Wed, Jan 03, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Why prominent Russians are resurrecting Ivan the Terrible

Neo-medievalism is rooted in nostalgia for a social order based on inequality, caste and clan, enforced by terror, and the lionization of despots reflects these values

By Dina Khapaeva

While much of the world is busy dismantling monuments to oppressors, Russians are moving in the opposite direction, erecting statues to medieval warlords who were famous for their despotism. Understanding this revival can shed light on the direction of Russian politics.

In October 2016, with the endorsement of Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, the nation’s first-ever monument to Ivan the Terrible was unveiled in the city of Orel. A month later, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, called for Lenin Avenue in Moscow to be renamed Ivan the Terrible Highway. Then in July last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin christened Moscow’s own tribute to the tyrant, declaring, erroneously, that “most likely, Ivan the Terrible never killed anyone, not even his son.”

Most historians agree that Ivan lived up to his name — not only did he kill his son and other relatives, he also ordered the oprichnina, the state-led purges that terrorized Russia from 1565 to 1572. He also presided over Russia’s defeat in the Livonian War, and his misrule contributed to the Time of Troubles and the state’s devastating depopulation.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin initiated the modern cult of Ivan the Terrible, but, since the mid-2000s, Russia’s Eurasia Party — a political movement led by the pro-fascist mystic Alexander Dugin — has moved to position Ivan as the best incarnation of an “authentic” Russian tradition: authoritarian monarchy.

Dugin’s brand of “Eurasianism” advocates the embrace of a “new Middle Ages,” where what little remains of Russian democracy is replaced by an absolute autocrat. In Dugin’s ideal future, a medieval social order would return, the empire would be restored, and the Russian Orthodox Church would assume control over culture and education.

Eurasianism, which was marginal in the 1990s, has gained considerable popularity by contributing to the formation of the so-called Izborsky Club, which unites the Russian far right.

On several occasions, Putin has referred to Eurasianism as an important part of Russian ideology — he has even invoked it as a founding principle of the “Eurasian Economic Union,” a burgeoning trade area of former Soviet states.

Eurasianism has given ultra-nationalist groups common ground around which to unite. It has also given symbols of totalitarianism, like Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, new legions of support.

Chief among them are members of the Eurasia Party, who consider political terror the most effective tool of governance and call for a “new oprichnina” — a staunchly anti-Western Eurasian conservative revolution.

Mikhail Yuriev, a member of the political council of the Eurasia Party and author of the utopian novel The Third Empire, says the oprichniks should be the only political class and they should rule by fear.

Ivan the Terrible is not the only medieval vestige being revived in Russia. Cultural vocabulary is also reverting.

For example, the word kholop, which means “serf,” is returning to the vernacular, a linguistic devolution that parallels a troubling rise in Russia’s modern slavery.

Data from the Global Slavery Index show that more than 1 million Russians are currently enslaved in the construction industry, the military, agriculture and the sex trade. Moreover, serf “owners” are also happily identifying themselves as modern-day Barins.

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