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  • Not a Film but a NightmareRevisiting Stalin’s Response to Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part II
  • Joan Neuberger (bio)

There are many open questions about Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, but few have been as confounding as efforts to explain why Part I, completed in December 1944, received Stalin’s personal endorsement and Part II, completed in February 1946, was immediately banned. On 5 March 1946, only a month after the Stalin Prize was awarded to Part I, the Central Committee prohibited the release of Part II; and in August 1946, Stalin excoriated the film in the speech he gave to point out the “errors” of the film industry and initiate the postwar crackdown on film.1 The explanations given for Stalin’s divergent responses are primarily political. Stalin was not flattered by Eisenstein’s portrait of Ivan as a ruler alternating between revenge and remorse. Political priorities had changed between 1944 and 1946, leaving Ivan, Part II, caught up in the shift in cultural policy that revoked wartime leniency and reasserted party control. In the 1950s and 1960s, after the 1958 [End Page 115] delayed release of Part II, many agreed with the film scholar Neia Zorkaia, who argued that the two parts were themselves quite different: “Eisenstein produced the official version of Ivan in Part I, and the tragic truth of the epoch in Part II.”2 Or as Grigorii Mar´iamov put it in 1992, Part I “did not yet touch on those scenes where the irreconcilable differences between Stalin and the director lurked.”3 In fact, as we now know, censors had removed the darkest and most defiant scenes of Part I before it was screened for Stalin, so Part II only seemed to be more challenging and unacceptable by contrast.4

These factors undoubtedly played a role in Stalin’s about-face, but I want to explore another, entirely overlooked possibility. There is evidence to suggest that Stalin—and Lavrentii Beria, Viacheslav Molotov, Andrei Zhdanov, and others in Stalin’s inner circle who chimed in—hated Ivan the Terrible, Part II, for another reason altogether: its pervasive, inescapable, often humorous, and always defiant homoeroticism. I believe that the homoerotic subtext, which does not appear very “sub” to anyone watching Part II today, was not only legible to Kremlin filmgoers in 1946 but rattled and angered Stalin. The evidence for my claim is necessarily speculative, but it is based on close reading, and rereading, of the documents that record Stalin’s response to Ivan, Part II and an examination of scenes that illustrate Eisenstein’s usage of antinormative sexuality to raise questions about sameness and difference and antipathy and desire in politics as well as sex. The history of archival publication in the late and post-Soviet period is partly responsible for masking any hint of this aspect of Stalin’s response. A single document, published for the first time in 1988, has come to dominate our understanding of Stalin’s reaction to Ivan the Terrible, Part II. This is the transcript of Stalin’s Kremlin conversation with Eisenstein that Stalin orchestrated in February 1947 and that displays him at his most typically controlled and controlling.5 Documents that have come to light since [End Page 116] show a very different initial reaction and encourage us to reread and rethink the tenor and focus of that famous conversation. Nothing connected with the production and fate of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible was straightforward and numerous misconceptions have accrued to its interpretation and reception history due to the typical silences and complexities of documenting the Stalin period. This article is an attempt to reconsider some documents that have been taken at face value and modify our understanding of Eisenstein’s great masterpiece and Stalin’s various responses to it.

Film screenings were common events in the Kremlin, as Stalin liked to weigh in on new movies. He did not usually intervene in day-to-day production decisions, but his opinion of the finished product determined a film’s fate.6 Ivan the Terrible, Part II, was a special film in many ways.7 It was commissioned by Stalin in January 1941, and although production...


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