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  • An Interview with Edward L. Keenan

Think of the words "apocrypha" and "forgery," and most historians of Russia are likely to conjure up the bespectacled and bearded image of emeritus Harvard professor Edward L. Keenan. Indeed, few others have poured so much effort and erudition into the task of questioning the authenticity of key sources in East Slavic history. Yet Keenan's influence extends far beyond this important work in source criticism and stands at the foundation of the study of Muscovite and Ruthenian history in North America and beyond. It is this prominent and intriguing member of our profession that Kritika interviews in its present issue.

Born in 1935, Edward Keenan grew up in western New York and eventually made his way to Harvard for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Initially drawn to the study of Baku in the revolution of 1905, Keenan turned to Muscovite history after two years in the USSR.1 In 1965, he completed his Ph.D. thesis on relations between Muscovy and Kazan´ in the century leading up to the khanate's conquest in 1552.2 He received tenure at Harvard in 1968 and went on to serve at various points as director of both the Russian Research Center and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He was also dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (1978-84), director of Dumbarton Oaks (1998-2007), and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic studies (AAASS, 1994). He retired in 2008.

Keenan's first published forays into source criticism appeared in the late 1960s, with article-length considerations of both the Kazanskaia istoriia (History of Kazan´), often invoked to interpret relations between Muscovy and the khanate of Kazan´, and the edict of Akhmad Khan to Ivan III, an important source for interpreting the "stand on the Ugra" in 1480 as signifying the end of the "Mongol Yoke."3 The first Keenan dismissed as a work of [End Page 457] historical fiction, and the second as an outright forgery—and a bad one at that. It was at about the same time that Keenan, in preparing a graduate seminar at Harvard, developed strong doubts about the authenticity of the famous correspondence attributed to Prince Andrei Kurbskii and Ivan IV. Using the tools of source study and literary criticism, Keenan systematically constructed the case for the correspondence's status as a 17th-century fabrication in The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha, published in 1971.4 Keenan turned later in his career to the famous "Tale of Igor's Campaign," traditionally considered a masterpiece of late 12th-century East Slavic secular literature. Siding with a number of skeptics concerning the medieval provenance of the text, Keenan set out to demonstrate, once again through painstaking source and linguistic analysis, the 18th-century origins of the Tale, while also offering a plausible account of the Tale's composition by the Bohemian scholar Josef Dobrovský in the 1790s.5 All these source analyses are striking for their attention to the history of extant manuscripts, the nature of language in the texts, the character of watermarks, and the conventions of Muscovite chancelleries. More than half of The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha consists of detailed manuscript descriptions.6

It might be tempting to see Keenan as a crusader out to slay sacred cows of medieval and early modern East Slavic history. But his motivation was not to deny Muscovy and its predecessors the achievements that are, as he declares at one point, "rightfully theirs." Nancy Shields Kollmann, one of his students, contests the image of Keenan as "an iconoclast or a nihilist, desperate to discredit any and all old Rus´ texts just for the sake of debunking."7 Rather, Keenan seeks simply to ask difficult questions about what we know and the [End Page 458] basis on which we know it—to engage in "insistent questioning of almost every part of the received picture" and "to create [knowledge] from the bottom up, clearly and self-consciously."8 Thus The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha was, by Keenan's own admission, "a heretical book," but one driven only by a "mild indignation that so much has been so piously taken for granted for so...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-5000
Print ISSN
1531-023x
Pages
pp. 457-466
Launched on MUSE
2010-07-31
Open Access
No
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