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Researching Russia: The Rise and Fall of the Tsars

On 16 January 1547, Ivan 'the Terrible' was crowned the first Tsar of Russia, and on 15 March 1917, the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, abdicated.

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which saw the end to the tsars of Russia in 1917. Our New Generation Thinker and Russian specialist, Dr Victoria Donovan, tells us a little of her story: we asked her why she began studying Russia, who the first Russian Tsar was, and why the Russian royals met such a bitter end.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I'm a cultural historian of Russia based at the University of St Andrews, but I'm originally from South Wales. My research explores local identities, heritage politics, and the cultural memory of the Soviet past in twenty-first century Russia.

How long have you been studying Russia?

I began to study Russian politics and history as an MA student in Italy. I had just completed an internship at the European Commission and had made lots of friends from the Central and Eastern European countries that acceded to the EU in 2004. At that time I was really fascinated by the questions of transitional politics, and specifically the transformation of political systems from socialism to market democracy. Once I began studying, my interests shifted from institutional politics to cultural politics. I've been studying the ways that people in Soviet and post-Soviet countries form and perform local and national identities ever since.

What inspired you to research Russia?

I came to my DPhil research as an AHRC-funded student on a large project grant looking at Russian traditions and identities in the post-1961 era. As someone who had not been studying Russia (or Russian) for that long, this was an ideal opportunity for me as I had a lot of institutional support, and a great supervisor, on which I could rely as I formed my ideas. My research focussed on architectural preservation in the historic northwest of Russia, and the ways in which people's understanding of this heritage informs their sense of local and national belonging.

I became really passionate about the topic when I went to carry out field research in the region in the second year of my DPhil. I lived for a year in three small Russian towns - Novgorod, Pskov, and Vologda - where I worked in local archives and talked to residents about their places where they lived.

What are the key materials you work with?

I make use of a range of sources in my research. My work on local identities draws primarily on archival documents, from correspondence between local preservation societies, to readers' letters published in Soviet newspapers. I also make use of oral testimony recorded through semi-structured interviews with local residents. This is wonderful material to work with, packed with colourful detail about the reality of life in regional Russia, past and present. Combining these sources allows you to get at not only the top-down political decisions that shaped life in the Russian regions, but also the lived experiences of those decisions, and the ways that they informed people's understanding of themselves and their communities.

A Russian postcard of Tsar Nicolas II sent to the frontlines during the First World War, Latvian War Museum.

What's the most unusual thing you've found?

In my work on regional identities I'm always delighted to find evidence of clashes between political elites at the centre and in the regions. The Soviet Union, and the Russian Empire before it, was heavily invested in creating a myth of national unity in order to govern the huge, multi-national, multi-lingual territory effectively. In reality, however, local elites had their own agendas, and these were often in conflict with politics at the centre. These different agendas are manifest in some debates about the status of the heritage objects that I followed in the archives. There was one really lively discussion I came across, which concerned a number of famous icons produced in Novgorod in the twelfth century. The icons had been poached by the Russian Museum, in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), and were being exhibited there as 'national treasures'. Local museum workers were most upset about this, and demanded they be returned to the Novgorod Museum where they could be shown in their historically correct context. Informing this discussion were interesting questions about who had authority over cultural heritage and the way historical objects inform ideas of local and national identity.

Rising in January 1547 and falling in 1917: who were the Tsars?

This is actually quite a complicated question. The Russian word for 'tsar' comes the Latin word 'Caesar', which had the meaning of 'Emperor' in medieval times. 'Emperor' is perhaps the closest fit in English, though there is also the word 'Imperator' in Russian, which was apparently the preferred title of Ivan the Great. After Ivan the Terrible, the term 'tsar' became the official designation for all future leaders until 1917.

When we talk about the tsars, most of us probably have the House of Romanovs in mind - the house that ended with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Romanovs were actually the second major dynasty to rule Russia (1613-1917), following the demise of the Ryurik dynasty (of which Ivan the Terrible was a member). The Romanovs look to us like a modern European monarchy, bearing little resemblance to the fire-and-brimstone politics of Ivan the Terrible and his contemporaries. But the rituals and symbolism that surrounded the two dynasties were the same.

Who was the Tsar known as 'Ivan the Terrible'?

Ivan the Terrible was the first Tsar of Russia. The translation of the Russian Ivan Groznii as 'Ivan the Terrible' can be a little misleading, I think. The meaning isn't 'terrible' as in 'unpleasant' or 'disagreeable' (though he was certainly both of these things), but rather, 'formidable, fearsome, threatening'. Ivan the Fearsome was the first crowned 'tsar of all Russia', famed for his violent centralizing politics, which bought the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Sibir under the control of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the sixteenth century.

How has the Tsars fall in 1917 been remembered?

The factors feeding into the Russian Revolution are complicated and difficult to summarise in a couple of sentences. Perhaps one thing that is worth pointing out, though, is that the Romanovs were not overthrown in October 1917, as is sometimes thought, but in the February Revolution of 1917. The February Revolution took the form of mass demonstrations against war, hunger, and poverty, and resulted in Nikolai II's abdication from the throne. The Assault on the Winter Palace, memorialized most famously in Sergei Eisenstein's film October (1928), was thus a largely symbolic gesture. The Romanovs had not inhabited the Winter Palace for several months, and were at that time in exile in Tobolsk, Siberia. The symbolic power of the act nevertheless appealed to artists, a number of whom recreated the event for film and stage. To commemorate the early anniversaries of the revolution some avant-garde artists choreographed mass spectacles in which the historic event was re-enacted by dancers, circus performers, military recruits, and students. In reality, though, the Storming of the Winter Palace was a bit of a damp squib.

It's Academic Book Week - as an academic, what Russian books would you most recommend for us to read?

I'd suggest exploring some of the brilliant Russophone literature from Ukraine and Belarus. Start with Andrey Kurkov's absurdist literary pilgrimage through Soviet Russia, The Bickford Fuse (2016), and work up to 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Svetlana Alexievich's Second Hand Time (2016), a rich and densely detailed tapestry of memories from which emerges a unique picture of Soviet civilization and its collapse.

I reviewed the latter for the AHRC in December 2016 for a feature on books for Christmas.

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