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  • Problems and Possibilities of a “New” Muscovite Source
  • Brian J. Boeck (bio)

In a reign best known for bloodshed and terror, one of Russia’s most intriguing cultural projects was initiated. Someone at the court of Ivan IV, aka “the Terrible,” financed an expensive and expansive effort to visualize world history and Russia’s place within it. Its overarching message was similar to other commissions and compilations of the era. It insisted that Russia’s ruling dynasty had inherited from Byzantium not only imperial regalia but also direct access to divine favor through its righteous rulers and venerable saints. Although the starting point, the moment of creation, was predetermined by the Christian world chronicle genre, the end point became a bone of contention. For unknown reasons, this ambitious project was abandoned before completion. This thought-provoking Kritika forum is dedicated to a “new” Muscovite source that has been hiding in plain sight for centuries.

Scholarly convention assigns the collective name Litsevoi svod (hereafter LLS), Illustrated [Chronicle] Compilation, to the output of this project. Only recently has this innovative experiment in textual compilation and visual adaptation garnered sustained scholarly attention. An explosion of interest was stimulated by its first publication in a facsimile edition in 2008 and the subsequent dissemination of digital versions. The interdisciplinary, international bibliography devoted to the compilation appears to have doubled in roughly a decade, but much about the LLS and its intended purpose remains to be discovered. The three articles offered here provide a multifaceted introduction to both the problems and possibilities of this “new” Muscovite source, which for centuries remained obscure due to its overwhelming scale and inaccessibility.

Ten richly illustrated volumes represent the surviving output (90 percent?) of the grand project initiated in Moscow during the reign of Ivan IV in [End Page 9] the 1570s.1 They are now housed in St. Petersburg (Library of the Academy of Sciences and Russian National Library) and Moscow (State Historical Museum). As a compilation project, the LLS gathered and spliced together various chronicle texts to narrate sacred and Byzantine history from the creation of the world to the inception of Rurik’s rule in Russia and princely history from Rurik to the maturity of Ivan IV. As a visual adaptation project, it sought to translate text into coherent and narratively compelling imagery on almost every page. The extant tomes contain around 16,000 illustrations, many of which comprise multiple scenes. Thousands more may have been planned. Even in its unfinished state, the LLS represents one of the largest illuminated chronicles to be commissioned anywhere in the world.

Why did work abruptly stop? What explains the fact that heaps of elaborately illuminated manuscript leaves remained unbound? How come hundreds more were executed in outline but not painted? For several historians the unpredictable and violent personality of Ivan IV has provided a ready, but illusory, explanation. The most incomplete volume, which covers events from 1533 to around 1553, is known as Tsarstvennaia kniga. It was defaced by various editorial interventions, deletions, and marginal additions.

A few of the longest marginal additions contain parallels to incidents related by the tsar in the famous first letter to Prince Andrei Mikhailovich Kurbskii. They were once believed to have been added to the margins by Ivan IV himself.2 A competing interpretation attributed them to a prominent courtier named Ivan Viskovatyi, who was executed in 1570.3 More recent studies have discredited both theories.4

There is at present no scholarly consensus about why the project was never finished. The forceful editorial interventions in the final volumes suggest that the depiction of more contemporary 16th-century events became highly contentious. Whole sequences of completed pages were rejected, [End Page 10] scuttled, and redesigned. Not all of them could be redrawn and repainted before the project was abandoned. The visualization of the marginal additions caused a kind of crisis of confidence for the illustrators.

The afterlife of the project suggests a continuing fascination with its engrossing imagery. Although many scholars have identified the death of Ivan IV in 1584 as a probable endpoint, the 18th-century historian Mikhail Shcherbatov claimed to have seen images of the coronation of Tsar Fedor (r. 1584–98...


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