Is this the real Russia? In this editorial cartoon, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett draws on what is probably the most common stereotype of Russian political culture: that Russia was, is now and always will be authoritarian, even dictatorial.
Note that Pett signals this by drawing the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, built by Ivan the Terrible in the middle of the 16th century. But recent research shows that the czar’s power was more limited, and the nobility’s power greater, than traditional stereotypes would have us believe. This is no dry-as-dust historical controversy but an intense conversation going on now in 21st-century Russia.
A violently repressive ruler like Ivan IV (a.k.a. the Terrible, who ruled from 1533-1584), long held up as the embodiment of Russia’s “all-powerful ruler” tradition, is now seen as an aberrant exception. Indeed, he almost destroyed the carefully built-up scaffolding that the Russian court created to rule a very large territory in conditions of economic scarcity — as well as a state apparatus that was very weak by European standards. When functioning optimally, the early modern Russian state was structured as an oligarchy, in which the czar, sometimes quite weak, shared power with powerful aristocratic clans.
Contemporary historians have looked at new evidence about the notion of early modern Russia as a totalitarian state. They’ve asked different questions and have come up with some startling conclusions. Here are three examples:
1) Royal weddings kept the balance of power
Russell Martin of Westminster College studied the extensive manuscript record of royal weddings. The centerpiece was a bride-show where the czar picked his future bride from among young aristocratic maidens. Where earlier historians saw in this bride-show an example of royal despotism, Martin’s analysis revealed that aristocratic clans in Moscow and in the provinces controlled the process of selection at every stage.
The aim was for the new bride, almost always chosen from women from middling families, not to disrupt the delicate balance of power among the handful of great clans that dominated court life. This careful process protected the patronage and familial tentacles that stretched to the farthest corners of Russia’s growing realm. The appearance of royal omnipotence masked real control by oligarchs.
2) Local populations had access to effective dispute settlement mechanisms
Two major studies by Valerie Kivelson of the University of Michigan describe how the court and the expanding central bureaucracy negotiated vigorously with local populations. Provincial gentry flooded Moscow with petitions for redress of various grievances, often to good effect.
Local land disputes, detailed in remarkable and beautiful property maps, were adjudicated carefully, as far as we can tell, fulfilling the expectation of all parties that the government would provide the best justice possible according to available evidence. This system helped preserve a landholding system that was crucial to all parties, including the state.
3) There were ample checks on the czar’s power
Nancy Shields Kollmann at Stanford has undertaken several ambitious topics, each involving huge archival work. Each of her three major books has shown the limits of royal power as it worked on the ground. By examining genealogical books kept by each major noble clan, she showed that precedence at court — a system in which seniority at court and in the military was determined by the service records of one’s ancestors — and even appointments to the main aristocratic council, the Boyar Duma, were determined more by family seniority than by royal will.
The voluminous records of honor disputes, created by a quite rigid system of precedence, again showed very energetic legal suits that nobles of every rank brought against their rivals. These disputes hampered the czar’s power, including his ability to make military appointments as he wished.
Kollmann’s magisterial investigation of Russian criminal law again destroys a number of stereotypes. Russian legal punishments were if anything less violent than particularly barbaric practices in Western Europe, like breaking on the wheel, that were introduced only later by that great Westernizer, Peter the Great (who ruled from 1682-1725). More important, Kollmann shows that Russians at all social levels had a strong moral sense of justice, and an awareness of possessing rights as well as obligations under a legal system that carried great moral force.
These findings relate to my own studies of political thought, which show why any limits on the power of the ruler remained largely in the moral sphere, with few of the kinds of legal or constitutional restraints found in the West. Without a translation of Aristotle’s “Logic” until the end of the 17th century, and without the legal and philosophical disputes that shaped Western political thought at least from the 12th century on, early modern Russians lacked the intellectual tools to elaborate Western types of institutional limits to royal power.
Since Russians imagined that the will of the czar reflected the will of God, they did not want these limits. The way they thought about politics had more in common with Western Europeans in the early Middle Ages (think Charlemagne) than in the Renaissance. Though more moral rather than institutional, these limits still had great force.
Virtually all of the surviving evidence of early modern Russian political thought — texts, icons, mural programs, architecture — suggests Russians had strong moral expectations. Their ruler certainly was given great power, but he also had to be merciful and just.
Meanwhile, by the end of the 17th century, the vigorous development of institutions like the law, the precedence system and representative institutions did work to limit royal power in fact, if not always in theory.
Taken together, these newer studies reveal modern Russia not as some dramatic exception to the European Community of nations. Instead, Russia is much like the United States — an outlier with admittedly dramatic differences from her Western neighbors but with a great deal in common. There is a Russian as well as an American exceptionalism, for example, based on a common early modern view that each was a New Israel, a successor to the Old Testament Israel.
The most important audience for this news is, of course, the Russian public. But we in the West should also know that authoritarian rule is not Russia’s inevitable destiny.
Daniel Rowland is professor emeritus of Russian history at the University of Kentucky.