[MOSCOW] Russia on Friday inaugurated a controversial and first ever monument to Ivan the Terrible, a 16th-century tyrant whose rehabilitation has been lobbied for by officials despite protests from historians and locals.
Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich ruled Russia from 1547 to 1584 and earned the moniker "Terrible" due to his brutal policy of oprichnina, which included the creation of a secret police that spread mass terror and executed thousands of people.
The governor of Russia's Oryol region, some 335 kilometres south of Moscow, has nonetheless backed the monument, saying during its inauguration Friday that Ivan the Terrible "was a defender of our land, a tsar who expanded its frontiers".
Standing before a crowd brandishing black and yellow imperial flags favoured by Russia's nationalists, governor Vadim Potomsky said Ivan the Terrible protected Russia and the Orthodox faith from enemies.
The bronze monument, a figure clad in royal robes sitting on a horse and holding up an Orthodox cross, was erected in the city of Oryol because authorities there say he founded the regional centre.
Historians deny he had ever visited the area.
The monument was also backed by Russia's culture minister, who has argued that Ivan the Terrible's brutal rule is a myth and that his name was tarnished by Western travellers who slandered him in their writings.
Historian Vladislav Nazarov, who specialises in that period, said Ivan the Terrible's rule had precipitated a socioeconomic and political crisis that two decades later led to Russia's first civil war.
Historians have calculated that just in Novgorod, 10 per cent of the population - about 3,000 people - were executed on Ivan's orders. He also killed his own son, most likely by accident during a violent rage.
On the foreign policy front, "Russia's international standing was weakened along the entire frontier" under his rule, Mr Nazarov said.
"As a historian and a citizen, I am against this monument," he told AFP.
The statue appears as yet another symbol dividing Russian society into those favouring Stalin-like heavy-handed rule and others decrying repression and authoritarianism.
Some Oryol activists staged protests against the monument over several months and even filed lawsuits the city hall's decision to erect it.
But they merely succeeded in getting its location moved from a central square facing a theatre to a park on the bank of a local river.
More than 500 people signed a local petition that said "We don't need a monument to a tyrant in the city."
Dmitry Krayukhin, an activist, said it showed Russian society's demand for "a heavy hand, for putting state needs several rungs above those of the individual".
He added that the monument went ahead despite an ongoing court case and a court decision to put off its placement until the end of the trial.
"I'm in shock," Mr Krayukhin said.
Sociologist Karina Pipiya from the Moscow-based Levada Centre said Ivan the Terrible's rehabilitation echoes that of Joseph Stalin.
"Attention is focused on the good they have done, while the legacy of the atrocities committed is erased," she told AFP, calling debates about their legacy "memory wars".
"There is a search for national identity symbols. Perhaps Ivan the Terrible is now being put forth as a candidate in this role."