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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:

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Introduction to Daurian Gothic: What It Is and How It Has Emerged in Transbaikalia

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Russian and French Scholars Present Research on Soviet History at Graduate Seminar

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In Search of Truth in the Pravda Newspaper

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Post-Doctoral Fellow Discusses Research on Soviet-Era Citizenship and Language Policy

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