A fundamental problem in studying early modern Russian history is determining Russia’s historical development in relationship to the rest of the world. The focus throughout this book is on the continuity of Russian policies during the early modern period (1450–1800) and that those policies coincided with those of other successful contemporary Eurasian polities. The continuities occurred in the midst of constant change, but neither one nor the other, continuities or changes alone, can account for Russia’s success. Instead, Russian rulers from Ivan III to Catherine II with their hub advisors managed to sustain a balance between the two. During the early modern period, these Russian rulers invited into the country foreign experts to facilitate the transfer of technology and know-how, mostly from Europe but also from Asia. In this respect, they were willing to look abroad for solutions to domestic problems. Russia looked westward for military weaponry and techniques at the same time it was expanding eastward into the Eurasian heartland. The ruling elite and by extension the entire ruling class worked in cooperation with the ruler to implement policies. The Church played an active role in supporting the government and in seeking to eliminate opposition to the government.
Donald Ostrowski is distinguished lecturer in history at Harvard University.
Introduction: The Problem with Russian History
Chapter 1.Ecological Zones and Expansion Strategies: The Russians Establish an Empire
Chapter 2. A Roadmap to the Landowning Class and Court Politics
Chapter 3.Military Techniques, Tactics, and Strategies
Chapter 4.Gunpowder, Germans, and Iron: Early Modern Russia’s Pre-Industrialized Economy
Chapter 5.Governmental Institutions, Organizations, and the Legal System in the Afro Eurasian context
Chapter 6.The Three-Cornered Relationships: Church and State
Chapter 7.The Icon and the Chronicle: An Interpretive Commentary on Early Modern Russian Culture
Conclusion: Putting Peter in His Place
About the Author
This informative book provides a thematic analysis of Russian history during the early modern period. Challenging the familiar notion that the reign of Peter I (“the Great”) marked an epochal turning point in Russian history, Ostrowski insists that “between 1450 and 1800, there are no turning points, just more or less continuous trends” (p. 13). Rather than focus on Russia’s relation to a vaguely conceptualized Europe or West, he emphasizes the importance of “influence flows” (p. 9) across the Eurasian continent as a whole, arguing that the periodization of world history into premodern, early modern, and modern is more appropriate for Russia than the familiar division between pre-Petrine and modern periods. He depicts a “continuity of change” during Russia’s early modern period in thematic chapters on the expansion of the empire, court politics, the military, the economy, government institutions, the relationship between church and state, and culture and education. His provocative claims are accompanied by detailed historiographical discussion, making the book a useful overview of and contribution to key debates that have shaped the field. Highly recommended. Graduate students and faculty.
[This] book provides a valuable, one-stop corrective to long-outdated paradigms. Scholars of global early modern history looking to integrate Russia into their research would do well to place Ostrowski’s book at the top of their reading list. Historians of early modern Russia might debate aspects of Ostrowski’s interpretation, but they are likely to concur more than they disagree. The conclusion is a masterful summary of the argument, cogent and accessible even to those readers who cannot spare the time to read through the lengthy previous chapters, and at an appropriate level for undergraduate students.
Ostrowski has produced a major reconceptualization not only of Russian history in the early modern period, but of world history between the mid-fifteenth and close of the eighteenth centuries. This ambitious book starts with a challenge to a fundamental assumption—that Peter the Great’s reign constituted a fundamental, “revolutionary” break in Russian history—and develops a vast and convincing model of early modern Russian history as a continuous, if uneven, process of borrowing, growth, adaptation, and innovation that both fits the patterns in world history and singles out Russia as a distinct cultural matrix. It is the kind of book only someone with vast experience in primary sources and the secondary literature in multiple fields and disciplines could write, and highlights something we all already knew—that Ostrowski is one of the great masters of the craft of history working in our midst.
Don Ostrowski’s new book offers us a sweeping examination of unresolved questions in early modern Russian history; it is at once erudite and eminently readable. He scrupulously evaluates conflicting interpretations, and presents them to the reader in the context, not just of Europe, but of similarities and differences across Afro-European civilizations. It's a pleasure to be challenged by such a buffet of ideas and interpretations, by such a provocative invitation to appraise, to question and to reconsider.
Representing a lifetime of universal curiosity, of widespread reading and immense erudition, of theoretical daring with openness to other scholars’ approaches, and of well targeted, dogged source criticism, Professor Ostrowski has produced an original, thought-provoking, analytical history of late medieval and early modern Russia situated within the context of the rest of the Afro-Eurasia of 1450-1800 and of world history in general. As this remarkable achievement unfolds, with focus specifically on the ecology of territorial expansion, the landed ruling class, the military, the economy, secular institutions, church-state relations, and culture, and the oft exaggerated place of Peter the Great these developments, we observe a master teacher in action and are treated to unexpected ways of envisioning the past of Russia and other societies.
Don Ostrowski leaves few historiographical stones unturned in this deeply erudite and thought-provoking reassessment of how we conceptualize Russian history. As is true of any bold reinterpretation, some may take issue with certain aspects of Ostrowski’s sweeping history; but in the wake of this scholarly achievement, history departments and teachers of Russian history everywhere who regard Tsar Peter the Great as ushering in a new epoch of Russian history will be hard-pressed to justify that periodization.