Public perception of Russia’s great persons has been, to a large extent, shaped by Joseph Stalin’s effort and according to his design. Stalin was especially fond of the figure of Ivan the Terrible.
Prof. Dr. Boris Ilizarov, a distinguished faculty member of the Russian History Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and author of “The Secret Life of Stalin”, has devoted two decades of work to researching the personality of Stalin and the impact he has exerted upon our age and our views. These days, Dr. Ilizarov is working on a book that is to shed light on the topic of Stalin and Ivan the Terrible.
According to Ilizarov, Stalin has had a great impact on the Russian historiography: many modern-day historians still share the belief that the controversial Soviet leader actually imposed some of his views on history and initiated changes to the presentation of historical facts. Stalin largely shaped the public perception of Lenin (mainly the perception of Lenin’s and Stalin’s relationship), Peter the Great, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, and Julius Caesar. Ivan the Terrible has a special place in this gallery of prominent men of the past. As Ilizarov points out, “Ivan the Terrible and Stalin himself remain the most controversial figures in Russian history. They are both perceived as terrifying and bloodthirsty, though at the same time very obscure. Little is known about Ivan the Terrible that can be considered a true fact. We do know more about Stalin, yet there have been so many rumors and legends about him that his true personality has grown quite obscure and requires incessant research to discover and expose his shadiest and most terrifying sides.” The researcher finds it especially interesting that the figure of Ivan the Terrible acquired a special meaning and function in Stalin’s times.
The first historian to write about Ivan the Terrible was Nikolay Karamzin (1766−1826). It was Karamzin who actually produced the “schoolbook” storyline for this tsar: he was popular at the start of his rule, introduced positive changes and worked on building a new state, relying on the advice of powerful counselors. Then something went wrong: he got rid of all his wise men and turned into a bloodthirsty tyrant. This storyline might have been borrowed from the ancient Roman historiography – it was quite typical back then to lay out a tyrant’s biography as that of a man who started as a hero and ended up as a villain. And that is the image that has prevailed in the Russian historical tradition for a very long while ever since.
Vladimir Solovyov (1853−1900) largely followed this tradition, although he talked more about the positive achievements of Ivan the Terrible, whereas other historians emphasized his misdeeds. “Closer to the end of the19th Century, authors tended to speak about Ivan the Terrbile more in terms of his psyche, saying that he was unstable, or even plainly insane, and that he did incomprehensible, cruel things and killed people for no reason at all,” continues Ilizarov.
This image was favored by Russian historians until 1917. After the October Revolution, historian Mikhail Pokrovsky took up the popular version and gave it a Marxist twist. In the new reading, Ivan the Terrible was a typical representative of the upper class, and his cruelty and meanness were interpreted as qualities inherent to the exploiter class on the whole. This concept prevailed in the Russian literature until 1927−1928.
”By that time, Joseph Stalin had acquired so much power that it enabled him to become a moderate dictator by 1927−1929, and an absolute dictator after Trotsky had been deported from the Soviet Union in 1929,” Ilizarov explains further. A special committee was set up in 1934 to develop new history schoolbooks. “It was then that it became clear that there was no such science as history in Soviet Russia. All we had was social sciences. And so Stalin ordered to establish history as a branch of science completely anew,” he continues.
The Central Committee’s and Stalin’s personal archives contain many documents related to the production of new history schoolbooks. “A dozen committees were set up whose members were not only historians, but experts in completely different areas who knew nothing of history, and volunteers who wished to take part in making schoolbooks,” explains Ilizarov.
Ilizarov pays special attention to the committee, whose objective was to develop a history book for the college of education. The head of committee was Chistakov, and the famed historian Bakhrushin was among the committee members. Ilizarov believes that Chistakov’s team worked under direct supervision of Stalin, who would tell them his understanding of history and give his judgment of historical events. Chistakov’s textbook is the first known to contain a new story of Ivan the Terrible. Stalin himself edited the book. There are surviving copies with his handwritten comments.
”This textbook was the first one known to give a positive account of Ivan the Terrible’s rule. It presents Ivan the Terrible as a unique, progressive person who was, in fact, the first to try and ‘open a window to Europe’ and turn Russia into a great world power. The textbook also presented the Oprichnina (period of political repression, ed.) as a positive achievement rather than a completely negative thing, which it had been perceived as until then,” expands Ilizarov.
Stalin was not an educated man by Elizarov’s account: he never graduated from the seminary he had attended and his history grades were only average. After Stalin came to power, however, it turned out he needed to know a lot – especially in the field of social sciences – to run the USSR. Stalin started collecting books for a personal library in 1922-1923. This library, by the time of Stalin’s death, had grown to 23-24,000 books. The dictator read a lot about history, among other things. He had books by Karamzin, Solovyov and other historians. Among them was one author who was of a special significance to Stalin, Robert Yuryevich Vipper (1859-1954). “We have in our possession the books that Stalin was reading. A lot of the sentences were underlined and they had comments written on the side margins in Stalin’s hand. Vipper wrote brilliantly about ancient and medieval history,” Ilizarov notes.
Analyzing the revolution Vipper had come to the conclusion that it was not brought about by social or economic forces, but by individuals. The year 1917 saw a small group of Bolsheviks shaping the historical course of events. That was what prompted Vipper to start approaching history by looking at the role of individuals. In 1922, Vipper published a book called “Ivan the Terrible” which Stalin soon read. “The way Ivan the Terrible is depicted in that book was very distinctive. He is shown as one of the most influential leaders of the 16th Century, a time when Europe and Asia clashed once again. Vipper believed that Europe and Asia were fighting an unending battle divided into periods of calm and turbulence. In the 16th Century, according to Vipper, Europe mounted an attack on Asia and drove it back. Ivan the Terrible was at the front of the attack, capturing Kazan and Astrakhan, and effectively bringing down the Tatar Yoke,” Ilizarov explains.
Bakhrushin, who was a member of Chistakov’s commission, used Vipper’s vision of Ivan the Terrible in a history textbook. Stalin liked that.
Vipper did not like the Bolsheviks. He willingly migrated to Latvia in 1924 to teach at a university. Soon after, however, the Soviet intelligence service started sending agents to talk Vipper into returning to the Soviet Union. This was probably a move initiated personally by Stalin, Ilizarov says. Vipper was scared of going back, as there had been a time in his career when he had criticized Lenin himself. In May 1941, however, Vipper did return to Moscow. Upon arrival, he immediately sent a telegram to Stalin, thanking the Soviet leader for his work. The telegram is kept in Stalin’s personal archive.
Upon arriving in the USSR, Vipper was given a large apartment in a new house on Leninsky Prospekt. He was granted high positions at Moscow University and at several institutes. After the war began, Vipper and a group of History Institute scientists were sent to Tashkent with other groups of renowned historians. In the summer of 1942, as the world war raged on, the historians were discussing the part Ivan the Terrible played in history. The three most celebrated historians – Vipper, Bakhrushin and Smirnov – presented their reports at these discussions. Vipper’s book on Ivan the Terrible was then re-issued, with added references to the works of Marx and Stalin. “Stalin must have been pleased. Vipper got the title of academician that same year, 1943. He could not have become a member of the Academy of Sciences unless Stalin personally approved him for that,” Ilizarov adds.
The book was reprinted again in 1944. Smirnov and Bakhrushin then published their own research on Ivan the Terrible. Bakhrushin focused on the history of the Rada (Ivan’s council assembly, ed.), while Smirnov studied Ivan the Terrible’s foreign policy in the East and South. This was how the multi-faceted public image of Ivan the Terrible was created.
Boris Ilizarov presented his report entitled “Stalin and Ivan the Terrible” in Moscow, on June 24, 2010.
By Julia Mineeva / Infox.ru