Breaking Muscovy’s Silence

In late February, when the news of Boris Nemtsov’s murder had just emerged, my friend Tom Hooker observed that “who you think killed Nemtsov is a nearly one-to-one reflection of how you think Russia works”—an indication, in other words, of whether you think of Russia as a dictatorial one-man show or a tangle of shadowy power blocs, a land of cops or a land of robbers. How you think Russia works has a lot to do with how you think it has worked in the past, and if you want to see that past as something more than the play of contemporary ideological shadows, you owe a debt to Edward L. Keenan, a retired Harvard historian who died on March 6.

Edward Keenan, 1935-2015

Blessed be the Host of the Heavenly Tsar, 1552 (detail)

In late February, when the news of Boris Nemtsov’s murder had just emerged, my friend Tom Hooker observed that “who you think killed Nemtsov is a nearly one-to-one reflection of how you think Russia works”—an indication, in other words, of whether you think of Russia as a dictatorial one-man show or a tangle of shadowy power blocs, a land of cops or a land of robbers. How you think Russia works has a lot to do with how you think it has worked in the past, and if you want to see that past as something more than the play of contemporary ideological shadows, you owe a debt to Edward L. Keenan, a retired Harvard historian who died on March 6.1 

When Keenan began his blistering career of skepticism and historical heresy in 1971, only two grand narratives existed in the West to explain Russia’s history to students, policymakers, and experts from other fields. The first posited a history of detours away from Western-style constitutional liberalism, the most important of which was the October Revolution. Russia had been on track to become a real European country rather than a despotic police state, went this theory, first under the prematurely assassinated Tsar Alexander II and then under the Provisional Government in 1917. But Bolshevik ideology had put an end to that, replacing the steady amelioration and convergence of the imperial era with an aggressively expansionist totalitarian ideology that would threaten freedom around the world if not contained. This theory took practical form with George Kennan’s landmark 1946 “Long Telegram,” which formed the basis for cold war foreign policy in the US, and appealed to both anticommunist liberals and conservatives in search of historical justifications for the fight against communism. A variation on this line of thinking, which substituted Trotsky or Bukharin for Alexander and de-escalation for containment, was popular among historians on the left who had not been fatally compromised by their support for Stalin.

The second narrative held that Soviet politics was only loosely connected to Marxism, and that the Soviet state rested on a legacy of authoritarianism and institutionalized illiberalism that stretched back perhaps as far as the Mongol or Viking era. This version, most famously propounded by future Reagan advisor (and Harvard historian) Richard Pipes, described a past in which the Muscovite grand prince held patrimonial power over every object, person, and scrap of land in his realm, and in which no countervailing institutions—such as a self-interested nobility—ever emerged as a competing locus of power. In a tragic dialectic of radical dissent and police-state crackdown, Russia and the Soviet Union were doomed to reenact the repressive drama of Muscovy. This narrative was far more persuasive than the first, and had the intuitive appeal of being easy to memorize. (Early in my PhD, I was half-jokingly taught to rehearse on the spot a version of imperial history based on pine needles: the acidic pine needles that cover the soil of Russia’s heartland cause low agricultural yields, which prevent surpluses, which limit the growth of market towns, which means the lack of a bourgeoisie, which means a failure to develop a public sphere or a discourse of rights, and so on).

In retrospect, neither of these arguments are halfway intellectually satisfying. Most of the liberal narrative’s supposed “moments of divergence” collapse upon closer examination (Alexander II, for instance, had no intention whatsoever of relinquishing absolute imperial authority), and the patrimonial model is all too crude a tool to dissect the sometimes very intricate negotiations that exercising power in the Russian Empire required. In 1976, two years after the publication of Pipes’s defining work, Russia under the Old Regime, Edward L. Keenan wrote the initial version of “Muscovite Political Folkways.” Though it was prepared under a State Department contract, it would eventually come to define the field’s response to cold war as well as Pipesian historiography. 

Keenan was born in 1935 in a small village in western New York, where he grew up hunting small game (“critters,” he called them) and selling the pelts to visiting buyers—an experience he would revisit in lectures when he described the fur-trade economy of early Muscovy. An underachieving basketball player in 1953, Keenan began to study Russian history by accident after a college counselor advised him to pursue a “language major.” His knowledge of Russian and research expertise soon became legendary. Semi-mythical stories circulated among his students and colleagues. His Russian was said to be such that he could travel and pass as a native anywhere in the Soviet Union. Having left his dissertation on a train in Eurasia, he went home and simply started a new one—rewriting the old would apparently have been too tedious. According to declassified CIA documents, Keenan was present at the US Embassy in Moscow in 1959 when Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to renounce his American citizenship. Certain JFK assassination conspiracy-theory websites, as well as old issues of Pravda, assert that Keenan was in fact a CIA agent at the time; Keenan himself relished the stamp in his passport which marked him as having been expelled from the USSR. Still, it would be somewhat un-Keenanesque to accept such sources at their word: after all, his relentless questioning of apparently solid documentary evidence came to define his scholarly career.

Keenan’s most provocative and divisive attempt at this kind of debunking came in 1971, with the publication of his book The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha. Much of what we think we know (and what we teach undergraduates) about the reign of Ivan the Terrible comes from a compilation of letters supposedly exchanged by the tsar and a dissident nobleman named Andrei Kurbskii, who defected to Lithuania in the middle of a war in 1564 to escape political persecution. Using highly technical methods, Keenan argued that the compilation was a 17th-century forgery, provoking a decades-long debate between scholars in the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States. It has not been conclusively settled, although most would now agree both that a correspondence took place and that it did not exactly resemble the text we now possess. In later decades, Keenan would argue that the Lay of Igor’s Campaign—one of the most cherished monuments of early Slavic literature—was a late-18th-century Czech fabrication; this claim has not been as eagerly received. From the very beginning of his career (his dissertation debunked a key text about the end of the “Tatar Yoke”), Keenan was known as someone committed to destroying traditional assumptions by paying close and exacting attention to once-unimpeachable sources, even if many held that this had led him down the wrong path.

It may seem ironic, then, that the essay which made Keenan’s name outside the community of medieval Russian historians—the famous “Muscovite Political Folkways”—includes not a single quote or citation. After its State Department genesis, it circulated as a typescript in a small circle of Keenan’s associates before finally being published in 1986. Pipes had shaped the basic assumptions about Muscovy shared by most nonspecialists: patrimonialism, the dictatorial power of the tsar, the inherent slavery of his subjects, the systematic eradication of all traditions that might have offered a political challenge. Keenan aimed to shake them up—to “provoke,” as he claimed, and not to “convince,” but of course to convince as well.

“Muscovite Political Folkways” did not fall into the traditional liberal trap of going through the chronicles with a magnifying glass in search of scraps and shadows resembling parliaments and natural rights. In fact, Keenan said, that impulse was part of the problem. Historians had spent so long seeing Russia in terms of what it lacked (and thus what set it apart from the supposedly normal case of Western Europe) that they had forgotten to see it in its own right. What Russia did have was a long heritage of fragile peasant survival in marginal agricultural lands, which bred risk-aversion, suspicion of outsiders, and strong norms of communal solidarity. These formed the template for Muscovy’s political culture. 

From this starting point Keenan drew a set of startlingly original conclusions. The tsar was not an autocrat but a kind of central figurehead, the guarantor of the system’s legitimacy but in practice a cipher. The actual political culture of Muscovy was not autocracy but a tug-of-war between powerful clans of boyar (noble) oligarchs, who hid behind the window-dressing of dictatorial absolutism to ensure stability as they jockeyed for access to power. “The thud of limp bodies in the Kremlin” was heard during the all-important bride-choosing and marriage ceremonies that determined the struggle’s next round—not when someone challenged the tsar. Meanwhile, foreign visitors who strove to interpret Muscovite politics through the lens of their own political experience inevitably ended up perpetuating the official façade. This, together with the fact that boyar culture as such was fundamentally non-literate, meant that all existing sources on Russia before 1700 needed to be read against the grain in a nearly Straussian fashion—dovetailing, conveniently, with Keenan’s habitual skepticism about documents.

“Folkways” was a functionalist interpretation of Russian history, relying on the vocabulary of cultural anthropology to pry into the goals and behaviors of Muscovite elites. Where ideological interpretations strove to simplify and render familiar, Keenan insisted on dividing and making strange. Muscovy did not have just one political culture—it had three or four, including the church, the court, and the bureaucracy, each of which left a distinct literary and cultural legacy. Even the tradition of political dissent, which so many others had seen as a clear forerunner to the 19th-century revolutionary progenitors of Bolshevism, came into question in “Folkways”: hardly anti-authoritarian, dissent in Muscovy was conservative and fundamentally unwilling to challenge the structure of princely rule.

Like Keenan’s previous work, “Muscovite Political Folkways” produced a storm of controversy. This time it was not small clutches of specialists defending their chosen turf but a whole field that had suddenly found its basic foundations whisked out from underneath. Most aggravating of all, the essay was riddled with apparent howlers. The Russian peasant commune, to take only one example, was a product of the 18th century created for the convenience of recruiters and tax collectors, not serfs (indeed, Keenan barely mentioned serfdom at all). Statements based on sources from later periods seemed to be applied uncritically to previous ones. It seemed particularly absurd of Keenan to claim that Muscovite political culture was a tissue of lies and then rely on sources from it for other parts of his argument. Many objections to Keenan’s arguments did not stand the test of time, rooted as they were in the flawed historical models Keenan tried to reject. But neither would anyone today introduce “Muscovite Political Folkways” as an accurate picture of how Muscovy worked.

Curiously enough, the critical response to “Folkways” ultimately left the critics—who raised a number of damaging points—worse off than their target. Richard Hellie, the author of the harshest criticism in a 1987 journal discussion, found himself increasingly marginalized despite being one of the preeminent American specialists in the field. Others have since drifted toward more recognizably Keenanite positions. Over the long term, Keenan’s victory was due in large part to his prodigious cadre of graduate students (sometimes labeled a “Keenan” or “Harvard School,” though Keenan himself did not like the label), who have transformed the discipline by taking the functionalist view and marrying it to a new focus on archival sources. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Valerie Kivelson, who teaches at the University of Michigan, produced groundbreaking studies of Muscovite local “gentry”; Nancy Shields Kollman analyzed kinship networks and the role of honor; Russell Martin followed Keenan’s lead in investigating the role of marriage in Muscovite politics. While some of Keenan’s students have already retired, others—like Kivelson—remain at the forefront of the field. No corner of early Russian history-writing today remains untouched by Keenan’s influence, both as a scholar and as a servant of the profession. Toward the end of his life, Keenan expanded this portfolio, serving as dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and then as head of the Dumbarton Oaks research institute in Washington, DC.

Few scholars follow Keenan in thinking the tsar was a cipher, but to claim he ruled unchecked over a landscape peopled by human chattel is now distinctly old-fashioned. In some ways, then, “Folkways” has conquered its field. As for the rest of us, we can only take heart from Keenan’s injunction against seeing Russia in terms of what it is not. Contemporary reporting and writing about Russia remains mired in 1971, married inextricably to the fantasy that removing the autocracy (or even just the autocrat) would leave us with a country that looks like France. But it won’t. There are always the boyars to reckon with.

  1. I am indebted to Keenan’s one-time students, Professors Alison Frank Johnson and Kelly O’Neill, for their stories and recollections; I draw on these as well as numerous published sources throughout the piece. 

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