An Interview with Charles J. Halperin, author of Ivan the Terrible in Russian Historical Memory since 1991

We are pleased to present this interview with Charles J. Halperin, author of Ivan the Terrible in Russian Historical Memory since 1991.

Tsar Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV, 1533-1584) is one of the most controversial rulers in Russian history, infamous for his cruelty. He was the first Russian ruler to use mass terror as a political instrument, and the only Russian ruler to do so before Stalin. Comparisons of Ivan to Stalin only exacerbated the politicization of his image. Russians have never agreed on his role in Russian history, but his reign is too important to ignore. Since the abolition of censorship in 1991 professional historians and amateurs have grappled with this problem. Some authors have manipulated that image to serve political and cultural agendas. This book explores Russia’s contradictory historical memory of Ivan in scholarly, pedagogical and political publications.

Academic Studies Press: Why is it that Ivan the Terrible is such a controversial figure in Russian collective memory?

Charles J. Halperin: I suspect that there is something in every country’s history that some of its residents would rather forget. For reasons that remain unclear Ivan the Terrible made war on his own people. Unfortunately Ivan’s reign was so important in Russian history in both domestic and foreign affairs that it is impossible to avoid. To further complicate matters the surviving sources on his reign are often contested, either because they are biased (which applies to native as well as foreigner accounts) or are extant only in seventeenth-century manuscripts which compromises their authenticity and accuracy. There are major gaps in the types of evidence that have survived; for example, we have no personal rather than public documents from Ivan. Therefore there is a wide space for legitimate scholarly disagreement. But Ivan’s controversial identity goes well beyond these academic considerations.

Ivan’s personality and reign were politicized in his own lifetime and have remained so ever since. There is little room for compromise among the extreme interpretations that have been advanced. Ivan’s image in Russian culture reflects the dichotomy of Russian opinion not only of Ivan’s life and significance, but also as a surrogate or allegory for the entire course of Russian history, the basis for holistic judgments about the Russian national character. The controversy over Ivan in Russia’s past continues to serve as a surrogate for controversy over Russia’s present.

Finally Ivan’s charismatic personality, expressed not only in writings that some historians believe he did not author but in his behavior, dominates discussion of his reign in Russian collective memory. It is difficult to see past Ivan when discussing sixteenth-century Russian history.

The paradoxes, contradictions, and mysteries of Ivan’s person and sixteenth-century Russian history are so great that even all academic interpretations become controversial.

ASP: You mention in the book’s introduction that you found it important to examine all nonfiction works about Ivan the Terrible, not just scholarly works meant for a specialist audience—how did this shape your research and conclusions?

CJH: In Russia professional historians specializing in Muscovite history often ignore the more extremist conceptions of Ivan because overwhelmingly non-scholarly works contribute nothing to historical understanding of Ivan. However for several reasons such publications must be analyzed. The dividing line between scholarly and non-scholarly works is very porous. Some seemingly non-scholarly works were written by professional historians whose partisan views have nothing in common with the canons of historical scholarship. Politically partisan works about Ivan feed off the problematic status of the evidence about Ivan, which permits the expression of highly polarizing conclusions that cannot be definitely disproven for the same reason they cannot be definitely confirmed, the absence of unimpeachable evidence.

Moreover, extremist views of Ivan as deserving canonization or a precursor of Stalin, for good or ill in different works, influence the general public’s reaction to textbooks and surveys of Russian history written by academics.

ASP: Popular representations of historical figures and events, such as films and novels, often take historical liberties for the sake of the story. What issues arise from this phenomenon when applied to Ivan the Terrible?

CJH: In the case of Ivan the Terrible, supposedly non-fiction works about Ivan, especially alternative histories and sensationalist “biographies,” often exercise as much literary license as popular novels, plays, operas, and films. Such non-fiction works seem more like fiction than non-fiction. Cultural works enhance Ivan’s image as a major figure in Russian history without resolving any of the issues of his reign. Indeed, Eisenstein’s film, whose influence on popular perception of Ivan in and even outside Russia cannot be overestimated, only increased the lack of consensus about Ivan among Russians because there is no consensus on the question of whether Ivan’s image in the film is positive or negative.

Popular representations of Ivan make it more difficult for Russians to ignore Ivan’s role in Russian history by expanding the context of debate outside the historical profession. Moreover, given the wide range of scholarly opinion, Ivan’s personality and reign can be mobilized on behalf of a wide spectrum of political and cultural viewpoints. Ivan has been invoked by both left-wing and right-wing critics of the current Russian regime.


Frame from Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944), via RRP-NYC on Flickr

Frame from Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944), via RRP-NYC on Flickr


ASP: Amidst the controversy and disagreements about Ivan in historical memory, are there any elements that stay consistent in the works you’ve surveyed?

CJH: There are very few historical personages of Ivan’s importance about whom it can be said that there is no base-line narrative to which adherents of all historical interpretations assent. There is no agreement on whether Ivan was pious or sacrilegious, brilliant or insane, successful or a failure, a hero or a coward. The one consistent element in all works, academic and amateur, non-fiction and cultural, is that Ivan remains controversial and in many ways unknown and unknowable, a perfect lightning rod for ideological extrapolation.

Ivan is a divisive figure in Russian history and Russian culture, and will remain so as long as Russians disagree on whether the ends justify the means, whether Ivan’s achievements excuse, let alone justify, his achievements.

Charles J. Halperin is an independent scholar residing in Bloomington, Indiana. He is the author of Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History (1985), The Tatar Yoke: The Image of the Mongols in Medieval Russia (1986, 2009); Ivan the Terrible: Free to Reward and Free to Punish (2019), Ivan IV and Muscovy (2020), and over 100 articles.

Ivan the Terrible in Russian Historical Memory since 1991 is available now from Academic Studies Press. Pick up your copy here or from your favorite bookseller.