Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.2 (2005) 375-392
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New Histories of the Late Muscovite and Early Imperial Russian Court
Ernest A. Zitser
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Cambridge, MA 02139 USA
One of the unexpected historiographical consequences of the demise of the Soviet Union, both as a state and as a civilization, has been a revival of interest in that most traditional of all Russian historical topics—the study of Peter the Great and all things Petrine (petrovedenie).1 This revival cannot simply be attributed to the fact that the political and economic transformations of the late 20th century happened to coincide with a spate of Petrine tercentenaries, such as those commemorating the inauguration of the Russian navy (1695), Peter's "Great Embassy" to Europe (1697–98), or, most famously, the founding of St. Petersburg (1703). Rather, these post-Soviet Petrine celebrations are themselves a sign of Russians' renewed interest in a usable national past, and in particular in the historical period that has come to be identified (and even embraced) as the quintessential starting point of Russian modernity. Post-Soviet opinion polls gave Peter a higher approval rating than any other leader in Russian history (except perhaps for Russia's current president).2 Judging by the flood of books produced in the last decade, this fact is not lost on Russian publishers, who have eagerly joined contemporary politicians in cashing in on the marketing of imperial nostalgia. Unfortunately, the actual intellectual content of what is sold to Russian consumers (and fobbed off on voters) suggests that much of contemporary petrovedenie fails to rise above the level attained in the first half of the 19th century, when the contours of the professional, academic study of Peter's Russia first took shape. If they address the historiography at all, most of the glossy commemorative volumes and popular biographies produced to coincide with the recent Petrine anniversaries simply echo the old debates about continuity and change, the degree of foreign influence on Russia's domestic development, and the inevitability of the choice between [End Page 376] Russia and the West. Regardless of which side of the argument they eventually land on, the participants in such endless (because ultimately ahistorical) quarrels fail to transcend the antinomies imported from German idealist philosophy by the Slavophiles and Westernizers. As a result, they do little more than perpetuate the commonly accepted myths about Peter the Great, the demiurge who supposedly dragged Muscovy kicking and screaming into the secular modern world.3
How gratifying it is, therefore, to review a selection of books that not only try to bring something new to the...