I was watching The Last Czars docuseries about the demise of the Romanov family, when it dawned on me that tragedies and revolutions do not happen overnight. Rather they’re the culmination of a series of unfortunate decisions trickling into ever larger events. We stumble our way through history not with reason and judgment, but with basic human instincts like greed, hatred, jealousy or flashing anger morphing into vengeful acts. When these acts of brutality turn into something better, into a fairer regime or world order, it’s more a matter of happenstance – as every broken clock is right twice a day – than due to solid planning.
For Russian painter Ilya Repin the realization that violence bred violence was reawakened with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 by Ignacy Hryniewiecki. The latter was a young member of Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), a revolutionary party hoping at the time to bring sweeping social change in Russia.
The incident wasn’t just a blip in history, as it was preceded by a series of failed assassination attempts on the tsar’s life that stretched back to 1866. The murder of Alexander II – who remains known for his emancipation of the serfs – was also only one of numerous incidents in the blood-drenched history of Russia. In its aftermath the conspirators were publicly executed and a new era of political repression began under the next ruler, Alexander III.
So that got Repin thinking. Two years later, in 1883, following a concert of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sweetness of Revenge – the second movement of the Antar Symphony – the cycle of violence and revenge that dominated politics became clear to the Russian artist, who decided to trace back its roots to the birth of modern Russia and its first ever tsar, Ivan the Terrible.
Ivan the Terrible, like the moniker suggests, was known for his ruthlessness and tight grip on Russia, setting the tone for autocratic rulers for centuries to come. As the poster boy for wannabe tyrants, he inspired not only future generations of tsars who held themselves responsible only in the eyes of God, but also autocrats like Stalin.
It’s telling that what plays out as indispensable skill in the public eye, being widely celebrated by the masses – say, overconfidence, ruthless ambition, greed, unapologetic cruelty – is also the poisonous apple that ultimately leads to the downfall of these admired figures. It’s a cautionary tale that one’s greatest asset can easily turn into one’s greatest liability.
In Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, 16 November 1581, Ilya Repin captures the imminent clash between the public and personal lives of Russia’s first tsar when, following an argument with his eldest son Ivan, in a fit of anger the tsar grabs his scepter and kicks his son in the head, wounding him fatally.
Russian historian Nikolay Karamzin, whose account inspired Repin, describes the incident as follows:
“He (Ivan the Terrible) put his hand on him (Tsarevich). Boris Godunov wanted to come to his aid but the Tsar inflicted several wounds to him with the point of his scepter and struck the Tsarevich with it on the head. He then fell to the ground, spilling his blood. The father’s fury disappeared. Paling with fear, trembling, in complete shock, he exclaimed ‘I killed my son’ and he threw himself down to kiss him; pouring out the blood flowing from a deep wound, he wept, sobbed, called for the doctors. He implored the mercy of God and the forgiveness of his son.”
The terror in Ivan the Terrible’s eyes – as captured by Repin – when he cradles his dying son and he realizes what he’s done sends shivers down the spine of any onlooker. The gravity of this seemingly arbitrary murder is made all the worse by the realization that the tsarevich also represented the future of Russia and the continuation of Ivan the Terrible’s legacy. To that effect, one of the first viewers of the painting is said to have cried out in outrage “It’s regicide, after all!”.
Ivan Kramskoi, a celebrated Russian artist, could barely contain his emotions when describing this painting:
“What is expressed and emphatically accentuated is the incidental character of the murder! This most phenomenal aspect, an extremely difficult one to project, is achieved by means of only two figures. The father has struck his own son in the temple with the staff! A moment, and the father cries out in horror, dashes to the son and has seized him! Squatting on the floor, he raises him upon his knees, and firmly, firmly presses with one hand the wound on the temple (but blood flows in a gush between the finger slits), and with the other hand across the waist, presses him to his breast, and firmly, firmly kisses the head of this poor son (unusually appealing), and he roars (positively roars) from horror, in the helplessness of his condition. While throwing himself upon the son, tearing at his own head, the father stains the upper half of his face with blood — a touch of Shakespearean tragicomedy. This animal shouts from horror – and the sweet, precious son, resignedly dying, with his beautiful eyes and remarkably attractive mouth, his heavy breathing, his helpless hands. Oh, my God, could one quickly, quickly help! Who cares that on the painting there is already a whole puddle of blood in that place where the son’s temple has hit the floor; who cares that there will yet be a full basin of blood – the usual thing! A person mortally wounded will certainly lose a great deal of blood.
But how it is painted, God, how it is painted! Indeed, can you imagine a pool of blood not being noticed, not affecting you because of the frightful, highly expressive grief of the father, and his loud shriek? And in his hands his son, his son whom he has murdered. And the son cannot any longer control the pupil of his eye; he breathes heavily, feeling the grief of his father, his horror, his shriek, and he, like a baby, wishes to smile at him as if to say: ‘It’s nothing, father, do not be afraid’”.
The throne eventually ended up going to Feodor, Ivan the Terrible’s “feeble-minded” younger son, whose lack of children marked the end of the dynasty. Several decades of deep political unrest followed, before the Romanovs set shop. They too, were gone eventually, three centuries later.
But just a few years before the Romanovs lost their crown, Repin’s painting was brought in the public discourse as a way to make sense of the unrest that was unraveling throughout Russia.
According to newspaper accounts, on January 13, 1913 a psychotic 29-year-old man by the name of Abram Balashev drew his dagger out and plunged it three times into Repin’s painting in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow while crying out “Blood! Why the blood? Down with blood!”. The temporary destruction of the painting – later restored by Repin himself – reverberated throughout the Russian society, prompting critics like Maksimilian Voloshin to blame the painting itself for driving people to violence.
As far-fetched as that sounds, and as easy as it is to blame art for everything gone wrong in the world, Voloshin raised an interesting point. If Repin’s intention was to criticize violence, then why show more violence? Where does it end?
The Russian artist shows us where violence begins and with whom – with our leaders. And, more importantly, like Kramskoi remarked, the grief-stricken face of Ivan the Terrible, overwhelmed with the enormity of the moment, is enough to make the gory details fade away. Repin’s violence isn’t gratuitous, nor is it revengeful. It offers redemption through regret.