A Tale of Two Statues

Putin, Stalin, and Russia's Bloody Past

The statue of Vladimir the Great in Moscow, November 2016. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

Russia is preoccupied with two new statues. Both are of medieval monarchs, but the messages they convey are very different. On November 4, a monument to the tenth-century Russian King Vladimir the Great was erected near the Kremlin in a not so subtle tribute to the country’s current ruler. Meanwhile, a new equestrian statue of Ivan the Terrible installed in the city of Oryol, southwest of Moscow, is a much less welcome apparition for Russia’s current ruler. 

The monument to Vladimir, who is known for converting to Christianity and for ruling the territory comprising both modern Ukraine and Russia, honors his namesake and the current proprietor of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin. Its construction is an obvious act of homage by the elites to their current boss; Putin has floated the idea of Russia as a separate Orthodox civilization, and the statue was erected in front of the Kremlin’s Borovitskaya Tower, where Putin and other officials enter the building. By contrast, the monument to Ivan the Terrible is an act of veneration of Stalin by proxy and is in line with plans by local mayors, governors, and Communist Party activists to put up Stalin memorials across Russia—a campaign that is causing the Kremlin quite a headache. 

In contemporary Russia, outright approbation of Stalin is still frowned upon. But a memorial to Ivan the Terrible is an indirect and safe way to celebrate the Soviet dictator’s still popularly endorsed propensity for sacrificing the top echelons of the ruling class. At the unveiling of the new statue in Oryol, the regional governor, Vadim Potomsky, and the minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, put it succinctly if incorrectly: Ivan was a man who killed only a few thousand people—and only members of the elite. 

This is the kind of ruler most of the people seem to desire—and it is not the kind of ruler Putin is. Putin represses freethinking, of course, just as Ivan and Stalin did, but he is

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