Sketching Out an Alternative Modernity through Archaic Language

The novelty reported above must immediately be qualified, because secular language coexists among the insurgents with the one that conveys a belief in revelation. Indeed, the insurgents’ political endeavor was effectively dissimulated by the widespread belief in the transcendent origin of power, as was brightly exposed in the oath to Nechai, the Tsarevich sent from Heaven. It is possible to see in this set of words - Tsarevich, loyalty oath, and prayers... - a representation of power conforming to the traditional figure of the Tsar. Although the Russian monarchs declared themselves chosen by God, they did not claim to be sent explicitly by Heaven. But, the insurgents went too far. With their Nechai, they break the learned construction of political theology. The image of the Tsar grasped within their discourses moves away from the traditional conception; its radicaliza- tion makes it impracticable.

In 1671, the traditional order prevailed. The breach did not become a break. Nevertheless, a new presentation of power was sketched out, one distinct from the official conception. Historians often perceive uprisings as a popular aspiration for a return to an idealized past, without serfdom, colonial, or religious oppression. It occults the fact that, in Muscovy in the last third of the seventeenth century, the dual idea of a monarch emerging from the people without any claims of royal ancestry, and of a form of monarchical power flanked or even controlled by a popular assembly (the Cossack and peasant systems of self-governance) could not practically function following the model of a mythical past.[1] [2] This mode of the representation was not completely modern either. The rebels’ aspirations were diverse enough not reduce them to a single meaning, but, among these significations, they carried with them a modernizing alternative to Muscovite autocracy. Local assemblies functioned in the towns that were conquered by the uprising, such as Tsaritsyn, where a local merchant or, according to other sources, a gunner was elected chief.69 It was such a short-lived practice that it is difficult to know what would have been its future or that of the peasant communes had the uprising prevailed, just as it is not possible to know for sure whether Razin would have effectively abolished serfdom. Nevertheless, imposing through the action of thousands of women and men, the people’s right to speak their minds in matters of political power, social structure, and religious tolerance, as well as governing cities in this spirit, despite all the imperfections of a new power, was not in 1670s Russia a return to a golden age, but an idea tending towards an alternative to Muscovite autocracy.

We usually think of the people in the role of receivers of ideas produced by the elites, and furnishing the action necessary to realize those ideas. It has been shown at times that the people could transform reception by using the dominant culture for its own interests. In this historiographical vision, the people reclaim and reshape the dominant culture, inventing within the “text” at hand, without any invention extraneous to the “text.” Yet, the rebels invented their extra-textual. Is it right to consider that the “common people” embodied a modern-leaning tendency, despite the absence of an explicit philosophical and political discourse? As a means to sharpen the contrast let us recall that Hobbes, the one who conceptually accelerates modernity, was a contemporary of this Muscovy where the word politika seemed to belong exclusively to foreigners. However, to give a negative answer to this question would mean that the western path to modernity is the only possible gateway to the only possible modernity, therefore fully colonizing the political imaginary of humanity. It is not about building a simple opposition between archaic autocracy and modernizing revolt, but rather to identify a tendency conveyed by the uprising. An insurrectionary movement carried on by thousands of men and women always creates a new dynamic, introducing a gap with the norms of the past. The anti-noble character, the condemnation of serfdom, and the call to non-Russian populations signified a move towards the disappearance of the juridical fragmentation of the population into orders. The way was then opened for a possible unitary notion of a people made of free individuals conceiving of themselves as the source of legitimacy for political power. This dynamic was more than a possibility: it was the driving force behind the uprising. The scarcity and non-conceptual nature of the evidence is not sufficient to question the fact that the uprising drew from a notion of power moving against Russian autocracy and towards the representation of a new form of legitimacy. What the shallow nature of the clues tends to indicate is a subsequent loss of sources. The lack of conceptual thought, far from being a monopoly of the poor and downtrodden, was an endemic character of Russian political culture in seventeenth century. This lack forces the historian to look for other forms of thought, in order not to think that the people did not think or that they went to battle and death without knowing why they did so, or again that action does not generate meaning.

  • [1] Philip Longworth is right in pointing out the democratic nature of the practice of powerestablished by Razin in the towns he conquered: “The Cossack krug, for example, which thehistorical Razin introduced as the organ of self-government into the towns he captured,clearly represented an idea of a democratic social order (which is also referred to in thesongs). Moreover, this democratic social order, however primitive it may have been in practice, was implemented in a sufficiently systematic a way during both the Razin and Pugachevrevolts as to justify its being interpreted as at any rate one plank in a program.” Longworth,“The Subversive Legend,” 32.
  • [2] Solov’ev, Anatomiia russkogo bunta, 83.
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