Putin’s Medieval Dreams

As much of the world makes amends for social and political injustices of the past, Russia is lionizing its despots, raising statues to the worst of them. Behind this phenomenon is an ultra-nationalist brand of conservatism that seeks to take Russian politics back to the Middle Ages.

While much of the world is busy dismantling monuments to oppressors, Russians are moving in the opposite direction, erecting statues to medieval warlords who were famous for their despotism. Understanding this revival can shed light on the direction of Russia’s politics.

In October 2016, with the endorsement of Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, the country’s first-ever monument to Ivan the Terrible was unveiled in the city of Orel. A month later, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, called for Lenin Avenue in Moscow to be renamed Ivan the Terrible Highway. And in July of this year, President Vladimir Putin christened Moscow’s own tribute to the tyrant, declaring, erroneously, that “most likely, Ivan the Terrible never killed anyone, not even his son.”

Most historians agree that Ivan lived up to his name; not only did he kill his son and other relatives, he also ordered the oprichnina, the state-led purges that terrorized Russia from 1565 to 1572. He also presided over Russia’s defeat in the Livonian War, and his misrule contributed to the Time of Troubles and the state’s devastating depopulation.

.. Joseph Stalin initiated the modern cult of Ivan the Terrible. But, since the mid-2000s, Russia’s Eurasia Party – a political movement led by the pro-fascist mystic Alexander Dugin – has moved to position Ivan as the best incarnation of an “authentic” Russian tradition: authoritarian monarchy.

Dugin’s brand of “Eurasianism” advocates the embrace of a “new Middle Ages,” where what little remains of Russian democracy is replaced by an absolute autocrat. In Dugin’s ideal future, a medieval social order would return, the empire would be restored, and the Orthodox church would assume control over culture and education.

.. Eurasianism, which was marginal in the 1990s, has gained considerable popularity in recent years by contributing to the formation of the so-called Izborsky Club, which unites the Russian far right.

.. Putin has referred to Eurasianism as an important part of Russian ideology

.. members of the Eurasia Party, who consider political terror the most effective tool of governance and call for a “new oprichnina” – a staunchly anti-Western Eurasian conservative revolution. According to Mikhail Yuriev, a member of the political council of the Eurasia Party and author of the utopian novel The Third Empire, the oprichniks should be the only political class, and they should rule by fear.

.. Cultural vocabulary is also reverting. For example, the word kholop, which means “serf,” is returning to the vernacular, a linguistic devolution that parallels a troubling rise in Russia’s modern slavery. Data from the Global Slavery Index show that more than one million Russians are currently enslaved in the construction industry, the military, agriculture, and the sex trade. Moreover, serf “owners” are also happily identifying themselves as modern-day barins.

.. Nostalgia for serfdom compliments the desire for a return to autocracy.

.. Putin’s tacit support for the Eurasian vision of a neo-medieval Russia invokes the historical memory of Stalinism. According to Dugin, “Stalin created the Soviet Empire,” and, like Ivan the Terrible, expresses “the spirit of the Soviet society and the Soviet people.” No wonder, then, that monuments to Stalin, too, are multiplying in Russian cities.

.. Neo-medievalism is rooted in nostalgia for a social order based on inequality, caste, and clan, enforced by terror.

The lionization of historical despots reflects the contemporary embrace of such pre-modern, radically anti-democratic and unjust values. For Ivan’s contemporary champions, the past is prologue.

Things to Think About When Taking Down Statues

One difference between democracies and dictatorships is that the constructing and revising of public spaces is not a propaganda opportunity for the ruler but a realm of democratic discourse, influenced by popular opinion and competitive electoral politics. After the shock of Charlottesville, as many American cities, towns, and campuses have taken down statues of Confederate leaders and generals, or debated whether to do so, New Delhi’s example is perhaps a useful one.

.. Lonnie G. Bunch III, who leads the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, told the Times, “I am loath to erase history.” He suggested that the statues that were removed should be grouped together in new spaces and contextualized. As it happens, that is what New Delhi did

.. And, by again raising the question of why a statue of Robert E. Lee is more offensive than one of a slaveholding Founding Father like Thomas Jefferson, the statue debates have again forced Americans to reckon with the foundational role of slavery in the construction of the Republic.

.. They stand still, while the struggle for rights and democratic pluralism is dynamic. And that struggle can lurch backward suddenly. In India today, the Bharatiya Janata Party, with its Hindu-nationalist ideology known as Hindutva, is busy rewriting school textbooks, to falsely revise the history of Muslim conquest of the subcontinent, and to reduce the prominence in the story of Indian independence of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s first Prime Minister and who, during his seventeen years in office, built the modern state and its resilient democracy. Nehru was an avowed atheist, who promoted science, industry, and secularism; he worked to keep Hindu chauvinism on the sidelines, and the Hindutva movement’s ideologues have not forgotten.

‘Fearless Girl’ Doesn’t Need Any Bull

The sponsor of “Fearless Girl” is State Street Global Advisors, a Boston financial firm that said it wanted to promote “greater gender diversity on corporate boards.”

.. Mayor Bill de Blasio said, in an interview with public radio host Brian Lehrer, that the girl was standing up to a figure representing “unfettered capitalism.”

.. “Fearless Girl” was originally supposed to be on display for a few days. But her stay was extended, and now there are calls to keep her forever. Meanwhile, the bull’s creator is going nuts. “It’s really bad,” said an emotional Arturo Di Modica, 76, at a press conference.

.. He spent his own money on the project and hauled his 7,000-pound creation to the front of the New York Stock Exchange, where he deposited it in the middle of the night.

Exchange officials, unmoved, had it be carted away. But Mayor Ed Koch and his parks commissioner liked “Charging Bull,” and placed in a nearby park, where it’s been ever since.

.. Most people, of course, prefer to see a call for gender diversity. “I like it because Wall Street is a male bastion, and it’s good to look at a future where women are determined to lead

.. Her stay has now been extended to a year. The wounded Di Modica says he’ll sue.

.. There’d be plenty of room for “Fearless Girl” in Central Park