Archive for the ‘Russian Society & History’ Category

My Working Women in Russia Under the Hunger Tsars recommended on Library of Congress website for readings about 1917

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

What do you recommend reading for the centenary of the Russian Revolution?

I was delighted to find my book, Working Women in Russia Under the Hunger Tsars, was recommended on the Library of Congress website last year:

“This year there will be an outpouring of writings on the Russian Revolution – many of which will, unfortunately, downplay the role of ‘ordinary’ peasants and workers.

“Here’s a place to list readings that tell the real history of the revolution. What would libcommers recommend?

“To start us off, here’s some writings on the February Revolution – which began on 8 March, International Women’s Day, 1917:

“Choi Chatterjee, Celebrating Women; Gender, Festival, Culture and Bolshevik Ideology, p43-54.

“Temma Kaplan, ‘Women and Communal Strikes in the Crisis of 1917-1922’.

“Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of the Revolution, especially p147-157.

“Anne Bobroff-Hajal, Working Women in Russia under the Hunger Tsars: political activism and daily life

“… Also check out for recordings of recent talks on the revolution.” interview with Anna Bitkina

Friday, February 17th, 2017

Anna Bitkina is one half of TOK Curators St Petersburg, Russia (Maria Veits is the other).  Anya recently did a video interview for post, the Museum of Modern Art’s online resource devoted to art and the history of modernism in a global context.  You can also see my response to Anya’s interview there, “Keeping the Baby While Throwing Out the Bathwater: Socially Engaged Art in Russia and the US Today.”

In Defense of Society: An Open Platform

Monday, July 18th, 2016

As the space for free public expression of dissent narrows in Russia, a group of Russian activists and intellectuals penned and signed a Platform about the current political situation in Russia and what must be done to change it.  I wrote a response in support.  You can see both here.

Detail from my “Dress It Up In Resplendent Clothes.” essays on Russian and US culture wars

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

Check out Ilya Budraitskis on, “Art and Politics in Russia in a Time of Crisis,” about the Russian government’s use of “culture wars” to try to legitimize itself.  I wrote an essay in response (same page) about the parallels to the U. S. far right’s use of culture wars to shift our entire national political discourse way to the right.


E-Flux conversation with Ilya Budraitskis

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Detail from “Dress It Up In Resplendent Clothes” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

See my e-flux journalAnne Bobroff-Hajal Responds to Ilya Budraitskis: Fear Of, By, and For the Government” – you’ll need to scroll down beneath the response authored by a former Putin buddy, First Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration (!).  Both respond to Ilya’s “THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF GUY FAWKES” in which he writes, among other things, about the Kremlin’s “anti-revolutionary” strategy and the film V for Vendetta.

DARLING GODSONNY STALIN in Crown St. Window Project at ArtSpace

Friday, February 27th, 2015

I’m delighted that Darling Godsonny Stalin is being displayed in the Crown St. Window at ArtSpace, New Haven, CT, until May 2, 2015.  This complex triptych – on its way to becoming a 5-paneled piece – has been almost continuously exhibited since I completed it in October, 2014: first in my solo show, Russia Through the Looking Glass: Terror, Humanity, and Geopolitics Through History (Castle/Mooney Gallery, College of New Rochelle) – then in the Katonah Museum of Art’s “Line Describing a Cone,” and now in New Haven.

ArtSpace gallery’s fascinating Vertical Reach: Political Protest and the Militant Aesthetic Now! “looks at the current political climate in Eastern Europe to explore how acts of protest and assembly operate when framed as artistic practice. The show brings together socially engaged works by collectives and individuals from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and the USA to look at how freedom of speech manifests now.”

Darling Godsonny Window in ArtSpace Crown St. Window during the run of Vertical Reach

ArtSpace New Haven Crown St. Window


Delightful praise from Russian historian Chester Dunning

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

After sending images of my latest Playground of the Autocrats panel, I was delighted to receive the following email (quoted with permission) from Chester Dunning, author of the wonderful Russia’s first Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty:

Wow! Thank you for sending me images of your amazing artwork.  I have been teaching Russian history for over thirty years, and your art really captures the sad, crazy quilt of Russian history and culture.  Congratulations on getting it exactly (insanely) right!

Best wishes,
Chester Dunning
Professor of History and
Murray and Celeste Fasken Chair in Distinguished Teaching
Texas A&M University


“Your Grasping, Scheming V.I.P.s:” Artist talk at Blue Door Gallery

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Recently, I gave an artist talk at Blue Door Gallery in the Artists’ District of Yonkers, NY.  I spoke about the newest painting in my PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS series, which tells stories about Russian history in pictures.  Below are some photographs of the talk.

Bobroff-Hajal painting, sketches of Ivan the Terrible face

Right: Audience teases “When did you shave your beard?” as I show them my sketches for Ivan the Terrible’s face, because I posed for it myself in my bathroom mirror. Left: My final painting of Ivan (Detail of “Your Grasping, Scheming V.I.P.s.”)

Bobroff-Hajal artist talk: Ivan the Terrible

Responding to an audience question about my  process of creating this panel, “Your Grasping, Scheming V.I.Ps.”

Your Grasping, Scheming V.I.P.s is the first panel in what will become a 5-paneled work – a pentaptych – entitled Darling Godsonny Stalin (Ivan the Terrible Advises the Infant Stalin).  The completed pentaptych will playfully tell the tragic story of Russian rulers’ recurring terror against their own people, from Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) to Stalin, who caused the deaths of upwards of 20 million innocent Russians.

I believe the past is godparent to the present, and that landscape and environment are godparent to all.  One way I visualize this in my art is via my fantasy of Ivan the Terrible as one of Stalin’s godparents.  You can see Ivan singing to the infant Stalin in the top of the panel above.

Your Grasping, Scheming V.I.P.s is about Ivan the Terrible’s relationship to his nobility before he began his terror against them.  (For more, see Ivan the Terrible: Madman or Crazy Like a Fox?)

Detail Bobroff-Hajal: Ivan the Terrible & noble clans

Ivan the Terrible lived within a “spider’s web” of noble clans, whose “aristocratic pretensions could not fail to come into conflict with the autocratic aspirations of the first Russian tsar.”

To become a true autocrat, Ivan had to cut his way free of a “spider’s web” of powerful aristocratic clans.

Russian Nobility under Ivan IV

Russian noble clans sometimes formed marriage alliances and sometimes fought each other as they vied for influence with the tsar.  Detail of my painting “Your Grasping, Scheming VIPs.”

Sweet dreams, baby Stalin….

Bobroff-Hajal painting: Ivan the Terrible & Stalin as infant

Stalin’s godfather, Ivan the Terrible, flies on a broom topped with a severed dog’s head – both Ivan’s symbols of his Terror against his own people.

Russian History “Big Questions” Study Guide: Did Stalin Bring Back Serfdom?

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

This is part of a series of lively, fun, and challenging study guides illustrated by my artwork about Russian history.  (The first, Introductory Study Guide is here).  

In addition to being an artist, I have a Ph. D. in Russian History from the University of Michigan.  My new paintings and mixed media works about Russia are collectively titled PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS.                 

Detail of left panel of DRESS IT UP IN RESPLENDENT CLOTHES, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal


The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution destroyed tsarism and instituted a radical new social order, Soviet Communism.

Or did it?

Beginning soon after the Russian revolution, “Communism” became the 20th century American boogeyman.  China had its revolution in 1949, and many in the US saw Communism as a world-wide plague that might infect whole chunks of the globe. We went to war in Korea and Viet Nam to try to stop it.

What was Soviet Communism anyway?

For peasants – who made up more than 80% of Russia’s population in 1917  – the central, defining element of Communism was the collectivization of agriculture.  Peasants were forced to become members of large collective farms on which they (at least in theory) tilled the land jointly, gave most of the crops to the state, shared the rest, and lived mainly off what they grew in small “private plots” in their yards.

Well, the Cold Warrior might say, wasn’t that just like those dictatorial, commune-loving Commies, taking away people’s private property and telling them what to do?

Well, actually…many Soviet peasants felt collectivization was a return to serfdom.   Lynne Viola, in Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, writes that as peasants were forced into collective farms (“kolkhozy” in Russian), they “rebelled against what many called a second serfdom….”  (p. 3; my emphasis)

Under tsarism, serfdom had bound peasants to their lords’ estates for life.  They were obligated to work on the serfowner’s estate and/or pay their lords either in kind or cash.

Serfdom lasted for centuries in Russia; it was legally abolished in 1861, within decades of the end of tsarism.

Discussion Question:

Was collectivization part of a revolutionary new ideology, Communism?  Or was it essentially a return to serfdom?          (continued below images)

Detail of left panel of DRESS IT UP IN RESPLENDENT CLOTHES, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Can you pinpoint the similarities and differences between my painting/collage above and the one below?

Collectivization by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Detail of right panel of DRESS IT UP IN RESPLENDENT CLOTHES, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Was collectivization really a second serfdom?

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s superb Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance & Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization observes that the analogy of collectivization to serfdom

“…had some real applicability, especially the analogy with barshchina (where the serf’s obligations were in labor rather than money).  The argument underlying the analogy ran as follows.  On the kolkhoz [collective farm], as on the old master’s estate, peasants were obliged to spend at least half their time working in someone else’s fields (meaning the kolkhoz fields) essentially without payment.  They lived on the produce of their own small plots, but constantly had to struggle for enough time to work on them.  As in the days of serfdom, they did not have the right to leave the village for work outside without permission.  This implied that kolkhozniks belonged to a special category of second-class citizen, just like serfs.  They were obliged to perform corvée obligations to the state.  It was not unusual for local officials, kolkhoz chairmen, and brigade leaders to assume the prerogatives of estate owners and their stewards under serfdom, subjecting field peasants to beatings and insults.” (p. 129)

Let’s look at some specifics of collectivization and serfdom:

Stalin, by Bobroff-Hajal


Ownership of agricultural products the peasant produced:  According to David Moon’s essential The Russian Peasantry ,

“In the last century of serfdom, it can tentatively be concluded that Russian peasants were compelled to hand over to the ruling and landowning elites around half of the product of their labour.”  (Moon, p. 88)

Under Soviet Communism, most of what was grown on the collective farm had to be turned over to the Soviet state.  The amount remaining was distributed among the kolkhoz members, but it was typically so small they had to mainly live from their “private plots,” which they struggled to find time to work (Moore* p. 85).  Sowing plans determined by the government dictated what was grown even on private plots (Fitzpatrick, p. 132-3).

Under serfdom, peasants’ role had been similarly divided: “In many Russian villages…under serfdom, the master’s land and that of the village were adjacent or intermingled, and the peasants tilled both.” (Fitzpatrick, p. 21).

Under Communism, even private plot produce didn’t belong completely to the people who farmed it (Moore, p. 86). 

Each household had the obligation – reminiscent of the obligation of the serf household to the lord in earlier days – to deliver meat, dairy products, eggs, and other produce from the private plot to the state.  Under state procurement regulations, first introduced in 1934, every kolkhoz household…was required to deliver a quota of meat and milk, even if it did not have pigs or sheep to slaughter or a cow to milk.  This was a subject of great peasant resentment and complaint.” (Fitzpatrick, p. 132)

Peasants by Bobroff-Hajal

Details of SERFDOM and COLLECTIVIZATION, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Organization of work: Fitzpatrick notes that under collectivization,

“Where the brigade system really functioned, organization of field work appears to have been similar…to a big estate in the old days of serfdom.  According to one contemporary description of a large grain-growing kolkhoz in the south, villagers were awakened by a bell at 5 A.M. and were required to present themselves in front of the administration building an hour later for the day’s instructions.  The brigade leaders met each evening with the kolkhoz chairman and other kolkhoz officers to plan the next day’s work….” (p. 146).

Wonderful 1881 print on cover of Fitzpatrick's book

The Harvard Project’s** postwar interviews of Soviet refugees (methodology p. 11-12) revealed “the peasant’s inexorable opposition to the regimentation of his activities by the collective farm.” (p. 123)

“…the peasant emerges as the ‘angry man’ of the [Soviet] system, …convinced of his exploitation, resentful of his deprivation of goods and opportunities, and outraged by the loss of his autonomy. (p. 254)

“Centrally and overwhelmingly they want the collective-farm system done away with in its present form, because they see it as enslaving the peasant and making him a serf of the state.” (p. 215)

Corvée obligations: Under Communism, peasants owed a certain number of days each year to the state for work to build/repair roads, and cut/transport timber.  As Moon describes, serfs had owed similar work

“obligations to their local authorities.  They were required to construct and maintain roads and bridges, and to supply horses and carts to transport officials, the mail, troops and prisoners.” (Moon, p. 86)

Russian peasants dressed in their best, cover of book by David Moon

The right to choose how/where to live/work: An internal passport law was passed in 1932, after which citizens couldn’t change their place of residence or job without government permission.  Similarly, under tsarism, serfs had not been permitted to move away from their masters, nor could they take up another line of work on their own volition.  In fact, the tsarist government held tight central control over all industry in the Russian Empire.  Individual entrepreneurship was not permitted outside tsarist state dominance.

Ownership of horses and tractors: At the core of Soviet reality was the state’s fierce push to industrialize and mechanize a vast, overwhelmingly backward rural economy.  As shown in my second painting (see above), COLLECTIVIZATION, in agriculture, this meant tractors.  Tractors were owned by the state.

But in fact, agriculture remained largely unmechanized for many years (which is why, despite the addition of some tractors in my painting, most peasants are doing exactly the same kind of labor as in my SERFDOM painting).  Horses were used for plowing, hauling, and transportation, but there were far too few in the USSR for the level of need.  Peasants had to get permission to borrow horses for their own necessities (including on private plots), and then, if lucky enough to get it, had pay for the animals’ use.

What about peasants’ bosses under serfdom vs collectivization?

So we’ve discussed the bottom half of my paintings SERFDOM and COLLECTIVIZATION.  But what about the top parts, those people above the manor house, transformed into “Stalin’s Red Dawn” Collective Farm in COLLECTIVIZATION?  Who are those people, and how are they similar or different? (continued below image)


Details of the bosses, SERFDOM and COLLECTIVIZATION, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Both serfdom and collectivization were designed to extract agricultural produce from the countryside to support the unusually heavy requirements of a non-agriculturally productive bureaucracy, military, government, and urban areas.

Bosses under serfdom

Beginning with the early centuries of the rise of the Russian state, its protection required that an unusually large proportion of its resources be devoted to the military, for reasons explained here, here, and here.  Peter Kolchin*** wrote that serfdom arose in Russia because, under conditions of extremely low agricultural productivity and labor shortage, the tsar’s fighting noblemen needed unfree labor to provide them food, clothing, and other necessities (p. 22).  Landholders,

“whose principal obligation to the tsar was to fight in his wars, were to be supported by the peasants who lived on their estates, and land grants typically…instructed [serfs] to ‘obey’ their new landlord, ‘cultivate his land and pay him grain and money obrok….  [L]andholders…were absent in military service much of the time [so they] depended for their livelihoods on ‘their peasants…” (Kolchin, p. 5)

Bosses under Soviet Communism


Soviet Communism used collectivized farm labor to enable its drive to industrialize a backward, overwhelmingly peasant economy within a few decades – a process that had evolved organically over centuries in Western Europe.

“The Soviet Union under Stalin was, in essence, an extraction state, characterized by extreme centralization and the total mobilization of resources (including labor) in the interests of state building and economic development….  Under Stalin, the peasant majority served as the fulcrum of modernization in what was one of the most radical transformations in modern history.”  (Lynne Viola, Unknown Gulag, p. 185)

Under both serfdom and collectivization, there were agents who compelled peasants to work.  Tsarism and Soviet Communism were autocratic, hierarchical structures, so the the lives of the agents in both systems were structured by their national government.  The position of each, however, provided a range of opportunities for  wealth and power over underlings.  (Fitzpatrick weighs the rewards and risks of holding local positions of authority p. 194).

“The managerial style of the kolkhoz chairmen and state-farm directors…had similarities to that of landowners and estate managers in the old days, and the peasants’ behavior to them, similarly, had much in common with the serf….

“Kolkhoz chairmen…were the…wheeler-dealers of the rural scene….  [They] were masters of their own small fiefdoms, cultivating contacts in the raion [county] and beyond, and making ingenious deals….” (Fitzpatrick, p. 316)


Lynne Viola's THE UNKNOWN GULAG explores the far northern settlements of the "unknown GULAG" as loci of slave labor to support the USSR's rapid industrialization.

Moore wrote about one type of rural Soviet official:

“In the internal organization of the kolkhoz the major figure is the chairman.  His role is characterized by heavy obligations and limited authority.  The key decisions concerning agricultural processes, plowing, sowing, and harvesting, come to the kolkhoz from the outside.  The chairman’s duty is to see that they are carried out, and that the quota of obligatory deliveries to the government is met.  To enforce his orders he has certain powers of punishment and reward, ranging from the authority to order a piece of work done over without pay to conferring prestige and financial benefits on those who exceed the planned quota.” (Moore p. 81)

Envisioning the bosses

The top dogs in my SERFDOM represent the lord of the manor and his family, who in large part dictated their serfs’ daily lives.  I carefully selected these particular images from many portraits of the Russian nobility that I’ve spent a lot of time collecting.  I chose the most evocative portraits from my collection.

The top dogs of my COLLECTIVIZATION represent a few of the various types of collective farm bosses who determined much of the daily lives of peasants under Communism: the kolkhoz chairman and local party and soviet officials.  These might include, as I’ve portrayed them from right to left:

  • – a dedicated agent of the Soviet government, proud of his chestful of medals and of having managed to survive unscathed by denunciations and arrests that often targeted men who took local responsibility (see Moore p. 82)
  • – a tough woman Party member who has weathered a lifetime of sexist attitudes to achieve a position within the local hierarchy
  • – a wife (or mistress) of a local boss who takes advantage of her man’s perks to accumulate personal luxuries
  • – a young thug used by his superiors to enforce local Soviet rule.

What were the DIFFERENCES between serfdom and collectivization?

Pathbreaking study of a serf village, by Steven L. Hoch

Perhaps the most important difference was that, under serfdom, a large share of their produce usually went to the landholder of the estate on which the serf worked – though for example, Peter the Great took more from the peasants than did serfowners.  At its height, Peter’s taxation policies “severely restricted the amounts of money and labour landowners could get from their peasants.” (Moon, p. 87)  Under Soviet Communism, the state controlled the disposition of agricultural produce.  

Mechanization:  As shown in my second painting above, the central focus of the Soviet state became modernization and industrialization.  To the extent possible, tractors and combines were introduced into the countryside.

Moving to urban areas: Because of the Soviet stress on industrialization, and the relatively small urban labor force, collective farm members were much more often permitted to leave the farm to become factory workers or receive training in other fields.

Stratification and unequal pay: Serfdom had imposed a large degree of homogeneity on Russian peasants.  Steven L. Hoch’s wonderful Serfdom and Social Control in Russia demonstrates why it was to the advantage of  serf owners to actively maintain equality among peasant households (p. 104-27).  Under Soviet Communism, however,

“Although the kolkhoz was theoretically a cooperative organization of equal partners, its internal structure quickly became stratified.  The stratification, based on the type of work performed by kolkhoz members, was something new in the village….

“Two privileged strata emerged in the kolkhoz of the 1930s.  The first was the ‘white-collar’ group: the kolkhoz chairman, members of the kolkhoz board, the accountant, the brigade leaders, the business manager, and an evergrowing list of other offices (head of the warehouse, head of the club, head of the reading room, director of the choir…) that the kolkhoz administrators awarded to their relatives and friends….  The second stratum was the skilled ‘blue-collar’ group of machine operators…, including the modern occupations of tractor driver, combine operator, and truck driver….”  (Fitzpatrick, p. 139-40; see also Moore p. 83)

Lynne Viola argues that “It is unlikely that peasants actually believed the collective farm to be a return to serfdom per se.  Serfdom rather served as a metaphor for evil and injustice.”  (p. 60.  See also Fitzpatrick p. 313 for how this may have differed over time).

Discussion questions:

In what specific ways did collectivization differ from serfdom?

As you weigh the similarities and differences between serfdom and collectivization, how would you characterize the historical process?  Would you call it revolution or evolution?  Or can you find another more accurate term?

Thought question: What does this say about how social change occurs? Do revolutions ever truly happen?  Can you think of examples?  What about parallels with today’s “Arab Spring?” Are the milestones we often note – such as the abolition of slavery in the US or of serfdom in Russia – truly radical changes, or do they tend to be simply legal markers along what in fact is a slow process of evolution?  In this context, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s description of how serfdom lingered even after it was legally abolished in 1861 is powerful:

“…peasants had many things to remind them of serfdom.  Collective responsibility for redemption payments inhibited the departure from the village of individual peasants or households, thus perpetuating the restriction on mobility that serfdom had earlier imposed.  The nobles who were the peasants’ former masters retained their estate lands…, as well as having considerable residual authority over the local peasants.” (p. 21)

Detail of Catherine the Great's song of blessing to the infant Stalin in DRESS IT UP IN RESPLENDENT CLOTHES, including original lyrics (to the traditional folk tune Kalinka) by Anne Bobroff-Hajal


Lynne Viola, PEASANT REBELS UNDER STALIN, Oxford University Press, 1999.




Cover of Tracy Dennison's book on serfdom


* Barrington Moore, Jr., TERROR AND PROGRESS USSR, Harvard University Press, 1954.

** Raymond A. Bauer, Alex Inkeles, and Clyde Kluckhohn, HOW THE SOVIET SYSTEM WORKS, Vintage Books, 1956.

*** Peter Kolchin, UNFREE LABOR, AMERICAN SLAVERY AND RUSSIAN SERFDOM, Harvard University Press, 1987.

An additional terrific book on Russian serfdom is Tracy Dennison’s THE INSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK OF RUSSIAN SERFDOM.

Russian History “Big Questions” Study Guide – Ivan the Terrible: Madman or Crazy Like a Fox?

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

This is part of a series of lively, fun, and challenging study guides illustrated by my artwork about Russian history.  (The first, Introductory Study Guide is here).  

In addition to being an artist, I have a Ph. D. in Russian History from the University of Michigan.  My new paintings and mixed media works about Russia are collectively titled PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS. 


Ivan the Terrible dances triumphantly atop the globe

Ivan the Terrible: Detail, right panel of THE MOST EXPOSED TERRAIN ON EARTH, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV, 1530-84) is infamous for his brutal murders of thousands of his people during the second half of his reign.  The most notorious of these killings were carried out publicly in grotesque ways, such as impaling or dousing the victim alternately with freezing and boiling water. Historians have debated whether Ivan was insane during the period he called the Oprichnina (1565-72), or was carrying out a strategy to eliminate encumbrances to his autocratic rule.

Question 1:

Was Ivan the Terrible crazy, or was he carrying out a rationally crafted policy?

I’d like to suggest a third possibility: that whether or not Ivan the Terrible was (at least at times) off his rocker, his murderous actions compeled a leap forward in the same direction as Muscovite rulers before and after him.

After all, even an unbalanced monarch grows up in a particular culture, with particular powerful people and groups around him, absorbing whatever history his mentors teach him about his country and government. Maybe even a mentally unstable ruler’s perceptions and extreme actions are so flavored by the world in which he lives that they move forward its trends even without his planning it.

Question 2:

Might a somewhat imbalanced ruler be able to continue – perhaps in a more ruthless way – trends begun by more stable rulers before him?  How would this play out?

This question doesn’t necessarily have a clear answer, but it’s interesting to think about.

Why is thinking about Ivan the Terrible important?

Modified detail: Ivan the Terrible blesses the infant Stalin

Ivan the Terrible as a fairy godfather giving his blessing to the infant Stalin (Modified detail from DRESS IT UP IN RESPLENDENT CLOTHES, painted by Anne Bobroff-Hajal)

Why should we bother our brains with questions about Ivan the Terrible anyway?  Aren’t they only about some looney guy centuries ago in far-off, now-pretty-irrelevant Russia?

Well for one thing, many of Ivan the Terrible’s actions were strikingly similar to those of Josef Stalin 400 years later. In the 20th century, Stalin killed something on the order of 20 million Russians, most of them innocent of the charges against them, also in hideous ways.  For example, both Ivan and Stalin executed some of their most devoted supporters. They each killed some of their best generals during or on the eve of major wars. And they each eventually turned the terror against the people who originally led it, executing many of those who had carried out its first phases.

So two Russian rulers who lived four centuries apart both committed similar horrific murders of vast numbers of their populations.  Maybe they were both crazy!

Josef Stalin.  Detail of DRESS IT UP IN RESPLENDENT CLOTHES, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

But here again, whatever their mental status, their “crazy” behaviors were so strikingly similar that we have to wonder what was in the air in Russia – or the water, the land, or the vodka – that made two rulers almost half a millenium apart do the same maniacal things.

Question 3:

What might caused two rulers of Russia (USSR), living four centuries apart, to visit terror on their own populations in such similar ways?

Again, you won’t be able to respond to this question now. These “Big Questions” Study Guides – as well as my art about Russian history – chip away at these issues, providing ideas and evidence that students can mull over to arrive at their own opinions.

Where can you find a good summary of various historians’ views of whether Ivan was insane or had a goal and a strategy?

Detail of “Your Grasping, Scheming V.I.P.s,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal: My representation of Ivan the Terrible’s face.

The two most recent books about Ivan the Terrible each provide excellent summaries of the lively ongoing debate about Ivan and his oprichnina by a number of historians in the US, Britain, and Russia.  I recommend you read both to get two perspectives:

Isabel de Madariaga, Ivan the Terrible (2008), Forward, pp. x-xiv.

Andrei Pavlov and Maureen Perrie, Ivan the Terrible (Profiles in Power series, 2003), Introduction, pp. 1-6.

Two well-known American historians of Russia make the argument that Ivan IV was mentally ill during the oprichnina:

Robert O. Crummey, author of the superb The Formation of Muscovy 1304-1613, p. 162-72.

Richard Hellie, “What Happened?  How Did He Get Away With It? Ivan Groznyi’s Paranoia and the Problem of Institutional Restraints,” Russian History 14 (1987): 199-224.

NOTE: Although I don’t personally agree with Crummey and Hellie on the issue of Ivan’s sanity, they have each written superb books, some of the very finest in the field of Russian history (Crummey’s The Formation of Muscovy and Hellie’s  Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy; his research on slavery in Russia is also revelatory).

If Ivan’s murderous oprichnina had a rationale, what was it?

“Your Grasping, Scheming VIP’s,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal . Acrylic paint and digital images on canvas and board . 32″ x 66″

To decide whether Ivan’s actions were insane, we need to figure out whether there was any possible rationale to them. This doesn’t mean whether his actions were right or wrong (we can probably all agree they were morally heinous).  It means we need to investigate whether Ivan himself may been pursuing a comprehensible strategy, however detestable we may find it.

Crummey has described the court in which Ivan the Terrible found himself as a young monarch who wanted the power to dictate without interference from anyone:

“The tsar lived within a spider’s web of family relationships.  Ties of kinship or marriage linked many of the powerful court clans – princely and non-titled – to one another.  These interlocking family groupings monopolized the highest commands in the army and filled almost all of the places in the Boyar Council [advisory council to the tsar]. Economically, their power rested on ownership of estates held on unconditional tenure.  Any Muscovite ruler had to reckon with them when making appointments or charting national policy.” (Crummey, p. 160).

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Russian tsars, including Ivan IV, didn’t like having to contend with the influence of the “web of clans” of the Russian nobility, portrayed in this detail of my “Your Grasping, Scheming V.I.P.s”

Pavlov and Perrie paint a similar portrait of the obstacles the young Ivan wanted to overcome in his drive for power:

“…the boyars – and especially those of princely origin – retained great influence.  The most eminent of the princes continued to own large family estates which were the remnants of their formerly independent principalities….  At court they comprised their own highly cohesive ‘corporations’ – the Suzdal’ princes, and Rostov princes, the Yaroslavl’ princes and the Obolensk princes among them.  These corporations were formed on the basis not only of the princes’ common ancestry, but also on their possession of hereditary estates within their former principalities.  Although their ownership of hereditary estates did not mean that the princes were independent landed magnates and opponents of centralization, it did imbue them with…influence at national level.  Conscious of their high birth, the eminent princes laid claim to the role of the tsar’s closest counsellors.  Such aristocratic pretensions on the part of the princely boyar elite could not fail to come into conflict with the autocratic aspirations of the first Russian tsar.”  (Pavlov and Perrie, p. 124).

In other words, if Ivan was to become a true autocrat, he would have to cut his way free of the “spider’s web” of clans, whose power rested on their independent landholding.

How could Ivan cut through the “spider’s web” of princely clans?

The Russian historian Sergey Platonov, writing about Ivan the Terrible during the 1920’s,

“presented the oprichnina as a policy designed to weaken the old princely aristocracy by destroying its large hereditary landed estates and redistributing them on a conditional basis to the new class of small-scale military servitors.”             Text continued after next image

Detail of my “Your Grasping, Scheming V.I.P.’s” shows the lower levels of the noble clans.

During the oprichnina (and afterward, according to Pavlov and Perrie, p. 169-203), Ivan killed or exiled to far distant lands many of the mighty old hereditary landowners.  In their former court positions and on their former estates, said Platonov, Ivan instead installed lower-born servitors who had the right to hold the land only as long as they were in service to the tsar (called “service tenure”).  This destroyed the power base of the old hereditary landowners, removing their ability to limit the tsar’s autonomy.

Platonov’s view was generally accepted for decades, until, as so often happens, it fell out of favor when later historians raised questions about it.

Later historians’ criticisms of Platonov’s work

For one thing, some historians* observed that many of the powerful old boyar and princely clans Ivan had exiled returned to court after the 7-year-long oprichnina (or according to Pavlov and Perrie, after Ivan IV’s death, p. 198), in their own turn ousting Ivan’s low-born courtiers.  That sure made it seem that Ivan hadn’t intended to raise up those low-born courtiers after all.  It seemed that life just returned to the pre-oprichnina status quo.

Martin, Medieval Russia book cover

Janet Martin book cover

Other historians (e. g. Martin, p. 390 and Crummey p. 162-4) have argued that because Ivan was inconsistent in his choices of who to kill or exile and who to include in his oprichnina, he couldn’t have been pursuing a plan of social engineering.  He exiled some princes and kept others at court, executed some of the low-born as well as some of the high.

“Over the course of the oprichnina’s existence, men of many backgrounds served in Ivan’s private army and court.  Some came from aristocratic clans and many more from the lesser nobility.  On occasion, some members of a prominent family served in the oprichnina, while others did not….

[Of those exiled to Kazan,] princes from the regions of Starodub, Iaroslavl and Rostov made up the largest single component…. [But] a significant number were not princes at all; a few came from distinguished non-titled families and considerably more from the lower echelons of the court.”  (Crummey, p. 163-4)

Other historians have also stated that while the original oprichniki were of low birth, their composition later reverted back to the same old princes and boyars.  (However, evidence for this point seems meager and appears to ignore Andrei Pavlov’s recent extensive research** on Ivan’s exiles/land transfers, including in the period after the oprichnina was formally over.)

Historians have also argued that a move by Ivan against the princes and boyars would have been purposeless, since all Russians, from the highest nobility to the lowest peasant, already agreed on the need for an autocratic tsar.  No one, not even the princes, wanted a less centralized system.

Isabel de Madariaga, Ivan the Terrible book coverAlso, a semantic confusion seems to have crept into the debate. Some of the dissenting historians have considered that, by “raising up low-born courtiers,” Platonov adherents meant that Ivan’s new henchmen became a class aware of their own interests, with an independent power base from which to push for concessions from the tsar.  These historians have accurately observed that in fact no new interest group or class arose.  In fact, the Russian autocracy became stronger following Ivan’s reign, not weaker vis-a-vis the newly elevated servitors.

“Both aristocrats (princes and boyars) and the service gentry accepted the unification of the land under the sole government of the Tsar, and the merging of service [land] tenure and allodial property…in which they all saw some advantages.  Some Riurikid [the tsar’s lineage] princes who had survived in sufficiently strong clans might still hanker after their old appanage [independent land ownership] status, but the pervasive systems…acted as a barrier against any private initiatives,…and the monopoly of lucrative service drew the aristocracy and service gentry together”  (Madariaga, p. 368)

* For example, Janet Martin, Medieval Russia, 980-1584 (2007), p. 392,  and Madariaga Ivan the Terrible, pp. 182-3.

**  Pavlov’s research articles unfortunately haven’t been translated from Russian, but they are described throughout Pavlov and Perrie book, Ivan the Terrible.

Can these viewpoints be reconciled?

It’s important for all students to read the sources themselves to form their own opinions.  But having gone over the sources recently myself in preparation for creating my new artwork about Ivan the Terrible (in my primary role as an artist), I feel energized to present my own conclusions.

Pavlov/Perrie Ivan the Terrible

Pavlov & Perrie book cover

I  believe most points of contention about Ivan the Terrible for which real evidence exists can be integrated into a single picture of the oprichnina.

First, let’s look at some historians’ point that, since all Russians already believed they needed a single, all-powerful tsar, Ivan would have had no need to bludgeon them into that belief.  Well, as Crummy said (above), even people convinced of the need for a dictator may still battle with each other over access and influence.  And battle among themselves the Russian nobility certainly did.

One might draw an analogy to children who know in their heart of hearts they need their parents to reign supreme.  Yet they squabble endlessly to one-up their siblings and get their way.  Ivan the Terrible was like the dad trying to drive the car while the kids kicked and punched each other in the back seat.  He finally turned around and smacked them.  Or maybe I should say: tortured and beheaded some of them to cow the others into docility.

(Remember I’m not saying this is a good thing or that the Russian people got what was coming to them.  I’m only saying that Ivan didn’t like the fighting and interference, so he clobbered people to stop it.)

Now about those evictions…

Andrei Pavlov’s recent years of research in Russian archives have shown that criticisms of Platonov’s findings are on the one hand unfounded and on the other hand raise important nuances that need to be woven into our understanding of Ivan’s oprichnina.

To begin with, the monumental scale of evictions of magnates from their hereditary landholdings has now been confirmed by Pavlov’s research.  “Over the entire period of the oprichnina,” he wrote, “the majority of Russian nobles may have been moved from their homelands…” (Pavlov and Perrie, p. 142, my emphasis).  Pavlov’s sources have also shown that removing many magnates from their huge estates enabled Ivan to reward his lower born minions with landholdings and money.

It is difficult to conceive of any other ruler in Europe having the power to force such massive migrations and land ownership transfers on his own population.  Along with the terror Ivan visited on his people, this must have had a powerful impact on their way of life and their psyche.

… and the return of all those magnates to the tsar’s court…

Pavlov’s research confirms that, as asserted by recent anti-Platonov historians, many of the old princely and boyar families did return to the tsar’s court, some with promises they’d get their land back.  However, Pavlov and Perrie found this return of the magnates did not occur until after Ivan IV’s death.  They present evidence that even after the formal end of the oprichnina, Ivan continued the same oprichnina policies, relying ever more heavily on low-born henchmen (Pavlov and Perrie, pp. 169-200).

So does this mean that in the end the oprichnina had no effect, and therefore could have had no rational purpose?

Dunning, Russia's First Civil War

Chester Dunning, RUSSIA’S FIRST CIVIL WAR book cover

Some historians’ vision that former magnates who survived the terror came back to court and went on with their lives just as before seems improbable.  The returning magnates had lived through humiliation, impoverishment, torture, and terror.  They may well have had a number of close family members and friends slaughtered, or have witnessed or certainly heard of Ivan’s ghoulish tortures and killings.  Many former princes and courtiers were likely cowed into submission by this profoundly traumatic experience.  As Chester Dunning wrote,

The resulting horror and dislocation traumatized the elite, seriously weakened many princely families, and increased the nobility’s dependence on the monarch (Russia’s First Civil War, p. 49).

In addition to the psychic impact, the princes and boyars had lost their power base: their hereditary estates.  Pavlov and Perrie write that even in cases where magnates were told their land would be returned to them,

“it was very difficult in practice to implement this policy, which involved the large-scale expropriation of lands from their new oprichniki owners, and the allocation of other lands to the latter in their stead.  In the context of the general devastation of the economy it was essentially unrealistic even to attempt this.  As a consequence only a small proportion of the [displaced] nobles received their old estates back.”  (p. 169)

The resettlement of the nobility “involved many problems and often led to their ruination and impoverishment….  [During the oprichnina,] land often passed repeatedly from one owner to another and fell into decline.  Traditional farming methods were disrupted, and this had a dire effect on the peasants.”  (Pavlov and Perrie, p. 143)

In short, while former magnates were allowed to return to high positions at court, many no longer owned the large, productive tracts of hereditary land which had been the source of their wealth and power before the oprichnina.

“Over the years of the oprichnina as a whole, the balance between hereditary and service lands, especially in the central regions of the country, shifted significantly in favour of service-tenure estates.”  (Pavlov and Perrie, p. 143)

“The oprichnina badly damaged the family estates of the princely and boyar aristocracy, and it particularly harmed the hereditary landownership of the princes.  The destruction of the boyars’ hereditary landholding and the loss of their previous links with the local nobility, led to a significant transformation of the Russian aristocracy, and made it completely dependent on the monarchy….  The sovereign’s court had previously had a territorial structure, with the most aristocratic and eminent nobles not only serving at court but at the same time heading their local associations of the nobility.  By the beginning of the 1570s this had ceased to be the case, and the court had become organized on a new and more hierarchical basis.  The privileged elite of the nobility, the Moscow ranks…had become detached from the great majority of nobles.  They now…performed their service exclusively from the ‘Moscow list’ (based in the capital), which greatly increased their dependence on the state.  This pattern of development of the sovereign’s court was to continue under Ivan Groznyi’s successors.  As a result, the upper echelons of the nobility…were essentially turned into state officials, and as such they began to implement in the localities the harsh policies of the autocracy….” (Pavlov and Perrie, p. 198-9).

Question 4:

Would it have been possible for Tsar Ivan to break up the landholding power-base of the old princes, boyars, and courtiers without using terror?  Could he simply have peacefully decreed that the large hereditary estates were to be divided and distributed to a wider group of nobles?

Why did Ivan turn to the low born nobility to carry out his policies?

I suspect Ivan mounted his terror precisely because he knew the magnates would never give up their large landholdings peacefully.  But how could he find people willing and able to carry out years of executions, tortures, and evictions across the country?  He did it by turning to the impoverished bottom of the noble class and offering them rewards they could never have won before the oprichnina.

“Service in the oprichnina opened up for low-born nobles new opportunities for a successful career and to enhance the social standing of their clan. Sometimes oprichniki of humble birth, in defiance of the traditions of precedence* received higher service posts than more eminent…boyars and nobles.  The latter, fearing the tsar’s disfavor, did not dare openly defend the honour of their clan, and had to accept their loss….” (Pavlov and Perrie, p. 113; see also p.187)

*Precedence was the all-important key to high posts in Russia, and the source of most of the battles among them for status and influence.

The newly-elevated low-born, “being completely dependent on state service, and obliged to the tsar for their career and material welfare, …provided Ivan IV with a loyal and reliable base of support for implementing his political plans.” (Pavlov and Perrie, p. 113-14).

But as a number of recent anti-Platonov historians have pointed out, Ivan didn’t want to raise up the low-born nobles as a new upper class, conscious of their common interests and eager to press their demands on the tsar.  Quite the opposite.  Ivan’s goal was to destroy the ability of all classes to limit his own will.

What about Ivan’s inconsistency in attacking or rewarding the magnates vs the more lowly?

Historians such as Martin and Crummey accurately point out that Ivan was inconsistent in his rewards and punishments, sometimes exiling the lowborn and giving favors to princes. Crummey takes this inconsistency as one indication of Ivan’s insanity.

But I believe his point is answered by historians who have noted that the oprichnina strengthened the autocracy, not any one strata of the nobility.  Ivan rewarded low-born nobles for a period of time in order to win their loyalty as his tools in his larger plan.

If Ivan wanted to assert his power over all levels of society, he couldn’t consistently reward any given category of people, or punish any other given category.  His goal was not to create a new powerful class of favorites, but to undermine the security of all of them.

So Ivan had to be somewhat capricious.  Only in this way could he make clear to every class of people that they had no independent safety outside his good will.

Question 5:

After reading some of the sources what is your own picture of Ivan the Terrible and the oprichnina?  If you’d like to challenge any part of my reasoning – or if you’d like to agree – I’d love to hear from you in a comment or via email.

Final note:

You may have noticed that this entire discussion has been about different levels of nobility, not about those most subservient of all, the soon-to-be enserfed peasants.  And of course, they were the real losers in all this.  We’ll take up their lives more in later Study Guides.

Detail of Still With You painting.

Detail of painting: “Still With You,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Fun research question

Why, in my painting of Ivan the Terrible above, is he riding on a broom with a severed dog’s head on its front?  Why did the real Ivan choose these symbols?