Ivan the Terrible, the history books called him later: the first czar of Russia, bloody and neurotic and violent. The autobiographies make no difference with their well-evidenced accounts of a childhood where he'd already branched out from his peers, where lazy afternoons were spent torturing animals and sharpening his hate for the Russian regents instead of happily playing under the sun. Sixteen years old, and he had the whole of Russia in his palm, too young, a teenager who thrust himself willfully into the role of ruler, but isn't that what he has always been, propelled by life into circumstances far beyond his age? At three his father died after asking him to become czar, at seven his mother was assassinated, at seven there was no one else for him to turn to except himself (the regents never gave a damn). At seven he was no longer a child—children didn't witness blood and grow up to become murderers of the innocent, didn't dream of setting wild dogs on abusive regents then make it reality.

But he believed in something. Everyone does. He had ideals, he wanted power and justice and mercy (though later he would abandon them all except for the first), he imagined a fair and united Russia where the lower classes enjoyed equality with the aristocrats. It was a world he wanted to construct, a universe built out of a miserable childhood, defiant of the regents so prominent in his upbringing. He married out of love. He loved Anastasia Romanov—and maybe that was the whole point of it: sure, the guy was always bordering on neurosis and paranoia (proof, if you're still not convinced: he killed his son with a single, impulsive blow), but he loved, honestly and sincerely and passionately, a love distorted and twisted by tragedy yet againwhen Anastasia lost her life to a long-term disease—another trigger to his eventual insanity. Were it not for his psychological problems and the astounding bleakness of his life, he would have been an excellent czar, attending to everything personally and undiscriminating of status or class. Ivan the Terrible, say the uncountable textbooks, but lost underneath the imposing, monstrous title was the husband who married seven times after his first wife died and was never happy ever since, the young ruler who trusted his ideals of social justice despite their naivety, the little boy who was strong enough to piece himself together on the outside without any help. Ivan the Terrible, but ultimately: he was simply an obedient son to a dying father.