Premodern Lessons for Modern Historians

Article excerpt

It is no secret that most Western historians of Russia study the period after 1700, indeed after the Great Reforms. Only a brave and resourceful minority focuses on the Muscovite era, and those who venture even farther back are truly few and far between. This is not healthy for our profession. The modernist bias harms efforts to conceptualize the wider sweep of Russian history in both teaching and research by granting unnaturally long life to questionable myths about the medieval and Muscovite legacy--hence, for example, the tendency to overrate the import of the idea of Moscow as the "Third Rome." It also hurts our students by leaving them, and us, at the mercy of antiquated scholarship. Before Chester S. L. Dunning's recent book, (1) the standard text on the Time of Troubles was Platonov's, first published in 1923. (2) Who today would teach the history of, say, the English Civil War from textbooks more than 80 years old? Some of the contributors to the present issue of Kritika show the modernists among us a further important reason why we would benefit from looking outside our own chronological bailiwick: the problem of what to do with sources.

While source criticism has been with us at least since Ranke's day, several more recent developments have increased its significance: the broader definition of what constitutes a source that accompanied the emergence of social and cultural history; the closer attention to "texts" that followed the rise of "theory"; the Internet; and, in our field, the post-communist "archival revolution." The challenge many of us face in studying the more modern periods is how to sift through, and make sense of, an ever-expanding mass of evidentiary material. Nor does it make life easier when editors (including this very column a few months ago) ask authors to provide more details about their archival sources even while publishers insist on tighter word limits for manuscripts. (3) On the bright side, of course, the embarrassment of riches is such that well-crafted research projects are rarely threatened by a lack of sources; the challenge is instead to design projects that are broad enough to command interest but do not trigger a tsunami of unmanageable documentation. This rapport with the sources shapes our own perception of how we in the present relate to the past, and it is what we communicate to our readers and students as well.

By contrast, as the contributors to this issue remind us, scholars of pre-Petrine Russia face a rather different situation. Edward L. Keenan and Norman Ingham offer conflicting reviews of Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Zimin's book disputing the authenticity of Slovo o Polku Igoreve [the Igor' Tale], regarded by many as a foundational text of medieval Russian literature. Keenan, of course, has made something of a career out of challenging key pre-Petrine Russian sources with his own books on the Slovo and on the correspondence between Ivan the Terrible and Prince Andrei Kurbskii. (4) The deeper Keenan and Ingham (and Zimin) burrow into the complexities and ambiguities of the Slovo's obscure history, the more they leave the non-medievalist reader with an uncomfortable sense of doubt about whether we can know much of anything at all about Kievan Rus'. Nor are things much better as late as the 16th century. In a review essay last year, Carolyn Pouncy noted that historians writing broad, synthetic texts about Ivan the Terrible and his era continue to read key sources as having unambiguous meanings that were first attributed to them in the 19th century, even though more recent studies have raised considerable doubts about the dating, authorship, and other essential aspects of these same texts. From this, she concluded, "As historians, we need to recognize that much of the received wisdom regarding pre-Petrine history is no more than someone s speculation, repeated until it has acquired the aura of truth." (5) This phenomenon rarely occurs in the work of modernists, whom the abundance of documentation has accustomed to expecting that disputes about sources--for example, about the authenticity of Peter the Great's alleged testament--can usually be resolved through further research in other sources. …


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