Academic journal article Kritika

Edward L. Keenan (1935-2015)

Academic journal article Kritika

Edward L. Keenan (1935-2015)

Article excerpt

On 6 March 2015, one the most influential, controversial, and unconventional historians of Russia and Eurasia passed away. Edward Louis Keenan enjoyed a distinguished career as historian and skeptic, Harvard professor and administrator, and generous patron to generations of scholars. (1) He was an early supporter of Kritika and welcomed its role in fostering critical dialogue with Russian scholarship. The same traits that exasperated his minders at Leningrad State University in 1959-61 made him an innovative scholar--he avoided official itineraries and boldly veered off on his own.

Ned--as he was fondly called by his friends and students--was a remarkable mentor and engaging raconteur. In the course of one meeting, he might recall his encounter with Lee Harvey Oswald in Moscow in 1959, provide a citation from an obscure journal in Ufa, list ten deficiencies in a source publication, and then share his impromptu evaluation of why modern pilgrims to Mecca have contributed to a surge in shark populations in the Red Sea. Stroking his trademark beard as he spoke, he exuded warm erudition and easy wit. Conversations with him often seamlessly turned to anomaly, epistemology, and genre: Do ermines really gallop? Was the scribe ambidextrous? Who is the person behind the curtain in this Oz? Can one express a legal principle in the form of limerick? A sud 'i ktoi

Keenan spent his entire career at Harvard, where he was trained in Russian by Horace Lunt and Roman Jakobson. His B.A. thesis in 1957 was devoted to cynical Russian proverbs about Orthodox priests. In 1959, he traveled to Russia to take part in a two-year exchange program and to conduct research for a planned dissertation devoted to the Baku general strike of 1904-5. Impressed by the lectures of Vladimir Mavrodin, a charismatic speaker and organizator nauki, he decided to become a medievalist. While in Leningrad, he delivered his first lecture in Russian, which was devoted to a community of Old Believers in the United States. If memory serves me correctly, this was the same community in Pennsylvania that provided him with a paleography conundrum that he presented in some of his seminars. Confronting graduate students with what clearly appeared to be a text from early modern Russia, he gleefully revealed that it was in fact penned only decades earlier on American soil.

Breaking the restrictions of his visa, he traveled far and wide in the Soviet Union and mixed freely with Russians of all ages and backgrounds. His feigned residence on Lenin Street and mastery of informal Russian got him out of several scrapes with the law. His ability to pass as a local also made him privy to cynical anecdotes, off-the-cuff remarks, and popular deconstructions of the official fictions that everyone lived by. In 1961, he was finally expelled from the USSR after repeatedly traveling to areas that were off-limits according to the terms of his visa.

Returning to Harvard, he worked under the supervision of the distinguished Turcologist Omeljan Pritsak. His dissertation was devoted to Muscovy's diplomatic interactions with Kazan between 1445 and 1552. Completed in 1965, it doubted sources, dismissed historiography, and took aim at numerous canards. In various places it displayed what he himself called "less than customary caution." (2) Arguing that pragmatism defined Muscovy's relations with the Tatar states of that period, it advanced an ambitious agenda to reconsider the rise of Russia within a system of steppe politics. The study earned him an invitation to remain at Harvard as a junior professor, but he did not publish it because he believed that it still required "massive and meticulous study of Tatar genealogies, of patterns of government (if that is the word) and diplomacy, and most of all of the history of the major sources, the Muscovite chronicles." (3) The most significant publication that emerged from the dissertation was an article challenging the date, manuscript history, and genre of Kazanskaia istoriia, a Russian narrative devoted to the once great kingdom of Kazan. …

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