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MOSCOW >> Ivan the Terrible, the Russian czar, should really be considered Ivan the Not So Bad, according to a wildly popular historical exhibition held recently near the Kremlin.
The exhibition accused the Western news media of miscasting Czar Ivan IV as “the Terrible.” A display of contemporaneous German etchings that showed the 16th-century czar’s troops committing atrocities was offered as proof that labeling him a murderous tyrant was simply defamation by foreigners.
He was also the first Russian leader hit by Western sanctions, the display asserted, with a supposed ban on metal sales to Russia prompting the initial domestic production of cannons.
Sound familiar? The show was one of several recent blockbuster exhibitions that historians and others say distort Russia’s past to create false parallels that justify current Kremlin policy.
“History is being used as an ideological tool,” said Nikita P. Sokolov, a historian and editor. The message of some of the biggest shows, he said, was that “Russia is a besieged fortress that needs a strong commander, and anyone trying to democratize Russia and shake the power of the commander is trying to undermine this country.”
Museum officials who created some of the shows denied that they were following Kremlin orders. Rather, they said, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed a torrent of excessively negative historical research that needed rebalancing.
“Not once has any government representative told me how history should be written,” said Yuri A. Nikiforov, a World War II historian. “It’s just not true that Russian historians dance to the president’s tune.”
Nikiforov works as a volunteer curator for the Russian Military-Historical Society, which government critics blame for leading the charge of ideological exhibitions. Founded in 2012 by Vladimir R. Medinsky, the minister of culture, in cooperation with the Ministry of Defense, the society is a quasi-public organization with an unpublished budget.
Emphasizing the glory of Russia became a cherished goal of President Vladimir Putin when he started his third term in 2012. At the founding of the Military-Historical Society — modeled on the imperial version disbanded after the 1917 revolution — Putin pledged government support and exhorted the organization to defend the values of “patriotism and the sacred duty of defending our homeland, national dignity and loyalty to our roots.”
In contrast to Nikiforov, Medinsky eagerly acknowledged the Kremlin’s advice. “We very much need these kinds of orders from the Kremlin,” he said. “They are very correct.”
Medinsky’s father, Rostislav, an adviser on veterans’ affairs, summed up the historical society’s goals this month at an exhibition of paintings celebrating Russia’s annexation of Crimea last spring.
The Military-Historical Society “is solving one of the main ideological tasks of educating citizens in the spirit of the highest patriotism,” he said. “Because there where the land is not sown, grow weeds.
There where there is no ideological motive, a vacuum forms and fascism raises its head.”
The society’s blockbuster show with Ivan the Terrible and others was held last fall at the Manege, a 19th-century exhibition hall just outside the Kremlin, and drew 250,000 people.
Called “My History. The Ruriks,” it celebrated the dynasty that ruled for about 700 years, starting around A.D. 900, over the areas that became the heartland of Russia. Critics say that Medinsky used the show to promote his own interpretation of a period of Russian history that is notoriously difficult to document.
The central themes were that Russia has long been under attack, that only in unity had it been able to expel invaders and that numerous legends had grown up about its past.
Criticism was rife about its treatment of many subjects, including Ivan the Terrible and sanctions. (Not to mention the thumping techno soundtrack.)
Ivan founded the original version of the secret police in 1564, said Sokolov, the historian, and his executions were cruel, not some Western fiction. The assertion that Western sanctions prompted the first local production of cannons was also misguided, he said, because that started before Ivan’s time.
The neighboring state then called Livonia — in what is now the Baltics — did block technically skilled people from Russia, Sokolov said, but there was no metal embargo because Russia had plenty.
“It was a purely political exhibition, not an historical one,” he said.
Medinsky, the culture minister, is ready to dispute history at length. Ivan the Terrible is actually a mistranslation of Ivan Grozny, he said, a “positive” term in Russian that would better be rendered as “Ivan the Strict.” As for the czar’s human rights record on executions, he said, that of Queen Elizabeth I of England was far worse.
“This is PR; this is the difference between a rat and a hamster,” he said. “It is simply image-making.”
Historians have voiced concerns that Russia is switching to a sanitized version of history, discontinuing the relatively open inquiries of the 1990s to return to narrower, Soviet-style interpretations that emphasize ideology. Putin rejected that criticism last year.
Yet museums that have highlighted darker aspects of Russian history have come under pressure or even been shut down. For example, Perm-36, a museum focused on political repression that was established on the grounds of a restored Soviet labor camp announced its closing in early March after government support was cut.
There are, of course, plenty of museum exhibitions without an ideological bent. Yet in numerous shows, the parallels drawn between past and present are not subtle. The practice is expected to swell with scores of new exhibits to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany.
Nikiforov of the Military-Historical Society curated an exhibition called “Remember,” held in a former power plant near Parliament.
Using mostly old photographs, the exhibition concentrated on the rise of Nazism, especially in places like Ukraine and the Baltics; Hitler’s atrocities; and the more than 1 million Soviet soldiers killed in the drive across Eastern Europe to capture Berlin.
The show also gave a distinct nod toward present policy: One soaring lobby wall depicted current right-wing groups in Ukraine.
Russia maintains that the reason it absorbed Crimea a year ago and then endorsed the separatists battling in eastern Ukraine was that the overthrow of the government in Kiev in February 2014 amounted to a Nazi revival.
“That screen forces people to think, but nowhere, not in the tours, do we draw such a primitive parallel,” Nikiforov said.
“Remember” gives short shrift to the unsavory aspects of the Soviet Union’s World War II history, like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that allied Moscow with Nazi Germany until Hitler invaded in 1941. “Such simplification is unavoidable when there is not much room,” the curator said.
The Museum of Contemporary History, one of the largest in Russia, is featuring a show called “On the Path to Victory,” about the 1943 fight for Ukraine.
A tour guide made the link to current events. “As we see today in the territory of Ukraine, these events did not disappear into history,” he said. “The ember continued to smolder and unfortunately this fascist fire began to burn again a year ago.”
Irina Y. Velikanova, a former Moscow City Council member appointed to run the museum last year, said the mission of any historical museum should be rooted in patriotism.
“We don’t hide the fact that we are interested in forming the patriotic and civic position of Russian youth,” she said. “Our goal is that when leaving our museum, all Russians would feel proud of their country.”
Valentin Diaconov, who covers the art world for the daily newspaper Kommersant, said he tried to ignore the historical exhibits, hoping they would go away.
“They are basically showbiz,” he said. “We are not talking about history; it is too complicated. We are talking about superheroes.”