- In Search of a New Face for Muscovy
In his new book about Ivan the Terrible, Charles Halperin proposes an epigraph uniquely appropriate to the historiographical theme the authors of the books under review are attempting to introduce:
Each man is three men:Who he thinks he is,Who others think he is,And who he really is.
If we replace "man" with "Muscovy," we get a highly accurate description of prevailing views on 15th- to 17th-century Russia. Paradoxically, we still know very little of what Muscovite society thought of itself. First, it was a closed society and never discussed itself in public. This position is manifested in the instruction of 1569 to the Russian ambassador in Turkey, Luka Novosil´tsev. Questions about the tsar's title and why the sovereign used it were to be answered: "I am a young man unaware of why our sovereign calls himself tsar. Whoever wants to know this should come to my country and find out for himself."1 [End Page 387]
Unfortunately, it was challenging to follow the instructions of Moscow diplomats in the 16th century, and it is absolutely impossible now. The historical code of Muscovite Rus´ is still poorly decoded, and we are not at all sure that we correctly interpret how Muscovy understood itself. Therefore—and second—we are forced to turn to European views of Russia, although at the time Europe was experiencing a completely different era: the Renaissance, Reformation, and expansion into the Americas, Asia, and Africa. There was nothing similar in Russia, yet perceptions of the country were based on the codes and values of early modern Europe. At the very end of the 15th century, "Europe discovered Russia" by means of creating a whole complex of works about Russia—European Russia—made by foreigners. However, studies have shown that the information from those sources cannot be understood literally, and the context of their occurrence, distortion, and information trans-coding has to be taken into account. These texts are highly dependent on various discourses of the epoch.2 We know that 16th-century Muscovy was discussed in Italy, England, and the German lands, yet we cannot be sure that this view corresponded to what Muscovites thought of themselves.
Third, the question is: what was Muscovy in reality? Here the historians take the floor. Yet their views are highly dependent on presentism, and their approach is largely determined by current issues. Both imperial Russian and Soviet historiography considered important the issue of assembling lands under the central authority (as St. Petersburg assembled imperial conquests, so did the USSR with the national republics). Sixteenth-century Muscovy was viewed through the same prism, which made the issue of assembling lands into a centralized state the main characteristic of the process of forming Muscovy as a state.3
Another approach taken by Soviet historians was the Marxist concept of feudalism, which they were looking for in 16th- and 17th-century Muscovy. The creation of the Muscovite state was portrayed as the construction of a system of violence and coercion of unfree peasants by the nobility. [End Page 388] The introduction of serfdom in the late 16th century was the apotheosis of the system.4 When Soviet historians found features of feudalism in the history of Russia, they thereby proved the accuracy of the entire historical scheme of Marxism (feudalism—capitalism—communism), including its final parts promising the victory of communism. Now that proving the accuracy of Marxism has long since become irrelevant, historians are increasingly expressing their doubt whether it is correct to call the social system of medieval Russia feudal or 16th-century Russia medieval.5
For European historiography, it has always been important to understand the secret of Russia...