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Vlad the Terrible?

Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow on May 6, 2022.

Though he stopped short of declaring war or announcing a general mobilization in his May 9 World War II anniversary address, Vladimir Putin played the history card yet again. He led off, in fact, by recalling victories against invaders like King Sigismund III of Poland, Napoleon, and Hitler — a reminder that we need to understand Russia’s history to understand its current and likely future conduct. But caution is in order. Facile parallels between Putin and Stalin abound, for example, but often provide little more than a brief burst of endorphins to those horrified by Russian barbarism in Ukraine.

George Kennan, however, was a serious student of Russian history whose analyses and policy recommendations have held up well over the long haul. Re-reading Kennan’s justly famous “Long Telegram” from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in February 1946, I was struck by his solid connection between Russian history and the international aggressiveness of the Soviet regime after World War II. Kremlin policy was “not based on any objective analysis of [the] situation beyond Russia’s borders.” Rather, at the “bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is [the] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” As Russia came into contact with “more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies” Russian leaders became increasingly insecure. They feared what would happen if Russians learned the truth about the outside world or if outsiders learned the truth about Russia.

Kennan’s linkage between the broad sweep of Russian history and the mindset of Stalin and his minions in 1946 resonates with what we are seeing every day some 76 years later. Toward the end of his long life (1904-2005) Kennan correctly warned that insecure Russian leaders would consider NATO’s eastward enlargement a threat. Personally, I would argue that Russian leaders chose this view for political purposes. But one need not share Kennan’s advocacy of putting some brakes on NATO enlargement to appreciate his insistence on looking at the broad sweep of Russian history in order to understand Soviet and Russian conduct.

Putin understands the importance of controlling the historical narrative. And he evidently fancies himself a historian, as evidenced by his grossly distorted 2021 disquisition on the non-existence of a distinct Ukrainian people. We also have been seeing the Putin regime’s effort to revive the reputation of Ivan the Terrible, the first ruler in Moscow to assume the title of “Tsar,” which he held from 1547 until his death in 1584.

Founder of Russia’s secret police, Ivan was an archetypal iron-fisted monarch who inaugurated Russia’s remarkable territorial expansion over several centuries. Ivan Groznyi is best translated into English as “Ivan the Awe-Inspiring” rather than “Ivan the Terrible.” Little surprise that he would have a resurgence of popularity under the Putin regime. Well before the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, five years ago, the Russian city of Oryol inaugurated a statue to Ivan the Terrible and the regional governor credited the Tsar with inspiring Soviet troops in the Second World War. And he went on to praise “the great and most powerful President Putin, who has forced the entire world to respect Russia, as did Ivan the Terrible… with God’s blessing!”

The Vlad/Ivan parallel holds up pretty well if one actually reads Ivan’s own explanation of his approach to governing. One of his critics, the aristocrat and former favorite, Andrei Kurbskii, defected to Lithuania (a great power in those days) and thus survived to exchange a number of letters with the Tsar between 1564 and 1579, as well as a pamphlet criticizing Ivan’s reign of terror.

In rebutting Kurbskii’s criticisms, Ivan made three main points. First, the Tsar was necessarily an autocrat (samoderzhets in Russian), because autocracy in Russia was absolutely necessary, legitimate, and sanctified, Ivan said. Autocracy was required for the defense and the expansion of the Russian state. The absence of an autocrat meant weakness.

Second, the Tsar stressed that autocracy was necessary internally, for the purpose of rendering justice. It was necessary, in his words, to “save through fear,” to apply as needed “the most severe and cruel punishment.” He recalled the use of terror by his fellow “tsars” such as King David or the Emperor Constantine and stated that a tsar “is not tsar” without the readiness to exercise cruelty.

Finally, Ivan put the blame for his recourse to terror squarely on the shoulders of his targets. He was driven to employ cruelty by the sinful treason of Kurbskii and other critics. While asserting divine right, in other words, Ivan also portrayed himself as subject to normal human frailty.

Arguments still abound that Russia has an essential nature that requires church-infused authoritarian, if not outright autocratic rule, rendering attempts to apply Western standards senseless. See the terrifying ramblings of “philosopher” Alexander Dugin, referred to as “Putin’s brain.” With respect to Ivan the Terrible, the historian Michael Cherniavsky argued that the Tsar was actually a man of his time, arguably not so different from terrible and awe-inspiring Renaissance rulers like Henry VIII, Philip II of Spain or the warrior Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare Borgia. That said, it has been almost 440 years since Ivan’s death. We have the right to expect some progress with respect to models of leadership and good governance.

Putin, though, seems to have his eyes firmly on the past, and how to use it for his current purposes. Historian Stephen Kotkin reminds us of the Russian regime’s reliance on “stories about Russian greatness … about enemies at home and enemies abroad,” stories that “will resonate with the people.” Stories about “Vladimir the Terrible” are being written as we watch.

Eric R. Terzuolo was a Foreign Service officer from 1982 to 2003, and since 2010 has been on contract to the Foreign Service Institute, the professional development unit of the Department of State, with responsibility for West European area studies. The views expressed here are purely personal.

Tags Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin George Kennan Public image of Vladimir Putin Russia under Vladimir Putin Russian foreign policy Russian history Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian propaganda Vladimir Putin

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