On February 3, 1565, Ivan IV the Terrible appointed the “Oprichnina” – a special force that reported directly to him. Though officially executing Ivan’s orders, in reality the Oprichnina went far beyond their authority, causing major destruction throughout the entire country.
Ivan was afraid of betrayal and believed treachery was everywhere, so the “oprichniks” hunted the traitors – actual or alleged – and executed them. In addition, Ivan wanted to assert his power and to get beyond the control of aristocracy. The boyars and oprichniks helped him to do it. Most oprichniks were initially not from noble families, as Ivan thought that the people who received the title from his hands would be faithful to him.
In January of 1558, Ivan IV declared war against the Baltic state Livonia for passage to the Baltic Sea. In those times, enemies surrounded Russia: Poland, Lithuania and Sweden threatened it from the West, and the Crimean Tatars regularly attacked it from the South. In addition, the country had been weakened by a dry season. The aristocracy – the boyars – started to speak about ending the war without victory, but Ivan only reproached them with indecision.
In 1564, one of the boyars, Andrey Kurbsky, the commander of the western army, betrayed Ivan, took the side of Livonia, and defected from Russia. This betrayal and the unwillingness of other boyars to continue the war served as a pretext for Ivan’s decision to stand up against the aristocracy.
In December of 1564, Ivan moved out of Moscow to Aleksandrovskaya village and sent the boyars a letter, saying that he was ready to abdicate. In that letter, Ivan outlined his disgust of all the aristocrats and the clergymen, because they did nothing but steal money from the state treasury.
In the beginning of February 1565, Ivan returned to Moscow and said that he would not abdicate if the boyars agreed to his terms. The boyars had to do it. Ivan acquired a right “to execute and exile the traitors and to take their property to the state treasury”, and the aristocracy or the clergy could not interfere with his deeds. The clergy lost the right to protect convicts from punishment. On February 3, Ivan signed the order about appointing the Oprichnina.
After meeting with the boyars, Ivan went back to Aleksandrovskaya and took 300 oprichniks with him. Ivan declared himself an abbot, and the oprichniks became his monks. It was an obvious blasphemy, but the clergy was too afraid to say a word about it.
The members of the Oprichnina behaved like a special caste – for example, one of the rules for them was “never eat or drink with the people who are not from the Oprichnina”. Every oprichnik carried a dog’s head and a broom tied to his saddle. It meant that oprichniks attacked the tsar’s enemies, like dogs, and swept the betrayal out of the country.
Ivan took the lands from some boyars and divided them among oprichniks. The former owners of those lands were sent to the frontier areas, and their peasants were killed. Month after month, the territory under the control of the Oprichnina grew, and soon it occupied more than a half of Russia. It was the “state inside a state”, ruled by Ivan, when the other lands were formally ruled by the Duma – the council of the aristocracy.
The Oprichnina brought terror to Russia. Ivan suggested treasons everywhere, and every day oprichniks carried out tortures and executions. The first to fall victim to the Oprichnina were the noble remote relatives of Ivan. Then he paid attention to the opponents of his reign. In 1566, a group of noblemen tried to forward Ivan a petition about abolishing the Oprichnina. They met their deaths for doing so.
In 1567, Ivan called one of the boyars, Ivan Fedorov, to the palace. Ivan accused Fedorov of betrayal, made him dress up in the tsar’s ceremonial clothes and sit on the throne. He then greeted Fedorov with a bow before taking out a knife and killing him. About four hundred people were executed for being Fedorov’s “allies”.
In 1570, Ivan learned that the merchants of Novgorod wanted to surrender the city to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Oprichnina headed to Novgorod. Oprichniks ransacked the city for six weeks. Thousands of people were killed in Novgorod and in the towns on the way to it.
The attack of the Tatars in 1571 put an end to the terror of the Oprichnina. The army of Khan Devlet I Geray went across the country to attack Moscow and nearly burned it to the ground. The oprichniks were not able to protect Russia, and in 1572 Ivan abolished it and prohibited even the use of the word “Oprichnina”.