There are plenty of statues to Vladimir Lenin scattered across Russia, and even a handful of likenesses of Joseph Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police.
But Friday marked the unveiling of Russia's first statue to Ivan the Terrible, the first Russian czar and, according to Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, a complex figure who has been judged unfairly by history. Yes, he was responsible for the oprichnina, a reign of terror that consolidated power under his secret police and left thousands of 16th century Russians, many of them of the nobility, dead.
But he was a reformer, a conqueror, a founder of the Russian state.
Plus, Medinsky said in written remarks, look at what Europe was up to at the time.
“One should not compare Ivan the Terrible with Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, but with his contemporaries, how rulers acted in France, in England, in enlightened Europe. Charles IX [of France] killed around 30,000 Huguenots in several days,” Medinsky said at the opening ceremony.
It was a nationally televised affair, attended by pro-Kremlin functionaries like the famous, patriotic motorcyclist who goes by the nickname “the Surgeon,” as well as conservatives hoisting imperial Russian flags. One journalist called it “historical madness.”
Formally, the statue was unveiled in honor of the 450th anniversary of the founding of Oryol, a Russian city of about 310,000 that was established as a fortress to defend Moscow's southern borders.
Informally, there was a bit of a political subtext.
“We have a great and most powerful president, who has forced the whole world to respect Russia and to reckon with us, as did Ivan the Terrible in his own time,” said Vadim Potomsky, governor of the Oryol region. “God is with us!”
Statues spanning the Communist and imperial eras have prompted toxic historical disputes in Russia and across the former Soviet Union. The toppling of statues to Lenin in Ukraine in 2014 became a flash point over Moscow's influence and the legacy of the Soviet Union and World War II. The removal of a statue to a Soviet soldier in Estonia in 2007 grew into an international dispute. This summer in St. Petersburg, a memorial plaque to Carl Mannerheim, an early 20th century Finnish leader who led the White Army against the Communists during the Russian civil war, was doused in red paint by Communist activists. The plaque was removed this week along with a statement saying that “monument wars are not methods of discussion.”
Protesters, including the liberal political party Yabloko, said the city did not “need a statue to a tyrant,” but the local administration backed by the Russian Orthodox Church ultimately prevailed.