- Muscovy and Its MythologiesPre-Petrine History in the Past Decade
In their search for an “authentic” Russian identity that is not beholden to communism or to the “West,” the leaders in Moscow have settled upon—the 17th century. The holiday of the Great October Socialist Revolution on 7 November has been replaced by the Day of National Unity on 4 November, commemorating the date in 1612 when the Polish army was expelled from Moscow. “Vladimir Putin and his handlers,” the modern Russian historian Elizabeth Wood has written, “have gone to surprising lengths to marshal symbolism straight from the pages of history.”1 Why the 17th century? Most important, Putin and his circle have tried to cast themselves as the leaders who brought to a close Russia’s modern “Time of Troubles.” The Russia that emerged from political chaos, then and now, is presented as comfortable in its centralized, authoritarian government and proud of its Russianness. Vera Shevzov, also a historian of modern Russia, sees no coincidence in the timing of the new holiday, which coincides not only with Russia’s victory over foreigners in the Time of Troubles but also with the celebration of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God—a cult that came to prominence in the 17th century.2 The fascination with premodern Russia extends beyond the propagandizing of the current Russian government. Many of the new churches constructed in the past decade sport architectural features drawn from Muscovite models. Pseudo-17th-century lettering abounds on [End Page 773] placards. (Genuine 17th-century lettering would be virtually indecipherable to contemporary Russians.)
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The 17th century, then, has become Russia’s new “usable past.” The contemporary official view draws upon the mythologization of the past constructed by historians of the late imperial period. Like their literary colleagues, they wrote their accounts of the past as political allegory. They desired Russia’s greatness, and so they exalted the Romanov restoration. Yet, eager for progress, they bemoaned autocracy, enserfment, and the bureaucratization of the church and state, while focusing disproportionally on manifestations of consultative government (particularly the zemskii sobor) and economic and cultural ties with the West. The similarity to the agenda of the liberal intelligentsia should have prompted greater skepticism on the part of later scholars. However, their vision of pre-Petrine Russia has continued to dominate in all but specialist literature in the West, and it has regained new ascendancy in post-Soviet Russia.3 Soviet-era works rooted in the Marxist [End Page 774] “feudalism” paradigm with its emphasis on social conflict and economic exploitation now languish in obscurity.
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Behind this façade of a popularized “usable past,” specialists have been rewriting pre-Petrine history. However, this process has occurred largely out of sight of the larger community of Russianists. Even though the major journals have become welcoming to works on “early Slavic” history in the past 15 years or so, much of the innovation has taken place at small conferences and in the publications that have grown out of them. The success of the first such volume, Medieval Russian Culture (1984), inspired this approach to the dissemination of new scholarship.4 Since the early 1990s, a substantial number of equally formative volumes has appeared, and more are in production.5 These volumes often integrate the [End Page 775] work of Anglophone, Russian, and European scholars and cross disciplines, including not only history but literary and cultural studies, linguistics and semiotics, archeology, art history, and music history. Some volumes, particularly—but not exclusively—those that concern Russian Orthodoxy, transcend traditional chronological divides, when a premodernist is one of the editors.6 Comparison with Western Europe, once considered a daring departure from the principle of Muscovite distinctiveness, has now become commonplace. Along with this comparative element has come invocation of the conceptual models used in medieval and early modern European history, themselves often rooted in broader theoretical frameworks.