Putin Using Ivan the Terrible as Surrogate for Stalin Because ‘At Least He was a Russian’

October 20, 2016
The famous 1885 painting by Ilya Repin of Ivan the Terrible clutching his son Ivan just after murdering him on November 16th, 1581

Putin Using Ivan the Terrible as Surrogate for Stalin Because ‘At Least He was a Russian’

Staunton, VA, October 19, 2016 – Few events in recent years have triggered such a fevered discussion in the Russian blogosphere as the erection of a statute to Ivan the Terrible in Oryol, something no Russian government had done before, with most horrified but some enthusiastic about this latest turn in Russian history. 

Nonetheless, some of the commentaries have been extremely thoughtful, offering perspectives on what is going on that may prove to be more prescient after the current media circus subsides. The conclusions of three in particular seem especially worthy of note by those following Russia under the Putin regime.

First, at APN, Russian commentator Pavel Svyatenko suggests that Putin is promoting the cult of Ivan the Terrible as a way of promoting Stalinism because the tsar was at least an ethnic Russian and thus easier for contemporary Russians to accept than it would be for them to accept immediately the ethnic Georgian Stalin. 

“Under the guise of the cult of Ivan the Terrible,” he writes, we are being forced to accept and acknowledge tyranny and not some abstract one but precisely a Stalinist variant. Because society isn’t ready to fall on its knees before the Georgian Stalin, we are being tied to a Russian tyrant from the distant past.”

Once Russians accept “the greatness of Ivan the Terrible,” he writes, “the next step will be for them to be told that Stalin is the Ivan the Terrible of today” because “those who are imposing the cult of Ivan the Terrible really want to renew terror against our people in the style of 1917-1953.” 

But for that to happen, Svyatenkov says, the powers that be need “moral sanction. A slave who knows that he is not free is already not a slave. Knowledge of one’s own slavery is the beginning of freedom.” Therefore, for those who want such a return to the past, it is essential that Russians become “bearers of a slave’s consciousness” and act on that basis. 

“The victims [of such a system] must themselves demand that they be killed,” the Russian commentator argues. “They must celebrate murders. They must tremble before murders. But they must not pose the main question: by what right are these evil deeds committed and is it possible to live without them?”

Second, in Novaya gazeta, commentator Boris Knorre argues that the success the new cult of Ivan the Terrible has enjoyed so far reflects the triumph in the last decade of marginal worshippers of authoritarianism in the Russian Orthodox Church over those who sought to promote humanism. 

In the 1990s, there were two marginal groups in the Russian Orthodox Church who sought to elevate Ivan the Terrible almost to sainthood. One of these groups denied that the tsar had committed the crimes with which he is usually associated, arguing that these were inventions of Western writers hostile to Russia.

The other did not deny his actions but rather argued that they weren’t crimes at all but rather they were necessary steps, however brutal they may have appeared, that saved Russians from falling into heresy and thus preserving the Russian church and the ability of Russians to gain eternal life. 

Then-Patriarch Aleksii rejected these efforts arguing that “it was impossible to glorify the holy martyrs and their cruel oppressors” at one and the same time and in one and the same way. And he was able to ensure that the church as an organization kept the then-marginal figures from having their way. 

But the current patriarch Kirill has a very different view. He and his church have denounced much of the humanism Aleksii celebrated and have been enthusiastic in supporting the erection of statues to Ivan the Terrible. Many of the marginal are now in positions of authority both within the church and in Kremlin circles, Knorre says. 

Like Russian society as a whole, the church milieu in the 1990s was characterized by “a quite large spectrum of opinions.” But now there is an obvious effort to impose a single view in both places. And that authoritarianism has resulted in a situation in which “the defense of Stalin has its supporters among the upper reaches of the church hierarchy.”

As Per-Arne Bodin pointed out in his 2009 monograph, “Language, Canonization and Holy Foolishness,” the Russian Church under Kirill has taken the lead in promoting a revision of history in favor of its most authoritarian elements and this has helped the state displace the views of the 1990s with the current ones.

“Therefore, even if one supposes that at the base of the present-day respect for Ivan the Terrible lie political causes, it is not appropriate to ignore the fact that the preconditions for this respect were laid by religious backers of black hundreds ideas.” And that has broader consequences than many now think.

It means, Knorre says, that “humanism is based exclusively in the secular space, and the supporters of totalitarian turn back to the past have in their hands the entire arsenal of religious argumentation. That goes a long way to explain why the latter are winning.”

And third, religious observer Sergey Khudiyev at the Pravoslavny mir portal argues that the real tragedy of the way Russians are being encouraged to view Ivan the Terrible now is that this is “another religion,” “a cult” and “neither Orthodoxy nor any form of Christianity whatsoever”.

“The cult of Ivan the Terrible,” he writes, “is a cult of reprisals, and it is deeply and organically connected with the cult of Stalin. This cult has its own psychological and spiritual dimensions: psychologically, it is rooted in the East European complex of incompleteness; and spiritually, it has a completely occult character.” 

East Europeans and Russians among them suffer from their sense that they are on the distant periphery of Europe and that they must, regardless of whether they are liberals or patriots, measure what they do against what they imagine Europe to be. They lack a sense of “ethical independence” that could allow them to judge what they are doing in its own terms. 

Those who want to glorify Ivan the Terrible and Stalin to put down the West, Khudiyev says, are showing despite what they think that for them “the West is the most important place in their mental map of the world.” But of course, he adds, “for a Christian, this cannot be the case” because a Christian must look to values not of this world. 

But there is also “a deeper spiritual problem” in this case, he says.  What is on offer with Ivan the Terrible is “a definite cult, a new religious movement,” with its own values and ideas, all of which are directed against Christianity in general and Orthodoxy in particular. 

And this cult and especially its occult dimension as pushed by people like Aleksandr Prokhanov distracts Russians from Christianity just as much as Aum Sinreke or the Branch Dravidians did.

“The sooner we resolve to say that we are dealing with an un-Christian cult, the less evil it will bring,” he commented.