In its early years, the Bolshevik regime wanted to burst all the bounds and set off in new directions—political, social, and cultural. The Communists aimed to create a new world and a new Soviet Man, and nothing from the past could get in the way of that bright future.
But by the 1930s, as Joan Neuberger reminds us in her interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, Joseph Stalin had second thoughts about the wisdom of tearing down the old to build the new. As tensions between the Third Reich and the USSR escalated, he ordered the revival—in a new, socialist garb—of heroes from the imperial and earlier periods. Including, somewhat improbably, Ivan IV “the Terrible” (r. 1533–84), the first tsar of the lands then called Rus. As part of this campaign, in January 1941 (just five months before Hitler’s army invaded the Soviet Union) Stalin ordered Sergei Eisenstein to direct an epic tale depicting how, against all opposition, Tsar Ivan created the Great Russian State.
The results were not quite what Stalin expected. Eisenstein, a master filmmaker from that early period of cultural experimentation who believed that history (personal and state) proceeded in spirals and bisexuality was humanity’s natural state, dove headfirst into Ivan’s troubled childhood—the subject of my Legends and Songs of Steppe & Forest series—looking for clues to Ivan’s psyche. What made him terrible (that is, terrifying—it’s an old translation using a word that has changed its meaning since the mid-sixteenth century), in effect.
And Eisenstein found answers, which he then put on the screen, with the result that the first part of his trilogy was acclaimed, the second banned, and the third never filmed. Joan Neuberger explains how, and why, all of that happened. It’s a portrait of tyranny, exposed and experienced, and definitely well worth your time. Because it also shines a light on how great works of art are created, including historical fiction.
The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Most of the time, this podcast focuses on the products of those who create historical fiction—specifically, novels. But what goes into producing a work of historical fiction—especially in a dictatorship where the wrong choice, or even the right choice at the wrong moment, can send the unwitting author to the Gulag? And what if the creator is not an unknown toiling in the dark to produce manuscripts “for the desk drawer,” as the Soviet literati used to say, but the nation’s foremost filmmaker operating at the personal behest of Joseph Stalin? Such is the dilemma that faces Sergei Eisenstein in 1941, when he begins his unfinished trilogy Ivan the Terrible, an epic ordered by the Soviet government to glorify the Russian past and justify state terror.
Often written off, especially in the West, as a toady to Stalin, Eisenstein—as Joan Neuberger nimbly shows in her new and fascinating study, This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (Cornell University Press, 2019)—approached his complicated and risky project with a mixture of enthusiasm and caution. Over the course of five years, despite complaints about budget overflows and production delays, through exile and war and shifts in the party line, personal conflicts and health problems, Eisenstein skillfully alternated between tactics of submission and defiance in support of his idiosyncratic but richly textured portrayal of a tortured autocrat whose childhood traumas led him to ever more extreme exercises of power, even as his excesses stripped him of friends and family, leaving him alone against the endless, unstoppable waves—of progress? of the future? of his own battered conscience? Only the viewer can decide.
Part I won the Stalin Prize, the USSR’s highest honor, although not without controversy. Stalin personally banned Part II before release, and Eisenstein died with Part III unfinished. In this master work about a master filmmaker, Neuberger shines a light on all three. In doing so, she highlights the many decisions any author must make while balancing historical accuracy against dramatic potential and character motivation against a verifiable past. Fortunately, for most of us the stakes are nowhere near as high as they were for Sergei Eisenstein.
Images: Screen shots of Ivan IV “the Terrible” (Nikolai Cherkasov) and King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland-Lithuania (Pavel Massalsky) from Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible. Reproduced according to the fair use doctrine.