Book Review of This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia by Joan Neuberger

thing of darkness ivan the terrible eisenstein A still from Ivan the Terrible

Joan Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2019. 404 pp., $48.95 hb. ISBN-13 978-1501732768.

A reader familiar with the political discourse surrounding Sergei Eisenstein’s 1944 film Ivan the Terrible would not be blamed for approaching a book aiming to analyze the film in its Stalinist context with caution. Eisenstein’s film, an epic portrait of the first tsar’s rise to power and eventual reign of terror, has long been framed in a binary of conformity versus subversion of Stalinist doctrine, an argument intertwined with the official reception of the film, as Part I received the Stalin Prize in 1945, while Part II was banned mere months later and released only after both Eisenstein and Stalin had died.[1] Having spent over two decades analyzing both the political gestures and the artistic devices of Eisenstein’s work, Joan Neuberger is perhaps the ideal candidate to question this binary.[2] In This Thing of Darkness, the University of Texas at Austin professor draws upon a rich tapestry of sources, including Eisenstein’s official communications, published writings, production notes, and diaries, in order to demonstrate Eisenstein’s ability to navigate the treacherous waters of Stalinist cultural production and put his artistic and historical theories into practice. The result was a politically and stylistically daring film that scrutinized “the psychology of political ambition, the history of absolute power, and the recurrent cycles of violence.”[3] Neuberger combines this interdisciplinary approach, in and of itself ambitious, with both implicit and explicit commentary on the historiography of Stalinism. The result is a captivating and thoroughly informed monograph that not only “[reverses] the trend” of the film’s relegation to the annals of Soviet propaganda in order to make it “watchable”, but also invites it to be “watched again” – that is, opened to renewed academic examination – by raising questions about the past and future of the study of the Stalinist period.

Considering that Ivan the Terrible was commissioned by Stalin himself, it is perhaps unsurprising that the film has been subject to decades of politicization.[4] The project was born out of a conversation that took place in January of 1941 between Eisenstein and Andrei Zhdanov, a member of the Politburo’s Committee on Cinema Affairs, after which Eisenstein began his seven-year labor in translating the history of the infamous tsar into a three-part epic film of which only the first two parts were completed.[5] However, as Neuberger asserts in her introduction, Eisenstein did not simply replicate the official Stalin-era characterization of Ivan IV (1530-1584) as a visionary leader whose violent excesses during the oprichnina of 1565-1572 were the justifiable defense of the newly centralized Russian state from the remnants of an antiquated feudal hierarchy.[6] Rather, Eisenstein depicted Ivan as a man tormented by loneliness and remorse amidst his solidifying authority, a portrayal often singled out as the source of Stalin’s displeasure with the film.[7] If Stalin indeed commissioned a film on Ivan the Terrible hoping Eisenstein would produce an Ivan whose model would “legitimize Soviet rule” as well as Stalin’s own actions, any deviance from this line was bound to be met with disapproval.[8] Yet, Neuberger argues that the film’s subversiveness lies not only in Eisenstein’s depiction of Ivan as “always at least partially a portrait of Stalin”, but in his ability to demonstrate more broadly “how individuals, societies, and cultures change over time to become bloody tyrannies over and over again.”[9] The film is, as Neuberger puts it, a “courageous political and artistic act of will.”[10]

The chapters of This Thing of Darkness serve as an expansion of Neuberger’s assertion of Ivan the Terrible as a work containing “a theory of history, a theory of political violence, and a theory of artistic production and perception.”[11] Chapter One (“The Potholed Path”) outlines the history of the film’s creation while simultaneously introducing Eisenstein’s ability to navigate the landscape of Stalinist artistic production, both “[submitting] to and [defying] the institutional practices of Socialist Realism.”[12] In Chapter Two (“Shifts in Time”), Neuberger establishes Eisenstein as a historian in his own right who conceptualized history as a “spiral” in which advances in development are accompanied by a reemergence of “primal violent instincts.”[13] In Chapter Three (“Power Personified”), Neuberger demonstrates how Eisenstein applied this theory to his Ivan, for whom absolute rule and violence were inextricably intertwined with isolation and remorse.[14] In Chapter Four (“Power Projected”), Neuberger analyzes the film as a “fugue” in which Ivan’s internal conflicts over power are projected onto the individuals around him: traitors, foreign rivals, scheming boyars, and loyal henchmen alike.[15] Chapter Five (“How to Do It”), is an attentive analysis of Eisenstein’s cinematic theory outlined in his books Method and Nonindifferent Nature put into practice, most notably through his use of “polyphonic montage,” or “the weaving of audio, visual, sensory, and intellectual voices in every frame.”[16] Finally, in Chapter 6 (“The Official Reception”), Neuberger describes how Eisenstein synthesized historical and artistic theory to create a film that provoked confusion and displeasure from its Soviet audience, and ultimately outrage from Stalin himself, for its disregard for Socialist Realist conventions, its critique of political power, and its defiance of heterosexual norms.[17] By engaging in historical contextualization, examination of relevant theory, and cinematographic analysis alike, Neuberger creates a nuanced illustration of Eisenstein and his film informed by the Stalinist period, but not circumscribed by it.

Eisenstein’s film provides an ideal topic for such an interdisciplinary approach to artistic production under Stalin. Perhaps just as importantly, it serves as fertile ground for Neuberger’s engagement with varying schools of the historiography of Stalinism, both explicitly and implicitly. As a historian combating decades worth of disregard for Ivan the Terrible as a mere product of Stalinist dictates on how the tsar should be portrayed for a Soviet audience, Neuberger implicitly disputes the totalitarian view of the Stalinist period that dominated Western academia during the Cold War: a vision of Stalin imposing his will on the populace to an extent that precluded the existence of independent thought. Instead, Neuberger’s discussion of Ivan’s production parallels the first school of thought to challenge the totalitarian model: the revisionist examination of the institutional clashes that limited Stalin’s ability to implement a unified ideological vision.[18] Despite Stalin’s “ultimate gaze,” the day-to-day realities of the film’s creation did not involve his supervision; rather, they required Eisenstein to navigate “the concepts and institutions of the Socialist Realist system, the hierarchy of committees, [and] the material realities” of artistic production during the Great Patriotic War.[19] Neuberger displays Eisenstein’s skill in exploiting Ivan’s status as a “prestige project” with Stalin’s “personal investment” within a film industry where patronage – often obtained by manipulating institutional loopholes – could grant directors greater artistic latitude.[20] By perusing institutional workings in a similar manner as the post-Cold War revisionists, Neuberger demonstrates that the very making of Ivan the Terrible was not a totalitarian venture that uniformly reflected Stalin’s will.

Neuberger takes a more explicit historiographical stance – and undoubtedly her boldest one – regarding previous scholarship on Soviet subjectivity. In her introduction, Neuberger disputes what she claims is a fundamental principle of the school of Soviet subjectivity studies that emerged in the 1990s, spearheaded by scholars such as Igal Halfin and Jochen Hellbeck: that individuals under Stalin “did not make the sharp distinction between a private, authentic self and a public persona required by the unrelenting surveillance of the totalitarian state,” that people “didn’t remove in private the masks they felt the need to wear in public” and, moreover, were unable to cultivate a “private, individual persona” in the first place.[21] Here, Neuberger makes a controversial equivalence between studies of Soviet subjectivity in the 1990s and the totalitarian model of the Cold War era: both, in her view, are founded on the assumption that Soviet citizens under Stalin were subject to ideological control so all-consuming that they had no choice but to undergo radical self-transformation as an adaptation to state surveillance. Considering that Hellbeck’s monograph Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin explores the possibility that individuals under Stalin adopted Communist ideology as a means of self-actualization and social belonging rather than in acquiescence to state power, Neuberger’s equivalent between his approach and the totalitarian model seems an overreach. Yet she correctly identifies a parallel between the schools: both contend that Soviet subjects can only be conceived of in reference to state-imposed ideology. Her impressive source base of Eisenstein’s private and public writings provides her with an optimal foundation to support her provocative argument. Through passages from Eisenstein’s diary written in English to avoid scrutiny, she demonstrates that Eisenstein drew a distinction between private emotions and public conformity: “There are so few English reading people in this country here,” he writes, “so that I can write whatever I think of myself in – this language.”[22] Neuberger’s Eisenstein, therefore, is far from the unified Soviet subject which she interprets as the ideal of both the totalitarian approach of the Cold War era and its reexamination in the 1990s.

Despite this underlying subversion, Neuberger argues, Eisenstein publicly “[conformed] to the official line in a way that made possible a veiled, more complex inquiry into the nature of power and the psychology of the powerful.”[23] When Eisenstein declared his intentions “not to whitewash, but to explain” Ivan’s bloodstained reign, he at once appeased Stalin’s desire to see Ivan portrayed as a “positive” hero and avoided an outright vindication of the violence Ivan inflicted.[24] Neuberger depicts this adeptness in weighing private rebellion with public compromise through the lens of “speaking Bolshevik,” a formulation she borrows from Stephen Kotkin’s influential monograph Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization.[25] Yet rather than concealing his view that “efforts to eradicate [the] contradictions and inner conflicts” emerging from disparate public and private identities were “among the most inhuman features of Stalinist society,” Eisenstein made these inner conflicts the focal point his film through Ivan’s cycles of violence and repentance.[26] Such an unorthodox portrayal of Ivan, Neuberger suggests, was part of what made Ivan the Terrible a “thoroughly anti-Soviet film.” Eisenstein thus presents a challenge to both paradigms of the Soviet subject: the enthusiastic participant in Soviet ideological totality and the private rebel who displayed unfailing public adherence to the principles of the regime.

Neuberger’s subsequent discussion of Eisenstein as a historian raises intriguing historiographical questions that are left unresolved. In the context of Eisenstein’s concept of history as a “three-dimensional spiral,” Neuberger makes several tantalizing references to Russia as possessing a long history of autocracy: Ivan the Terrible is, Neuberger asserts, “a rare Stalinist-era meditation on the cycles of violence and despotism in Russian history that should be of interest to all modern viewers.”[27] Considering the ongoing historiographical debate over Stalin’s rule as either a continuation of imperialist autocracy or a decisive break with previous forms of state authority, such an argument has profound implications for present-day studies of Stalinism.[28] Does Eisenstein’s “spiral” support a traditionalist approach under which Stalin’s reign represents a distinctly Russian phenomenon of bloodstained one-man rule that can be traced back to centuries-dead autocrats such as Ivan?[29] While Neuberger’s discussion of Eisenstein’s historical thought might seem to indicate so, she also hints that his view of history did not apply to Russia alone. The film’s original opening titles, removed in anticipation of censorship, place Ivan IV in the context of “his most bloodthirsty contemporaries,” from Philip II to Catherine de Medici to Henry VIII.[30] While this adds an international dimension to Eisenstein’s theory, the question remains: is Eisenstein’s conception of history strictly Russian in its context, or does it indicate a universal human tendency toward cyclical violence? Although these debates are not the main focus of Neuberger’s work, it is ultimately to her credit as a scholar that she raises broader underlying questions without providing uncomplicated answers; by doing so, she indicates possible directions for further inquiry into the fascinating and rarely discussed topic of Eisenstein as a historian.

One area to which Neuberger might have given more overt treatment in her own work, however, is that of Stalin’s personal role in Soviet artistic production. In discussing Ivan the Terrible’s inception and the official Stalin-era narrative of the infamous tsar’s reign, Neuberger establishes that Stalin “considered himself a historical expert,” eager to “rewrite history” himself or to employ others to do so.[31] Yet in her discussion of Eisenstein’s cinematographic tactics – which, it should be said, is a comprehensive overview of his historical and behavioral theories in practice and is thus of immense value to scholars of film – Stalin fades from the picture. One must wonder if Stalin was as much of a self-declared expert in film and other art forms as he was in history, or, at the very least, if Neuberger would position him as such. This topic takes on particular importance when considering that Eisenstein’s cinematic tactics were, as Neuberger claims, a means of relaying his subversion of official historiography: as a “divided subject” for whom outward power and internal torments were inextricably linked, the Ivan of Eisenstein’s film “[challenged] the fundamental premises of a unified, progressive Soviet subjectivity.”[32] The unresolved question here – to what extent was Stalin himself an arbiter of not only acceptability but also artistic merit, and where do these topics overlap? – thus becomes intertwined with Neuberger’s analysis of Eisenstein as a historian and an illustrator of subjectivity onscreen, which provides her monograph with its cohesive framework. Thus, Neuberger would perhaps benefit from addressing this topic more explicitly.

Less ambiguous, however, is Neuberger’s daring attempt to explain Stalin’s emphatic rejection of Part II after his seemingly enthusiastic reception of Part I. The impression of Part I as “politically tame” in contrast with the “politically subversive” Part II, Neuberger contends, is based on the erroneous idea that Part I was “universally well received.”[33] By drawing upon a broad spectrum of responses from Eisenstein’s contemporaries – film critics, ordinary moviegoers, and industry bureaucrats alike – Neuberger demonstrates that Part I was in fact met with “ambivalence, outright criticism, and plain bewilderment” as a work that flouted the conventions of Socialist Realism by rejecting clear-cut messages and identifiable heroes.[34] Eisenstein’s subversive artistic techniques and exposures of the perils of power are thus insufficient in explaining the disparities between the official response to Part I and Part II, considering they were present throughout the entire film.

Instead, Neuberger makes the provocative argument that it was Part II’s “pervasive, inescapable, often humorous, always defiant homoeroticism” that angered Stalin.[35] Neuberger unearths multiple documents on Stalin’s reaction to Part II and weighs his “moralistic” outrage among his associates – his outburst that Part II was “not a film but some kind of nightmare!” – against his more measured historical criticisms of Ivan in a conversation with Eisenstein and lead actor Nikolai Cherkasov.[36] To Neuberger, these sharply contrasting reactions serve as evidence that outside of political and artistic concerns, “something else was going on… that none of these men wanted to talk about openly,” instead relying on veiled references such as the use of the term “degenerates” for the oprichniki, which Stalin also applied to men engaging in homosexual behavior.[37] Moreover, Neuberger positions Eisenstein’s depictions of homosexuality not only as an affront to Stalin-era morals, but also as part of a long-established tradition of portrayals of Ivan the Terrible that linked “homosexuality and moral degradation” as a means of “[challenging] Ivan’s legitimacy and authoritarianism.”[38] Though the political implications of such an artistic decision would not have been lost on Stalin, Neuberger suggests that his dissatisfaction with the film’s political statements was inextricably linked with a more private moral outrage.[39] The fact that Stalin’s rejection of Ivan the Terrible may have been deeply personal in nature hearkens back to Neuberger’s discussion of “divided subjectivity:” Stalin is depicted as reconciling his visceral moral disgust with calculated political critique in order to present a publicly appropriate justification for his dislike of the film.[40] The dilemma of unacceptable private emotion versus public conformity to societal norms that Neuberger suggests troubled Eisenstein thus seems to be paralleled in Stalin himself.

Ivan the Terrible provides Neuberger with an ideal landscape in which to undertake a nuanced, richly informed analysis both in terms of empirical content and historiographical engagement. Her use of a specific film to introduce broader questions is a testament to her work’s interdisciplinary relevance: she carries her readers through the historical context of the film’s making, its theoretical substructures, and its artistic practice to create a masterful portrait of cultural production under Stalin. Furthermore, in This Thing of Darkness, Neuberger has chosen a subject – Sergei Eisenstein and his “thoroughly anti-Soviet” film – that defies clear-cut categorization within schools of Stalinist historiography.[41] By intertwining rigorous analysis of her sources with underlying – and occasionally explicit – historiographical interrogation, Neuberger accomplishes far more than simply making Ivan the Terrible “watchable and watched again.”[42] This Thing of Darkness demonstrates the ability of an interdisciplinary approach to reveal the merits and shortcomings of multiple historiographical schools while at the same time providing the foundation for bold challenges to previous scholarly consensus.



[1] Joan Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2019), 7.

[2] See “Not a Film but a Nightmare: Revisiting Stalin’s Response to Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part II,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 19, no. 1 (2018): 115-42; “Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible as History,” Journal of Modern History 86, no. 2 (2014): 295-334; “The Music of Landscape: Eisenstein, Prokofiev, and the Uses of Music in Ivan the Terrible,” in Sound, Speech, and Music in Russian Cinema, ed. Lilya Kaganovsky and Masha Salazkina (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013): 212-29; “Eisenstein’s Cosmopolitan Kremlin: Drag Queens, Circus Clowns, Slugs, and Foreigners in Ivan the Terrible” in Ours and Theirs: Outsiders, Insiders, and Otherness in Russian Cinema, ed. Stephen Norris and Zara Torlone (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008): 81-95; and Ivan the Terrible: The Film Companion (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003).

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness, 2.

[5] Ibid., 1.

[6] Ibid., 74.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid., 334.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] Ibid., 25.

[11] Ibid., 2.

[12] Ibid., 70.

[13] Ibid., 115.

[14]Ibid., 124.

[15] Ibid., 187.

[16] Ibid., 300.

[17] Ibid., 304.

[18] See Sheila Fitzpatrick, Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union, 1921-1934 (Ithaca, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[19] Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness, 31.

[20] Ibid., 31.

[21] Ibid., 19. In the footnote to the sentence quoted above on page 348, Neuberger references several monographs which she claims to advance this viewpoint: Abbott Gleason’s Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), Jochen Hellbeck’s Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), and Igal Halfin’s Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[22] Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness, 19. See Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[23] Ibid., 37.

[24] Ibid., 37.

[25] Ibid., 343. See Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995).

[26] Ibid., 343.

[27] Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness, 77.

[28] For a work on the traditionalist approach and other views of Soviet modernity, see Michael David-Fox, “Multiple Modernities vs. Neo-Traditionalism: On Recent Debates in Russian and Soviet History,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas Neue Folge 54, no. 4 (2006): 535-555.

[29] See J. Arch Getty, Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[30] Ibid., 194-5.

[31] Ibid., 75.

[32] Ibid., 186.

[33] Ibid., 305.

[34] Ibid., 305.

[35] Ibid., 322.

[36] Ibid., 329.

[37] Ibid., 333.

[38] Ibid., 324. For an example of another artistic work linking Ivan’s depravity with homosexuality, see A. K. Tolstoy’s novel Kniaz’ Serebriannyi (translated as Prince Serebrenni or, alternatively, The Silver Knight).

[39] Ibid., 325.

[40] Ibid., 186.

[41] Ibid., 345.

[42] Ibid., 7.

About the Author

Katie Frevert

Katie Frevert, at the time she wrote for this site, was a senior at Oberlin College with a double major in Russian & East European Studies and Creative Writing and a minor in History. After graduation, she hoped to pursue a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Russia followed by further study in either Russian or literary translation.

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