Systems and Senses: New Research on Muscovy and the Historiography on Early Modern Europe

By Rustemeyer, Angela | Kritika, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Systems and Senses: New Research on Muscovy and the Historiography on Early Modern Europe


Rustemeyer, Angela, Kritika


I feel fortunate to be able to discuss the topics presented in these articles. Their temporal focus on the 17th century is fortunate as well. European history should make much greater use of the research on 17th-century Muscovy than it does now. A recent textbook on European history in the early modern period, defined as beginning around 1450 and ending with the French Revolution, demonstrates this. Without much explanation, the author divides the long period she treats into two blocks, one of which comprises the 17th and 18th centuries. The implicit rationale for this choice is the rise of the modern sciences. For all its merits, this synopsis of early modern European history treats Muscovite or Russian history only briefly and not always adequately. (1) This is a pity, because a closer look at Muscovite history would show the reader a different 17th century, one little affected by the sciences but that offers many points of reference for a comprehensive study of early modern European history.

The articles presented here deal with a range of topics: economic expansion in a premodern framework; the logic of the transfer of military technology; the everyday experience of a religious and secular culture that was divided along lines of rank and status; and royalty, and modes of identifying the ruler as well as oneself, at a specific stage in the development of writing. The authors include questions about economic agency and material culture, thereby building a bridge to the better Soviet historiography on Muscovy, which still remains to be integrated into present-day scholarship. But these works can also help integrate Muscovite history into the mainstream of the historiography on the early modern period, notably the study of state building. Analyzing the early modern concept of Policey and its significance for Russia, I would like to present one of the various possible ways of doing this. My view is, of course, a limited one: I am mainly, though not exclusively, referring to trends in the German research on the period, and hence also to works dealing with the German territories of the Holy Roman Empire.

To begin, a few words about how these articles extend and modify central themes of the existing research on Muscovy.

Isolde Thyret studies a large monastery's successful strategies of land acquisition in an age when monastic landownership was subjected to legal restrictions. Her protagonists act as aggressive entrepreneurs within a traditional system of exchange. The behavior of these self-confident clerics is somewhat reminiscent of the entrepreneurship of the 17th-century Stroganov family: while expanding into Siberia, they used their means to sponsor icon painting in a distinctive style. (2)

Thyret builds on the theme of self-confident clerical lordship (Herrschaft) recently discussed by Georg Michels, (3) but she adds important new aspects. The abbots showed a remarkable instinct for economic expansion at the expense of other church institutions. Stressing that the abbots pursued not only economic but also spiritual aims, the author elaborates on the topic of piety and expansion (in the sense of strategically acquiring the means to enhance one's economic potential) and shows that over all, Orthodoxy could motivate expansion as effectively as Calvinism could.

Like any stimulating case study, this one leaves the reader with questions about possibilities for generalizing the results: if successful entrepreneurship was typical of large monasteries, what was it that made the monks of another famous large monastery, Solovki, so discontented that they became fervent supporters of religious dissent?

Donald Ostrowski deals with the importation of new arms technology into Muscovy. For earlier historians of Eastern Europe, it was important to discuss from whom "their" countries borrowed military technology, since this was seen as an important indicator of membership in wider cultural networks. …

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