Inventing a Regional Past: Local History Writing in Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century Russia
Paper for panel "The View From the Local: Changing Perspectives on Early Modern Russian History," Annual Convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, Pittsburgh, November 22, 2002

by
Daniel C. Waugh
University of Washington (Seattle)

The writing of Russian history has traditionally focussed on the center. Understandably, both modern historians and, to a considerable degree, earlier chroniclers have placed a capital city and the ruling elite at the center of their narratives. In these narratives, what is presented as Russian history is in fact only a part of that history, Kievo-centric, Moscow-centric, Riurikid or Romanovite. We are drawn to the figures who loom larger than life: Vladimir the fornicator immensus and later Saint, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great. As one of several in this room who have recently been lamenting the level of interest in the early Slavic field, I am the first to admit that I constantly think about possible ways I could actually exploit the appeal of such figures in order to lure one more student into a sparsely populated classroom. And in many ways my classroom narrative, while hardly pandering to imagined mass appeal, tends to depart little from the norm in terms of its focus.

What I wish to do here today is pose some questions and a possible research agenda which might enable us to broaden our perspectives on Russian history and history writing in what we may for convenience term the "early modern period." As some of you know, I am not comfortable with that term "modern," but my purpose here is not to debate its use. The period I shall be focussing on is the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This period is one which most who write about historiography tend to emphasize new phenomena: a more personal but at the same time a more secular and "scholarly" or analytical approach to writing history than was characterized by historical writing in the equally problematically titled "medieval" period which preceded it. While I would not deny the existence of these new trends, I wish to emphasize the importance of our looking at the ways and places where what we might term "traditional" approaches to the writing of history remained strong and where as well we may see intersections of the old and new. In part I would argue (and I suspect most of you would not find this to be an outlandish idea--it is not exactly new) that not all historiographic streams lead inexorably in the direction of the modern world. There are very active rivulets, if not rivers, which meander, especially through the northern woods, and may lead us not to Moscow or St. Petersburg but to assertions of regional identity in which religious concerns play a central role. It may be in the long-term perspective they will not seem to be very important, but I think they nonetheless deserve our attention.

We encounter a number of challenges if we wish to learn about perceptions of history in early modern Russia. If there is a pull in the direction of the modern, there is also a gravitational pole tugging in the direction of the early. Both of these emphases have an impact on the publication and study of the sources, leaving us a still very sizeable gap in the middle. The long tradition of the study and publication of Russian chronicles, in which, of course the central figure for a long time was A. A. Shakhmatov, had as its focus the discovery of origins. Yes, Shakhamatov emphasized that one must begin with extant texts and copies, but the intent was to peel away the layers to uncover the earlier compilations. The starting point for much of this was never later than the sixteenth century. As for the modernizing thrust, the tendency is to want to start no earlier than the late seventeenth century, and the views of scholars and editors often have meant that the portions of the later texts perceived as traditional get little attention (for example, introductions emphasizing providential interpretations of history). This is not to say that nothing has been done for the sixteenth and much of the seventeenth centuries--the so-called Nikonian Chronicle is an example of one text which is readily available and widely used, even if much misused; substantial attention has been devoted to the tales about the Time of Troubles. Several seventeenth-century and even eighteenth-century chronicles have been published, along with a variety of other texts which do not adhere to a chronicle format. What remains to be done though, simply to provide us with a basic set of sources is immense. We need studies and editions of much of the seventeenth century legacy of the compliations known as khronografy and significant portions of the regional legacy of historical writing. Of prime importance is that of Novgorod, which continued to be a very active center of chronicle writing down into the eighteenth century and whose influence, at least across the Russian north, seems to have been substantial.

A further challenge facing us is to broaden our conception of what "history" and its texts might be. I would argue that for us to understand fully the historical consciousness of any region, it is necessary to broaden our purview to include works pigeonholed as "religious." By this I mean such texts as miracle tales and saints' lives. As in the case of the study and publication of chronicles, those interested in these texts have tended to focus on origins, and not paid sufficient attention to later copying and editing. With any of our studies of history writing and historical consciousness, we cannot be satisfied with establishing the "original," but we need rather to understand the textual and manuscript tradition as a living one. As is well known, manuscript books continued in Russia to be an important source of ideas and transmission of writings well down into the so-called "modern" period. To ignore that fact is to distort substantially the history of the evolution of ideas, patterns of reading, and much more.

With these general considerations in mind, I shall now turn to a case study which will illustrate some of the challenges this kind of research presents. To a considerable degree what I have to say is based on material detailed in my forthcoming book, Istoriia odnoi knigi, which Dmitrii Bulanin is publishing in St. Petersburg. I would emphasize that many of my conclusions are tentative, pending a much broader examination of manuscripts and texts than I have been able to do. I fully expect to be attacked for the broader interpretive scheme--which asks that we re-think some of our assumptions about modernization--and to be contradicted by new research with regard to many details.

My example today concerns history writing in Viatka, which, and I think this is important, has generally been considered the quintessential provincial backwater of Russia. Saltykov-Shchedrin and Herzen in the nineteenth century were largely responsible for creating that image. (I should note in passing that the history of how stereotypes of provinciality developed in Russia is of itself a worthy topic for research which is finally receiving some attention.) For those who do not know, Viatka (in Peter's time Khlynov; today Kirov) is about 300 km. north of Kazan' as one approaches the western foothills of the Urals.

The first thing of note about history writing in Viatka is that there seems to have been little of it before the middle of the seventeenth century. Information about Viatka is found in any number of the central Muscovite chronicle compilations and also seems to have drawn some attention in chronicles compiled in the Russian north as early as the late fifteenth century. Yet it seems likely that none of these Viatka chronicle entries originated from within Viatka itself, but rather they were produced by those who were encroaching on it from the outside. The town was insubstantial, and the first significant development of a religious center in it--the Trifonov Uspenskii Monastery--which could have served as a locus for writing activity, dates to the late sixteenth century. New as it was, the Trifonov Monastery quickly acquired a library that ranked it not far behind those of some of the better known and long established monastic centers of the Russian north.

The real beginnings of Viatka chronicle compilation seem to date from the establishment of the first bishopric there in the mid-seventeenth century. The first two bishops, Aleksandr and Iona, were vigorous administrators, well educated by Muscovite standards, and interested in recording local history. Aleksandr is known for his involvement in the history of the schism, and he owned a rather good library. Understandably one of the bishops' concerns--this seems especially to be true in last quarter of the seventeenth century, which encompasses Iona's tenure--was to emphasize the idea that Viatka was a religious center of some consequence. I should note that such a pattern of episcopal initiative in developing or at least co-opting previously existing regional religious identities is common in other areas--for example in Vologda and in Tobol'sk.

To give you an idea of what may be discovered even in manuscript collections seemingly well known, let me say a few words about what I think is the earliest Viatka chronicle compilation. A century ago, the local Viatka historian A. S. Vereshchagin published from a mid-eighteenth-century manuscript a text entitled Letopisets starykh let in which the Viatka material in the second half is a dreadful chronological jumble. He thereby dismissed it as the work of some ignorant eighteenth-century bookman, preferring instead the largely overlapping information presented in good chronological order in a text known as the Viatskii Vremennik, whose manuscript seems to have been copied around the year 1710. Vereshchagin was aware of another manuscript of the Letopisets starykh let, in the well known F. A. Tolstoi collection in St. Petersburg, but he dismissed its importance largely, I think, because he had already made up his mind the text was of little value. Well, it turns out that the Tolstoi collection manuscript contains in fact the authorial original of the Viatka chronicle entries, which ended up being jumbled because various scribes, apparently over a period of a couple of decades, added entries as they acquired information. And then someone pasted in a couple of pages containing a compilation of what we might call "all-Russian" entries about Viatka's earlier history. Unfortunately, we still do not know the source for those interpolated pages. All of this activity seems to have taken place beginning in Aleksandr's bishopric and continuing into the first years of Iona's. Now much of the material in this Letopisets is fairly standard fare--information on fires, construction both of churches and the Viatka Kremlin, on the retirement of Aleksandr and the appointment and arrival of Iona. Furthermore, for those who would wish to emphasize that Muscovites identified with the "national center," the marriages, births and deaths in the Romanov family are dutifully recorded. There is nothing here to suggest anything other than a rather traditional approach to the recording of history, nor, do I think, should we expect that.

The literary/historical activity under Iona becomes more interesting though. He seems to have undertaken strenuous (although ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to achieve canonization of the local monastic leader Trifon, and he was active in promoting several icon cults, the most important of which focussed on the icon of St. Nicholas Velikoretskii which had become famous enough even back in the middle of the sixteenth century so that one chapel of St. Basil's cathedral on Red Square in Moscow would be dedicated to it and a copy kept there. We have several versions of the tales about that miracle-working icon--all still badly in need of modern study and editions. The most extensive of them, supplemented with miracle stories eventually updated to 1711, probably was composed at Iona's behest. One might venture to see in Iona's activity yet another piece in the jigsaw of local church reaction to the centralizing tendencies of the Orthodox church which became so prominent by the middle of the seventeenth century. As we know, the policies for which the Synod became famous late in Peter's reign were well underway even before Peter was born. The Church wished to control local cults. Some of what tended to be labeled as sympathy to the "Schism" is probably, in fact, simply a defense of popular piety which often was manifested in local cults.

My work on this Viatka material has led me to one of the local bookmen, a certain Semen Popov, who, like his father, worked as a diachok (sacristan) in the main cathedral of the town. The younger Popov seems to have begun his career right about the time Iona became bishop in 1676. Although his career was principally in the church, it is not without interest that he was among the first burmistry elected in 1700 and again in 1704, as part of Peter's early effort to reform urban fiscal administration. Ever since Vereshchagin's study and publication of the text, Popov has been consided the compiler of the Viatskii vremennik, the chronicle containing both general Russian and local Viatka information to which I referred above. The chronicle itself is the usual mixture of what we might term "secular" and "religious" entries. One can argue though that its compiler seems to have had a particular interest in information about the church and especially wonder-working icons. We now know a great deal about Popov's other bookish interests, thanks to the "Odna kniga" which I study in my book. That substantial manuscript miscellany contains a broad range of historical texts (including some of the standard translations that circulated in late Muscovy), a remarkable set of copies of Petrine vedomosti about the events of the Northern War, texts of panegyrics to Peter's victories, and also very interesting evidence of Popov's reading in some of the standard church literature. Popov also owned a khronograf, and it is pretty certain that he consulted both the Stepennaia kniga and the khronograf manuscript now in the Tolstoi collection at the end of which is the Letopisets starykh let. He probably consulted a Novgorodian chronicle compilation.

Although I admit this is speculative--and I do not have time to lay out the proof for you--I believe Popov was probably the author of what became the best-known tale of Viatka's origins, a work entitled "Povest' o strane Viatskoi," whose compilation has been dated by most scholars to the end of the seventeenth or beginning of the eighteenth century. This tale develops two connected themes. One is that of Viatka as the heir to the independent traditions of Novgorod, a connection established by a tale of how Novgorodians were the ones to found Khlynov, the main town in the Viatka land. Popov owned a separate version of that story, a version which textually antedates the reworking we find in the Povest' o strane Viatskoi. The second theme in the Povest' is that Khlynov is a holy city, whose position as a religious center is emphasized by the cult of St. Nicholas Velikoretskii. Portions of the separate account about that cult are incorporated into the Povest'. Taken together, the themes of political independence and the holiness of the city form an assertion of Viatka's importance and status which arguably was developed as a response to the centralizing efforts of both state and Church in the Petrine era.

What we have here then is the story of the emergence of a documentable local historical consciousness only in late Muscovy, and, right in the middle of the Petrine era, the first full articulation of the region's origins. As far as the his historiography goes, my focus has indeed been on origins, origins that in fact have needed some elucidation. Since the later manuscript history of this Viatka Povest' is still being uncovered, it is premature to say much about how important this sense of regional identity may have been in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An acquaintance with other areas of the Russian north, insofar as the record is available to us, suggests similar patterns in the development of a regional historical consciousness, in some cases manifested earlier than in Viatka, in others seeming to occur in roughly the same chronology as what we see there.

A number of scholars have already made the point that texts connected with local religious cults often are the main source for our information about the construction of regional identities in Russia. Yet much work remains to be done, in part because so many of the texts are yet to be properly published. It seems clear that studying the "catchment areas" (to use Victor Turner's term) encompassed by pilgrim routes and the routes of icon processions will prove to be fundamental for our understanding of regional identities in Russia, identities which seem to have remained alive well down into modern times.

There is a growing recent literature, especially by ethnographers, studying such phenomena of regional religious consciousness. One thing these studies reveal is that the delineation of territory by the establishment of shrines and pilgrim routes is to some extent an effort to define the borders between Christian and non-Christian, to establish control over the places known to be inhabited by evil spirits. In the case of the Viatka Povest' a very explicit theme is that of christianization of non-Christian territory and the protection against the indigenous peoples who seem frequently to have attacked the expanding Orthodox colonies. In this we undoubtedly see similarities with some of what Val Kivelson notes in her paper on mapping Siberia.

As modern studies of the creation of identities suggest, most commonly it is only at the point where people are confronted with a challenge to their way of life or interact with people whose traditions are different that it is necessary to undertake self-definition. In the case of Viatka and other areas at least in the Russian north then, if we can speak of the creation of a regional identity, one stimulus could be the ongoing sense of struggle to maintain the Christian borders. Perhaps more importantly, if we wish to explain the timing of the articulation of local identity, we need to look at the situation in which the policies of the centralizing state and church were challenging and seeming to threaten the regions. We can document, I think, how local cults emerge, efforts are made by the center to suppress them, and how the defense of those cults may well strengthen regional identity. It is clear that the interweaving of material on local saints and relics forms a prominent thread in the creation of number of the regional histories, one example other than Viatka being Sol'-Vychegodsk. What we still need to learn though is how such views of regional identity play out as we move down into the eighteenth century and beyond.

So I would argue that my Viatka example is not unique, although I would also stress that it may be better documented than other cases we might wish to examine. Chance preservation and chance discovery of the manuscript record does play a role here--my Odna kniga, after all, turned up in Tashkent! It is unlikely that the regional material will force us to re-write significantly the history of the development of national identity in Russia, although that subject is far from exhausted. Val Kivelson may well be right in her reading of the record for central regions, and Peter the Great will still have his day even if not necessarily in his own lifetime. I think though that there is a persuasive argument for our taking more seriously the study of the written record for the provinces. In the process we might re-consider the labeling of the provinces as, well, "provincial"--i.e., "backward"--simply because such things as the writing of chronicles and miracle tales continued to be practiced there, and such literature apparently retained its popularity. These phenomena are arguably an important part of the early modern and modern history of Russia and surely deserve attention in their own right if we are to have a balanced idea of the history of Russian culture and self-perception.

2002 Daniel C. Waugh