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The Cult of Ivan the Terrible in Stalin's Russia.

The Cult of Ivan the Terrible in Stalin's Russia, by Maureen Perrie. Studies in Russian and Eastern European History. New York, Palgrave, 2001. xv, 255 pp. $75.00 US (cloth).

Remembered by the Russians for his cruelty and the punitive expeditions of his secret police, oprichniki, Ivan IV (1530-84) went down in history with the epithet "Groznyi," translated as "Terrible." According to a popular legend, he was born during a thunderstorm or "groza" (in Russian the word also means "terror"). Maureen Perrie, who has published a book on the image of Tsar Ivan in Russian folklore, examines his phenomenal popularity during Stalin's rule. Surprisingly, Stalin welcomed comparisons between his regime and that of the medieval tyrant.

According to the American political scientist Robert Tucker, Stalin consciously modelled his domestic and foreign policies on those of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, an opinion Perrie does not share (p. 2). It is indisputable, however, that Stalin admired Tsar Ivan, calling him "a great and wise ruler" (p. 1). To Stalin, Tsar Ivan was "insufficiently terrible" because he repented his deeds; Stalin felt it was necessary to lead an "incessant and merciless struggle against one's opponents" (p. 86). While Stalin believed that Ivan the Terrible lacked character, he credited him with expanding the state and consolidating its power.

Stalin had to rehabilitate his predecessors to make his style appear progressive. In 1934 a competition for writing new textbooks was announced. The 1939 edition of a textbook for students in higher education assessed Tsar Ivan as a farsighted politician and an "outstanding strategist" (p. 79), who understood the need for Russia to acquire lands in the Baltic.

Even though Soviet historian Militsa Nechkina pointed out that depicting the tsar as a positive figure was reminiscent of bourgeois historiography (p. 80), Ivan the Terrible was glorified in history books, literature, and cinema. An official campaign to rehabilitate Ivan the Terrible ensued in 1940 during Stalin's annexation of the Baltic states. The Livonian War of Ivan the Terrible was used to justify Soviet territorial expansion. Historians, artists, and writers were expected to create the works to endorse the Party line on the Baltic question and promote a positive image of Tsar Ivan.

In 1942, a second edition of Robert Vipper's biography provided a positive assessment of the tsar. A pre-Revolutionary historian who emigrated to Latvia, Vipper became a key figure in Stalinist historiography (p. 12). Promised an important post at the Academy of Sciences, Vipper returned to Moscow in 1940, following the Soviet occupation of Latvia (p. 92). Three years later, he was promoted as an Academician of the Division of History and Philosophy, lecturing on Ivan the Terrible in Moscow's Hall of Columns (p. 95). Vipper emphasized the contemporary relevance of the theme by saying that the mass executions by oprichniki were "not political terror," but "a struggle against treason" (p. 96). The scholar also credited Ivan the Terrible with creating "in the Muscovite state a prototype of the multinational USSR" (p. 97). Similarly, the career of historian Stepan Veselovskii was fuelled after he published an article, arguing against the interpretation of oprichnina as meaningless terror (p. 103). Veselovskii was promoted a full Academician.

In the late thirties and early forties, a number of prominent writers and artists were commissioned to create works about Ivan the Terrible. In 1941, Dmitry Shostakovich was asked to write an opera (he turned down the proposal), while Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned to make hist famous film. Simultaneously, Alexei Tolstoy, the author of the novel Peter the Great and a favourite of Stalin, accepted a commission to write a play.

Perrie dedicates half of her book to three artistic representations of Tsar Ivan. A trilogy by little-known Valentin Kostylev, serialized in a Moscow literary journal, was published in book form in 1943 (p. 188). Though destined for success, the novel at first met with criticism: Kostylev was accused of simplifying Ivan's character and portraying Russians as savages. After he was exonerated, Kostylev received a Stalin prize, second-class, and the Order of the Red Banner of Labour for "outstanding services in the field of artistic literature" (p. 126).

The talented and conformist Tolstoy quipped in Paris in 1937, "I can already see before me all the Ivan Grozniis ... rehabilitated, having become Marxists and been glorified" (p. 128). The writer, whose novel had celebrated Peter the Great and won for him a Stalin Prize, helped elevate Ivan with his play Ivan Groznyi. The play was nominated for a Stalin Prize at the time of its first reading. Confident he was immune to criticism, Tolstoy brushed off remarks of the all-powerful Academician Veselovskii. The latter helped instigate an attack on Tolstoy. After the press charged him with interpreting the tsar's image incorrectly, Tolstoy had to rewrite the play, but eventually was awarded a Stalin prize. Eisenstein's letter of January 1944 reveals that the director received his instructions about making the film Ivan the Terrible (p. 149) from Stalin himself. After reading the screenplay Stalin noted, "comrade Eisenstein proved himself equal to the task" (p. 161). While the first part of the film was awarded a first-class Stalin prize, part two failed to win support at the top. After watching the film, Stalin compared the oprichniki with a gang of bandits, "like the Ku-Klux-Klan" (p. 175). Eisenstein was permitted to revise the second part, but the work remained uncompleted at his death in 1948.

Though Perrie assembles interesting facts, her book lacks analysis. Tucker's argument that Stalin consciously modelled his policies on those of Ivan the Terrible deserves more attention than a few phrases. She also fails to explain why Kostylev's novel was re-published during Gorbachev's glasnost with a print run of 300,000 copies (p. 188). The chapters on three artistic representations of Ivan the Terrible essentially comprise a re-telling of the content of the works, making an uninteresting read. In addition, there is too much regurgitation of critical works. An obscure Soviet critic, A.M. Pankratova, receives a prominent place in the book: Perrie quotes her eighteen times. Still, the popularity of Ivan the Terrible during Stalin is a fascinating topic.

Alexandra Popoff

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
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Author:Popoff, Alexandra
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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