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Regular version of the site

Seeking Answers in Medieval Russian History

On May 31, Valerie Kivelson, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, will be delivering a seminar entitled ‘Visualizing Empire: Muscovite Images of Race’. Professor Kivelson is an expert in Medieval and early modern Russia, history of cartography, history of witchcraft, religion, and political culture, among other topics. She is the author of 'Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Russia' and a guest editor of 'Witchcraft Casebook: Magic in Russia, Poland and Ukraine. 15-21st Centuries'.

Professor Kivelson met with the HSE News Service ahead of her visit to talk more about the topic of her seminar, her broader views on conducting historical research, and her plans for her current stay in Russia.

— How did you become interested in medieval Russian history? What do you find so fascinating about it?

— I could answer this question in various ways, and they all intertwine to guarantee that pre-modern Russia is an area of endless fascination for me. I do have Russian roots - my grandparents came from the Pale of Settlement -- and I grew up hearing stories of Baba Yaga and verses from Pushkin.  I also was always drawn to medieval history and lore.  So my childhood interests intersected in the study of medieval and early modern Russia.  But as I learned more about the period, I became fascinated by the puzzle of trying to understand the mentalities of people who organized their worlds so differently. 

That challenge, to understand profound difference and to find empathy with alien values, is one that is intellectually exciting and also has increasingly urgent importance today.

— What are some of the vital skills for modern historical researchers? Is there anything special that one needs for Russian history apart from knowledge of Russian?

— Numerous skills are vital for a modern historical researcher, and it is impossible for any one individual to master them all. But we do our best. 

Language, of course, is crucial, as is deep familiarity with the culture, religion, traditions.  This is difficult for anyone approaching the past, and all the more so for foreign scholars like myself.  I think it is therefore important for someone like me to bring a sense of openness to the sources, to try to listen to them as best I can. Sometimes I miss the context that might be obvious to a native speaker, or perhaps someone who knows the liturgy or geography or some other area far better than I.  But an outsider can sometimes bring fresh eyes and new questions to bear, and perhaps add new perspectives.  So I think it is important for historians to interact and share ideas, suggestions, findings, questions.  It's a marvel to me that we can do this so easily with Russian experts now.  When I entered the field thirty years ago, it was impossible.

Aside from these perspectives on foreign contributions, I would emphasize reading in contemporary theory, not with the goal of adopting rigid models or finding sources of prescribed truths (we don't need more of that!), but rather for ideas and inspiration.  I would also stress the importance of comparative reading, again with the goal of shaking up commonly held presumptions and discovering new approaches, asking new questions.

— Last year, you presented a paper at HSE St. Petersburg called 'Early Mapping: The Tsardom in Manuscript'. This year you will be presenting 'Visualizing Empire: Muscovite Images of Race'. What are the major findings of your latest paper? 

— Thinking about the two papers together, I realized that they share a common approach.  In my paper last year, I stressed the dangers of applying modern assumptions about the meanings of maps and their modes of circulation to earlier periods, and I attempted to reconstruct those meanings and modes as understood in the 17th century. My paper this year undertakes a similar project, but this time with the goal of questioning contemporary theory that asserts ‘race’ to be a modern cultural construct. Following historians of medieval Europe, I posit that race appears as a concept in early modern Russia, but with some surprising meanings attributed to it. Racial thinking is not a constant, and in the visual sources I study it was structured by Muscovite imperial logic.

— You are an expert in witchcraft and magic of Russia. What was the scale of witchcraft in Russia in the 20th century? What was the most amazing discovery you made? Is there anything you can say about the cases of witchcraft from the 21st century, for example, from your book 'Witchcraft Casebook: Magic in Russia, Poland and Ukraine. 15-21st Centuries'?

— In my own work, I have found that magic worked at the boundaries of oppression, as a mode of mitigating, negotiating, avenging, and enforcing the cruel hierarchies of Muscovite slave- and serf-owning society. The engrossing legal record exposes the extent of daily violence, and, more surprisingly, a shared understanding between oppressors and oppressed about the rightful limits of that violence.

The ‘Witchcraft Casebook’ is an edited collection, so the work on the 21st century was not my own.  Three of the articles dealt with contemporary witchcraft (Faith Wigzell; Sibelan Forrester; L. I. Avilova and A. Chernetsov). Perhaps most interesting is the work on magic on the internet, a world where traditional Russian zagovory combine with New Age mysticism, and healing and warm-hearted advice combine with scams and for-profit schemes.

— How did you begin working with HSE? Do you have any further plans for joint projects? 

— I have many long-time friends and colleagues here. I was fortunate to host Professor Kamenskii in a visit to Stanford and the University of Michigan last year, and I have worked on a number of joint projects, both with him and with Professor Smilyanskaya. Professor Kamenskii was kind enough to invite me here this time, and Professor Smilianskaia and I are working on an edition of Sources on Russian Witchcraft in English translation. I certainly hope to have further joint projects. It would be wonderful to figure out some kind of on-going exchange between our institutions.

— Do you have any special plans for your Moscow visit, for example, visiting historical archives or monasteries with old books?    

— Last weekend, I went on a wonderful excursion to Volokolamsk and the beautiful monastery at Staritsa. The highlight of this visit for me will be a trip to Tobol'sk, a city I have studied extensively in my work on Siberian mapping, but which I have never visited. 

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service 

See also:

Exploring Political and Cultural Space of St Petersburg through the Summer School 'Topography of Imperial Power'

On a grey autumn day, it is always nice to warm up by reliving memories of summer adventures. This year, the balmy weather did not leave our city till mid-October, and a summer mood also lingered at HSE University – St Petersburg with the IV International Summer School 'The Topography of Imperial Power: Political and Cultural Space of Saint Petersburg' which ran from September 11 till October 2, 2018.

LSE and HSE University – St Petersburg Support Russian Historians

London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and HSE University – St Petersburg launch the Paulsen Programme, funded by the Dr Frederik Paulsen Foundation, in order to support historians in Russia who have been working on the period from the mid 17th century to 1918.

Researching Modern Music

Alexandra Kolesnik, Junior Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer at HSE’s Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities recently completed her post graduate studies in History and successfully defended her PhD thesis entitled ‘Historical representations in British popular musical culture of the 1960-1980s’. Here, Alexandra talks about her research into modern pop-culture.

Post-Doc Fellow from USA Studies Russian and Soviet Film and Photography

Jessica Werneke, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa and her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, joined the International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and its Consequences as a Research Fellow in 2016. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, she has spent a considerable amount of time living internationally – in both the UK and Latvia – and following her post-doc plans to start a new position as a Newton International Fellow of the British Academy at Loughborough University, where she will continue her research on Soviet photography clubs and amateur photographers in the RSFSR and the Baltic Republics.

The Soviet Film Revolution

The October Revolution created a new cinema. At first, 'the most important of all arts' struggled to keep up with social transformations and was not yet used as a weapon in the fight for a communist culture. But the mid-1920s, an innovative, cutting-edge film industry had emerged from sources such as theatre, street performance, posters, poetry and circus shows. This industry was able to do what the politicians had failed to achieve, namely trigger a world revolution.

Recent Lecture Addresses Reflections on Empire, Russia and Historical Comparison

On October 11, Professor Dominic Lieven of the University of Cambridge, where he serves as Senior Research Fellow, Trinity College, gave a public lecture at HSE St Petersburg entitled ‘Reflections on empire, Russia and historical comparison’. The event was organized by the Center for Historical Research.

Overcoming the Revolution

A hundred years has passed since the October Revolution of 1917, but this event still hasn’t reached its logical conclusion. Its consequences are still crucial in defining the political system in Russia today and fostering divisions in society, believes Andrey Medushevsky, Professor at the HSE Faculty of Social Sciences, political scientist, historian and author of the book A Political History of the Russian Revolution: Norms, Institutions and Forms of Social Mobilization in the 20th Century.

HSE St. Petersburg: Cooperation with German Universities in History Studies

Department of History at HSE St. Petersburg is focusing on a global, comparative and transnational approach to historical studies, and cooperates with several European and American research centers. One of its primary partners is German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which sponsors a position of an Associate Professor for a German scholar, and Dietmar Wulff, the current resident, told The HSE Look about his three years at the department and plans for the future.

Expert on Soviet Economic and Demographic History Speaks at HSE

On October 10, Stephen Wheatcroft, Professor of the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne delivered a lecture on ‘The importance of the grain problem in the Russian Revolution and for the next 40 years of Soviet Economics' at HSE Moscow as part of a long and busy schedule. A participant at previous April Conferences at HSE, Professor Wheatcroft is one of the world’s foremost experts on Soviet social, economic and demographic history, as well as famine and food supply problems in modern world history.

Ambassadors for Interdisciplinary and Applied History

Samrat Sil is a recent graduate of the English-taught Master's programme in Applied and Interdisciplinary History ‘Usable Pasts’ at HSE St. Petersburg. David Datmar, a native of Ghana, decided to join the programme to help him prepare for eventual study at the PhD level, which he plans to undertake soon at the University of Oxford. Both gentlemen were recently awarded certificates of recognition for their role as ambassadors contributing to the university’s internationalization agenda.