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In the last few decades, the study of European royalty has increasingly moved away from narratives of high politics and the biographies of rulers. Although the popular market for these traditional genres remains strong, academic historians have paid more attention to the myths and images of monarchs. The presentations and representations of rulers, in court ceremonies and public rituals, have been the subject of valuable interdisciplinary research which illuminates the construction of royal power.1 At the same time, there has been a growth in studies of the posthumous reputations of monarchs, which go beyond conventional historiography to include their depictions in works of literature and art. The study of images of Russian rulers is not new, of course, but early accounts did not claim to do much more than trace the development of a “theme” in intellectual and cultural history.2 From the late 1980s, the new wave of de-Stalinization in the USSR under M. S. Gorbachev led to an upsurge of interest in various aspects of Stalinism, including the “rehabilitation” in the 1930s of previously vilified tsars such as Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.3 [End Page 463] The academic investigation of Stalinist historical revisionism in relation to rulers was later expanded to include the mobilization for propaganda purposes of cultural figures such as A. S. Pushkin and L. N. Tolstoi.4 These themes tied in neatly with other current concerns in scholarship on Stalinism, such as the cult of personality, the critical reassessment of Nicholas Timasheff’s thesis about the “Great Retreat,” and the balance between modernization and “neo traditionalism” in Soviet society. Alongside the examination of Stalinist representations of historical figures, the study of the reputations of national heroes and villains over a longer time scale has developed in the context of the burgeoning scholarly literature on nationalism, national identity, and memorialization.5 Now two new books have appeared on the myths and images associated with the two most notorious Russian tsars—one by an American and the other by a Russian scholar.
At first glance, the books seem very similar, with the obvious qualification that Kevin Platt is concerned not only with Ivan the Terrible but also with Peter the Great. Both deal with representations of their eponymous rulers in Russian historiography and art from the early 19th to the early 21st centuries, including representations in literature, opera, historical painting, and film.6 Yet their approaches are very different. Where Natal´ia Mut´ia attempts to provide a comprehensive listing of all works of art devoted to Ivan and his times, Platt is highly selective, focusing on only a few examples chosen to illustrate an argument about Russians’ perceptions of the costs of progress in their country. [End Page 464]
Platt’s title—Terror and Greatness—refers to the epithets conventionally applied to Ivan IV and Peter I, respectively. But the author argues that the concepts of “terror” and “greatness” could be—and have been—attached to both rulers. Some commentators have regarded Ivan as “great” in spite of his use of state violence; and Peter’s reputation for “greatness” was acquired by downplaying the role of terror in his achievements. By comparing the development of representations of the two tsars, Platt provides a sophisticated and perceptive account of the various ways in which these historical figures have been used as symbols (or “myths,” as his subtitle describes them) in the construction of influential interpretations of Russian history.
Platt’s book is divided into six chapters, organized on a chronological basis. His first chapter, titled “Liminality,” examines the image of Ivan IV in the ninth volume of N. M. Karamzin’s classic History of the Russian State (1821) and of Peter I...