Nov/Dec 2018 Current Moscow Time: 20:10:17
14 November 2018

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Sunday, July 01, 2018

War on Art

by The Editors

“False” Repin masterpiece attacked

In what is only the latest twist in an ongoing cultural debate about the role of Ivan the Terrible in Russian history, a man visiting Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery vandalized the well-known painting by Ilya Repin, Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan. In the painting, the infamous tsar is depicted moments after fatally striking his son, cradling his bloody head in grief.

Igor Podporin, a 37-year-old visiting Moscow from Voronezh Province, approached the painting just before closing time and used a metal barrier pole to smash the glass covering the canvas. The attack caused cuts to the canvas, though not to the most delicate areas of the figures’ faces and hands.

Podporin was swiftly arrested and explained his actions as a quest for historical justice. “Because it’s false. [Ivan the Terrible] is a canonized saint,” he said. 

Initially Podporin also said he was inspired by the 100 grams of vodka he drank in the museum’s cafe (something he later retracted), which led the Federation Council (upper house) of parliament to suggest that museums ban the sale of hard liquor.

Ivan the Terrible
The extent of the damage.

Tragically, the attack is in line with a curious trend toward what can only be seen as state-sponsored rehabilitation of Ivan the Terrible. 

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky (re-appointed to the post in May) has written a number of popular history books (which have been dismissed by established professional historians) arguing that Ivan the Terrible’s infamous brutality was a myth propagated by the West, and that in fact he never killed his son.

President Vladimir Putin also chimed in, famously saying that Ivan’s killing of his son may not have happened. “Many experts say he did not kill anyone and that this was invented by the Papal Nuncio, who came to Russia for talks and tried to turn Orthodox Rus into Catholic Rus,” he said last year.

Such favorable appraisals of the sixteenth-century tyrant (who actually, in the early part of his reign, had some reformist tendencies) inspired the unveiling of an Ivan the Terrible monument in Oryol in 2016 (see Russian Life, Jan/Feb 2017). This came after centuries of a de factoboycott on monumental images of the tsar. For example, the Millennium of Russia in Novgorod, a state monument erected in 1862 celebrating Russian statehood, depicts all Russian rulers through that date, yet famously omits Ivan the Terrible because of his creation of the violent Oprichnina (which in Novgorod alone killed 10 percent of the population). 

Asked to comment on the incident in the museum, Medinsky complained about a lack of security (despite metal detectors and guards routinely checking visitors’ belongings in major art institutions) and said that there should be more national guards posted around museums’ perimeters. 

“The only major problems we come across is lack of security around the perimeter. Before, it was provided by private security and now by the Russian National Guard,” he said.

Repin’s painting was damaged by an attacker once before. In 1913, an Old Believer, Abram Balashov, stabbed the work with a knife, shouting “Enough blood!” He was eventually put in an insane asylum, and soon thereafter the Tretyakov Gallery’s curator (хранитель) Yegor Khruslov committed suicide by throwing himself under a train.

Podporin could face up to six years in prison. The painting, meanwhile, will undergo years of restoration: the gallery said at a press conference that the attack exacerbated the chronic problem of paint detaching from the canvas.

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