Ivan the Not So Terrible?


Bogdan (Karl) Venig - Ivan the Terrible and his old nanny, 1886.
Bogdan (Karl) Venig – Ivan the Terrible and his old nanny, 1886.

In the latest edition of monuwars (monument wars): the monument to Ivan IV aka Ivan the Deplorable Terrible in Oryol. Here’s a few quick thoughts on the subject.

People tend to project their political views on histrorical figures. What’s apparent in case of Ivan IV and his monument is that we are dealing with his image, which exists in the Russian collective consciousness. So the discussion is actually centered around the image of ‘Ivan the Terrible’ not the real Ivan IV.

It’s clear what two extreme viewpoints on the monument are: Russia’s Cargsternizers (cargo cult + Westernizer) say that he is literally Hitler Stalin because he grabbed pussy riot established oh, preach, Nina! oprichnina, slaughtered people of Novgorod (I was not surprised this summer when citizens of Novgorod told me that they are no fans of his), sent his wives to a monastery and even allegedly murdered some of them, as well as his son, etc.

Alexander Litovchenko - Ivan the Terrible Showing His Treasures to [the English ambassador] Jerome Horsey, 1875.
Alexander Litovchenko – Ivan the Terrible Showing His Treasures to [the English ambassador] Jerome Horsey, 1875.

‘Borshcheviks’ (i.e. unhinged patriots or klyukvified scarecrow types needed to make our Western partners more appeasable) sing variations of the Ivan-did-nothing-wrong tune and mock (ultra)libs that he ‘killed a gazillion of innocent babies and drank their blood’. Thus, the authorities are tertius gaudens in this situation: calming down the most deranged persons on the opposite sides of the political menagerie.

Grigory Sedov - Ivan the Terrible admiring Vasilisa Melentieva (1875).
Grigory Sedov – Ivan the Terrible admiring [his wife] Vasilisa Melentieva, 1875.

Let’s take a look at the pro- and anti-monument points.

Pro-monument points:

  1. He founded Oryol where the monument stands.
  2. He was an outstanding Russian statesman who did much for his country (e.g., the conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan). He made Russia great again indeed!
  3. The negative side of his rule affected Russians centuries ago. Moreover, keeping in mind the negative, we shouldn’t forget about the positive. It’s hard to separate historical myth from reality here. Nowadays it’s more of a popular culture image (‘Evil Ruskie Tsar’) that influences and/or warps our general understanding and attitude to Ivan IV as a historical figure.
Klavdy Lebedev Tsar Ivan the Terrible asks hiegumen Kornily to admit him into monks, 1898.
Klavdy Lebedev – Tsar Ivan the Terrible asks hiegumen Kornily to admit him into monks, 1898.

Anti-monument points:

  1. Ivan IV was a cruel leader (which – to be fair – was not an exclusive Russian thing given the context of the time when he was in power).
  2. He is a polarizing figure in contemporary Russia. This is even more important due to the recent phase of confrontation with our Western partners when less turmoil and more social solidarity is needed.
  3. The monument itself is likely to be used by our Western partners’ media in order to portray the ‘primordial totalitarian nature of the Russian character’.  So the timing is also far from being perfect.

[Note: the last point is ambiguous because if taken at face value it puts Russia in conceptual bondage as the entity always looking for West’s (dis)approval while outsourcing Russian worldview].

Thus, imho it’s 50/50. The truth is out there.

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3 thoughts on “Ivan the Not So Terrible?

  1. About cruelty — one of the main accusations levied against him was that he murdered without cause many tens of thousands of innocents. Quick overview:

    a) if we put aside the ‘legitimate» deaths occurred during wars (Siege of Novgorod (which revolted against his rule), capture of Kazan and Astrakhan, war in Livonia etc) then the number comes down to around 4000, most of whom are listed by Ivan IV himself in his own list (which he supposedly kept in order to say proper prayers about all of them)
    b) Almost all of these people were executed after trials and under court orders — of course, courts were very much under tzar’s own authority, although there were (rare) cases when they ruled for the accused.
    c) Quite a lot of these people were self-confessed conspirators against him, who at least three times attempted his overthrow. Very likely his first wife was poisoned by his enemies; similar attempts have been made against tzar himself as well. Kinda puts this in perspective… maybe.
    d) Meet his «contemporaries» Henry VIII (around 50,000 people executed during his reign — heretics, those against his laws on religion, peasants revolting against his barons and his taxes) and Charles IX of France (St.Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, around 3000-5000 just in one day, and then tens of thousands during next month or so). While Henry VIII can at least pretend that everything was done properly according to the law, Charles IX cannot swing even that pseudo-argument.

    And then we have rulers like Galeazzo Sforza, Edward I, Isabella and Ferdinand who surely have at least as many victims on their conscience as Ivan IV had… I am not even talking about Philip IV exterminating Templar knights, or many thousands cathars burned in Albigensian Crusade… etc etc … kind of almost normal for medieval times… I am not even going to mention tens of thousands Native Indians killed during «manifest destiny» push to the West in the USA, or about hundreds of thousands (sic!) innocents murdered by Britain alone during Indian Rebellion of 1857.

    Examples are abound everywhere we look… the difference is that Europe and entire Western civilization have «made peace» with that part of history by conveniently forgetting about to it — and they certainly do not use it to make sweeping and extremely negative generalizations about their allies these days.

    Getting back to Ivan IV, it needs to be noticed that most of the contemporary accusations against him were made either by exiled traitors like Kurbsky (whose book was financed and published by Poland — at the time the foremost political and military rival of Russia) or envoys sent by Catholic church who were heavily biased against Orhodox Christianity and Russian influence in Eastern Europe.

    As a good English-language treatise on the origin of the views that most Western people and media have on Russian history you could read Guy Mettan’s book «Creating Russophobia» (some ideas there do not look super convincing to me, but generally this seems like a very good introduction).


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  2. I understand that the Russian word associated with Ivan IV is ‘Grozny’. The translation into English as ‘terrible’ uses an archaic definition of that word, which we would nowadays translate as ‘stupendous’ or ‘awe-inspiring’. Sadly, many who translate don’t even know their own language properly.

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