2014/03/08

Did The Russian State Form in a Different Manner than Its Occidental Neighbours? - Part I by Nils Johann


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.


Comments.... Questions? :)

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