The Cult of Leadership

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Joseph Stalin’s penchant for strong leadership and its Russification in the multinational Soviet state served a purpose during the war. As the nation reeled in the face of deep German penetration into Soviet territory, and millions silently wondered whether the Soviet state would survive, Stalin used the language and images of traditional state nationalism to rally them and give them courage. He shared with his British counterpart Winston Churchill the ability to stir his compatriots’ hearts with the echoes of history. This caused some qualms for those concerned with the niceties of Marxist ideology; and on occasion, historical models brought with them unwanted baggage.

Nothing was more problematic than the tangled legacy of Ivan the Terrible (whose Russian moniker Groznyi more accurately is translated as the Awesome), the Muscovite grand prince crowned tsar in 1547 whose life Stalin used as a paradigm for his own style of statecraft. Creator of the centralized Muscovite state, military leader who finally drove the Tatars from Russia, Ivan emerged from the long shadow of his bloody paranoia to assume new status as a symbol of Russian might. The story of his life, already the subject of several plays and historical monographs, was handed to master filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Guided by his recent triumph with Aleksandr Nevskii but moved by the tormented fate of his subject, Eisenstein began filming the first of the three-parts of the film in 1943 in Alma Ata (Almaty), capital of the Kazakh Soviet Republic. This part was devoted to Ivan’s early years when, as Eisenstein would have it, Ivan triumphed over rival claimants to the throne to emerge as determined to rid Muscovy of boyar intrigue as he was to shed the Tatar yoke. The role of Ivan was played by Nikolai Cherkasov, the same tall, handsome actor with an extremely photogenic face who had depicted Aleksandr Nevskii.

Eisenstein’s most devoted fan was Stalin, who appreciated the historical parallels to himself. Like Ivan who had gone to war against a confederation of northern powers (the Livonian War) to obtain direct access to the Baltic, Stalin had overseen the extension of the country’s borders westward via the annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And in the boyar plots depicted by Eisenstein, Stalin evidently saw an earlier manifestation of the waywardness and treason of his erstwhile comrades within the Communist Party. For his effort, Eisenstein received a Stalin Prize in 1944. Stalin proved a much harsher critic in 1946, when Eisenstein released part two of the triptych, depicting Ivan’s spiral into madness. The unflattering parallels between Ivan’s praetorian guard, the oprichnina, and the NKVD may have hit too close to home.

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