2011 | 2(3) | 9-34
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The notion of people in medieval and early-modern Russia

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It is difficult to find in Medieval Russia a social discourse as a set of énoncés on rules and principles of communal life and on their implementation. Historians of social thought negate capacity of Muscovites to produce social theory until the late XVII century. Shouldn’t we change our optics and look for it in other place? European authors of XVI and XVII centuries were pioneers in juridical study of societies, but their theories do not seem now compatible with what was called “social theory” in the Enlightenment or what we may call social theory now. In that sense the late XVII century, and the large part of the next century haven’t yielded essential changes in Russia, despite rapid and numerous reforms: “Russia’s “civil society of educated” (obshchestvo) arose only in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century and at the time did not describe a universalist society encompassing all citizens. Thus although educated Russians invoked concepts such as “the public” (publica), “society” The Notion of People in Medieval and Early-Modern Russia (obshchestvo), and “the people” (narod) that transcended social particularlism, historians must be wary of applying the nineteenth-century meanings of these categories to eighteenth-century social relationships. Similarly, they must be waryof applying the categories of sociology and political theory to historical contexts inwhich comparable categories had not yet been articulated. The historian who seeks to recover the voices of the people would do well to employ the language, categories, and concepts articulated by those very people. This can be well nigh impossible withrespect to people who did not express themselves in writing, and with respect to those who did leave a written record, the discernible voices of a particular historical context, like the manifestations of social agency, can leave historians with amultiplicity of discrete articulations. The notion of society is absent in texts, based on the “Genesis”, devoted to emergence of the world and spread in Russian lands in sacred and historical compilations and in the comments on Bible. God didn’t have intention to create societies, so that they could be imagined by the readers of these texts as a fruit of transgressions and sins. Other creatures could serve a model for human beings and, in fact, were not separated from them by impassable barriers. Not surprisingly, the first community mentioned in the “Chronograph of 1512” in the chapter titled “Onfour great seas” has to do not with human beings in the strict sense, but rather with monsters: “Thus, the first great sea verges on mankind with dogs’ heads”. It seems to me comprehensible, that the main abstract notion for collectives in Slavonic and Old-Russian is “narod” (later an equivalent for the “people”) and “rod” (later an equivalent for the “kin”) which encompass any set of creatures, and not necessarily human beings. The readers of the “Chronograph” could find out, that there aremany other communities along with mankind. All of them finally are subordinated to Adam, but it is again quite unusual for modern social thought, in that first andideal society includes just two representatives of mankind and many other creatures who serve them as slaves to their masters. All changes which occurred after the Paradise was lost and especially after the Tower of Babel collapse led to appearance of “stardoms”, “princedoms”, “countries”, “languages”, and “peoples”. To some extent medieval people didn’t care about identities. First, they normally had several, being part of more than one community sensu stricto. Any question onto what community he or she belongs would have been confusing as far as for thereaders of the “Chronograph” it contains contradictio in adjecto. On the other hand, such questions met quite simple answers in narrow contexts of everyday life, which were no less far from social theories whatever: “I am from Vladimir”, “We are men of Dormition of Virgin”, “I am prince Ivan’s man” etc. Second, Russian political elitesand their supporters didn’t come up with ideas of social coherency either. The only analogue for Medieval conception of king’s two bodies and its attributes could begrand prince’s titles, and they also included not peoples, but tsardoms, princedoms, lands, regions. In many other respects, including those which presupposed the power — people relations, Russian elites knew one body of the king, his natural, physical body, mortal and sacred at the same time. And third, beyond Bible and prince’s bodies, until the late XVII century Russians had apparently no coherentidentities for themselves as distinct social or political body. They had the “Russian land”, but since XIV century there were at least three Russian lands as political units which pertained to different sovereigns — Polish kings, grand princes of Lithuania and grand princes of North-Eastern Rus’. They did have their “people”, but it wasn’t unified as well and the meaning of the term seems to be in a sense broader and in a sense narrower than what the term “nation” meant in up-to-date Europe.
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