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. 

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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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 not interested in bloody purges of the elite. On the contrary, he tends to stubbornly defend unpopular appointees, even though that damages his reputation as a leader. In answer to questions about any given official’s suitability for his or her job, Putin repeats the same mantra: If you start to sacrifice your employees, who will be left to work with you in the future?  

Putin’s loyalty to his subordinates most sharply distinguishes him from the popular idea of the Russian ruler, who is supposed to be kind to ordinary folk but tough on elites, an executioner of generals but a father to the soldiers.

Ivan the Terrible was that kind of sovereign. He would not spare even his own son from death—not to mention aristocrats, members of the Federal Assembly, or petty bureaucrats—but he did struggle against external and internal enemies of the Russian Orthodox community, considerably enlarge the country, and execute many corrupt boyar nobles and local rulers that the public held responsible for every ill, from poverty to natural disasters. Of course, the truth is that his reign saw the executions of thousands of ordinary people, too. Stalin himself grasped the genius of Ivan’s strategy, and it is no coincidence that he personally oversaw the script of Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible. He is known to have explained to Eisenstein that it was okay to depict repression, but the cause and value of it must be apparent.  

If Putin tried to use the figures of Stalin and Ivan the Terrible in the same way, he would be regarded as an impostor. That’s why he is far more comfortable with Vladimir the Great. Besides sharing a name, Putin, like Vladimir, who baptized Russia, believes he is saving Russia’s Orthodox soul. And like Vladimir, who through the adoption of Christianity introduced medieval Russia into the circle of big European powers, Putin believes he is making Russia great again. 

The Russian president is also happy summoning up the memory of Pyotr Stolypin, who served as prime minister of Russia from 1906 to 1911 and was famous for both battling terrorists and implementing reforms. Despite being virtually unknown to the public, Stolypin received more votes than Stalin in televised debates on great Russian historical figures—an outcome that would have been impossible without instructions from above. And in 2012, a statue of Stolypin was put up in Moscow outside the White House, where Putin had recently been working as prime minister.

Like Ivan, Stolypin is remembered for his cruelty, but it was a specific kind of cruelty—condemned at the time by Leo Tolstoy—in which he severely repressed the peasants in his efforts to institute agrarian reform. That is not the kind of cruelty that the Russian public consciousness has ever approved of. Historically, average folk have believed that the leader is good but shielded from the suffering of the people by the corrupt boyars. It is that class that must be dismantled, so that the leader can better rule.

Because the veneration of Ivan and Stalin sits poorly with the Putin regime, it is not surprising that it tried to downplay the new statue. State television did not cover the unveiling of the Ivan the Terrible statue in Oryol with any great enthusiasm. Viewers were shown both joyful residents and unhappy citizens and historians who reminded them of Ivan’s bloody deeds, and the news anchors reported on the event as a controversial local initiative.

And controversial it is. Potomsky, who erected the Ivan monument, is a presidential appointee but also a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which is considered to be (and is) a part of Putin’s system but provides a slight challenge to Putin from the left. Proposed Stalin statues in Irkutsk and Novosibirsk are likewise the brainchildren of politicians who are not fully loyal to the Kremlin. In a way, Putin has himself to blame for their jabs.

In the first phase of his presidency, Putin made a clear distinction between economic and ideological life in Russia. Russians mourning the loss of the Soviet Union were encouraged to put up with the unpopular market economy. In return they were compensated with the old beloved melody of the Soviet national anthem, the red flag flying on Victory Day, military parades, and a new historiography that did not reject the Soviet period but incorporated it into an overarching historical narrative.

As economic growth slowed, the number of symbolic concessions handed out by the Kremlin increased. At the same time, however, Putin began to break with Russia’s Western-leaning middle class and restructure his elite regime into a populist one, moving the locus of his own support from the political, financial, and intellectual elite to the “common people.” Putin started to present himself as a politician close to the people, who bypassed the elite. Yet he had originated as an appointee of the elite, so he is still loyal to them.

Outside Russia, Putin still looks powerful in a way that has nothing to do with his country’s nuclear arsenal or brazen foreign policy. That is because, despite his political background and a leadership style that is more head of bureaucracy than leader of the people, he has impressed on the world the image of a ruler who communicates with the people and circumvents the elite. In parallel, Russia has started producing anti-elite information output for a foreign audience through media outlets such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik. 

And yet in comparison with many foreign leaders who have resorted to populism, Putin is still hopelessly elitist. He is the center of the establishment, not the alternative to it. Moreover, his classical conservative authoritarianism steers clear of revolutionary activity and refrains from carrying out purges.

Now Ivan the Terrible has ridden in to remind him that his strategy might not be sustainable. Still, on Russia’s Day of National Unity, November 4, the same day the Vladimir monument was inaugurated near the Kremlin, some participants of a pro-government march organized by the authorities in Moscow were chanting, “Purges, purges.” 

This article was originally published by Foreign Affairs.