Thomas Jeffrey’s 1762 Map of “Russia, or Muscovy in Europe”

A comparison of Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe and Richard Wortman’s Scenarios of Power

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IMAGE: Thomas Jeffrey’s 1762 map
of “Russia, or Muscovy in Europe”

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Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment and Richard Wortman’s Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy from Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II can be seen as approaching the same problem from two different angles. The problem is what exactly constitutes Europe, and the position of what came to be known as Eastern Europe in relation to Europe proper. Both studies are concerned with the peculiar case of a political and geographic entity that either appeared to foreigners as “European, but not quite,” or self-consciously conceived of itself that way. In the most general terms, Wolff approaches this problem from the angle of Eastern Europe by showing how it was envisioned (and indeed “invented”) by visitors from the West. Oppositely, Wortman is interested in how Europe was understood and represented by the tsarist regime in Russia.

A few other differences may be noted. For one, Wolff’s account covers the whole of Eastern Europe, from Hungary and Poland to Russia. He attempts to trace out the way that the French neologism civilization came to be articulated by travelers from the West by contrasting the customs of their native countries with those practiced in the “backwards” and uncivilized nations of Eastern Europe. These travelers, in turn, came from France, Britain, and Vienna. By contrast, Wortman’s book focuses exclusively on the West through the lens of a single Eastern nation, Russia. It examines at the role that the “European myth” played in the representation of power — in the numerous ceremonies carried out by the tsarist regime from Peter onward. The two studies’ respective datasets are thus also different. Wolff’s sources are drawn from the literary travelogues published by members of the Western European elite writing in the eighteenth to early nineteenth century, while Wortman’s account relies more heavily on public records of imperial ceremonies like the various “Coronation Descriptions” that were kept over the years.

European pretensions, both texts make clear, belonged only to the higher echelons of Russian society. From the outset, Wortman points out, “Peter set about creating a Western court culture to unite and to educate his servitors” (Wortman, 27). By and large, the majority of Russia’s population was not included in the spreading of Western values. This was something picked up on by Count Ségur during his time in St. Petersburg, where he observed the tendency amongst the St. Petersburg elite of “copying foreigners, to dress, and lodge, and furnish, and eat, and meet, and greet, and do the honors of a ball or a dinner, just like the French, the English, and the Germans.” As Wolff reminds us, here Ségur “was obviously speaking not of the Scythians in their sheepskins but rather of the elegant elite of St. Petersburg.” (Wolff, 23). In Elizabeth II’s time, even though even though balls and masquerades “were not exclusive gatherings for the highest elites,” they were certainly not available to the general public. At the most, “they encompassed lesser officials and noblemen as well as the high aristocracy” (Wortman, 51).

Commoners thus factored only peripherally to the Europeanization of Russian society. For European travelers to Russia, they were evidence of the primitive, Asiatic character of the nation. Within Russian society, the commoners highlighted the paradoxical nature of its development. Ségur remarked upon this tension in St. Petersburg:

On the one hand, elegant fashions, magnificent costumes, sumptuous feasts, splendid fêtes, and theatres the equal of those that embellish and animate the select societies of Paris and London; on the other hand merchants in Asiatic costume, coachmen, domestics, peasants dressed in sheepskins, wearing long beards and fur caps, long skin gloves without fingers, and hatchets hanging at a broad leather belt (Wolff, 22).

That their appearance was only “demi-savage” confirmed that they were not wholly Other. To the European traveler, the Russian people were not purely ahistorical, like the Asiatic. Rather, they fell somewhere along the road to civilization, just a few steps behind the rest of Europe. Wolff’s explanation of this European understanding accords with Wortman’s account. Though the latter’s object of study is explicitly the institution of tsarism and the elites that participated in it, Wortman shows that as late as Catherine’s reign “the people” were only symbolically invoked in court ritual. Despite the fact that now “[t]he chorus of adulation extends beyond the elite to include the ‘people’ as well, …[t]he ‘people’ are themselves only actors supporting the chorus of the elite and confirming the dawn of a new era with Catherine’s accession” (Wortman, 54).

Another common thread between Wolff’s and Wortman’s work can be seen in the idea, shared by European travelers and many high Russian officials alike, that even the ostensibly most “civilized” portions of Russian society were only on the surface European, while that at their core they were not. Ségur perceived that at the time of his arrival in St. Petersburg in 1785, “there remained in that capital, under the exterior forms of European civilization, many vestiges of anterior times” (Wolff, 23). Elaborating Ségur’s narrative, Wolff likened the French nobleman’s distinction here to that made between a well-mannered member of the bourgeoisie and an aristocrat under the ancien regime. “Civility might be a matter of rules and surfaces in the ancien regime, available to the imitative outsider,” Wolff explains, “but the discovery of Eastern Europe insisted upon a more modern distinction based on fundamental character. The Russians were ‘marked,’ and Ségur would not allow them to evade their identity” (Wolff, 23-24).

If Wortman’s account is to be believed, however, this distinction Wolff observes as having been made by various Western travelers might not have been simply a projection on their part. Wortman asserts that under Catherine’s reign (the time at which Ségur first arrived in Russia) “[t]he Russian court was to become a semblance of the West; but it had to be a semblance, Russians acting as Europeans, performing the metaphor and behaving ‘like foreigners’…[Noblemen] displayed their standing by imitating Europeans while remaining Russian” (Wortman, 41). Even in the Russian nobility’s self-understanding of its identity, they were not Europeans as such. They assumed the external characteristics of Europeans — their manners, the fashion, their language — but still thought of themselves as being essentially Russian. In fact, Wortman goes on to argue, it might have been this mistake that helped undo Peter III. For like Anna before him, “Peter III had taken on the appearance of a foreigner, rather than of a Russian acting as a foreigner” (Wortman, 53). It therefore would appear to be no surprise that European travelers to St. Petersburg such as Ségur or Coxe would notice an affectedness to the presentation of the Russian elites, and suspect that this European veneer masked a fundamentally non-European character. According to Wortman, this affectedness was part and parcel of their whole routine. The Russians themselves thought of their identity as non-European, despite the fact that they acted much of the time as Europeans.

Here it would thus seem that there is some slippage between the terms used most prominently in Wolff’s argument. The title of his book, after all, is Inventing Eastern Europe. The phrase he uses most often in his chapter on the travels of European officials through Eastern Europe and Russia, however, is that of “the Enlightenment’s discovery of Eastern Europe” (Wolff, 8). Though similar in meaning, there is an essential distinction between the two terms. The invention of something implies the bringing into existence of something that did not exist before. The discovery of something, on the other hand, implies that something that already existed has now been found out. In the present case, the language of “discovery” seems far more fitting. For if the behavior of the Russian elites was indeed already calculated so as to emulate European forms without becoming European, it would hardly be an “invention” on the part of visitors like Ségur or Coxe to say that they exhibited a strangely dual identity. Though perhaps some degree of misrecognition and ideological “condescension” toward the population of Eastern Europe was probably involved, it has become an all-too-common cliché of post-structuralist/post-colonial critiques of Orientalism to say that these distinctions were the purely arbitrary invention of a discursive practice of signification, by which every word (or concept or idea) requires an “other” against which its own significance can be defined. Here it would seem that the distinction in question was grounded in a social and historical reality, which, while it might have been exaggerated or distorted, nevertheless existed.

Both Wolff’s and Wortman’s studies have implications for the relationship of power to the construction and designation of identity. This relationship is articulated differently in each study, however. Wolff’s line of argumentation seeks to establish a connection between the formation of travelogue literature in Europe and its mapping of a “philosophic geography” to ambitions for conquest. He writes: “Whether fanciful or philosophical, in a spirit of imaginative extravagance or of earnest erudition, the study of Eastern Europe, like Orientalism, was a style of intellectual mastery, integrating knowledge and power, perpetrating domination and subordination” (Wolff, 8). In so doing, he is following the Foucaultian identification of knowledge with power, as well a Saidian point about the interrelationship of literature with colonial projects and plans for conquest.

This is, however, one of his weaker points, for while Said spells out this relationship clearly with reference to his example of the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt, Wolff (at least in the chapter that was assigned for reading) simply invokes it as an established fact: “France’s eighteenth-century experts on Eastern Europe ended up in Napoleon’s regime and academy, and the Enlightenment’s discovery of Eastern Europe soon pointed the way to conquest and domination” (Wolff, 8). He fails to show specifically how these travelogues were instrumentalized in the service of conquest. Even the participation of prominent experts of Eastern Europe, a continuity of personnel, in programs of imperial expansion into that region, would not be enough to show that their research served as the basis for the decision to expand in the first place.

Wortman’s argument is more interesting. Employing the Baudrillardian notion of court ritual as a “simulacrum” of power and Weber’s idea that “that elites perform ceremonies to justify their collective domination to themselves the performance and its representation demonstrating the truth of their preeminence” (Wortman, 2). Examining the institution of tsarism in Russia, Wortman hopes to understand the way that the legitimacy of the regime and eventually the identity of the Russian nation was influenced by such symbolic performances as coronations, church rituals, holidays, balls, and masquerades. Peter and his successors in the eighteenth century were interested in representing themselves as adopting the European standard for the legitimacy of their rulership, replacing the more traditional claims based on divine appointment or Roman imperial lineage. Instead, they advanced their military credentials as the basis for their legitimacy.

In the (rather convincing) schematism Wortman lays out a tripartite division of the shifting bases for Russian claims to political legitimacy: “Peter the Great had replaced the antinomy of sin-salvation with worthless-useful, the terms he had used to describe the heir. Catherine reframed the antinomy as vice-virtue, with virtue defined in civic terms” (Wortman, 57). In the latter two cases, however, the precedent for these defining antinomies had been set in Europe. There was thus a continuity in terms of the “European myth” Wortman describes as having been introduced by Peter. Peter’s emphasis on military exploits and rationalism borrowed from the ideals of European absolutism, while Catherine’s emphasis on virtue and the role the emperor/empress as a moral exemplar for the people reflected Protestant notions imported from the West. For the moment, Russian identity was a question for the elites, for those who wielded the most political power. It would become a more general question of the identity of the Russian people once a more nationalist bent was introduced in Slavophile discourse.

One thought on “A comparison of Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe and Richard Wortman’s Scenarios of Power

  1. Pingback: Larry wolff | Ugogaming

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