chapter  4
24 Pages

The Tsar, the Emperor, the Leader: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Anatolii Rybakov's Stalin

In his book The Making of the Soviet System, Moshe Lewin refers to a 'significant phenomenon in Stalinism: the return of the modernizing Soviet state under Stalin to the models and trappings of earlier tsardom'. In particular, he notes 'the changeover of historical antecedents from Stepan Razin and Pugachev, leaders of peasant rebellions, to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, respectively the most absolutist of the tsars and the first emperor'. 'This spiritual conversion,' Lewin continues, 'was rooted in a set of striking parallels in the social setting and political situation created in the 1930s.' Stalin's 'revolution from above' was similar to those of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. Peter's programme of forced industrialisation, subjugation of the peasantry and bureaucratisation bore a marked resemblance to Stalin's policies. 1 Both Ivan and Peter created new elites which were dependent on and subservient to the ruler alone; Stalin did the same. Under later tsars, the autocratic system became institutionalised; Stalin resisted such tendencies within the Soviet system, and launched the purges in order to prevent processes of political 'normalisation' from taking hold. 2 It is therefore not accidental, in Lewin's interpretation, that Stalinist historiography should have idealised Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. The role of these early tsars was more similar than that of the later ones to Stalin's role; the regime sought legitimisation in elements of the tsarist past 'which best suited the new situation and the self-image of the new leader: the great tsars, builders and despots, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, seemed to fit the bill'. Stalin himself, Lewin further suggests, had some kind of 'deep psychological need'

to find such historical antecedents, and 'might have felt a genuine affinity with those great predecessors'. 3

Lewin, of course, is not the only writer to have commented on the parallels between these three figures. Comparisons of Ivan, Peter and Stalin, indeed, have become almost a cliche of Soviet journalism in the era of glasnost'. 4 In his novel, The Children of the Arbat, which is set in 1934, Anatolii Rybakov presents us with a fictional Stalin who is heavily influenced by an analogy between himself and the two tsars. Rybakov's Stalin admires Ivan and Peter as great statesmen, who had demonstrated their strength by their ruthless elimination of political rivals. By such methods they had not only maximised their own power, but also gained the love and respect of their people. Soviet historiography denigrated the role of individuals: but Rybakov's Stalin seeks to justify his own concept of leadership by having Russian history rewritten to give due prominence to individual rulers such as Ivan and Peter.5