The dominant impression of Russia in the news media and politics, even today, is that it is and always has been an autocratic power controlled by a single despotic ruler. But historians of the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries have long realized that this vision was to some extent a myth projected by the central authorities to support a system that was in fact oligarchic but competitive in nature. A fundamental step in recognizing the gap between that myth and reality was the identification of marriages between aristocratic clans as a determinant in political alliances, followed by a new understanding of patron-client relations and other interpersonal connections within the elite.
In The Tsar’s Happy Occasion: Ritual and Dynasty in the Weddings of Russian Rulers, 1495–1745 (Northern Illinois UP, 2021), Russell E. Martin explores the ways in which the weddings of tsars and lesser members of the royal family worked to integrate brides and their families into the elite while moderating tensions among the nobility. The whole occasion was elaborately choreographed and developed over time as the needs of the original dynasty, the Daniilovichi, to extend and sustain the lineage by managing the number of heirs gave way to the new Romanov dynasty’s attempts to establish its legitimacy, followed by a squabble for power between two branches of the later Romanovs (Peter the Great and his descendants). And the stakes were high—the book is full of examples of poisoned brides, recalcitrant exiles, bridegrooms executed for failing to judge the balance correctly, and more. Through this in-depth but beautifully written study, we gain a new appreciation of the importance of ceremony and ritual in creating and promoting visions of how the world does and should work at specific points in time.
C. P. Lesley is the pen name of Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, a historian of Muscovite Russia who hosts New Books in Historical Fiction. Under her real name, she translated and edited The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. Her latest novel, Song of the Sisters, appeared in 2021. Find out more about her at http://www.cplesley.com.
C. P. Lesley is the author of two historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible and three other novels. Her latest book, Song of the Sisters, appeared in January 2021.