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Russell E. Martin on The Ritual of Royal Russian Weddings

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We asked author Russell E. Martin three questions about his new book, The Tsar’s Happy Occasion: Ritual and Dynasty in the Weddings of Russia’s Rulers, 1495–1745, and his research on rituals of power in early modern Russia.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

Too illustrious to take a seat!  Prince Ivan Vasil’evich Golitsyn, scion of an ancient and honored princely family, was assigned a seat at the wedding of Tsar Mikhail Romanov in 1624 which he thought was beneath his family’s honor.  He thought he needed to be seated above some other wedding guests and much closer to the tsar.  When assured that the assignment wasn’t meant to be an insult, he still refused to accept the seat assigned him.  When asked again by tsar and patriarch, he again refused.  When cajoled and threatened a third time, he refused even to attend the wedding.  Punishment came swiftly:  he and his wife were sent that very day in internal exile to distant Perm, where he would live under house arrest until his early death within a couple of years.  All over a seat at a wedding banquet, which says a lot about the symbolism and meaning of rituals in pre-modern societies. And about the role of pride in some princely families.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

I wish I had known then what the end date for this book was going to be.  Would it be with the first wedding of Peter I the Great—a natural enough cut-off point in Russian history and the last truly “Muscovite” wedding ritual?  No, I decided later on, because the story of weddings and dynasties seemed to run through his reign and not offer a natural denouement.  Would it be the wedding of Peter I’s daughter in 1725 (in the year of Peter I’s death), which set a new model for future royal weddings? Better, but again the question of how succession and dynasty intertwined with weddings wasn’t fully worked out by then.  It turned out it was 1745 when all the themes I was braiding together seemed to come to a finishing point.  It would have been loads less stressful for me had I known that at the outset!  (And I still wonder about it even now.)

3. How do you wish you could change the field of History?

I would wave a magic wand and get administrators, colleagues, students, parents, and society at large to value more the study and teaching of the pre-modern world.  Interest in subjects and themes before 1900 are dwindling, yet their relevance to understanding our own times and our own selves could not be more clear or more important.  How, for example, do we even begin to understand a place like Ukraine—which is much in the news lately—without understanding Kyivan Rus’ (tenth-thirteenth centuries), or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (sixteenth-seventeenth centuries), or the stories of Tatars and Jews who arrived in the East Slavic spaces in pre-modern times, or the panoply of religious traditions all sharing this space and all ancient in provenance?  If I had that magic wand, I’d wave it to instill an appreciation for the study of the pre-modern world, creating lots of university jobs in pre-modern global history.  And then I’d do lots of other things with that magic wand—like fix climate change, achieve world peace, and cure baldness.

*Featured photo by Joanna Kosinska.


Russell E. Martin is Professor of History at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Penna. He is author of A Bride for the Tsar. Follow him on Twitter @Russ_E_Martin.

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