Joseph Hansen

Ivan the Terrible – Kremlin Version

(20 July 1946)

Source: The Militant, Vol. 10 No. 29, 20 July 1946, p. 4.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2021 by Einde O’Callaghan.
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According to a July 7 Moscow dispatch, Sergei Eisenstein, the famous film director, is suffering a heart attack. The sudden seizure came just after he had finished cutting the second part of a film on Ivan the Terrible. By strange coincidence, the Stalinist authorities reveal in the same dispatch that the picture has been condemned.

“Oddly,” continues the dispatch, “heart attacks seem to haunt those interested in the life of Ivan the Terrible. Alexei Tolstoy suffered a heart attack just after he had finished the second volume of his trilogy written around Ivan’s life, and Nicolai Khmelov, the actor portraying Ivan in the play written by Tolstoy, had a heart attack on the set one day.”

What is the reason for this extraordinary epidemic of heart attacks among Stalinist artists assigned to depict Ivan the Terrible?

The Kremlin censors offer no explanation for Eisenstein’s collapse. They confine themselves simply to a lofty defense of art and history and a carefully-worded explanation for the dooming of Eisenstein’s film. Says Culture and Life, speaking for the Central Committee of the Communist (Stalinist) Party:

“Contrary to historic truth, Ivan the Terrible has not been shown as a progressive statesman, but as a maniac and like a scoundrel who behaves in a crazy manner, surrounded by many young cutthroats he has assembled. It is clear that this film is anti-historical and anti-artistic and could not be released for distribution.”

This statement, however, instead of shedding light on the wave of heart attacks, only deepens the mystery. Why is Stalinist officialdom so sensitive about the history of the 16th century? Moreover, what caused Eisenstein to lose his head and become “anti-historical” and “anti-artistic” in filming precisely the historical period of special interest to Stalin? Hasn’t Eisenstein faithfully trimmed his films all these years according to the pattern of history furnished by the Kremlin?

The solution to this bizarre mystery, strangely enough, can be found in the coldly factual pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Ivan IV, called ‘The Terrible’ (1530–1584) ... had a neurotic strain in his character,” declares the Encyclopedia. “He grew up in a brutal and degrading environment where he learnt to hold human life and human dignity in contempt.”

The mystery begins to clear. Is it possible that the Soviet people sitting down to enjoy a film of Ivan the Terrible might get the hero mixed up with the beloved genius now in the Kremlin?

In the first part of his reign Ivan consolidated Muscovy and extended his territories on a wide scale. Then, continues the Encyclopedia, “Ivan entered upon the second and evil portion of his reign.” After the death of his wife, he became “infuriated” against “God and man.” During the next ten years (1560–1570) “terrible and horrible things happened in Muscovy. The tsar imagined that every man’s hand was against him.”

Enigma Unravels

The enigma is unraveling before our eyes. Obviously no Stalinist official in his right senses could permit the people to see a true picture of Ivan the Terrible. The parallel with the present day tyrant is too obvious.

Ivan the Terrible strangled Phillip “the saintly metropolitan of Moscow” and murdered “St. Philip” of Tver, the Encyclopedia informs us.

“In 1570 Tver had to endure, for some reason now difficult to understand, the vengeance of Ivan the Terrible, who ordered the massacre of 90,000 inhabitants of the principality.”

This should make it apparent why Eisenstein was hauled away to a “hospital.” The audience would have mistaken such scenes for a newsreel of a purge under Stalin. Let us hope that the Kremlin physicians do not poison Eisenstein as their predecessors poisoned the great writer Gorky in June 1936.

Now we come across still more remarkable facts in the Encyclopedia about the bloody despot who had himself crowned the first tsar. He set out to “destroy the second wealthiest city in his tsardom – Great Novgorod. A delator of infamous character, one Peter, had accused the authorities of the city to the tsar of conspiracy; Ivan, without even confronting the, Novgorodians with their accuser, proceeded at the end of 1569 to punish them. After ravaging the land he entered the city on Jan. 8, 1570, and for the next five weeks, day after day, massacred batches of every class of the population. Every monastery, church, manor-house, warehouse and farm within a circuit of 100 miles was plundered and left roofless, all goods were pillaged, all cattle destroyed.”

The Encyclopedia continues its calm recital of Ivan’s ghastly purge almost four centuries ago:

“No fewer than 15,000 were massacred at Novgorod alone (60,000 according to some authorities). A famine ensued, and the district of Novgorod fell into utter desolation. Thousands of families were transported to Moscow, Nijni-Novgorod, and other towns of the principality of Moscow.”

How the eyes of the Stalinist censors must have bugged when they saw such scenes in the preview of the film! What was Eisenstein trying to do, pull their leg, running in documentary shots of the great purges under Stalin?

The Encyclopedia reports other nasty little items about Ivan like killing his own son “in a fit of ungovernable fury.” And then concludes with nice restraint that “His brutal and vicious manners prepared the way for the horrors of ‘the Great Anarchy’.”

If Eisenstein included such facts, small wonder Stalin decided the film had better be classified as “anti-historical.” After all, if the Soviet people are comparing Stalin with Ivan the Terrible, it’s politically advisable for him to prove the comparison is really flattering. What better way than to show a film of Ivan the Terrible as “Generalissimo Ivan the Progressive”? And by the way, who’s responsible for the failure to expurgate the Encyclopedia Britannica?


Last updated on: 18 June 2021