Issue 28 (2010)

Pavel Lungin: Tsar (2009)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2010

Pavel Lungin’s Ivan IV is indeed terrible. The tsar was, as Lungin sees it, “the first … who created the character of Russian power.” Although “in many respects bright and talented,” Ivan IV was “at the same time pathological, cruel.” Because of his cruelty, “Ivan the Terrible prevented Russia from moving into the Renaissance” and “we have made no headway since that time” (quoted in Katkova). With comments such as these appearing in Russia’s press, Lungin’s movie immediately generated controversy. Some saw it as revelatory, others blasphemous. Some historians have called the film a worthy exploration of Ivan’s Russia; others have called it slanderous to the Russian people and their history.

tsarTsar is certainly bloody and brutal. Lungin’s cinematic history lesson relies on one long-standing historiographical interpretation to combat another, more recent one. The historiography of Ivan IV’s reign grew out of the debates held by 19th-century historians. Nikolai Karamzin, in his massive History of the Russian State famously suggested that Ivan was stable until his wife Anastasia Romanova died in 1560. Afterwards, Karamzin argued, Ivan went off the rails, and his terror became “an alien storm, somehow sent from the depths of hell to plague and torment Russia” (quoted in Platt 1999: 250). Vasilii Kliuchevskii, the greatest of the pre-revolutionary historians, took this even further, describing the tsar as a man “deprived of all moral balance” and a ruler who took “a political question” and turned it into “indiscriminate slaughter” (quoted in Platt 1999: 250). Early Soviet historians such as Sergei Platonov modified this framework and argued that Ivan was a rational ruler but also a despot whose thirst for power brought suffering to his realm (see Platt 2004: 38).  

In the 1930s, Stalin oversaw a rehabilitation of Ivan IV that mapped his era into a “russocentric, etatist, ideological line” (Brandenberger and Platt 2006: 157). In works by historians such as Robert Vipper, Ivan emerged as a great state-builder who needed to defend his realm against the enemies that surrounded it (including, in one version, a plan to conquer all of Russia hatched by Heinrich Staden, a former oprichnik). In Stalin-era publications, Ivan was declared “progressive for his time,” in an attempt to emphasize the differences between the 16th and 20th centuries while simultaneously suggesting that Stalin should be viewed similarly (Brandenberger and Platt 2006: 166). Most famously, Sergei Eisenstein’s second part of his epic film on Ivan the Terrible was banned on Stalin’s orders because it did not depict the oprichniki correctly; they appeared as “a band of degenerates along the lines of the American Ku Klux Klan” (Brandenberger and Platt 2006: 167-168). In the 1930s, Ivan the Terrible was awesome, not terrible. He was a heroic state-builder, not a bloodthirsty tyrant. His purge of boyars was interpreted as proof of Ivan’s identification with his people. In Stalinist historiography, Ivan’s cruelty could be written off as medieval norm that should not overshadow his overall contributions.

When Stalin died, the views of Vipper and historians like him faded into the background. For the most part, Ivan the Terrible fascinated only a few in the last decades of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet collapse, both the Stalinist and the pre-revolutionary historiography reappeared. New editions of the 19th century classics appeared along with new monographs that took up both schools of thought. Dmitrii Volodikhin, who has written about Ivan and done much to revive interest in him, argued in 2006 that interest in the tsar over the previous three years had become so intense that it should be called “a large-scale intellectual pandemic” (Volodikhin).

Lungin’s film therefore appeared both at a time of recycling previous interpretations of Ivan IV and a time when a few voices began to compare Putin’s Russia to Ivan’s. Vladimir Sorokin, the outspoken author, compared Putin’s “vertical line of power” to Ivan’s in his dystopian novella, Day in the Life of an Oprichnik (Den’ oprichnika, 2006). Set in 2027, with a new oprichnina dominating Russia, Sorokin’s tale, as the author openly admits, is about Putin. “Russia is like a block of ice floating back into the 16th Century,” Sorokin has claimed. “Again we are living under a centralized government like in the times of Ivan the Terrible. This power vertical, which Putin keeps talking about, is a completely medieval model for Russia” (quoted in Ash).

tsarTsar engages in these recyclings and reinterpretations by recreating one dramatic year from Ivan’s eventful reign, the 1568 confrontation over Ivan’s oprichnina between the tsar and his Metropolitan, Filipp. After arriving from Solovki in 1566, Filipp dealt with the typical administrative duties of his office while Ivan was away fighting Lithuanians. When the tsar returned, the oprichniki resumed their pillaging. On 22 March 1568 Filipp had some sort of argument with Ivan. Many accounts state that Filipp refused to bless Ivan and his retinue because they were wearing the black robes of the oprichniki. Filipp boldly declared that Ivan was shedding innocent blood of Orthodox Russians and therefore bringing “falsehood to the Russian realm.” After the incident, Ivan sent out four of his men to find compromising material on the Metropolitan. They did, and eventually Filipp was beaten and stripped of his robes while leading liturgy in the Dormition Cathedral. Ivan arrested members of Filipp’s family, the Kolychev clan, and had them executed. The tsar sent the Metropolitan the head of Ivan Kolychev. Eventually Ivan sent the infamous oprichnik, Maliuta Skuratov, to strangle Filipp. Filipp’s murder initiated a wave of tortures and executions among the Orthodox elites of Novgorod, Tver, and Pskov (see Robson 41-53 and Fedotov). Filipp’s martyrdom led to his canonization in 1652. In George Fedotov’s account of the saint, the Metropolitan was seen as a “martyr for truth” (Fedotov 167), which represents “the greatest of her martyrs.” Tsar Aleksei I’s canonization praised Filipp because “truly, no one can choose no better than to be glad and joyous in truth, to suffer for it, and to reason with God’s people about truth” (Fedotov 166).

Lungin’s film certainly recreates this interpretation of a martyr for truth. “Rus,” as the opening credits explain, “is torn by hunger and the Livonian War.” Adding to these calamities, the Polish king has set his sights on Moscow and Novgorod’s boyars rebel. In response, Ivan IV has established his oprichnina; his black-hooded oprichniki “are the watchdogs of the sovereign and have flooded the country in blood.” Ivan, believing the end of the world to be near, summons “his old friend,” Filipp Kolychev, the Father Superior from Solovki.

tsarThe first part of the film, “A Prayer for the Tsar,” opens with Ivan IV (Petr Mamonov) reading from the Book of Revelations. As Filipp (Oleg Iankovskii, in his last role) travels to Moscow, he witnesses the oprichniki’s violence. When the new Metropolitan arrives, we observe—in one of the more remarkable scenes from the film—Ivan getting dressed by his retinue to appear before his people. Ivan is transformed from penitent to powerful tsar as he walks through his palace. Filipp arrives at this moment, and Ivan believes that God has answered his prayers. The holy man sets to work, teaching Ivan’s German oprichnik, Andrei Shtaden (Ville Haapasalo) about the new machines of Leonardo da Vinci (Shtaden is a characterization of Heinrich von Staden, who came to Moscow in 1564 and became an oprichnik). Filipp is introducing these technologies to the German because, as he tells his sovereign, “mills are better than gallows.” Ivan responds that he is only doing “God’s will” by “returning good with good and evil with evil,” using his oprichniki to render judgment. The tsar takes Filipp to his torture chamber, where the oprichnik Maliuta Skuratov informs them that Ivan “has many enemies.” Filipp agrees to become Metropolitan, telling Ivan that he hopes peace will come to his kingdom. Part I ends; the tsar’s prayers have been answered.

tsarPart II, “The Tsar’s War,” opens with Ivan praying again, this time for “Christ’s army” to help him defeat the infidels threatening his tsardom. He again asks for a sign. Ivan is preparing for the final judgment by building a New Jerusalem and declares it has to be “clean.” He employs dozens of virgins culled from the best boyar families to help him. When Ivan receives news that Polotsk has fallen to Polish troops, the tsar promises more bloodshed. He believes that too much lawlessness has resulted from his sins. Filipp implores him to come to his senses. The Metropolitan warns his nephew Ivan, who had fought against the Poles, to stay away from Ivan’s coming purge. Filipp, however, is then betrayed to Skuratov. Ivan is now convinced that enemies are all around him, telling Filipp that “those who resist power resist God.” The defeated soldiers, Ivan Kolychev among them, are arrested and beaten by the oprichniki. Ivan forces Filipp to judge them. When Filipp refuses to judge, Ivan sets up a torture pit that he declares will reveal “God’s judgment.” The tsar orders that a bear be set loose on the accused. Filipp prays to God to warm the tsar’s heart and laments that “the flock you gave to me is dying in bloody torture.” “If you need more blood,” he declares, “take my life.” This, then, is the tsar’s war: it is waged against his people as a means of purifying them and preparing them for the apocalypse.

“The Tsar’s Wrath,” Part III, opens with the famous confrontation between Filipp and Ivan. The tsar and his oprichniki burst into the Dormition Cathedral and the Metropolitan refuses to bless them, declaring “I do not see the Sovereign here; I do not recognize him, neither by his clothes nor by his deeds.” He adds: “look what you are doing to the state! You execute innocent people!” When Ivan tells him not to resist the state or its wrath, Filipp replies that Ivan has already shown everyone what hell is like. Ivan strips Filipp’s hat from his head and declares that he “has no Metropolitan anymore.” The oprichniki fall on the Metropolitan and beat him in front of his flock. Filipp is placed in a cage and called a sorcerer. The disgraced churchman is forced to watch his nephew tortured and killed. Filipp is handed the head and told “this is your Sovereign’s present.” The holy man then kisses “the lips that did not lie.” Filipp is spared, fettered, and imprisoned.

tsarPart IV, “The Tsar’s Joy,” presents the apotheosis of Ivan IV’s bloody descent. Skuratov tells the tsar that his retinue “saw how sad he was and decided to cheer you up.” Ivan is shown the adaptations Shtaden has made to da Vinci’s creations: he has made them into more precise torture devices, demonstrating for his tsar a carnival of pain and suffering. Russians can drink, dance, impale, break, and beat traitors, perjurers, and adulterers. The machines that would transform Italy and the West are used in Russia to shed more blood. Filipp refuses to bless Ivan from his prison cell, stating that repentance means ending the bloodshed. The tsar then gives Skuratov a signal to kill Filipp. After the murder, Ivan begins his campaign against Orthodox clergy, ordering the burning of a cathedral full of monks and priests. Ivan orders everyone to “be joyful at the torment of traitors and thieves.” No one comes to watch the torments. The film ends with Ivan sitting alone on his throne, asking “where are my people?” The tsar’s joy from purging his people has brought hell to earth; it has also made his people abandon him.

On Vladimir Pozner’s program, Lungin explained why he depicted his tsar the way that he did. “This is one of the myths about Groznyi,” he told a spectator who asked about the cruelty in the film, “that he did a lot for Russia.” For Lungin, Ivan IV did nothing positive for the country. “The consequences of Groznyi’s government are deplorable, awful.” Lungin cited wars, famine, the destruction of Russia’s cities, and the end to the Riurik dynasty as proof. “The most terrible for Russia,” he noted, “was that he left us with the Time of Troubles, which was marked by an unbelievable drop in morality and morals in Russia.” To conclude that Ivan did good things for Russia, Lungin declared, was simply “untrue.” Since no one reads history anymore, “I attempted to tell our myth, tell our history and attempted to introduce a real personality into the myth about Ivan Groznyi—Metropolitan Filipp, a Russian saint who found in himself the strength, the courage and Christianity, and humanity to accept death, to sacrifice himself in an attempt to stop the bloodshed” (Quoted on Pozner).

Lungin chastised his audience for accepting wikipedia articles as the “truth” about Ivan. When asked what sources he read, the director cited Karamzin, Kliuchevskii, Solov’ev, and Skrynnikov. Lungin also used recent histories by Dmitrii Volodikhin and Aleksandr Dvorkin, both of whom are critical of Ivan IV and the claims that the tsar helped to build a strong Russian state. “But most importantly,” Lungin stated, “I read a lot of the recollections from that time,” citing Shtaden’s memoir in particular. Lungin’s history lesson is meant to present the past as a way to combat contemporary myths. “It seems to me,” he mused, “that the main thing that stands in the way of the path to constructing a new society and a new life is this and that old myth and evil, foolish fairy tales about Russia not being able to live freely, that it needs the whip, and also that it needs a severe tyranny” (Pozner). For Lungin, Tsar was meant to express cinematically what Karamzin, Kliuchevskii, and others had written on the page: Ivan IV was deranged and blood-thirsty. 

lunginThe film appeared on Russian screens on 4 November, the Day of National Unity, yet as an Izvestiia roundtable indicated, reactions to the history recreated on screen were anything but unified. Boris Liznev, who wrote and directed the documentary film Tsarskoe delo on Ivan IV, criticized Lungin for making a film based on the views of 19th Century historians and not on the popular memory of Ivan as a good tsar. Father Dmitrii Smirnov questioned whether it was even possible to make any statement about Ivan’s time, for “we cannot even imagine what it was like then.” Father Maksim Kozlov, a faculty member at the Moscow Spiritual Academy, praised the film’s positive portrayal of Orthodoxy in general and Saint Filipp in particular, commenting that Oleg Iankovskii’s performance was “brilliant.” For Father Kozlov, the film sent a message that the spiritual health of the nation was more important than protecting the country from perceived enemies. The journalist Nikolai Svanidze saw the film and its commentary from a different perspective, commenting that “any debate about Groznyi implies a debate about Stalin” because of the way that Stalin rehabilitated Ivan IV. “By defending Ivan” Svanidze declared, “we defend Stalin.” Fortunately, Lungin does not: “Ivan Groznyi was an educated man of his time,” he answered some critics, “but this did not prevent him from being a huge sadist.” The same could be said about Stalin. Svanidze concludes that “a film should not be interpreted like a textbook. History is interesting to us through its artistic incarnations—how it sets up certain myths.” Lungin’s film, Svanidze implies, tackles the myths about Ivan that had accumulated over the centuries and offers a compelling antidote to them (Katkova).

Any work about Ivan IV is inevitably considered some statement on contemporary Russia. Yet an historical film can also be about the past and offer some meaningful commentary on it. Lungin’s Ivan and the kingdom he recreates are foreign to us. Lungin’s Tsar reminds viewers that Ivan IV oversaw a system of tortures and executions because he believed he was living through the last days. At the same time, as the foreignness of the past recreated onscreen indicates, comparisons between Ivan’s Russia and Putin’s Russia seem equally absurd. Dmitrii Volodikhin, the historian of Ivan IV’s era and the source of some of Lungin’s historical understanding of that epoch, concluded that Tsar may have its small inaccuracies, but ultimately it captures some of the truths of that era well. “As an historian,” he argues, “I can say that Ivan Groznyi’s governing indeed expressed postulates, which border on the heretical, and that the Russian Orthodox Church severely suffered. And in this sense … Lungin’s film does not lie” (Iakovleva).

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)

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Works Cited

Ash, Lucy. “How Putin is Inspired by History.” BBC News 25 February 2008.

Brandenberger, David and Kevin M. F. Platt. “Terribly Pragmatic: Rewriting the History of Ivan IV’s Reign, 1937-1956.” In Brandenberger and Platt, eds., Epic Revisionism: Russian History and Literature as Stalinist Propaganda. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006, 157-178.

Fedotov, George. St. Filipp, Metropolitan of Moscow: Encounter with Ivan the Terrible. Translated by Richard Haugh and Nickolas Lupinin. Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1978.

Iakovlev, Elena. “Bez tsaria.” Rossiiskaia gazeta. 10 February 2010.

Katkova, Olga, “‘Tsar,’ a Tale of 16th- and 21st-Century Politics,” The Moscow Times 3 November 2009, 16.

Platt, Kevin M. F. “History and Despotism, or: Hayden White vs. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.” Rethinking History 3.3 (1999): 247-269.

Platt, Kevin M. F. “History, Inertia, and the Unexplained: Recycling Russia’s Despots.” Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004): 130-150.

Pozner, Vladimir. “Pozner: Izvestnyi stsenarist i kinorezhisser Pavel Lungin.” 9 November 2009.

Robson, Roy. Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

“S ‘Tsarem’ v golove.” Izvestiia 13 November 2009.  

Volodikhin, Dmitrii. “Pervyi russkii zapadnik? A. Dvorkin, Ivan Groznyi kak religioznyi tip.” Znamia 3 (2006).


Tsar, Russia, 2009
Color, 118 minutes
Director: Pavel Lungin
Screenplay: Aleksei Ivanov, Pavel Lungin
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Music: Iurii Krasavin
Art Direction: Sergei Ivanov
Costume Design: Natal’ia Dziubenko, Ekaterina Dyminskaia
Cast: Petr Mamonov, Oleg Iankovskii, Ivan Okhlobystin, Aleksandr Domogarov, Ramiliia Iskander, Iurii Kuznetsov, Aleksei Makarov, Anastasiia Dontsova, Ville Haapasalo
Executive Producers: Pavel Lungin, Vasilii Bernkhardt, Ol’ga Vasil’eva
Production: Studio of Pavel Lungin, Profit Cinema

Pavel Lungin: Tsar (2009)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2010

Updated: 21 Mar 10