In this ambitious book, Kevin M. F. Platt focuses on a cruel paradox central to Russian history: that the price of progress has so often been the traumatic suffering of society at the hands of the state. The reigns of Ivan IV (the Terrible) and Peter the Great are the most vivid exemplars of this phenomenon in the pre-Soviet period. Both rulers have been alternately lionized for great achievements and despised for the extraordinary violence of their reigns. In many accounts, the balance of praise and condemnation remains unresolved; often the violence is simply repressed.
Platt explores historical and cultural representations of the two rulers from the early nineteenth century to the present, as they shaped and served the changing dictates of Russian political life. Throughout, he shows how past representations exerted pressure on subsequent attempts to evaluate these liminal figures. In ever-changing and often counterposed treatments of the two, Russians have debated the relationship between greatness and terror in Russian political practice, while wrestling with the fact that the nation's collective selfhood has seemingly been forged only through shared, often self-inflicted trauma. Platt investigates the work of all the major historians, from Karamzin to the present, who wrote on Ivan and Peter. Yet he casts his net widely, and "historians" of the two tsars include poets, novelists, composers, and painters, giants of the opera stage, Party hacks, filmmakers, and Stalin himself. To this day the contradictory legacies of Ivan and Peter burden any attempt to come to terms with the nature of political power past, present, future in Russia."