Ivan the Terrible and His Secret Police

Ivan the Terrible and His Secret Police (Illustration) Civil Rights Russian Studies Crimes and Criminals Law and Politics Ethics World History Visual Arts

The Oprichnina (a secret-police organization which existed between 1565-1572) consisted of about 6,000 political police (called oprichniki) who were at the service of Tsar Ivan IV (also known as "Ivan Grozny," meaning "Ivan the Terrible"). 

The job of the secret police was to find individuals who were supposedly plotting against the Tsar, then confiscate their lands and put the plotters to death.

As Ivan IV designed the system, it would function outside the boundaries of law.  Persecutions took place without any legal limits and without restraint. 

Although he claimed to be deeply religious, the Tsar did not spare clerics—or the wealth contained in some Russian Orthodox churches—if religious men were rounded-up by the oprichniki.

Russian nobles and aristocrats were the main targets of this system of domestic terror.  As the oprichniki became more ruthless, more people died.  The city of Novgorod was particularly hard hit. 

In this work of water-color-and-charcoal-on-paper, by Apollinary Vasnetsov (1856-1933), we see members of the Oprichnina coming into a town.  The immediate result is that everyone flees as fast as they can.  This scene was used as a setting for Tchaikovsky's opera The Oprichnik.

In the end, the nobles and aristocrats rose up against the Oprichnina:

Under conditions of mass terror, universal fear, and denunciations, the apparatus of violence created in the Oprichnina acquired an entirely overwhelming influence on the political structure of the leadership.  In the final analysis, the infernal machine of terror escaped from the control of its creators. 

The final victims of the Oprichnina proved to be all of those who had stood at its cradle.  (R.G. Skrynnikov, Oprichnyi Terror, at page 223 - quoted by Aleksandr Yanov in The Origins of Autocracy: Ivan the Terrible in Russian History, at pages 315-316.)

Years later, under the Bolsheviks and also during the Stalinst era, Russians once again endured the existence of secret police. The first head of that version of oprichniki —known as the Cheka—was a ruthless man called Felix Dzerzhinsky. He voiced his opinion on the use of terror:

We stand for organized terror—this should be frankly admitted.  Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.

Dzerzhinsky's words, in an article he published in Krasnaya Gazeta ("The Red Gazette") on the 1st of September, 1918, would have meshed with the actions of the oprichniki during the time of Ivan the Terrible:

Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds.  Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5197stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 24, 2014

Updated Last Revision: Nov 05, 2016

Media Credits

Water-color-and-charcoal-on-paper, by Apollinary Vasnetsov (1856-1933), entitled The Street in the Town: The Set to “Oprichnik” by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1911).  Original maintained by the State Theatrical Bakhrushin Museum, in Moscow.


Image online, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


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"Ivan the Terrible and His Secret Police" AwesomeStories.com. Dec 24, 2014. May 25, 2020.
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