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The Oprichnina ( ) is the period of Russianmarker history between Tsar Ivan the Terrible's 1565 initiation, and his 1572 disbanding, of a domestic policy of political police, mass repressions, public executions, and confiscation of land from Russian aristocrats.

The term Oprichnina, which Ivan coined for this policy, derives from the Russian word "опричь" (oprich), meaning apart from, except of. The six thousand political police enforcing the policy were called oprichniks (Russian plural: oprichiniki), and the term Oprichnina was further applied to the territory in which, during that period, the Czar ruled directly and his oprichniks operated.


In 1558, Tsar Ivan IV started the Livonian war after the Livonian Confederation refused to pay tribute to Russia. A broad coalition, which included Poland, Lithuania and Sweden, were drawn into the war against Russia. The war became drawn-out and expensive. Raids by Crimean Tatars, Polish and Lithuanian invasions, famines, blocade and escalating costs of war ravage Russia.

In 1564, Prince Andrei Kurbsky, who had defected to the Lithuanians, led the Lithuanian army against Russia, devastating the Russian region of Velikiye Lukimarker.

Tsar Ivan began to suspect that other aristocrats were also ready to betray him.On the third of December, 1564, Tsar Ivan left Moscowmarker, carrying all of its religious and historical relics with him in his entourage, for the neighboring suburb of Alexandrovmarker. The church, unable to do anything but gawk astonished, begged the tsar to return to Moscow. In 1565, the officials of the church met with Ivan and consented to his creation of the Oprichnina in exchange for his return to Moscow.

That same year, Ivan formed the Oprichnina, which gave him a section of territory (mainly the Northeast). There were few large landowners; the area was dominated by service nobility and state peasantry. In the territory of the Oprichnina he could be free from the interference of the powerful feudal aristocracy and rule as a completely unlimited autocrat.

This whole system of the Oprichnina has been viewed by some historians as a tool against the powerful hereditary nobility of Russia (boyars) who opposed the trend toward centralization.


The Oprichnina contained much of Russia's best land, including parts of Moscowmarker and many of the large central cities, sometimes individual streets. In total area, the Oprichnina covered almost one-third of all Russia. The rest of the country was referred to as the zemshchina (земщина); these areas were ruled by powerful boyars.

The Oprichnina was treated very similarly to the church at the time, enjoying the same freedom from taxes and organized around monastic principles (with the tsar himself as abbot). The main difference between the two was that, instead of being a religious body, the oprichnina was exclusively Ivan's means of carrying out his will.

The Oprichnina was administered by the oprichniks, who used extreme violence against any opposition to Ivan's rule. This included both nobles and peasants, with many of the oprichniks being members of the elite. The oprichniki were described as "trusties of Ivan who wore black cowls and carried brooms and dogs' heads at their saddle-bows".

During the era of the Oprichnina, oprichniks killed thousands and devastated the area. In 1570, for example, Ivan's concern at the strategic value of Novgorodmarker in the war with the Teutonic Order and Sweden led him to order the sacking of the city. The oprichniks plundered it in response and by some accounts killed as many as 30,000 of its inhabitants.

The Russian historian Ruslan Skrynnikov estimated the number of victims to have been between two and three thousand, based on the reports by Malyuta Skuratov, and maintains that after the famine and epidemics of 1560s the population of Novgorod could not exceed 10,000-20,000. Vladimir Kobrin, however, argues that this significantly underestimates the number of victims. The Novgorod chronicle, obviously not an unbiased source, claims between 500 to 1500 murdered daily. Kobrin thinks the total number of dead was around 10 to 15 thousand

The Oprichniks would be dressed in black and rode black horses. The saddle pommels were emblazoned with a dog's head and a broom, signifying the hounding and sweeping of treason from the realm.


In the 1560s the combination of the very poor harvests (the period called the little ice age), the plague, Polish-Lithuanian raids, Tatar attacks, and the sea-trading blockade carried out by the Swedesmarker, Poles and the Hanseatic League devastated Russia.

The oprichnina did nothing to help reverse these effects, perhaps even helping to undermine Russia's stability. What had once been Russia's best and most fertile areas had been devastated and had fallen well below the rest of the country. In fact, the price of grain increased by a factor of ten. Many people living within the Oprichnina even fled to other regions.

Under these circumstances the existence of the two systems of authority (Oprichnina and Zemshchina) and the struggle against aristocracy added to the economic and political disorganization of the country.

The Oprichnina had been total failure and Ivan was forced to disband it in autumn of 1572. Saying the word Oprichnina was now punishable by death. Whether the Oprichnina had benefitted Russia at all was questioned by many; tax revenues had not increased as the tsar had hoped, and Russia quickly lost all of its gains in the war for Livonia.

Although the Oprichnina was successful in instilling a fearfully submissive view towards the Tsar in Russians across the kingdom, it ultimately posed as no tangible improvement if not a detriment to the economy and stability of Russia.


Ivan Lazhechnikov wrote the tragedy The Oprichniks ( ), on which Tchaikovsky based his opera The Oprichnik.

In turn, Tchaikovsky's opera inspired a 1911 painting by Apollinary Vasnetsov, depicting a city street and people fleeing in panic at the arrival of the Oprichniks.

Years after the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the oprichnina continued to affect Russia. Stalin, himself, based many of his own purging schemes on the 'terrible, blood thirsty' Oprichnina, and the position of tsar was forever after shrouded with a great sense of terrifying power.

Sergei Eisenstein depicted the oprichniki as healthy, loyal, clean-looking persons in the movie Ivan The Terrible, Part I and then proceeded to show them in a less flattering light in Ivan The Terrible, Part II. Part II of the film climaxes in a scene in color where the Oprichniki dance and sing around Ivan The Terrible.


Further reading

  • Walter Leitsch. "Russo-Polish Confrontation" in Taras Hunczak, ed. "Russian Imperialism". Rutgers University Press. 1974, p.140
  • Oleg Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew (1999). KGB: The Inside Story of its intelligence operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (Russian language edition, Moscow, Centerpoligraph, ISBN 5-227-00437-4, page 21)

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