Magazine article Russian Life

Ivan's Return

Magazine article Russian Life

Ivan's Return

Article excerpt

Monuments, busts and statues in Russia and the former soviet states are closely tied to the political regimes that erect them or pull them down.

In 2014, the toppling of Lenin statues in Ukraine became a symbol of the country's pro-Europe revolution. In recent years, Russia has seen statues erected to Stalin as the bloody Soviet leader's reputation is rehabilitated and his qualities as a strong leader and military victor are increasingly valued.

In November, President Vladimir Putin unveiled an enormous statue just outside the Kremlin to Prince Vladimir, the tenth century prince of Kiev who converted to Orthodox Christianity. Many consider the monument an effort to elbow aside Ukraine--with which Russia has seen a collapse in relations in recent years--from the narrative of Russian history.

Yet one of the most controversial newcomers to Russia's pantheon of heroes represented in stone is the notorious Russian leader Ivan the Terrible, known to many as a bloody tyrant.

On a grey day in October, about 1,000 people gathered in the city of Oryol for the official opening of Russia's first monument to the sixteenth century ruler.

Members of nationalist groups wearing black and carrying the white, gold and black flags of Imperial Russia, stood near the statue. Local Cossacks, some in camouflage, lined the nearby paths. Orthodox believers, several carrying an icon of Tsar Nicholas II, mingled with the nationalists. Many said they had traveled from Moscow for the event.

The statue itself is on a large pedestal of black stone and shows Ivan the Terrible astride a horse, in full tsarist regalia, a cross raised in his right hand, a sword in his left. It has its back turned to Oryol's seventeenth century Bogoyavlensky Cathedral.

Ordinary people who had come to watch the spectacle stood behind temporary railings, or lined a nearby bridge that overlooks the monument in the historic heart of the city, where a sliver of land marks the intersection of the Oka and Orlik rivers.

"Ivan the Terrible is a saint... he killed real criminals and I would also have them killed today," said Vladimir Tuftin, who was watching the proceedings. Viktor Sogan, a passerby, said the statue was too small and that Ivan the Terrible needed something bigger.

A local acting troupe put on a play about the history of Oryol, which Ivan the Terrible is said to have founded as part of a drive to reinforce Russia's southern border.

The play was followed by a series of speeches from the guests of honor--a collection of prominent nationalists, Orthodox clerics and government officials. The crowd was addressed by the governor of Oryol Region, Vadim Potomsky; Alexander Zaldostanov, the head of a notorious pro-Putin biker gang, the Night Wolves; extreme nationalist publicists, Alexander Prokhanov and Sergei Kurginyan; and Schema-Archimandrite Iliy, a senior Orthodox cleric and personal confessor to the head the Russian Orthodox Church. A letter from Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky was read aloud.

Speakers praised Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia from 1547 to 1584, as a leader who strengthened the state, grew its territory and built many churches. Schema-Archimandrite Iliy blessed the statue and people laid flowers, mainly red carnations, at its base.

Governor Potomsky, a member of the Communist Party who campaigned for the statue, said Ivan the Terrible fought off foreign invaders like Russia fought off the Nazis in World War II, and drew a comparison with President Vladimir Putin.

"We have a great, powerful president who has forced the whole world to respect and defer to Russia like Ivan the Terrible did in his time," said Potomsky. "Enough is enough. We have to tell our children and our descendants about great tsars and great rulers."

But the statue has stirred controversy in Russia, where Ivan the Terrible's bloody deeds and the Time of Troubles--a period of chaos characterized by warring factions --that followed his death, means he has never before been honored in such a way. …

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