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Uspenskii and Zhivov on Tsar, God, and Pretenders: Semiotics and the Sacralization of the Monarch
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Uspenskii and Zhivov on Tsar, God, and Pretenders
Semiotics and the Sacralization of the Monarch

Relatively few works on Russian history published in the Soviet Union in the last years of the old regime were translated into English or other Western languages. An important exception was, however, provided by the publications of members of the “Moscow–Tartu” school of semiotics, especially Iurii Mikhailovich Lotman (Tartu) and Boris Andreevich Uspenskii (Moscow).1 From the 1970s onward, many works by these two authors appeared in English, including some that belonged to the disciplines of social and cultural history. “Tsar and Pretender,” one of the essays by Uspenskii reproduced in the new collection “Tsar and God,”2 was first published in English in 1984, in a volume of essays by Lotman and Uspenskii titled The Semiotics of Russian Culture, only two years after its appearance in Russian.3 The other essay from the 1980s in this collection, however, “Tsar and God” (co-authored by Uspenskii and Viktor Markovich Zhivov), appears in English [End Page 133] translation for the first time.4 Although “Tsar and God” was first published five years later than “Tsar and Pretender,” the two essays seem to have been written more or less simultaneously.5 They are in many ways complementary, so that their republication together in an English edition is a very welcome development, which enables us to assess their significance.6 Do they deserve the status attributed to them by the editor and the publisher of the new collection, which prompted the editors of Kritika to commission this review under the rubric of “classics in retrospect”?7

“Tsar and Pretender”

It may be appropriate to begin our consideration of this essay by examining the term samozvanchestvo (which Uspenskii uses consistently, in preference to samozvanstvo or samozvanshchina, which are preferred by other scholars, some of whom draw distinctions between their usage and significance).8 [End Page 134] David Budgen, whose 1984 translation of the article is reproduced in the “Tsar and God” collection with only stylistic changes to its scholarly apparatus, rendered samozvanets as “pretender” and samozvanchestvo as “royal imposture.”9 Uspenskii, however, uses the term samozvanets very broadly, to include not only impostors such as the First False Dmitrii and Emel´ian Pugachev but also the (perceived) usurpers Boris Godunov, Vasilii Shuiskii, and Catherine the Great, as well as “mock tsars” like Simeon Bekbulatovich and Fedor Romodanovskii—placed temporarily on the throne by Ivan IV and Peter the Great, respectively. The title “Tsar and Pretender” might therefore be translated more adequately (albeit more freely) as “True and False Tsars.”

The starting point for Uspenskii’s article is the classic study by K. V. Chistov of “Russian popular socio-utopian legends,” which presented samozvantsy as the realization of popular legends about “returning tsar-deliverers.”10 Without criticizing Chistov’s interpretation, Uspenskii claims that his own approach complements it: where Chistov’s explanation had cast light not so much on the appearance of samozvantsy as on the social reaction they provoked, Uspenskii asserts that his own work explains the pretenders’ psychology and the complex of notions that underpinned it, and that these notions were primarily religious (114).11

It is at this point that Uspenskii introduces the concept of the “sacralization” of the monarch in 16th-century Russia. He links this with the adoption of the title of “tsar” by the Muscovite rulers, noting that the term had sacred connotations in Russia: it was the word used in the Old Testament for kings of Israel such as David and Solomon, and it was also applied to God in liturgical texts, resulting in the paired phrases “heavenly tsar” and “earthly god,” and “corruptible/incorruptible (tlennyi/netlennyi) tsar” (114–15). Other features of the sacralization of the monarch in the 16th century included the addition to the coronation ceremony of the rite of anointing, [End Page 135] which equated the tsar with Christ (Greek christos = the anointed one) (114). In the early 17th century, the False Dmitrii was called the “righteous sun” (pravednoe solntse), a term that was applied to Christ in liturgical texts (115) and was later applied by Simeon Polotskii to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (134 n. 14...