September 01, 2019

Maria Temryukovna

Maria Temryukovna
Ramilya Iskander as Maria Temryukovna in Pavel Lungin’s 2009 movie about Ivan the Terrible, Tsar.

Of Ivan the Terrible’s many wives, the one we know the most about is his first, Anastasia. Ivan himself clearly felt tenderness for his “little dove” (yes, he was apparently capable of such feelings) and rage (which came to him much more easily) toward the boyars he accused of poisoning her. Anastasia has been portrayed as a gentle soul and a calming force in the life of her savage husband: this image is reflected in Nikolai Karamzin’s History of the Russian State, on the Millennium of Russia monument erected in Novgorod in 1862, and in Eisenstein’s film, Ivan the Terrible. Furthermore, she was a Romanov, which would certainly have inclined future tsars to cast her in a positive light.

But what about his six subsequent wives?* For the most part, we know very little about them, and what we do know is pretty grim: several were dispatched to a convent, one was purportedly drowned in a pond after her sled was pushed or slid onto the ice, and others simply died young of causes natural or unnatural. We have a somewhat clearer picture of Ivan’s last wife, Maria Nagaya, the mother of Tsarevich Dmitry – the real Dmitry who had so many impostors after his death. These “False Dmitrys” were central figures in the Time of Troubles that roiled Russia starting about 14 years after Ivan’s death.

Among “the Terrible’s” unfortunate wives, Maria Temryukovna, his second, is an interesting case. Her story is peppered with unusual details, starting with the fact that Ivan, supposedly so devoted to his first wife, began to look for a replacement just eight days after her death. The primary sources tend to emphasize that he himself was in no hurry; it was the metropolitan and boyars who urged him to act quickly. This might have been more believable if an heir had been urgently needed, but of the many children born to Ivan and Anastasia, two – both boys – were still alive. The succession seemed secure. So, why the rush? Could it be that the tsar dropped hints to his inner circle that he didn’t want to remain single for long? Whatever the case may have been, a bride was urgently sought. But where was a suitable one to be found?

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