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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 308-310

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Book Review

The Sovereign and His Counsellors:
Ritualised Consultations in Muscovite Political Culture, 1350s-1570s

The Sovereign and His Counsellors: Ritualised Consultations in Muscovite Political Culture, 1350s-1570s. By Sergei Bogatyrev (Helsinki, Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, 2000) 297pp. NP

Readers of late medieval and early modern Russian history might wonder why scholars devote so much attention to the state--especially its apex, the ruler and his advisers. The quantity of publications on this theme might convey the impression of a gross misallocation of scholarly resources, of a glutton who continues to eat long after he is full. This metaphor might seem particularly apt given sources so limited in number [End Page 308] that anyone writing on the period can easily encompass them all. Moreover, excepting archaeology, no new ones are likely to be discovered. And yet, worthy topics remain about which there is no monograph, such as the clerical estate.

Part of the answer to the problem may well be that topics centered on the state are easy--the issues are well known, and the sources minimal. Nonetheless, this subject matter is important because the role of the state is crucial in Russian history--regardless of fatuous claims about the existence of a "minimalist state." If the "minimalist state" were a fact, exercises such as Bogatyrev's would be an utter waste of time. Who could care about an organization that did little or nothing? In point of fact, the state either ran everything or pretended that it could. By 1649, the state controlled the three major factors of the economy: the land, the labor of society, and even much of its capital. Thus, the ruler of this system gained significance as the march progressed toward total state control in 1649.

Bogatyrev's volume is an important contribution to political theory. Traditional scholarship discusses Muscovy's top political structure in terms of the ruler versus the other members of the elite, but Bogatyrev insists that this proposition is mistaken. Contemporaries viewed these people as a unit like Jesus and his disciples--incapable of division or internal opposition. In this view of the world, any opposition becomes treason and any opponent a Judas. Wicked counsellors caused failures and were subject not just to dismissal but also the official institution of "disgrace," even execution. Moreover, since counsellors were also considered slaves, those who resisted the monarch were considered (and treated as) rebellious slaves.

Such striving for unanimity was prevalent even in the Soviet politburo, expressed graphically in all the photos on top of the Lenin mausoleum and at airport arrivals and departures. The concept of "loyal opposition" or "productive disagreement" is impossible in such a milieu. It is still anathema in many Russian circles today. Such thinking makes what Westerners view as "democracy" and the right to dissent impossible. Hence the political trials and incarcerations of the late Boris Yeltsin-Vladimir Putin eras. This 700-year insistence on unanimity permits rapid response, but also results in disasters--such as Nikita S. Khrushchëv's Virgin Lands program--and helps to account for the collapse of both the Russian empire and the Soviet Union.

Much of Bogatyrev's effort is devoted to determining who the three (early) to two dozen (late) counsellors were, by name and available data. He correctly insists that there was no such organ as the "Boyar Council," that a person could have been a boyar or other member of the top elite without also being a counsellor. Moreover, a nonelite person could be a counsellor as well. Kinship was not a determining factor, as a few modern American historians have asserted. The words of late medieval and early modern Russian writers themselves are clear on that issue. Bogatyrev insists that the unity of sovereign and counsellors was a topos that was expressed throughout the written sources and art surviving [End Page 309] from the period, especially in the magnificent illuminated chronicle. Regrettably, nothing in this volume helps us to understand how policies...


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