”, “Formidable” or “Inspiring Terror”.
Coronation and wedding to Anastasia
On the 16th of January 1547, Ivan Vasilievich of the House of Rurik is crowned Ivan IV of Russia. Later that year he marries Anastasia Romanovna Zakharyina-Yurieva – a bride he chose himself from a group of eligible noble maidens presented to him according to a Byzantine tradition.
The early part of Ivan’s reign is one of peaceful reforms and modernization. Ivan revizes the law code, creating the Sudebnik of 1550, establishes a standing army and a parliament (the Zemsky Sobor), and confirms the position of the Church with the Council of the Hundred Chapters, which unifies the rituals and ecclesiastical regulations of the whole country. In 1553 the Moscow Print Yard is established and the first printing press is introduced to Russia.
Siege of Kazan
The battle takes place in 1552. It is the final battle of the Russo-Kazan Wars, leading to the fall of Khanate of Kazan.
In 1553, after his return from Kazan, Ivan falls ill. Everyone believes that he is dying. On his deathbed Ivan asks the boyars to swear loyalty to his infant son Dimitry, but they refuse. This event is referred to by historians as a “bedside mutiny”. Ivan recovers from his illness and the mutineers pay dearly for their actions.
Death of Anastasia
Ivan’s first wife dies in 1560. In the film, she is poisoned by Efrosinia, but there is little historical evidence to support this. Anastasia had given birth three times and her health was weakened. She suffered frequent illnesses. Ivan, however, is convinced that his wife was poisoned. Her death is at least partly blamed for Ivan’s (further) descent into terror.
After Anastasia’s death, Ivan abdicates and leaves Moscow, claiming that the scheming boyars make it impossible for him to rule. He is convinced that the common folk will come begging for him to return, which they do. He agrees to return to Moscow but only if he is granted absolute power to rule as he pleases by the church. His demand is met. As Russian historian Edvard Radzinsky rightly pointed out, the act of abdication by a tsar instilled unspeakable terror in the hearts of Russians.
“It is easier for us to imagine Russia without people than without a tsar.”
It was here, in Alexandrova Sloboda (now Alexandrov), that Ivan decided to form Oprichnina – a bloodthirsty secret police that will be likened to demons by both people and historians.
Ivan the Terrible, Part I (with English subtitles).