- Diplomacy, Ceremonial, and Culture in Early Modern Russia
Recently, diplomatic history has undergone a profound renewal thanks to four approaches.1 First, historians have explored the history of agents of foreign policy. Diplomats are not considered mere executors of state policy anymore but agents in their own right. Scholars analyze their strategies, careers, and (patronage) networks.2 Historians now also take into consideration the importance of subaltern and informal actors: interpreters, secretaries, women, [End Page 445] or churchmen.3 Second, diplomacy draws the attention of scholars interested in the perception of cultural difference and the shaping of identities. Processes of “othering” are being explored, even if many scholars maintain that the perception of the “Other” was usually not as monolithic as Edward Said suggested in his Orientalism.4 Third, diplomacy is now studied as a set of transcultural practices. According to this stream of scholarship, diplomacy was less a product of existing cultural patterns than a transcultural framework shaped by actors of different cultures. Usually, conflicts were not the product of intercultural misunderstanding but rather a sign that agents of foreign policy shared a common symbolic system.5 Fourth, the study of rituals and ceremonials in early modern times, which has been especially intensive in the German historical literature and has greatly contributed to the renewal of political history in recent decades, has also contributed to the renewal of diplomatic history.6 It is now widely accepted that ceremonial was not a matter of secondary importance but constitutive of the hierarchies between princes.
Jan Hennings’s Russia and Courtly Europe and, to a lesser extent, Christian Steppan’s Akteure am fremden Hof make contributions to this fourth stream of scholarship. They offer insights into the way rituals shaped politics in the 17th and 18th centuries by integrating Russia further into European diplomatic history. In addition, Hennings’s book deepens our knowledge on the history of diplomacy as a transcultural practice, and Steppan’s gives some insights into the agency of diplomats.
Both monographs focus on Russian-European diplomatic contacts in early modern times. However, they are very different in character. Steppan’s [End Page 446] focus is much narrower than Hennings’s: it explores the history of the Viennese envoys and ambassadors in Petersburg in one decade only, whereas Hennings presents case studies of diplomatic contacts in Moscow, London, Paris, and Vienna from 1645 to 1717. Steppan’s book, an only marginally revised version of his PhD dissertation, barely presents general analyses and theses about European and Russian diplomacy. It offers instead a “thick description” of diplomatic events in the relations between the imperial courts of Vienna and St. Petersburg during the 1720s. By contrast, Russia and Courtly Europe offers a broader not only temporal and spatial, but also thematic and theoretical perspective. Hennings studies the discourse on Russia of scholars specializing in ceremonial questions and analyzes how Russian diplomacy was organized (Steppan does neither). Above all, Hennings asks questions of critical importance for Russian history: to what extent was Muscovite Russia part of the European state system? How far can we speak of a Russian cultural otherness, and did this otherness influence relations between emperors? Hennings’s central thesis is that Muscovite diplomacy was not as foreign as scholarship generally argues.
Steppan’s Akteure am fremden Hof aims to consider envoys as agents of international politics and explore the conditions that shaped their actions and communication strategies. It closely follows the reports of imperial diplomats and adds information from other diplomatic reports, descriptions of ceremonies, and the Vienna court newspaper. The result is a classical study of diplomacy enriched by an analysis of symbolic communication. The central hypothesis of Akteure am...