MOSCOW—A few days before the New Year, Sofiya Timofeyeva, a 20-year-old opposition activist from the provincial city of Cheboksary, asked her father to carve a wooden stake like the one used in the Middle Ages to impale the victims of the first Russian tsar, Ivan the Terrible. Timofeyeva and her friends from the human rights group Vesna (Spring) were struggling to stop their city hall’s plans to unveil a monument to the tyrant in the center of their city.
The initiative to erect the statue was coming from the ministry of education as part of an increasingly popular heroization of Russian tsars and Soviet leaders, with authorities using history as a tool for state ideology. So the young activists had come up with their own idea and preemptively installed the freshly carved stake in Cheboksary’s Republic Square with the legend: “Monument to Ivan the Terrible from Vesna.”
Nobody wants the brutal history of Ivan to be forgotten, but it’s important to remember what it represented at the time, and what it can be used to excuse in the government of the present.
There are good reasons Ivan was called “Terrible.” Under a policy called oprichnina he created personal secret forces (oprichniki) to hunt down and kill independent nobility, confiscate property, and perform mass public executions. In 1570 the oprichniki murdered hundreds of nobility in the relatively progressive city of Novgorod. At least 200 people were executed in Moscow in July of that year. Historical accounts say that in many of these cases a skillful executioner thrust a stake up through the body of the victim, following along the spine, trying not to damage vital organs, so the suffering would last longer.
That, says Timofeyeva, is why “the stake should be the monument to symbolize Ivan the Terrible’s dictatorship.”
But most Kremlin officials would disagree with the Vesna activists, because the burnishing of Ivan’s reputation as a nation-builder is part of today’s ideology under President Vladimir Putin, which, to borrow a phrase, is all about Making Russia Great Again. Bloody tyrants and cults of personality are once again in fashion.
A monument to the founder of the first Russian secret police force was unveiled in Orel and another statue to him was erected in a patriotic park in the heart of Moscow’s old town.
When Putin came to power, more than 70 percent of the country’s population held negative views of Joseph Stalin's political repression; now 46 percent of the population view Stalin with "admiration and respect." Every Victory Day on May 9, commemorating the defeat of the Nazis, Stalin fans put flowers to his grave by the Kremlin’s wall. But the revival of Stalin’s cult was clearly not enough.
Now authorities are trying to convince Russians that Ivan the Terrible was not a maniac, murderer, and psychopath but "a tall, handsome, genius of strategy, a victorious commander and a saintly person," who enlarged the territory of Russia five-, 10- or even 30-fold. There is even a movement in the Moscow Patriarchate today to canonize Tsar Ivan.
Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of International Affairs at the New School, focuses her studies on historical heroes of today’s Kremlin cults, from Ivan the Terrible to the 10th century Vladimir the Great, whose 60-foot statue was installed in 2016, just 100 yards from the Kremlin’s monument to Stalin.
“All these heroic emperors and tsars are a Putin type of cult personality, everybody who was bringing lands together was great,” Khrushcheva told The Daily Beast. “To Putin, the Soviet Union was a part of long Russian history and he is not just a successor of Soviet leaders but all of them, he is Vladimir the Great, Ivan the Terrible, one more tough persona.”
Russia’s present president often speaks about patriotic education. The Russian Military-Patriotic Historical Society installs statues and monuments of tsars around Moscow’s streets and parks, school curricula have been changed, history has been edited.
“Our teachers created a positive image of Ivan the Terrible even at our nice Jewish school in Moscow, only later did I study history and realize how ugly he was,” Filipp Gorenshtein, a theater and movie actor, told The Daily Beast. “At this time of sanctions, our authorities need the nation to tighten belts, sacrifice our own lives, so cults of iron-fisted leaders are in the interests of the powers that be.”
Many thought that by implementing economic sanctions against Russia, the West could convince the Kremlin to come to terms, to stop undermining European values, interfering in foreign policies and democracies. But in fact poverty, inferior goods, self-isolation and suffering is not anything new for Russia.
While the Kremlin is blaming Americans for all of our suffering here, police arrest young activists, accuse people of treason, of betraying the Motherland, just the way Ivan the Terrible’s oprichniki secret police were hunting independent nobility back in the 16th century.
Young people often mock the state for dusting off moldy old dictators, but that doesn’t deter Putin.
“The state’s efforts come out of desperation, because we see in the polls that people are less interested in the military, people are not embracing the idea of breaking up with the rest of the world,” said Khrushcheva. “During the World Cup last summer people realized that they can be great without an iron fist.”