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  • Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Russia by Valerie Kivelson
  • Edward Bever
Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Russia. By Valerie Kivelson (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013. xx plus 349 pp.).

This book accomplishes more than the author is willing to admit.

In its eight chapters Kivelson surveys the mainstream historiography of European witchcraft and its relationship to witchcraft in Russia; discusses the documentation and procedures in Russian trials both to establish the evidentiary base of her study and to contextualize the situations the documents chronicle; and establishes that diabolism, the cornerstone of the early modern European persecutions, was all but absent in Russian witchcraft in both theory and practice. She goes on to explain how the atypical predominance of male suspects in Russian trials manifested the gendered nature of specific Russian magical practices; argues that witchcraft practices and suspicions were ways of negotiating the tensions generated by the increasingly oppressive hierarchical structure of Russian society; and concludes that even without diabolism witchcraft was one of the select few offenses along with treason and heresy considered so heinous that they were invariably prosecuted with torture because of the challenge it posed to the hierarchical social order. The archival research on which the book is based is broad and deep, its analysis is sophisticated, and the writing is clear and engaging.

The book thus constitutes an important contribution to the historiography both of early modern witchcraft and of early modern Russia. In particular, the way it establishes the connection between the predominance of men among the suspects in court cases, the use of witchcraft to cope with tensions generated by the oppressive social hierarchy, and the authorities’ reflexive resort to torture is an exemplary development of a complex thesis across a series of chapters. Furthermore, each of the chapters makes its own important, autonomous points as well, like the limited role of the Devil in Russian theology, the gender differences in Russian magical practices overall, and the prominent role of torture in Russian criminal justice. Finally, the book conveys along the way insights into a wide range of incidental issues like the place of itinerants and ethnic minorities in Russian society, the power of literacy in its culture, and the morality and efficacy of torture in general.

So what is the accomplishment that the author will not admit to? In a nutshell, the book contains numerous examples of cases in which “the particular concatenation of evidence—the patterns in accusations, confessions, and witness testimony, the sequence of unforced and coerced testimony, the presence of material evidence” like written spells, bundles of herbs, and collections of roots—indicate that they grew out of magical activities that were actually practiced, yet Kivelson declares that “in examining the evidence, I have by and large set aside … the relation of testimony to some more fundamental reality” because “questions of reality are … secondary to … beliefs” (42–3).

The fact that Kivelson does present the evidence that some alleged practices were real is a significant contribution to our understanding of witchcraft, for it adds to the evidence from regions unpolluted by the myth of diabolism that just like beneficent magic, malefic witchcraft really was practiced, a point that is in some dispute among historians of European witchcraft.1 The fact that she avoids rather than embraces this issue, though, not only obscures rather than highlights [End Page 271] this contribution, but also causes her to neglect the opportunity to explore a whole dimension of the relationship between Russian and European witchcraft, the similarities and differences between the actual magical practices in the two regions. It is telling that while her bibliography includes a robust listing of works on European diabolic witchcraft, works on European popular magic are conspicuous by their absence. In essence, Kivelson is so intent on comparing Russia’s apples to Europe’s oranges—the role of diabolism and gender ratios among suspects, in particular—that she fails to compare them to Europe’s apples—the ubiquitous magical beliefs and widespread use of magical practices that characterized both Russian and European society and culture. Such a comparison, especially one which considered the charges of...


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pp. 271-272
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