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Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, vol. 1.

By "scenarios of power," Richard Wortman has in mind the elaborate ceremonies by which the Russian monarchy conveyed to the world its might. Political theatre occurred elsewhere to support official myths, of course, but Wortman shows that the Russians have practised this arcane art with particular deftness. Wortman describes in detail the changing pomp that marked coronations, tsarist name days, triumphal occasions, military and religious holidays, tsarist visits, and funerals during the century and one-half that ended with the death of Nicholas I in 1855. (He intends to continue his study in a second volume from the Emperor Alexander II to the departure of the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II, in 1917.)

Bulking largest in this book are Wortman's descriptions of a vast array of imperial ceremonies. These scenarios, although intended to impart ideas of the solidity of Romanov rule and the continuity of Russian traditions, changed over time and followed cultural trends and political needs. They also projected the ideas and personalities of individual tsars. By means of official ceremonies, rulers manufactured for their own purposes ideas of what it meant to be a Russian.

Such productions were on a grand scale, involving the imperial suite, armies, richly brocaded priests, orchestras, military bands and the like all set against Russian and imperial backdrops. Musicians, architects, and builders were assembled to set the stages and ready the productions. The tsars outlined the grand designs, gave the orders, and set to work numerous highly talented minions -- apparently setting no limits on costs or manpower -- to realize them.

The huge Palace Square in St. Petersburg was the prime location for military formations that were supposed to project ideas of imperial and Russian power. The Kremlin in Moscow was the frequent setting for religious celebrations. Huge cathedrals -- such as the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer in Moscow -- were designed both as symbols of church-state unity and as places to perpetuate religious, national, and political myths.

For the tsars, staging a ceremony was one element in a continuing production. Florid descriptions followed in the written record. Newspapers and books, printed on fine paper and including artfully rendered engravings, were published with detailed accounts. Eyewitness reports invariably described the onlookers as overwhelmed by emotion and moved to tears, praising tsarism and the unique national destiny of Russia.

Wortman notes that the Russian word umilenie (feeling of tenderness") frequently appeared in the record of Nicholas I's ceremonializing. Nicholas wanted his subjects to shed tears at ceremonies, and so they did. Ritual, cant, and feeling were deeply satisfying to the officials who ran the tsarist regime. It follows that writing, performing, and weeping to obligatory formulas became well-established.

Tsarist ritualistic performance and literature were vast and were echoed in art, drama, architecture, and music. The court was truly a driving force in Russian life, and its imprint on Russian culture as a whole was clearly enormous. Ideas about distinctive Russian qualities and a unique Russian destiny -- the central myths of Russian life -- were contrived, embellished, and disseminated by the tsars themselves for their own political purposes. Here, certainly, was a powerful and enduring legacy.

Tsarist scenarios compelled an emotional response from onlookers. It is possible to appreciate through this lucid book something of the awesome majesty felt by Russians as they, for instance, witnessed the ritualistic triple bow to a worshipful throng from the Red Staircase in the Moscow Kremlin initiated on 22 August 1826, by the haughty Emperor Nicholas I.

Because this book is unwaveringly fixed on the details of ceremonies, the reader will perhaps lose sight of their being manipulative means to political ends. Not everyone could have been awed; at least some persons must have been stupefied by lengthy and tedious parades and processions. Some surely dozed off and tumbled from their chairs to the floor -- if they were permitted to sit. Myth was being emotively projected by the Russian Emperors and their handlers and factotums, and the reader needs to remind himself that this is so, as Wortman rightly asserts in his own title.

It would have been helpful to this perspective for Wortman to have said more about what went on "behind-the-scenes" of a tsarist ceremony. How much did all this cost the national budget times when other need pressed? Was there any limit at all on expenditures? Did any of the Tsars subjects care, even as none dared raise the issue during the years under discussion?

Each Russian tsar sought to project a few key ideas by means of scenarios. Peter the Great (1862-1725) created a new secular image of a ruler who justified his power by his achievements -- real or imagined. The Empress Elizabeth (1741-61), having acceded to the throne by a coup d'etat against a crowned infant tsar, wished to stress the unshakeable unity of ruler and aristocracy, for it was members of the aristocracy who had helped her to seize power.

Catherine the Great (1762-96) showed yet new justifications for imperial power and proved to be one of the most able tsarist mythmakers; for she asserted ceremonially (and in other ways) that she ruled because she promoted culture and actively laboured to improve the material and moral condition of her subjects. Her grandson Alexander I (1801-25) cast himself as a ruler bound by restraints resulting from his sensitivity to the needs of all his subjects. By the early nineteenth century, the Russian monarchy had largely lost its pre-Petrine sacerdotal character and instead justified itself as an institution serving not just immortal God, but also the temporal needs of the state and the people of the Russian empire. None of this, however, altered in the least the autocratic character of the state but merely showed that it was casting itself in new forms.

In Nicholas I (1825-55) is found the imperial master of ceremonies par excellence. Wortman, in a foray into psychology, shows how the upbringing and personality of this sentimental but militaristic disciplinarian -- always calculating, always under control -- shaped a total vision for his country. Nicholas himself was of a piece: he strictly governed his family in the same way that he governed the state and brooked no divergences from the demands made on ruler and ruled. His excessively harsh and unyielding treatment of his son and heir, the future Alexander II, on the other hand, undoubtedly affected the character of the next reign. In full confidence that he was infallible, Nicholas I seems to have distorted everything he touched.

Professor Wortman's book is about delusion and self-delusion and the influence of myths when vast political machines propagate them. It is a major contribution not only to understanding the Russian imperial regime but also -- because myths enter the oral tradition -- to understanding Russian thinking in the twentieth century.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Canadian Journal of History
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Author:Ruud, Charles A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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