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  • Three Takes on One LegendPolyphony in Muscovite Court Culture
  • Sergei Bogatyrev (bio)

The reign of Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible (1533–84) saw an outburst of cultural activities ranging from redecorating the Kremlin after a major fire to the creation of the Illustrated Chronicle Compilation (Litsevoi letopisnyi svod). What drove these ambitious projects that generated thousands of painted images and thousands of written pages? Soviet scholars believed that it was the political idea of centralization that resulted in the monopoly of royal authority over culture. D. S. Likhachev argued that Muscovite culture under Ivan IV was dominated by what he called “second monumentalism.” In his view, this pompous official style turned literature into a servant of the state by imposing on literary works, including the Illustrated Chronicle Compilation, a single restrictive task of glorifying Muscovy’s past and present.1

Modern scholarship has abandoned the extremes of this political interpretation of Muscovite culture. Yet students still tend to reduce the Muscovite views of Ivan IV’s monarchy to a set of fossilized ideas emanating from one intellectual center. Cultural studies have contributed to this interpretation by applying to Muscovite artistic works the concept of a school borrowed from art criticism. Scholars particularly often speak about the school of Metropolitan Makarii. He was undoubtedly a prominent cultural figure, but the parameters of the Makarian school have never been [End Page 17] properly defined.2 This vagueness allows for apologetic literature, which has flourished since Makarii’s canonization in 1988, to attribute to the school of Makarii almost every cultural development in the second half of the 16th century.3 Despite more sophisticated methodology, semiotic and anthropological studies also offer a reductionist view of Muscovite culture. Semiotic works highlight the image of the tsar as a sacral figure invested with divine power.4 Students inspired by anthropological studies emphasize the idea of cooperation between the tsar and the boyars in Muscovite imagery.5

All these interpretations suggest a monolithic top-down view of kingship to which Muscovite bookmen and artists fully subscribed. This approach is very different from what contemporary scholarship tells us about court culture in other premodern societies. According to Kevin Sharpe, in Western Europe early modern courts employed unstable texts containing a multiplicity of meanings and significations and open to various, shifting, and contesting interpretations. Representation of power was not a result of the monarch’s total control of cultural production. Rather it was a matter of negotiation among various patrons, creators, and the audience.6 Such polyphony was not limited to Western Christian monarchies. In his study of Islamic rulership A. Azfar Moin also presents a composite and multidimensional picture of sacred kingship embracing “charismatic and rational, transgressive and conformist, performative and doctrinal, mythical and historical.” He concludes that the experience of Mughal sacred kingship resulted not only from royal patronage but also from popular practices and public performances.7 [End Page 18]

Both in Western Europe and in the Mughal Empire court culture generated contesting interpretations of kingship. Tudor cultural production capitalized on Renaissance rhetoric, which required engaging both sides of an argument. In Mughal India, official chronicles defended the ruler from accusations of heresy levied in other polemical works, including a chronicle secretly written by a courtier.8 Unlike Tudor England, Ivan IV’s Muscovy did not encounter pamphlets that assaulted the concept of divine kingship.9 Evidence about the secret engagement of one of Ivan IV’s courtiers in chronicle writing remains murky, despite optimistic attempts to reconstruct that private chronicle.10 Generally speaking, the cultural output of Muscovite bookmen and artists was narrower than that of their Western Christian and Islamic counterparts. Printing remained incipient, and many forms of creative work were completely missing from Ivan IV’s Muscovy. A favorite topic of Western-centric comparative studies, this “cultural deficiency” included theater, poetry, instrumental music, secular arts, and secular literature.

Compared to other court cultures, the Muscovite world of anonymous creators and silent audience seems to be misty and sleepy, but is this impression correct? A while ago, Daniel Rowland noted that “Muscovite writers relied not on one but on several images of the tsar, each deeply embedded in a long literary history...


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