Killing Irony with Ivan the Terrible and an Orthodox Activist

Kremlin and St. Basil's

(RIA Novosti – Natalia Antonova, Acting Editor-in-Chief, The Moscow News, October 8, 2013)

Ivan the Terrible lived a long time ago and the passage of time does distort historical figures ­ so that the truth is sometimes hard to separate from fiction. Still, it is probably safe to say that Ivan the Terrible was not a fan of pluralism and open socio-political discourse.

Keeping that in mind, it is particularly interesting to observe the scandal around Ilya Repin’s iconic painting of the man, a work colloquially known as “Ivan the Terrible Killing His Son” (the official name of the work is “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, November 16, 1581”).

The painting purports to show the immediate aftermath of Ivan the Terrible’s fatal attack on his son following a heated argument. A bleeding Ivan Jr. is dying in his father’s arms with a look of acceptance on his face, while the tsar himself is overcome with horror and grief.

The question of whether Ivan the Terrible did, indeed, kill his son has been the subject of historical debate. It is possible that Ivan Jr., the heir apparent, died of an illness, some experts say, and that the story of an accidental killing was invented later.

Today, the debate surrounding the painting is not so much historical as it is hysterical. A prominent Orthodox Christian businessman, Vasily Boiko-Veliky, has demanded that the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow remove the painting from its collection, calling the piece “unpatriotic” and “slanderous.” According to Boiko-Veliky, Ivan the Terrible was an upstanding and just Russian ruler who could not have killed his son.

“People ­ especially young men and women ­ come to the Tretyakov Gallery and on a subconscious level internalize this [image] of a cruel and barbaric Russia, the country where we live,” Boiko-Veliky told the Metro newspaper. “This is slander ­ not just against Ivan the Terrible, but against our country, against our people, against our statehood.”

Plenty of people have already made fun of Boiko-Veliky’s position. A popular Internet meme that had existed before the latest scandal surrounding the painting (this isn’t the first time this particular work by Repin has been attacked ­ it was even slashed with a knife in 1913) is once again making the rounds in response to the controversy. Titled “Ivan the Terrible Killing Everyone,” the meme features Photoshopped images of the grief-stricken tsar embracing everyone from Kenny from “South Park” to the figure in Edward Munch’s “The Scream.”

And the head of Mitki, a renowned alternative painters’ collective in St. Petersburg, has sarcastically offered to paint a “bundled-up, rosy-cheeked” baby that could replace the Repin painting in the Tretyakov’s permanent collection.

The Russian edition of GQ magazine also got in on the act, featuring a selection of other paintings that, according to Boiko-Veliky’s logic, should also be banned. Among them is the “Mona Lisa” (because she doesn’t have eyebrows and could therefore warp young women’s views on personal grooming) and Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” (because the man in the painting looks too much like Putin).

What’s fascinating to me here is the logic behind Boiko-Veliky’s insistence that the Repin painting be removed. Boiko-Veliky, a dairy magnate with considerable clout, could have easily sponsored, say, a book on why he thinks the Repin portrait is not historically accurate. He could have called a conference, created a seminar, or, hell, just paid a bunch of modern artists to paint different, more “patriotic” works on the life of Ivan the Terrible. The great thing about money is that it can go a long way ­ particularly wherein artists, who are usually broke, are concerned.

Alas, Boiko-Veliky isn’t interested in scholarly discussion or fostering an environment where different accounts of Ivan the Terrible’s life can compete.

Indeed, it’s probably safe to say that Ivan the Terrible would have himself banned such a painting (and probably had Repin executed, had they been historical contemporaries), so Boiko-Veliky is perhaps more like the tsar than he realizes.

The ironic thing is that Repin’s painting has done more than merely keep thousands of Russian schoolchildren marginally aware of Ivan the Terrible’s historic persona. The immense power of the painting, the terrible, stricken look of nearly animalistic grief on Ivan’s face, has done more to humanize the tsar than any other historic portrayal. In his patriotic desire to defend the tsar’s memory, Boiko-Veliky didn’t just overshoot the mark ­ he missed the point entirely.