“...nor is it good to have many rulers. Let there be one ruler, one king,...”
We tend to look at the Eurasian landmass and then we single out about a 5% of it. We say; this is freedom, enterprise, 'development', in complete opposition to the other 95%, ruled by Oriental Despotism. That these other nineteen twentieth, should be no more or less special, or equal, in their 'strangeness' seems to be rather more likely. But this is not what is usually seen, when we talk of this mythical difference, between two more or less incomparable units. It is not amazing when travelers in the 16th century find new places to be strange, but this does not make these places more strange for us looking back through more than four-hundred years of passed time. The Work of Goldstone, like Frank's, points in the direction that there might be serious errors in how 'The West' and 'The Rest' are presented. These errors skew our understanding of our history in general. He suggests an alternative interpretation:
“The California school reverses this emphasis and sees Europe as a peripheral, conflict-ridden, and low-innovation society in world history until relatively late. Superiority in living standards, science and mathematics, transportation, agriculture, weaponry, and complex production for trade and export, has multiple centres in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and the Yellow River Basin. From these regions civilization spreads outward,...while western Europe remains a primitive backwater. When civilization spreads West with Carthage and the Roman Empire, it remains rooted in the Mediterranean and then—with Byzantium—in Anatolia.” “Except that something goes haywire in England. Charles II dies without an Anglican heir, and the throne passes to his Catholic brother James.”
We should not interpret this as a straight forward dissemination theory because that would be unoriginal, but as a more complex gradual transplantation, or adoption, of tools and technique for government. This then fits rather well with Gerhard Spittler's explanation of 'despotism' and how it has worked. And Spittler's 'despotism' is not the mythical 'totalitarian', 'oriental despotism'
-understanding of the word of Wittfogel and Ferguson.
How 'despotic' is 'The East' really in comparison to 'The West'? The question is interesting because Spittler diagnoses 'despotism' to be the management-form of primitive state-structures. 'Despotism' is described as a rule over farmers with a military-state, that has little developed bureaucratic structures, or codex laws. - as an opposite of 'bureaucratic government'. Spittler, however, found that Prussia of the 18th century, and West-Africa of the 19th century compare rather well in this regard.
“The peasantry in a peasant state is characterized by a great diversity of local customs and by defensive strategies. Both are related to peasants' semi-autark household production. Under these conditions the central government lacks information and the means of control. Administration by intermediaries and despotism becomes widespread because it is well adapted to this situation. In order not to be infected by the “chaotic diversity” in the countryside, the bureaucracy maintains its distance from the peasants. But on the other hand, it also tries to penetrate the peasantry. Bureaucratic administration requires the collection and storing of information, so a precise census is a basic tool for bureaucratic work.”
As an extension of this, we can assume that almost every state, until the development of industrial society, were peasant states, trade being, in general, marginal. The road away from despotism, to a more bureaucratic state, with more order, less random violence or ad-hoc power, is similar. This would in turn mean a tempering of the aristocracy and the centralization of power to the Crown, as it again, from the period after 1450, increasingly happened in all of Europe. Mind, not as a straight progression, and not at all always successful.
The portrayal of the “oriental despotism” therefore seems methodologically unsound. The theoretical separation of 'The East' and 'Western Europe' seems to be creating some confusion when it comes to understanding the workings of reality, rather than being helpful in this regard, as a theory should be. To help us along it might be helpful to summarize some scientific theorems. A false dichotomy arises, when the premise for the given research proposes that there are only two possible outcomes that are mutually exclusive. With the induction of such a premise, we run the risk that maybe both outcomes are wrong, or that they are not mutually exclusive. The danger for research-work, premised by a false dichotomy, is that it may lead into a falsity in logical reasoning. The result could be misguiding, leading us to make wrong conclusions. The false dichotomy is therefore also a common rhetorical technique, where only two choices exist, only two real alternatives. A false dichotomy can just as well be an intended fallacy,
created in order to force a decision where none of the alternatives, are necessarily the correct choice.
The western rim of Eurasia is more similar in its development up until about 1800 than might seem palatable. Splitting Russia off from the state-formative processes taking place in other locations alongside 'The Rim' therefore does not serve the purpose of gaining understanding, but causes alienation. The terminology in use for later periods still puts the “dictatorship” of the USSR
next to its 'imagined-free', NATO opponent, in an imaginative exercise of a combination of hypocrisy, avarice, and ignorance, that trumps any nuance. In the same manner the brutal occidental Barons of late medieval Europe are painted to be 'Arthuresqe' figures of myth next to the bloodthirsty oriental Despot.
In the essay 'The Mongol Origins of Muscovite Political institutions', by Donald Ostrowski, it is suggested that the organization of the Muscovite state could, to a strong degree have been influenced by the Mongol overlords that taxed, or demanded tribute and hostages from the Russ princes in the period. Ostrowski expresses himself quite diplomatically, and is explicit on the stance, that from this, it does not follow that the Russian state, that springs out of this state, later in time, is inherently of 'eastern' conception or constitution. The article makes room for what Ostrowski calls a 'pseudo-Byzantine' development, after the gradual severing of the ties between the Khans and the Lords of Moscow after 1430 -when the princes stopped 'visiting' the Khan in Sarai.
It is a sensible assumption that people or cultures, that are in contact with each-other do learn from each-others techniques. Thus also in the realm of management and statecraft. The problem with this approach however is that it does not seem likely that the Tartars had a refined statecraft, being steppe-nomads and good warriors, that mostly formed their war-bands based on brittle, personal allegiances. Conquest, for the former raiders, therefore, must most likely have been a “learning by doing” experiment. Due to their high degree of personalized, not institutionalized rule, their dominions also get brittle once the ruler dies. With time the tartars also adopt sedentary life, but it is rather a consequence of their dealings with sedentary and urban culture where they conquer.
It was a widely held opinion from the 1850 and onward, that the Asian states were “despotic”. Also the Asian peoples lacked the European/Western ability for rational thought. -Thus a mongoloid Russia would explain a backward Russia. Karl Wittfogel runs with a less extreme notion than above, of what Mongolian influx might mean, as Ostrowski also mentions in his article. To criticize Wittfogel today might seem to be like kicking in open doors, but his most famous work "Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power." "Wittfogel's scientific contribution in the ideological conflict with Soviet Communism" still echoed in the lecturing rooms when I started to interest myself for Russia in 2005. (With that quote it should be abundantly clear that we are not reading history, when reading Wittfogel) The book takes its thesis about the 'Hydraulic society', developed in his book “Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas” (1931), and superimposes the concept on Russian history, to explain his contemporary Soviet Union, using the concept as a 'grand theory of everything'. Thus Soviet Communism is explained as follows: Along the great rivers like the Euphrates or the Jiang-tsek-iang, centralized states arose because the coordinated regulation of irrigation was crucial for agriculture, and the steadfastness required by agriculture made people easier to rule. This gave rise to a system of government Wittfogel named “Oriental Despotism”. Later this mode of government would also spread to the whole of Asia, remaining more or less
unchanged up to Wittfogel's time. It is also spread to areas without irrigation-systems, like Russia. With the Mongol invasion, Wittfogel claims, Russia was “asieatesized” and thus the despotic structures that had risen in the Far-East were integrated into the coming Russian systems of government, commencing up until Soviet Communism.
The story is a nice and elegant one. The narrative is beautiful and it seems at the first glance to “explain it all”, and to make sense. It was well received in the climate of the Cold War. The only problem of course, is that it cannot be true. It's highly incredible, unscientific, speculative and tendentious. The vast oversimplification that was needed to formulate Wittfogel's assertion has with time rendered Wittfogels work to be seen as outdated and incorrect, but his spectre seems to cling on in our discussion. The various weaknesses, are as well made clear by Joseph Needham's Review of Oriental Despotism (1959). Wittfogel work seems perfect for the Zeitgeist that surrounded him in the United States of the 1950's, distancing him from his own past in the German Communist party, while telling a story, elegant, comforting and assuring to his surroundings.
Alexander Yanov (1930-) can be seen as in opposition to Wittfogel's narration. In his trilogy Yanov tells a somewhat different story. He puts the responsibility for the “break with the West” in the lap of Ivan VI. -There was no Mongol imprint. He also rejects that paternalistic tendencies is something exclusively Russian, -something that should be less hard to accept when considering
Western Europe at the same time. Yanov advocates that the period from 1480 till 1560 is a period of “European tradition” in Russia, whilst the 'Oprichnina' of Ivan IV breaks this tradition. After that it was a long and hard struggle for Russia to “get back to Europe”, and it finally gets there after the breakup of the USSR. This is also in part tendentious, as it leans on a positive, highly unrealistic, mythological portrait of western Europe.
The works of Yanov and Wittfogel are representatives of two opposing archetypal interpretations of Russian history and Russia. The one understands it as “meant to be” 'European', the other as 'Asiatic'. -Or 'Western' and 'Eastern'. It is important to note that not all writing about Russia falls into this category. Ostrowski, who's focus is primarily on early Slavic history, has also published extensively in the field of comparative history, and methodology, and this seems to keep him from oversimplification and generalization.
Can Russia be seen as following the same formative patterns as the new bureaucratic (proto-) states rising in Western Europe? A discussion in historiography, world history and the problems of long chains of causality, exemplified by a comparison of Russian and English political history during the reigns of Ivan IV and Henry VIII. (Late medieval/Northern Renaissance period, 16th century.)
While studying medieval Russia two questions kept popping up in the Literature: Does Russia have its background in “Eastern” (Asiatic) or “Western” (European) culture? Does a possible Asiatic background account for the perceived “backwardness” of the land? During the reading, a suspicion of double-standards for the 'scales' we use to measure the 'East' and the 'West' arose. Marginal cosmetic differences seemed to be exploited to exasperate a narrative, of a distant, strange, and mythical Russia. The historiographical discussion will start with the more specific grand works and perspectives concerning Russia, opened up by Ostrowski's essay on "The Mongol Origins of Muscovite Political institutions", which served as a inspiration for this work. What then also needs to be addressed is the claim of Russian backwardness which is the main narrative thread in Alexander Yanov's work, and in large parts in other writings, like the work of Wittfogel. Is the way Russia is portrayed up to this day, intentionally overemphasising minor differences, as a result of the political tension that ensued between its rulers and the neighbors in 'The West', rather than a matter of fact? Could the portrayal also be the result of sloppy methodology... even if some Russian scholars themselves adopt this view during the zenith of British hegemony, in the middle of the 19th century? It became my desire to look at the subject with a 'Homeric blindness' and a 'Ranke'an' moral disassociation.
While dealing with this question the main challenge gave itself by the seemingly ethereal qualities of terms like 'Europe' utilized in the discussion. An approach was finally opened up by 'zooming out' and taking a look at Frank's work in "ReOrient- Global Economy in the Asian Age" (1998) and by the discussion that ensued between him and Landes, Goldstone, Vries, Pomeranz and others. I still remember discussing the 'hot topic' of the 'special' European development with Vries back in 2004, and also that it ended with Vries passionately leaving.
I will make an account of this larger discussion further on because it will provide the proper context for discussing what 'Western Traits' actually are, and how far back we actually are honestly able to superimpose this term back in time. Goldstone's suggestion: To see Europe as the (*'barbaric') rim-lands of “Civilization”. Civilization at first spreading from Mesopotamia, in the direction of Europe, is a good perspective for helping us understand this.
With the narrative, that: Every time non-European state-formations have stability, their government can inherently, within this discussion, be described as despotic or tyrannical, we might be led astray: As long as there was order in China, and India, up until about 1800, these areas also maintained a technical lead on poor, war-torn Western-Europe: Stability equals innovation, because relative risk is reduced, and more persons are allowed to specialize. Risk becomes acceptable when it is affordable to take a loss.
In order to answer the question of the paper, what follows is an introduction to the greater European realm during the lives of Henry VIII (*1491-†1547) of England and Ivan IV (*1530-†1584) of Russia. This context is important, because looking at Russia isolated, can sometimes make us forget the realities of late-medieval/Renaissance life, in its westward neighbors. We could go into the trap of unintentionally only comparing it to our life experiences today, leading us to handle the subject-matter unhistorical. The demonstration will then continue by looking at, and comparing their reigns, which are more alike, than proponents of British exceptionalism, or of the Asiatic culture of Russia, would care for. We start out by comparing their families rise to power and their relation to the other noble families. There follows a comparison of their household management, the legal status of the Emperors, and their warfare.
In several works by, amongst others, Crummy and Yanov, the reign of Ivan IV is held up as an example of 'non-European' political behavior. When we with that approach compare Ivan's reign to that of Henry VIII, interesting choices for conclusion open up. Neither Henry, nor Ivan, are behaving like the Europeans of Ferguson or Wittfogel. The alleged “democratic”, free Occident, stands like an elegant myth, with its cradle in a later age. In short, the privilege of a few noblemen in Britain after 1688, does not make out as credible freedom, and in the 1540's, English political conditions do not stray remarkably from conditions in Russia. In the comparison of chapter 4, a pattern will emerge, that highlights the similarities in behavior of the two Monarchs and their Crown. Both castigate and subjugate the other competing nobles. In order to accumulate capital they reform their management and communication systems, laying the groundwork for a bureaucratic state. They do this in order to exploit the realm, and to aggregate power in their own hands. This enables their wars of conquest. Standing gunpowder-armies enable them to project their power further than their predecessors. It should be acknowledged that differences between England and Russia, but when looking at the grand motions, an impression of similar development for the period forms.
Boy, do I have a treat for my history loving friends! I am very excited to have the opportunity to be able to share a paper from a friend that I met online who also loves history. This is an amazing paper – well thought out and researched- and I feel honored to introduce him and his work to my readers! :)
I apologize that I do not have a good biography of the author yet, but I hope to soon and I will upload it when I can. I need to break up his post into several parts, but I will post a few pages a day so that there is continuity for those who are interested in reading it. Please also feel free to leave comments of feedback and I will make sure that he gets them! So with out further ado, here is the title and a short tidbit of what the paper will cover over the next week or so. So let's begin!
Did The Russian State Form in a Different Manner than Its Occidental Neighbors?
Can Russia be seen as following the same formative patterns as the new, bureaucratic (proto-) states rising in Western Europe? A discussion in historiography, world history, and the problems of long chains of causality, exemplified by a comparison of Russian and English political history during the reigns of Ivan IV and Henry VIII. (Late medieval/Northern Renaissance, period, 16th century.)
Introduction: Did the Russian state form in a different Manner than its Occidental Neighbors?
On the 'Curse' of the Orient.
The Myth of 'Oriental' Despotism».
On the 'Miracle' of Western Europe.
Why and how to compare the Rule of Henry VIII with the Rule of Ivan IV?
A Short Introduction to the Period of the Comparison. ('The Mafia-Society'.)
The Development after the Time of the Black Death.
The Circumstance of the Two Ruling Houses and their Nobility.
Give to God what is God's and to the Emperor what is the Emperor's.
I am a transplant from the beautiful east coast to the west coast and back to the east coast to farm and bore her family with history lectures and allergen free food. A descendant of Mormon pioneers, I feel a little strange at appearing to move in the opposite direction geographically. I fit many labels : Female, Wife, Mother, Mormon, Political Firebrand, Loyal Friend, Farmer, Historian, and service overacheiver. Hopefully, I am not as easy to place into these labels as I think that I am. I live with a beautiful son, an amazing husband, too many animals to count and twenty beautiful rural acres.