An interview with Edward L. Keenan.
Born in 1935, Edward Keenan grew up in western New York and eventually made his way to Harvard for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Initially drawn to the study of Baku in the revolution of 1905, Keenan turned to Muscovite history after two years in the USSR. (1) In 1965, he completed his Ph.D. thesis on relations between Muscovy and Kazan' in the century leading up to the khanate's conquest in 1552. (2) He received tenure at Harvard in 1968 and went on to serve at various points as director of both the Russian Research Center and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He was also dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (1978-84), director of Dumbarton Oaks (1998-2007), and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic studies (AAASS, 1994). He retired in 2008.
Keenan's first published forays into source criticism appeared in the late 1960s, with article-length considerations of both the Kazanskaia istoriia (History of Kazan'), often invoked to interpret relations between Muscovy and the khanate of Kazan', and the edict of Akhmad Khan to Ivan III, an important source for interpreting the "stand on the Ugra" in 1480 as signifying the end of the "Mongol Yoke." (3) The first Keenan dismissed as a work of historical fiction, and the second as an outright forgery--and a bad one at that. It was at about the same time that Keenan, in preparing a graduate seminar at Harvard, developed strong doubts about the authenticity of the famous correspondence attributed to Prince Andrei Kurbskii and Ivan IV. Using the tools of source study and literary criticism, Keenan systematically constructed the case for the correspondence's status as a 17th-century fabrication in The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha, published in 1971. (4) Keenan turned later in his career to the famous "Tale of Igor's Campaign," traditionally considered a masterpiece of late 12th-century East Slavic secular literature. Siding with a number of skeptics concerning the medieval provenance of the text, Keenan set out to demonstrate, once again through painstaking source and linguistic analysis, the 18th-century origins of the Tale, while also offering a plausible account of the Tale's composition by the Bohemian scholar Josef Dobrovsky in the 1790s. (5) All these source analyses are striking for their attention to the history of extant manuscripts, the nature of language in the texts, the character of watermarks, and the conventions of Muscovite chancelleries. More than half of The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha consists of detailed manuscript descriptions. (6)
It might be tempting to see Keenan as a crusader out to slay sacred cows of medieval and early modern East Slavic history. But his motivation was not to deny Muscovy and its predecessors the achievements that are, as he declares at one point, "rightfully theirs." Nancy Shields Kollmann, one of his students, contests the image of Keenan as "an iconoclast or a nihilist, desperate to discredit any and all old Rus' texts just for the sake of debunking." (7) Rather, Keenan seeks simply to ask difficult questions about what we know and the
Reading," International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics (The Hague) 12 (1969): 33-47. More recently on the matter of the "Tatar yoke," see Keenan, "Ivan III, Nikolai Karamzin, and the Legend of the 'Casting Off of the Tatar Yoke,'" in The New Muscovite Cultural History: A Collection in Honor of Daniel B. Rowland, ed. Valerie Kivelson, Karen Petrone, Nancy Shields Kollmann, and Michael S. Flier (Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2009), 237-51.
basis on which we know it--to engage in "insistent questioning of almost every part of the received picture" and "to create [knowledge] from the bottom up, clearly and self-consciously." (8) Thus The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha was, by Keenan's own admission, "a heretical book," but one driven only by a "mild indignation that so much has been so piously taken for granted for so long." (9)
Perhaps Keenan's work is best characterized by the search for patterns and the effort to establish historical context. Thus the numerous works in source analysis described above depend heavily on identifying specific patterns of language and style and revealing the extent to which sources actually reflect the particular historical contexts to which they are typically ascribed. His famous essay "Muscovite Political Folkways" likewise seeks to elucidate certain "fundamental features of Russian political culture"--patterns of outlook and behavior that extend, in his review, across centuries of Russian history. (10) "The trouble with Muscovy," Keenan wrote in a paradigmatic essay of precisely that name, was "that we simply know, and probably can know, too little of the literary and scholarly context" in which Muscovite sources were created "to be confident of any interpretive judgment about Muscovite medieval historiography." (11) For understanding the relations between Muscovy and Kazan' in the century before 1552, Keenan argued for "the absolute necessity, given the paucity of our factual information, for pattern building," including "the rigorous arrangement of [the factual material] in hierarchies and systems based upon primacy and cultural context." (12) It was with strict attention to pattern and context that Keenan strove to contest preconceived and anachronistic suppositions about Muscovy. The same concern motivated his biographical works on Ivan the Terrible and his analysis of boyars and court politics, book culture, printing, and literacy. All were designed to clarify what Muscovite politics was like, rather than what foreigners' accounts and accepted notions suggested about them. (13)
If Keenan is an inveterate skeptic, then his colleagues, in their turn, have often been dubious of his propositions. Indeed, as one of his former students acknowledged concerning the Kurbskii-Groznyi correspondence, Keenan's "most prominent scholarly thesis ... did not find general scholarly acceptance." It did, however, generate considerable debate, and "his work became the cornerstone for all further discussion and research on the correspondence." (14) "Muscovite Political Folkways" met with a distinctly skeptical response from colleagues, who pointed to various interpretive transgressions. (15) Comments on Keenan's more recent thesis about the Igor' Tale point to a strongly made "circumstantial case" but also to the fact that a definitive resolution of the question is in all likelihood impossible. As Simon Franklin concludes, "I suspect that few of [Keenan's] colleagues will be convinced that he has indeed found the key to the enigma. But he is used to that." (16) Yet it should be acknowledged that if in some cases Keenan's goal has been to make a definitive case, in others his goal was explicitly "to stimulate and provoke, rather than convince." (17) To judge by the ink spilled in responding to Keenan's various interventions, in this he has certainly succeeded.
In the end, Keenan's significance for our field and for our ideas about Muscovite history probably lies less in his publications--as important as those have been--than in his unpublished ideas and his training of a series of gifted students who are among the central shapers of the field today. (18) It is worth noting that Keenan published remarkably little from his Ph.D. thesis, though, of course, the acquired expertise was ably deployed in a series of long reviews in the original Kritika. (19) But this did not prevent him from standing at the center of a thorough reinterpretation of Russian history in the early modern period. In the words of one, "He has done more than anyone to inspire an overall revision of the period." (20)
Kritika: Please tell us about your background. Where did you grow up? Did something in your family or early education predispose you to an interest in Russian things? And is it true that you were once a fur trapper?
Keenan: I grew up in a small village in western New York, on the way from Buffalo to Erie. It boasted, when I went off to kindergarten, some 1,144 souls (according to the 1940 census). In 1953, I graduated from the same school. To the best of my knowledge and belief, nothing in my family background (Irish/ Canadienne) predisposed me to any interest in things Russian. Like other kids in the village, I did run some trap lines for a time, catching mostly rabbit and muskrat. Their skins we sold--at ridiculously low prices--to a mysterious man who occasionally came around in his car to collect the skins, like a medieval prince riding out on poliud 'e. I dont think, however, that this childhood experience inspired any particular affinity with medieval Rus'.
I did have some chums in grade school who were of Polish and Ukrainian descent, and in fact I even studied some Polish grammar with one of them. As a general rule, however, we were very much in the "melting pot," and I have to say that--with the exception of Spanish--I never spoke anything but English with my friends in school.
You ask in a later e-mail just how I became "a Russianist, and a premodern one at that?" My spontaneous response is, "Just lucky, I guess." I can be more specific: I essentially wasted my freshman year playing basketball for Harvard; as a little guy, I had to run very hard and regularly came back to my room too exhausted to study. Toward the end of that year, I had a conversation with some wise counselor who pointed out that my freshman grades had not reflected my earlier scores and suggested that, since I had done reasonably well in French and Spanish, perhaps "a language major" would be right for me. At the time (Stalin had just died), Russian was in the air, and I decided to give that a try.
The choice of a premodern concentration is a different matter. While I was in the USSR in 1959-61, where all history--especially Soviet history--was ruined by ideology, I sensed that the medievalists were least affected by that blight. I went around to the lectures of Vladimir Vasil'evich Mavrodin (1908-87), which confirmed my view. Although I was still writing a "dissertation" on Baku (as we then spelled the name) in 1905, which appeared in 1963 as a long article in Cahiers du monde russe et sovietique, when I returned to Cambridge I decided to devote myself to the premodern period.
Kritika: You began by studying Turkic/Tatar sources and relationships with Muscovy under Omeljan Pritsak: your dissertation ("Muscovy and Kazan', 1445-1552: A Study in Steppe Politics") was in this area, as were your early articles. What attracted you to this field? Your subsequent work, in addition, reflects an interest in Ruthenian and West Slavic cultures, and you were also director of Dumbarton Oaks, which drew you into Byzantine studies. How has your study of non-Russian societies--Turkic, Slavic, Byzantine--affected your thinking about Russia?
Keenan: In college I became primarily interested in Russian subjects--that is, language and literature--but during our junior year we learned that a major Soviet delegation--Central Asians, largely--had appeared at the Damascus Trade Fait. In addition, the USSR had become a major patron of Nasser's short-lived "United Arab Republic." After graduation, I did two years and an intervening summer in an excellent intensive colloquial (Palestinian) Arabic program, but in applying to IREX my primary intention was to study the Turkic languages of the USSR. After some bureaucratic difficulty, I was granted certificates (diplomy) in Uzbek and Turkmen.
Omeljan Pritsak, whom I met only when I was taking my Ph.D. general examinations, became in fact my Doktorvater; I had nothing but admiration for him, as my recent obituary of him in Kritika reflects. My earliest work was influenced both by him and by Roman Jakobson, who saw to the publication of my early article on the "Iarlyk" of Akhmad Khan. The influence of these two great scholars upon me was very significant; in general I attribute the great mid-century flourishing of Slavic studies, and the American university in general, to the contribution of Europeans who had fled the disasters of the earlier decades.
I was never deeply involved in Byzantine studies; indeed, my Greek is at best rudimentary. The proper explanations for my appointment as director of Dumbarton Oaks are: (1) someone had to do it, and (2) in 1997-98 I had failed as chairman of a search committee to find a replacement for my late colleague Angeliki Laiou (1941-2008)--who was a real Byzantinist--and thus I could hardly refuse when President Rudenstine asked me to fill in for a year as "acting director." In the end, I stayed for nine very pleasant but also very busy years.
I tend to think of all societies--Turkic, Slavic, and Greek--as speech communities. As to Greece and Muscovy, I have increasing doubts that their cultural relations were particularly intensive before the Ottoman conquest of Anatolia and the Counter-Reformation.
Kritika: A distinctive feature of your career, ever since you wrote your undergraduate honors thesis in Slavic languages and literatures on a topic from Russian folklore, (21) has been a close attention to sources--issues of language, textual analysis, watermarks, and so on. Are you satisfied with the way the historical discipline typically approaches these issues? Should graduate students in Muscovite history be receiving broader language training than is now the case?
Keenan: As you can probably tell from my most recent articles, I am not generally satisfied with our discipline--and not only for reasons of language. My dissatisfaction arises primarily from the fact that the vast majority of our colleagues, Russian and non-Russian, operate within the bounds of the Karamzinian (i.e., Romantic/national) tradition.
You may also have noticed that great progress has been made in filigranology since my last sortie into that field. (N. V. Savel'eva has recently published another sheet of the paper I described in 1970, but her broader conclusions are different from mine.) (22) As a general proposition, I think that the so-called "ancillary disciplines" should get more attention from historians.
As to current graduate students and their language training: more is better, of course, but I refrain from comment on your phrase "than is now the case"; I no longer train graduate students and strive not to fall into "old fogeyism."
Kritika: Based on a close reading of the sources, you have stirred tremendous controversy by challenging the authenticity of major sources of pre-Petrine history--the correspondence between Ivan IV and Prince Andrei Kurbskii, and the Igor' Tale. Do you tend to approach scholarship in a somewhat heretical spirit? Are there other major bodies of sources whose authenticity you consider similarly questionable? Does history become less "knowable" the more closely we focus on the sources?
Keenan: I would prefer "skeptical" to "heretical." I am repeatedly struck by the sparseness of the documentary source base for Muscovy before roughly 1475. (As "documentary" I designate texts or messages that have the property of being "spent" once they reach their addressee, being originally intended to influence his/her actions and not the thinking of third parties.)
As to "other bodies of sources whose authenticity [I might] consider similarly questionable," you might consult my recent contribution to Daniel Rowland's Festschrift , where I conclude that the legend of the "Stoianie ha Ugre" was just that--a legend, given life by later events. (23)
As a general proposition, I suspect that all of us Muscovite specialists have been too quick to embrace the "cormorant" image of Russian history: namely, that the "Kyivan state," having disappeared, somehow resurfaced in the Volga/Oka mesopotamia. (I owe the cormorant image to my wife; we have a lot of cormorants around here.) To be sure, the dynasty that ultimately established itself in Moscow traced its genealogy to Riurik (all self-respecting European dynasties claimed Scandinavian or Roman roots), but the traces were at best questionable--and hence more stoutly insisted upon.
The deus ex machina here is the so-called "Tatar invasion" or "Yoke," to which altogether too much is attributed. In my lectures and published work I have tried to show that: (1) Muscovite elites, like their Kyivan forebears, were often "in bed," including the conjugal bed, with their Turkic neighbors--not excluding the Ottomans; (2) Turkic tribal elites, like their Chingizid antecedents, "followed the money," that is, they cared primarily about the East-West transit trade and had little interest in "subjugating" a scattered population of forest agriculturalists; (3) the extent of "devastation" caused by various "Tatar invasions" has been greatly exaggerated--in large measure by archeologists, who should know better; (4) the "Rise of Muscovy" is best understood within Muscovy's pragmatic relationship to the Turkic world; and (5) the notion of the "Yoke" is to a significant extent the creation of understandably turcophobic South Slavic clerics operating in Muscovy after the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans.
An additional element of my approach has been added since I stopped lecturing: I now believe it quite plausible that fugitive Ukrainian churchmen who drifted (or in the case of Gizel', looked) to Moscow as a consequence of the victorious Polish Counter-Reformation imparted an indelibly anti-Western "spin," to subsequent Russian historiography.
Kritika: As a guiding spirit (along with Richard Pipes) of the original Kritika of 1964-84, which sought to draw attention to innovative scholarship from the Soviet Union, you aimed to be a conciliator and bridge builder in a scholarly world divided by the Cold War. Yet early on, you were expelled from the Soviet Union. What were the reasons for that? Later, your book on the Groznyi-Kurbskii letters gave you a status as something of a gadfly among scholars. How did these experiences affect your career and your scholarship?
Keenan: You give me too much credit; in fact, Professor Pipes was always the spiritus mavens of Kritika. By "early on" you presumably mean "before most of our colleagues were born." In fact, I spent two very happy and productive years (1959-61) in what was then called Leningrad, to which I have often returned with pleasure. Perhaps I was too inquisitive for my Soviet hosts, who "detained" me on several occasions (on Lake Ladoga, in Toshkent, Baky, and
Odesa; I use today's spellings) and eventually "expelled" me on the very boat that I had for some months planned to take to Egypt. One of my treasured souvenirs is the notation in an old passport, "Vyekhal iz SSSR bez wizy , " (24) written after a long interrogation by the komendant of the port of Odesa.
It is not clear to me to what extent these experiences influenced my later scholarship; I was for a time refused Soviet visas but ended up thrown into the "briar patch" of Widener Library. If given the chance, I would do very little differently in my professional life, in which I have been exceedingly fortunate.
Kritika: You have trained a large share of the Muscovite historians in the United States. Among those you trained or influenced are Daniel Waugh, Daniel Rowland, Donald Ostrowski, Nancy and Jack Kollmann, Hugh Olmsted, and Valerie Kivelson. Is there a "Keenan school" of historians who hold views different from other Muscovite scholars in- or outside the United States? How do you see the future of Muscovite scholarship?
Keenan: I have been blessed with able and original students, many of whom have gone off in their own directions and would probably object to the notion of a "Keenan school."
I should perhaps add that while serving as dean of the Graduate School, I came to realize that we were over-reproducing medievalists and thereafter did not attempt to convince those who had thoughts of "leaving the profession" to remain; many of my once-promising former students are now prospering in other lines of work.
You ask how I see the future of scholarship on Muscovy. As is the case in most modern societies (the Cold War produced exceptions), little attention and meager funding will be devoted to premodern and "exotic"--that is, non-national--histories, including the history of Muscovy. Where such attention exists, particularly in Russia itself, it will take on a "Karamzinian" aspect, and all but the most autonomous of scholars--since "patriotism" is the order of the day--will be disinclined to get to the bottom of things.
Kritika: Ever since retiring from Dumbarton Oaks, you have been living on an idyllic island off the coast of Maine. How is your life different now, and what are you working on?
Keenan: Idyllic, indeed: we don't lock out doors, and never think about parking, as opposed to simply stopping the car. I commute 40 feet to my study in an old barn, where I scribble away, with increasing assistance from the Internet. At present I'm working on revising the lectures to which you refer above and finishing a contribution ("Remembering Andre Mazon") requested by the Revue des etudes slaves.
Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Professor Keenan has invigorated the study of Muscovite history by asking new research questions and breaking down the boundaries between pre-Petrine Russia and other historiographical fields. It is in that same spirit that we present this special issue on Muscovite history. The contributors cover a broad range of topics in the history of Muscovite society and culture. The starting points for their investigations range from dogs (Ann Kleimola) and firearms (Donald Ostrowski) to monastic landholding (Isolde Thyret) and the physical marks of pretenders (Maureen Petrie), but common to all is the search for underlying patterns of thought and behavior in Muscovite society. As Angela Rustemeyer shows in her reaction piece, their findings add much to our understanding not only of Russia but of early modern Europe in general.
(1) Among his first publications was an article on the former topic: Edward L. Keenan, "Remarques sur l'histoire du mouvement revolutionnaire a Bakou (1904-1905)," Cahiers du monde russe etsovietique 3, 2 (1962): 225-60.
(2) Edward L. Keenan, "Muscovy and Kazan', 1445-1552: A Study in Steppe Politics" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1965).
(3) Edward L. Keenan, "Coming to Grips with the Kazanskaya Istoriya: Some Observations on Old Answers and New Questions," Annals of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States 9, 1-2 (1964-68): 143-83; Keenan, "The Jarlyk of Axmed-xan to Ivan III: A New
(4) Edward L. Keenan, with an appendix by Daniel C. Waugh, The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha: The Seventeenth-Century Genesis of the "Correspondence" Attributed to Prince A. M. Kurbskii and Tsar Ivan IV (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971). The book won the first Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize at Harvard University Press.
(5) Edward L. Keenan, Josef Dobrovsky and the Origins of the "Igor' Tale" (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).
(6) These were provided by Daniel C. Waugh, who had access to the texts at a time when Keenan himself was denied entry into the USSR. Some of the correspondence between Keenan and Waugh, which offers insights on the genesis and reception of Apocrypha, is in Waugh's "Correspondence concerning the 'Correspondence,'" in "Kamen' Kraeug"l'n", Rhetoric of the Medieval Slavic World: Essays Presented to Edward L. Keenan on His Sixtieth Birthday by His Colleagues and Students," Harvard Ukrainian Studies 19, 1-4 (1995): 23-65.
(7) Nancy S. Kollmann, "Thoughts on Mentoring," Harvard Ukrainian Studies 19, 1-4 (1995): xxiii.
(8) Daniel Rowland, "Edward L. Keenan: An Appreciation," Harvard Ukrainian Studies 19, 1-4 (1995): xix-xx; Kollmann, "Thoughts on Mentoring," xxiii.
(9) Keenan, Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha, vii.
(10) Edward L. Keenan, "Muscovite Political Folkways," Russian Review 45, 2 (1986): 115-81.
(11) Edward L. Keenan, "The Trouble with Muscovy: Some Observations upon Problems on the Comparative Study of Form and Genre in Historical Writing," Medievalia et Humanistica: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Culture (new series) 5 (1974): 123.
(12) Edward L. Keenan, "Muscovy and Kazan': Some Introductory Remarks on the Patterns of Steppe Diplomacy," Slavic Review 26, 4 (1967): 557.
(13) See Edward L. Keenan, "Ivan the Terrible and Book Culture: Fact, Fancy, and Fog. Remarks on Early Muscovite Printing," Solanus (new series) 18 (2004): 28-50; and Keenan, "How Ivan Became 'Terrible,'" in "A Festschrift in Honor of Michael Flier," Harvard Ukrainian Studies 28, 1-4 (2006): 411-32.
(14) Donald Ostrowski, "A Tribute," Harvard Ukrainian Studies 19, l-4 (1995): xiv. On the debate in response to the Apocrypha, see the overviews provided by Charles J. Halperin, "Edward Keenan and the Kurbskii-Groznyi Correspondence in Hindsight," Jahrbucher fur Geschichte Osteuropas 46, 3 (1998): 376-403; Edward L. Keenan, "Response to Halperin," ibid., 404-15; and A. I. Filiushkin, Andrei Mikhailovich Kurbskii: Prosopograficheskoe issledovanie i germenevticheskii kommentarii k poslaniiam Andreia Kurbskogo Ivanu Groznomu (St. Petersburg: Izdatel'stvo Sankt-Peterburgskogo universiteta, 2007), 163-66.
(15) See the responses to "Muscovite Political Folkways" published by Robert O. Crummey, Robert V. Daniels, Richard Hellie, and Richard Wortman in Russian Review 46, 2 (1987): 157-98.
(16) Simon Franklin, "The Igor 'Tale: A Bohemian Rhapsody?" Kritika 6, 4 (2005): 844. The reference to the "circumstantial case" is from Hugh L. Agnew, "Josef Dobrovsky: Enlightened Hyper-Critic or Pre-Romantic Forger?" Kritika 6, 4 (2005): 851.
(17) Keenan, "Muscovite Political Folkways," 115.
(18) Such is Rowland's conclusion in his "Edward L. Keenan: An Appreciation," xxi.
(19) Perhaps the principal publications are Keenan, "The Jarlyk of Axmed-xan to Ivan III," and Keenan, "Muscovy and Kazan'."
(20) Rowland, "Edward L. Keenan: An Appreciation," xix.
(21) Edward Keenan, "Pop i pogovorka" (Harvard University, 1957).
(22) Edward L. Keenan, "Paper for the Tsar: A Letter of Ivan IV of 1570," Oxford Slavonic Papers (new series) 4 (1970): 21-29; Natal'ia Savel'eva, "'Paper for Tsar Ivan Groznyi' in the Archive of Pushkinskii Dom (St. Petersburg)," Solanus (new series) 17 (2003): 5-17.
(23) Keenan, "Ivan III, Nikolai Karamzin, and the Legend." Stoianie na Ugre: stand on the Ugra.
(24) "Exited the USSR without a visa."