Staunton, October 17 – There is near universal agreement that the erection of statues to Ivan the Terrible, something no Russians had done before, is not about the past but about the present and future. But one aspect of this revival of what began under Stalin has attracted less attention than it should.
The current cult of Ivan, Mikhail Pozharsky says, is all about his efforts to strengthen the state against anyone who could have challenged his regime rather than about his foreign policies which, when one considers what happened after he died, the occupation of Moscow by Poles, were anything but successful (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=58046AD6A293E).
“In the Russian tradition,” the Moscow commentator writes on the Kasparov.ru portal, the most important thing that separates those whom Russians view as a good ruler from those they see as bad is the leader’s “contribution to the construction of the state and the increase of state property.”
A good leader, he continues, “can be a bloodsucker and a psychopath, who reduces society to poverty, drives it into slavery and spends all the budget on uninterrupted wars. But if he leaves after his reign a strong state which has increased in size, he becomes a Russian national hero.”
But in an important way, Ivan the Terrible represents an exception, Pozharsky continues. “The end of [his] rule was unsuccessful. He was the ruler who handed over the capital to the enemy and completely lost the Livonian war. Imperial historiography couldn’t forgive him for this.”
“If he had ended the Livonian war on favorable conditions,” Pozharksy says, “they could have forgiven him all the bloody excesses in Novgorod just as they forgave Peter [the Great] mass executions” or Alexander I because he took Paris after he surrendered Moscow to Napoleon.
That is why there was no cult of Ivan the Terrible in tsarist times. It “appeared [only] in Soviet times, specifically under Stalin” because “Stalin put above everything else not foreign policy successes but the struggle for the centralization of power” in his own hand and centralization not based on contract as in Europe but on absorption.
When the statue of Ivan the Terrible was dedicated in Oryol last week, the oblast’s governor directly compared Vladimir Putin to Ivan the Terrible clearly viewing that as praise for the current Kremlin ruler (newsorel.ru/fn_225122.html) even if many others view it as anything but (See, for example, novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/10/15/70192-memorializatsiya-uzhasa).
But given that the statue almost certainly could not have been erected without Putin’s approval, Pozharsky’s insight about what the revival of the Stalinist cult of Ivan the Terrible may provide an important clue to the thinking of the Kremlin leader. Like Ivan and Stalin, Putin is more concerned with domestic power than foreign policy.
While the current denizen of the Kremlin may use the one to promote the other, he may see his own future reputation being defined not by his successes against the West but by his construction of a powerful state at home. If indeed that is Putin’s priority, as Pozharsky’s argument implies, putting up statues to Ivan the Terrible will help him promote that view.
And that in turn has important consequences for those who are trying to figure out how to counter him. If Putin’s priorities are domestic rather than foreign, then he needs to be confronted there and not just elsewhere. Otherwise, he may use this cult of Ivan the Terrible to retreat abroad but repress the peoples of Russia even more.