Dec 29th 2017

Why Is Russia Resurrecting Ivan the Terrible?

by Dina Khapaeva

Dina Khapaeva is Professor of Russian at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Modern Languages. Her most recent book is The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture.

ATLANTA – While much of the world is busy dismantling monuments to oppressors, Russians are moving in the opposite direction, erecting statues to medieval warlords who were famous for their despotism. Understanding this revival can shed light on the direction of Russia’s politics.

Last October, with the endorsement of Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, the country’s first-ever monument to Ivan the Terrible was unveiled in the city of Orel. A month later, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, called for Lenin Avenue in Moscow to be renamed Ivan the Terrible Highway. And in July of this year, President Vladimir Putin christened Moscow’s own tribute to the tyrant, declaring, erroneously, that “most likely, Ivan the Terrible never killed anyone, not even his son.”

Most historians agree that Ivan lived up to his name; not only did he kill his son and other relatives, he also ordered the oprichnina, the state-led purges that terrorized Russia from 1565 to 1572. He also presided over Russia’s defeat in the Livonian War, and his misrule contributed to the Time of Troubles and the state’s devastating depopulation.

Joseph Stalin initiated the modern cult of Ivan the Terrible. But, since the mid-2000s, Russia’s Eurasia Party – a political movement led by the pro-fascist mystic Alexander Dugin – has moved to position Ivan as the best incarnation of an “authentic” Russian tradition: authoritarian monarchy.

Dugin’s brand of “Eurasianism” advocates the embrace of a “new Middle Ages,” where what little remains of Russian democracy is replaced by an absolute autocrat. In Dugin’s ideal future, a medieval social order would return, the empire would be restored, and the Orthodox church would assume control over culture and education.

Eurasianism, which was marginal in the 1990s, has gained considerable popularity in recent years by contributing to the formation of the so-called Izborsky Club, which unites the Russian far right. On several occasions, Putin has referred to Eurasianism as an important part of Russian ideology; he has even invoked it as a founding principle of the “Eurasian Economic Union,” a burgeoning trade area of former Soviet states.

Eurasianism has given ultra-nationalist groups common ground around which to unite. It has also given symbols of totalitarianism, like Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, new legions of support.

Chief among them are members of the Eurasia Party, who consider political terror the most effective tool of governance and call for a “new oprichnina” – a staunchly anti-Western Eurasian conservative revolution. According to Mikhail Yuriev, a member of the political council of the Eurasia Party and author of the utopian novel The Third Empire, the oprichniks should be the only political class, and they should rule by fear.

Ivan the Terrible is not the only medieval vestige being revived in Russia. Cultural vocabulary is also reverting. For example, the word kholop, which means “serf,” is returning to the vernacular, a linguistic devolution that parallels a troubling rise in Russia’s modern slavery. Data from the Global Slavery Index show that more than one million Russians are currently enslaved in the construction industry, the military, agriculture, and the sex trade. Moreover, serf “owners” are also happily identifying themselves as modern-day barins.

Even Russian officials speak approvingly of modern slavery. Valery Zorkin, who chairs the Constitutional Court, wrote in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper, that serfdom has long been a “social glue” for Russia. And another medieval term – lydi gosudarevy, which translates to “servants of his majesty” – has returned to favor among high-ranking bureaucrats.

Nostalgia for serfdom compliments the desire for a return to autocracy. Prominent Russian intellectuals – including the filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, journalist Maksim Sokolov, and Vsevolod Chaplin, a Russian Orthodox cleric – call for the coronation of Putin, and petitions of support are gaining signatures online. Significantly, the protests against Putin’s regime in 2012 have since been interpreted not as a protest against Putin himself, but rather against the social order to which Eurasianism aspires.

Putin’s tacit support for the Eurasian vision of a neo-medieval Russia invokes the historical memory of Stalinism. According to Dugin, “Stalin created the Soviet Empire,” and, like Ivan the Terrible, expresses “the spirit of the Soviet society and the Soviet people.” No wonder, then, that monuments to Stalin, too, are multiplying in Russian cities.

Neo-medievalism is rooted in nostalgia for a social order based on inequality, caste, and clan, enforced by terror. The lionization of historical despots reflects the contemporary embrace of such pre-modern, radically anti-democratic and unjust values. For Ivan’s contemporary champions, the past is prologue.


Dina Khapaeva is Professor of Russian at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Modern Languages. Her most recent book is The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
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