‘Rivers of blood’ : illustrating violence and virtue in Russia’s early modern empire

The Kazan slaughter, in v. 21 of the

The Kazan slaughter, in v. 21 of the Litsevoi letopisnyi svod (F200.a.14.21)

The latest CamCREES seminar saw Professor Kivelson of the University of Michigan discuss depictions of just and unjust violence in early illustrated histories of Muscovite Russia.  The bibliographical notes go on to look at the 40-volume Litsevoi letopisnyi svod chronicle, one of the University Library’s most significant Slavonic purchases (in facsimile reprint) of recent years.

The first three of the four CamCREES seminars this term have seen a march back in time.  From the Soviet films of the first seminar we moved to the 18th century in the second, and Professor Kivelson took us all the way back to 16th-century Muscovy and its eastward expansion in the most recent talk.  Russian writers from the period, she explained, didn’t pursue the kinds of moral consideration about conquest that can be seen in the work of western writers such as Hobbes and Locke.  Some of this gap, though, might be filled to some degree by close examination of visual depictions of imperial expansion.

The talk looked at just and unjust violence, with particular focus on representations of the 1552 taking of Kazan and the conquest of Siberia by the Cossack Ermak later that century, both extremely bloody campaigns.  As the examples we were shown proved, though, equally bloody carnage is not equally bad – while some violence is clearly shown as abhorrent, some is equally clearly shown as acceptable.  Professor Kivelson discussed, for example, an illustration of the slaughter of men and women in Kazan.  This is the first illustration on the page (more on its source below).  The murder by soldiers of unarmed citizens, a child amongst them, is described in the text as being committed ‘mercilessly’, with ‘rivers of blood’ flowing.  This violence, though, is just.  The top of the pictures shows Ivan the Terrible looking on in approval – the order for the bloodshed came from the holy tsar.

Professor Kivelson focused on two particular sources in her talk.  The first is the Litsevoi letopisnyi svod (which she translated as ‘The illustrated historical chronicle’), the source of the Kazan slaughter image.  This 16th-century manuscript, created at the court of Ivan the Terrible, consists of thousands and thousands of pages which include over 16,000 illustrations, most in colour (as in the second illustration) but some left uncoloured (as in the first).  The pages were eventually bound in the 19th century but the volumes were separated in three different libraries – and the sections ran in non-linear order, to boot, so a researcher hoping to look at Russian history from 1500 to 1567 (the last year covered) would have had to consult 3 different volumes in 2 different libraries.  A few years ago, however, the Svod was made much more easily accessible through the publication of a facsimile reprint of the entire manuscript by the publishing house Akteon.  The reprint put the manuscript back in chronological order, and each page’s reproduction is accompanied by a typed transliteration of the old Russian original text and also a translation into modern Russian.


An example of the coloured illustrations in the Svod. This panel shows a solar portent seen in 1470, from v. 15 (F200.a.14.15)

The University Library is the only library in the UK, according to COPAC, to have the full set – a grand total of 40 volumes.  The Svod is made up of three parts.  The main part, and that focused on in the talk, is the Russkaia letopisnaia istoriia (Russian historical chronicle; F200.a.14.1-24).  This part contains 24 volumes.  The other two are Bibleiskaia istoriia (Biblical history; 5 volumes; F201.a.14.1-5) and Vsemirnaia istoriia (World history (covering Greece, Rome, and Byzantium); 11 volumes; F201.a.14.6-16).  Each part’s final volume contains editorial matter, including detailed indexes specific to each source volume.

The other source examined by Professor Kivelson is a chronicle of Ermak’s advance into Siberia created in around 1700 by the cartographer, architect, and historian Semen Remezov and his family.  It’s a difficult source to track down, in part because its name varies.  The 19th-century edition was called the Kratkaia sibirskaia letopis’ (Kungurskaia) (The short (Kungur) Siberian chronicle), for example, but a 21st-century facsimile reprint called it the Remezovskaia letopis’ (The Remezov chronicle).  The University Library lacks these two editions and there is no listing for the work under Remezov’s name in the author index, but there ARE versions to be found.   The 1975 Hakluyt Society’s Yermak’s campaign in Siberia : a selection of documents (694:01.c.4.146) contains a complete reproduction of the chronicle, although the images are of a rather small size, accompanied by an English translation.  The introduction to the chronicle in that book mentions the 1907 publication Sibirskie letopisi (Siberian chronicles; 621:2.b.90.2).  This contains the texts (but sadly not the illustrations) of various sources, the Remezov chronicle among them.

At the time of writing, the University Library has six books written or edited by Professor Kivelson.  A list can be seen here.  Her most recent book, Desperate magic : the moral economy of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Russia, came out in 2013.  A copy for the Library was expected to arrive through legal deposit (Cornell University Press is one of several non-UK publishers who standardly supply legal deposit copies) but the standard year within which a claim can be made has elapsed with no sign of the book, so our English colleagues will be purchasing a copy (likely an electronic copy) shortly.  Professor Kivelson made reference to the work done by Nancy Shields Kollmann on representations of punishment in Russian history.  Professor Kollmann’s 2012 book Crime and punishment in early modern Russia is in the Library’s North Front at 586:4.c.201.4.

The CamCREES bibliographical notes aim to link Cambridge library resources with the fortnightly seminars hosted by CamCREES (the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies) in the Michaelmas and Lent terms of each academic year.  Each set of notes starts by looking at the specifics of a seminar and then goes on to explore related research tips and library issues.  The CamCREES bibliographical notes were introduced in February 2011 on the University Library’s Slavonic webpages, where all earlier notes can be found.

Mel Bach

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