Maria Temryukovna was the daughter of the Prince of Kabarda. Kabarda was a region within the Caucasus where successful merchants and noble families sought to establish relations with Russia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Following the death of his first wife, Ivan IV married Maria Temryukovna in 1561. He was reportedly quite enamored with Maria’s physical appearance, and her Circassian heritage made her an ideal spouse for a Tsar with territorial ambitions that spanned into the Northern Caucasus. The Tsar and his successors saw Maria’s marriage to Ivan IV as the beginning of a close relationship between the Caucasus and the Russian mainland.
Maria was only Ivan’s second wife, and served as the Tsarita from 1561-1568. She assumed her Christian name, Maria, upon her conversion to the Orthodox Church (Pavlov & Perrie, 97). Maria gave Ivan IV a son, Vasili, but their child passed away in infancy, which was a source of great tragedy and embarrassment for the Tsarita (Pavlov & Perrie, 191). Termryukovna was also a notable figure during her lifetime because of the strong opinions many Russians had of the Tsar’s foreign wife. Maria was generally quite unpopular because Russians did not look kindly upon a Circassian Tsarita. The Circassians were not perceived as equals by the Russian people, and rumors quickly circulated about Maria’s mischievous activities at Court. Russian depictions of the Caucasus only affirmed the alleged inferiority of the Circassians. Some reports even suggested that Maria was the first to mention the idea of the oprichnina bodyguard (Pavlov & Perrie, 116). Maria’s ethnic heritage was also quite significant with regards to Russian foreign policy. Ivan’s marriage to Maria provided a rationale for Russian expansion into the Caucasus, and Russian rulers repeatedly cited this marriage as the original rationale for the Russian campaigns into the Caucasus.
Temryuk Aydarovich, Maria Temryukovna’s father, was one of the most powerful Kabardan princes of the 16th century (Henze, 16). The Kabardans originally believed that Russia was not a threat to their region, and hoped that they would prosper economically by partnering with Moscow. Several Circassians even aided the Russians as they invaded the territories of the Crimean Khan (Henze, 16). Interactions between the Circassians and Russians were generally limited. Most Circassians had little experience with their Russian neighbors, other than the occasional Cossack settlers. Therefore, the Kabardan princes thought that developing a relationship with Russia would have few negative effects.
Unfortunately for the Circassians, Ivan IV’s successors, as well as administrative officials in Moscow, would later cite Ivan’s marriage to Maria Temryukovna as the first step towards integrating the Caucasus into the Russian realm of empire (Bullough, 46). During Ivan’s reign, Russians began to progress into the affairs of the Caucasus. The Russians actively pursued new trade routes that would allow them to challenge the rival empires within the Caucasus. As Paul Henze noted in his article on the Northern Caucasus, after Kazan and Astrakhan came under Ivan the Terrible’s control in the mid-16th century Russia exploited the Volga-Terek route to extend trade and challenge the Ottoman and Persian empires for control in the Caucasus (Henze, 4). Under the reign of Ivan IV, Russia also began to employ policies to ensure the assimilation of the Circassians. For example, cities like Kazan were transformed into a ‘Russian town’ through new secularist policies while the Tartars were subsequently expelled from the city (Namitok, 2).
The policies pursued by Ivan IV after his marriage to Maria were only the beginning of a long tradition of Russian involvement in the Caucasus. Peter the Great, in particular, pursued imperialist policies in the Caucasus. Peter’s 1722 Campaign from Dagestan to Durbent sent a clear message to Circassians and Turks alike: Russia would play an active role within the Caucasus (Hyson, 6). Even when Russia suffered temporary territorial losses in the region, as happened with Peter the Great in Durbent, Russia remained persistent because they believed it was in their long-term interests to settle the region. Moreover, Russia could justify its actions by claiming that Ivan’s marriage to Maria nearly two centuries beforehand symbolized a special relationship between Russians and the Circassians.
The process of expansion and assimilation in the Caucasus continued after Peter’s reign as well. The Russian invasion of Persian-held territories in the Caucasus marked another major advance into the region, as Russian forces captured Derbent and advanced as far as Karabakh by 1796 (Henze, 17-18). Russia’s annexation of Georgia in 1801 was another sign of Russia consolidating its hold on the Caucasus, causing Kabarda to rely on the Turks in order to resist Russian influence within their homeland (Namitok, 29). The Napoleonic Wars saw an increased Russian presence within the region, as the Russian military employed harsh tactics in the hopes that the local population would ultimately bend to the will of the Tsarist administration. Russia continued to exercise its power over the Caucasus over the next two centuries, both under the Tsarist and Soviet regimes. In all likelihood, Russia would have involved itself in the affairs of the Caucasus regardless of any claims to govern the region. However, the marriage between Ivan IV and Maria Temryukovna in 1561 provided a historical event that Russian elites could cite in order to justify their extended presence in the region. While Maria’s life was shrouded with mystery and intrigue, including allegations that Ivan killed her with poison, perhaps her greatest contribution to Russia’s historical narrative was simply marrying Ivan in the first place. Her marriage laid the groundwork for a relationship between the Caucasus and Russia that reinforced Russian imperialist policy for centuries after her death.
- A. P. Pavlov and Maureen Perrie, Ivan the Terrible (London: Pearson/Longman, 2003).
- Aytek Namitok, “The ‘Voluntary’ Adherence of Kabarda (Eastern Circassia) to Russia.” (Munich: Caucasian Review No. 2, 1956).
- Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys among the Defiant People of the Caucasus (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
- Paul B. Henze, “The North Caucasus: Russia’s Long Struggle to Subdue the Circassians.” (Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation. August 1990).
- ________, “Islam in the North Caucasus: The Example of Chechnia.” (Washington, D.C.: Circassian World, 1995).
- Peter Hyson, “Dreams of the Caucasus: Conquest and Caprice.” (Middlebury, VT: Middlebury College, 2008).