Muscovy, in its infancy, was little more than a wooden fort when Daniel Aleksandrovich (1261-1303) became the forefather of all the Grand Princes of Muscovy. He was also the father of Ivan I. This image depicts a painting by Apollinari Vasnetsov (1864-1933) entitled Court of a Feudal Russian Prince. Image online, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. PD
When Ivan took power in his own right, he faced massive problems in a tumultuous country that was nearly bankrupt.
There were no banks, no roads, no infrastructure. After all, less than a century had passed since his grandfather, Ivan III, began to integrate other Russian lands into the Muscovy Principality. It was next to impossible for any ruler - including the new Tsar - to exert meaningful authority in the realm. The country badly needed reforms, which Ivan began to introduce.
Complicating the situation further were religious differences between Muscovy and its neighbors. During the previous century, Constantinople (the "Rome of the East") had fallen to the Ottoman Turks (who were practicing Muslims). Constantinople was renamed Islambol ("Islam Abounds") or, as it is known today, Istanbul.
On the 21st of June, 1547 - about a year after Ivan's lavish coronation - Moscow was massively damaged by a sudden, terrible fire. The city’s mostly wooden buildings quickly succumbed to the flames. Even part of the Kremlin - the walled-in fortress looking down over the city - was damaged.
With two-thirds of the city destroyed, the young Tsar was furious. Thinking the fire had been deliberately set, Ivan retaliated by having people executed in Red Square.
Meanwhile, terrorists were storming the gates. Problems in the north harmed the country’s Baltic trade. Problems in the east, with the Tatars - Russia’s traditional enemy - prevented expanded Asian trade.
Only 22 years old when he took his newly organized army to the Khanate of Kazan, Ivan IV greatly benefitted from the abilities of his general, Prince Andrei Kurbsky, and the use of Dutch gunpowder. Tunneling under Kazan’s garrisoned walls during a siege of the city, the Russians gained the upper hand.
After five months, Kazan - gateway to the Urals and Siberia - fell. (Sergei Eisenstein later made a famous movie about Ivan the Terrible, including his Kazan conquest.) Decimating Kazan’s Muslim culture (and annexing the city as part of Muscovy), Ivan showed no mercy.
Perhaps people in Kazan recalled the legendary comments of the Khan’s wife when she learned of Ivan’s birth. Clearly he had used one of those envisioned “two teeth” to “devour us.”
The other tooth, for the most part, was still idle. Anastasia, by all accounts, was a calming influence on her husband. While she was alive, she was able - for the most part - to control him.
With his many accomplishments, Ivan was effectively ruling Muscovy and expanding the realm. Scholars refer to the first part of his reign (1547-1562) as the “Good Reign.”
But palace intrigues, resulting in Anastasia’s death, would soon alter the course of history. With Anastasia, Ivan was manageable. Without her, he would descend into madness.