In 1560, Anastasia died mysteriously, and the bad half of Ivan’s reign began. He was convinced the Tsarina had been poisoned. His mind seeded to shatter, and he sank into a life of dissipation and paranoia. Anyone whom he even remotely suspected of plotting against him was executed, and in 1570 he ordered thousands of citizens of Novgorod to be killed when civil unrest disturbed that city.
To protect himself against “traitors”, Ivan established a personal security force, the oprichnina – the first of Russia’s infamous secret police forces. Dressed in black and riding coal-black horses, his band of men, eventually 6.000 strong, rode the countryside to find and destroy anyone suspected of disloyalty to Ivan. Whole towns were wiped out and even a cousin of the Tsar was murdered, together with his family. Then, in another fateful move late in his reign, Ivan took to exiling his political opponents to newly conquered lands in Siberia.
Banishment to Siberia may have been better than the punishment dealt out in Moscow, where Ivan’s supposed enemies were likely to be tortured sadistically. Ivan personally took part. When he was particularly angry, said an observer, he foamed at the mouth like a horse. During one violent episode, he struck and killed his eldest son, whom he professed to love. This deed pushed Ivan over the brink. He became obsessed with knowing when he himself would die, and in 1584 he sent for 60 witches from Lapland, who obliged him by specifying a date. His death would come, they said, on March 18 of that same year. On March 17, Ivan suffered a seizure and within minutes was “stark dead”, as Sir Jerome Horsey, the English Ambassador to Ivan’s court, put it.
Ivan’s death began a generation of chaos, called the Time of Troubles, that was marked by dynastic struggles, social upheaval and foreign intrusion. Ivan’s weak, incompetent son Fyodor inherited the throne, but power was held by Fyodor’s brother-in-low, Boris Godunov (subject of the opera of…