Staff at Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery were preparing to close the museum last Friday night when a man ran into one of the empty halls, grabbed a security pole and began whacking at “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan”—one of Russia’s most famous and controversial paintings. According to Sophia Kishkovsky of the Art Newspaper, the vandal later attributed his actions to vodka-induced drunkenness.
The 1885 painting by the Russian realist Ilya Repin depicts the wild-eyed tsar clutching the son he has just murdered, Tsarevich Ivan. The gallery revealed in a statement that the glass covering the painting was smashed, and the work was torn in three places. Fortunately, the attacker did not damage Repin’s rendering of the hands and faces of the father and son—“the most important part” of the artwork, the gallery said in a statement, as Kishkovsky reports.
Russian media has identified the suspect as a 37-year-old named Igor Podporin. In a video released by police, Podporin appears to confess to the crime and attributes his actions to the vodka he drank during his visit to the museum.
“I came to look at the painting,” he told the police, according to Reuters. “I wanted to leave, but then dropped into the buffet and drank 100 grams of vodka. I don’t drink vodka, and became overwhelmed by something.”
But the suspect may have been fueled by something more than alcohol; while smashing the painting, he reportedly “shouted something about how Ivan the Terrible did not kill his son,” according to Deutsche Welle.
Ivan IV, the late 16th-century “tsar and grand prince of all Russia,” better known by his unflattering moniker, has long been regarded as one of Russia’s most brutal leaders. In his efforts to wrest power from Russia’s hereditary nobility, Ivan the Terrible and his followers confiscated estates and executed thousands of people. He is also believed to have murdered his son—and only viable heir—in a fit of rage.
Russian nationalists, however, have trumpeted an alternative set of events: that Ivan IV was not a vindictive and bloodthirsty tyrant, but rather the target of a smear campaign by Western leaders who opposed him.
In a 2016 Guardian piece exploring why Ivan the Terrible is back in vogue in Russia, Shaun Walker reported that because few original manuscripts from the tsar's reign have survived, his rule has become somewhat open to interpretation. “For some,” Walker wrote, “he was a violent and unstable lunatic, while for others he was a tough leader responding to difficult challenges of statehood in a ruthless yet efficient way.” Joseph Stalin was a fan; in fact, Walker pointed out that the Soviet premier “personally edited” history books to depict the tsar’s rule in a favorable way. After Stalin’s death, Ivan IV’s legacy fell into a decline until recent years.
Repin’s painting of the notorious tsar has been a focal point of the most recent debate over Ivan IV’s legacy. In 2013, a group of Orthodox Christians wrote to the Russian culture ministry to complain that the painting was offensive and presented an inaccurate view of Russian history. The Tretyakov gallery, however, refused to take it down.
Last week’s incident at the museum is not the first time that “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan” has been attacked. In 1913 a “mentally ill man” slashed the canvas three times with a knife, according to Bodner. Repin, who was still alive at that time, personally restored the work.
The Tretyakov is now putting together a special commission of experts to plan and oversee the painting’s restoration. Podporin faces up to three years in prison for the attack, but officials have said that his sentence might be extended to deter other potential vandals, according to DW.
The Tretyakov is also making efforts to pull alcohol from the menus of an on-site café and restaurant.