Putin Views “Ivan the Terrible” as “Ivan the Not-So-Bad”
Vol. 79/No. 15 April 27, 2015
Putin glorifies despotic czars as examples of Russian pride
BY NAOMI CRAINE
Who your heroes are says a lot. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who appeals to Great Russian chauvinism seeking to boost his regime and its modern-day territorial claims, promotes glorification of the czars and the country’s despotic feudal history. Revolutionary working-class leaders Karl Marx and Frederick Engels accurately described the monarchs who ruled the Russian empire for centuries as “the mainstay of European reaction.” Their rule was overthrown by the historic working-class-led revolution in 1917.
A recent blockbuster exhibition staged in Moscow and St. Petersburg by the Russian Military-Historical Society celebrated the medieval dynasty of the 16th century czar known as Ivan the Terrible. Mirroring current Kremlin propaganda, the show’s theme was that Russia has suffered attacks from the west for centuries and been forced to mount wars of conquest to defend itself against foreign opponents. It depicted Ivan, infamous for brutality, as were many rulers of his epoch, as a victim of slander and sanctions from abroad.
The Military-Historical Society was founded three years ago by Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, in cooperation with Russia’s defense ministry. Its other exhibits include a March 2015 show of paintings celebrating Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine the year before. Putin has urged the society to promote “patriotism and the sacred duty of defending our homeland, national dignity and loyalty to our roots.”
Reactionary history of czarism
In looking to promote an image of imperial Russia besieged by foreign enemies, Putin harkens back to the 1800s when Russia’s rulers were the organizers of reactionary forces in Europe, seeking to destroy democratic and revolutionary threats and extend their feudal empire. Marx and Engels wrote often to urge revolutionaries across Europe to organize to meet this threat. Their views are summed up in “The Foreign Policy of Russian Tsardom,” an 1890 article by Engels.
“The Empire of the Tsar is the mainstay of European reaction, its last fortified position and its great reserve army,” Engels wrote. He explained the role of foreign conquest in maintaining czardom at home, saying, “To the Jingo public the fame of victory, the conquests following on conquests, the might and glamour of Tsardom, far outweigh all sins, all despotism, all injustice, and all wanton oppression.”
Engels details how the Russian rulers pontificated on liberal principles to pursue diplomatic intrigue and wars of conquest. They proclaimed Russia’s “duty to protect the oppressed Greek Church and downtrodden Slavs … under the name of ‘freeing the oppressed’” to justify continuous assaults in Crimea against Turkey in search of an outlet to the Black Sea.
In eastern Europe, the czars talked piously of the “Principle of Nationalities” to justify seizing chunks of Poland and what are today Belarus and Ukraine, Engels said.
Engels’ depiction of Czar Nicholas I, who gained the throne in 1825, sounds eerily like Putin: “A conceited mediocrity, whose horizon never exceeded that of a company officer, a man who mistook brutality for energy, and obstinacy in caprice for strength of will, who prized beyond everything the mere show of power.”
The czars targeted every advance of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Europe — from the French Revolution of 1789 to the revolutionary upsurge that shook Europe in 1848, in which Marx and Engels were participants.
Engels describes how Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War in 1853-56 spelled the beginning of the end for czarism, whose course “is possible only in a country where, and so long as, the people remain absolutely passive, have no will other than that of the Government, no mission but to furnish soldiers and taxes.”
“The war had proved that Russia needed railways, steam engines, modern industry, even on purely military grounds,” Engels wrote. “And thus the government set about breeding a Russian capitalist class. But such a class cannot exist without a proletariat, a class of wage-workers, and in order to procure the elements for this, the so-called emancipation of the peasants had to be taken in hand.”
‘Revolution in Russia can stop war’
Engels pointed to the conflicts already drawing the capitalist powers of Europe toward a continent-wide war, including the German annexation of the French territory of Alsace-Lorraine and Moscow’s plans to capture what is now the Turkish city of Istanbul. At the same time Europe was increasingly marked by “the struggle in all countries, ever growing fiercer, between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie,” he said.
The “danger of a general war will disappear on the day when a change of things in Russia will allow the Russian people to blot out, at a stroke, the traditional policy of conquest of its Tsars, and to turn its attention to its own internal vital interests,” Engels wrote. That is why the working class in Western Europe is “very deeply interested in the triumph of the Russian Revolutionary Party, and in the overthrow of the Tsar’s absolutism. Europe is gliding … towards the abyss of a general war, a war of hitherto unheard-of extent and ferocity. Only one thing can stop it — a change of system in Russia.”
In fact it was in midst of the slaughter of World War I that the Russian toilers and democratic forces were able to “blot out, at a stroke” the czar and his imperial designs. Because a revolutionary working-class leadership had been prepared in the Bolshevik Party led by V.I. Lenin, the toilers of Russia won political power, opening a new era for the working class.
Under this revolutionary leadership the toilers began to take on the legacy of capitalism and imperialism, including combating national chauvinism and championing the rights of the peoples that had been oppressed within the czarist “prison house of nations.”
These gains and the revolutionary perspectives they provided workers and farmers worldwide were overthrown in a bloody counterrevolution led by Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s. Stalin, like Putin, was a fan of Ivan the Terrible. He ordered the destruction of books on the reactionary history of czardom and personally edited their replacements, presenting Ivan as a unique and progressive ruler who sought to turn Russian despotism into a great world power.
It is the political legacy of Marx, Engels and the 1917 revolution in Russia, not the record of czarism, that stands as an example that working people in Russia and throughout the world can draw strength and inspiration from. It’s an example that Putin wholeheartedly rejects and would like to wipe out of history.