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6 December 2018

The night that changed my life: Rowan Williams on watching Ivan the Terrible on TV

I was 12 when I asked my parents if I could stay up late to watch Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible on television. It was the start of a lifelong fascination with Russia.

By Rowan Williams

I think I must have been about 12 when I asked my parents if I could stay up late to watch Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible on television. I don’t know quite why it appealed; I think it may have been because I’d had a book of Russian folk tales that I’d enjoyed, and wanted to find out more about Russia.

Whatever the reason, I found the film – or rather, films – overwhelming. The colossally dramatic composition of scenes (which I much later recognised as influenced by the tradition of icon-painting as much as by 20th-century expressionism), the intensity of Nikolay Cherkasov’s operatic acting style, the sombre narrative of a ruler’s gradual descent into corruption and paranoia – I certainly couldn’t have articulated much of this at 12, but the impression was lasting and transforming, the start of a lifelong fascination with Russian history, culture and religion.

In due course this led me to doctoral research in Russian Christianity; translating essays by a Russian Christian Socialist of the early 20th century and poems by the formidable Russian-Jewish writer, Inna Lisnianskaya; and a monograph on Dostoevsky. I suspect it was also the start of an equally consuming interest in the tragedies of power – the abuse of power in the cause of religion and national exceptionalism, the corrosive effects of untrammelled power on the sanity of rulers.

Eisenstein’s films helped me later in understanding Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” narrative – one of the classic expositions of what goes wrong politically when rulers decide that giving people exactly what they think they want is better than giving them truth, legality or liberty. 

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special