By the time Sergei Eisenstein completed Ivan Groznyy (Ivan the Terrible Part I) in 1944, the widespread experimentalism that had characterised the Soviet arts of the 1920s was a distant, long-suppressed memory. The Soviet Union of the 1920s represented a rare historical instance in which a state openly supported avant-garde art as a force for socio-political change, having fostered futurist and constructivist movements that dexterously combined anarchist sentiment with the pressing Bolshevik need for agitprop and Marxist sloganeering. By the 1930s, however, the Stalinist creed of socialist realism – an ill-defined term whose haziness was its very strength – had become the law of the land. Under Stalin, art had to be not only politically correct but also accessible in both content and form. Whatever avant-gardisms Shostakovich, Meyerhold, and Eisenstein had committed in the 1920s in the name of the new Soviet state were now verboten, and “formalism” in the arts became a code word for anything Stalin’s henchmen deemed insufficiently propagandistic, decadently “Western”, or simply unintelligible. Threatened with the prospect of re-education camps, the intelligentsia that had spurred on the 1917 revolution was now forced to retreat into the safe, uncontroversial waters of romanticism, folklore and unambiguous tonality. Shostakovich presented as an apologia for his dissonant misdeeds the patriotic Fifth Symphony, while Eisenstein offered the glorious nationalism of Aleksandr Nevskiy (Alexander Nevsky 1938); meanwhile, Meyerhold, among the most innovative directors in theatre history, was kidnapped, tortured, and eventually executed (in 1940) for his non-conformism and proud opposition to realist aesthetics.

Andrei Sinyavsky’s On Socialist Realism, which first appeared pseudonymously in French in 1959, gave Western readers some of their first glimpses into Stalinism’s cultural oppressions and ideological mandates. Sinyavsky begins his essay with questions whose satiric logic defies the Stalinist mindset:

What is socialist realism? What is the meaning of this strange and jarring phrase? Can there be a socialist, capitalist, Christian, or Mohammedan realism? Does this irrational concept have a natural existence? Perhaps it does not exist at all; perhaps it is only the nightmare of a terrified intellectual during the dark and magical night of Stalin’s dictatorship […] (1)

There once had been, in fact, a straight-faced attempt to define what socialist realism was supposed to be, at the 1934 First All-Union Soviet Congress of Writers: “[Socialist realism] demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development” and has as its ultimate goal the “ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism” (2). In Sinyavsky’s account, socialist realism, at its most reductive and absurd level, sees dialectical materialism as a forward march in which the evolving apes of prehistory realise their true destinies as the collective farmers, zealous foundry workers, and Bolshevik bureaucrats of the Soviet utopia.

We cannot understand Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible outside of socialist realism’s pathetic and irrational legacy. The spatio-temporally fractured and anti-realist intellectual montage of Eisenstein’s Stachka (Strike, 1924), Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), and Oktyabr (October, co-directed by Grigorii Aleksandrov, 1928) is not merely absent in Ivan the Terrible but is conspicuously rejected in favor of narrative simplification, distended mise en scène, and the plainly nationalistic theme of a unified Russia that can repel invaders and emasculate evilly feudalist Boyars. Even the intelligentsia abroad didn’t quite know what to make of Ivan the Terrible Part I at the time. Charlie Chaplin championed it as “the greatest historic film that has ever been made”, while the Americanised Stravinsky cavalierly dismissed it – as late as 1959 – as “the most stupid and provincial Russian film […] with very embarrassing music of the poor Prokofiev” (3). At first glance, Ivan the Terrible’s medievalist aura and Eduard Tisse’s peerless cinematography captivate (especially in Part II’s luxurious colour sequence), yet the film’s “provincial” narrative and structural simplifications do seem to represent an apparent capitulation to socialist realism. Indeed, “montage” in both extant parts of Ivan the Terrible (Eisenstein’s heart attack in 1946 thwarted his grandiose, climactic plans for Ivan the Terrible Part III) is mostly limited to rhythmic close-ups whose spatial logic has merely dramaturgical rather than ideological or agitationist import.

While Eisenstein was forced to abandon his contrapuntal, dialectical montage, Ivan the Terrible’s dramaturgy does offer another type of counterpoint through an expressionistic acting style rooted in experimental theatre. In fact, to a contemporary audience, Eisenstein’s “Wagnerian” presentation of history, with characters contorting their faces and snaking their bodies through tableaux vivants drawn from Russian Orthodox iconography, may seem far odder than 1920s montage effects that have since trickled down into music videos, 30-second television commercials, and rapidly cut shootouts. In order to appreciate the epic bodily gestures of Nikolai Cherkasov’s Ivan or the hyperbolic villainy of Yefrosinia Staritskaya’s scheming aunt, one must recall that Eisenstein had studied acting under Meyerhold, and was well-versed in biomechanics, the “eurhythmics” of Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, and other expressionist devices ideologically opposed to the middlebrow illusions of Stanislavskian realism. While the exaggerated histrionics on display in Ivan the Terrible are not exactly in the mold of Meyerhold’s biomechanics, they do reflect the Meyerholdian emphasis on physical gesture (over dialogue), dynamic acrobatics, and well-rehearsed, elastic gesticulations, all meant to catalyse, encapsulate, and convey psychic and bodily energies. By presenting an ostensibly nationalistic pageant in such Meyerholdian terms – and by paradoxically framing this highly theatrical artifice mostly in cinematic close-ups, no less – Eisenstein has his sly revenge on the Stalinists, fulfilling the jingoistic dictates of socialist realism in terms that really defy any reasonable definition of “realism”.

Although Eisenstein was never celebrated for his psychologism, he did intend to etch a portrait of his hero as an existential figure tormented by the factions of an incestuous history, particularly in Part II, in which autocratic Ivan sinks deeper into despairing isolation, the mise en scène is cast increasingly in spectral shadows, and Prokofiev’s score swells with both irony and outright menace. There are, too, the “psychological” flashbacks to Ivan’s childhood in Part II (originally intended to be in Part I), in which Ivan’s mother, fatally poisoned, tells him in her last breath to beware of the perfidious Boyars, who later mock the prepubescent Ivan for wishing to shun European alliances and proclaim Russian sovereignty. Nevertheless, as Cherkasov’s gestures become ever more stylised, dehumanised, and iconic in Part II, Eisenstein presents us with a protagonist whose psychology transcends the bourgeois notion of individualism to reflect the anxious ambitions of a besieged nation. Yet there is also a deeper and self-reflective psychology at work. Placing anti-realist acting within a nationalistic schema, Eisenstein creates a tension between ostensible content and form – yet this is not the tension between clashing montage cells that resolve in synthetic meanings, but the fundamentally irresolvable tension of Sinyavsky’s (and Eisenstein’s) irrational Stalinist nightmare. Regardless, the Stalinists disapproved of Eisenstein’s psychologising in Part II, believing that he “demonstrated his ignorance of the historical facts by representing […] Ivan […] as a weak and indecisive personality reminiscent of Hamlet” and his cadre of anti-Boyarist Oprichniki as “a gang of degenerate rogues” (4). Whereas Part I received numerous Stalin Prizes (despite its stylisation), Part II was banned outright until 1958, and Eisenstein was forced to mouth a scripted recantation in which he called the sequel a “false interpretation of historical facts […] which makes the film worthless and in the ideological sense reprehensible” (5).

We cannot speak of Ivan the Terrible without mentioning Prokofiev’s peerlessly melodic score (miserably served by pitiable 1940s Soviet recording technology), which, like the film’s acting style, often provides a kind of counterpoint to the action. Eisenstein believed Prokofiev to be Wagner’s melodramatic equal, and praised his uncanny ability to perceive “a plastic object in notes” (6). Prokofiev’s score, which makes liberal use of arrangements of Russian Orthodox liturgy, was composed piece by piece, according to Eisenstein’s meticulous storyboards. Prokofiev’s melodies can be so bittersweet that they sometimes elicit no blatantly positive or negative associations or tonality; for instance, when Fyodor Kolychev tells Ivan early in Part I that he can no longer follow him if he insists on violently breaking with feudal tradition, the musical counterpoint is lamenting and tender, despite the ominousness of Kolychev’s message. When Yefrosinia Staritskaya’s scheming aunt watches over Ivan’s helpless bride, Prokofiev’s melody and harmonic progressions seem more melancholic than haunted. At other times, Prokofiev provides striking audio-visual synchronicity: Part II’s climactic cathedral sequence, with portentous tam-tams and moaning monks underscoring Eisenstein’s expressionistically shadowed compositions, remains one of cinema’s most arresting marriages of music and image, whatever the stoic Stravinsky might have thought.

Today, Ivan the Terrible may remain something of an enigma, the overwrought yet incomplete testament of a genius unluckily caught between conflicting needs for artistic authenticity and political self-preservation. Yet Eisenstein’s writings always brimmed with internal contradictions, alternately advancing the cause of Hegelian dialectics, sketching characters’ inner psychological truths, and extolling the imagination of Wagnerian myth, with little attempt to reconcile such disparate concerns. Of course, there may not be an immediate need for reconciliation, as all of these notions can be alternately (if not simultaneously) valid. We, as viewers, should not expect to discover easy resolutions here, or in any text compromised by the delusions of dictatorial madness; yet Ivan the Terrible’s internal tensions resonate so strongly today that we inevitably accept them as the film’s ultimate meaning, and rather than entirely resolve them, we must be content to let the tensions breathe.


  1. Andrei Sinyavsky, On Socialist Realism, trans. George Dennis, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1960, p. 147.
  2. Sinyavsky, p. 148.
  3. David Gutman, Prokofiev. Omnibus Press, London, 1990, pp. 172-173.
  4. “The Complete Music for the Film Ivan the Terrible”, The Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture, Moscow. Liner notes to the Nimbus Records release of the film score, 2000.
  5. Wolgang Stähr, “Nothing is Superficial. Nothing Happens by Chance”, trans. Diana Loos. Liner notes to Sony Classical CD release of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, 1992.
  6. Stähr.

Ivan Groznyy/Ivan the Terrible Part I (1944 USSR 103 mins)

Prod Co: Mosfilm Dir, Scr, Ed: Sergei Eisenstein Phot: Eduard Tisse, Andrei Moskvin Prod Des: Iosif Shpinel Mus: Sergei Prokofiev

Cast: Nikolai Cherkasov, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya, Serafima Birman, Mikhail Nazvanov, Mikhail Zharov, Amvrosi Buchma

Ivan Groznyy/Ivan the Terrible Part II (1946/1958 USSR 88 mins)

Prod Co: Mosfilm Dir, Scr: Sergei Eisenstein Phot: Eduard Tisse, Andrei Moskvin Ed: Sergei Eisenstein, Esfir Tobak Prod Des: Iosif Shpinel Mus: Sergei Prokofiev

Cast: Nikolai Cherkasov, Serafima Birman, Pavel Kadochnikov, Mikhail Zharov, Amvrosi Buchma, Vsevolod Pudovkin

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