Narrative Identity/Imperial Identity: “Skazanie o knjazex Vladimirskix” and “Povest′ o Novgorodskom belom klobuke”

The paper inteprets Old-Russian fifteenth- and sixteenth-century texts through modern narratological theories. The major goal is to connect—within the frame of phenomenological narratology—(a) practical life, which has produced these texts, (b) the texts as narratives, and (c) the practical effect of a reading of these texts. Traditionally, these different aspects of the texts have been considered separately, and the second one is the most neglected.

The paper applies Paul Ricoeur’s phenomenological theory of narrative identity (augmented by Umberto Eco’s semiotic concept of ideology and the interpretive priciple “post hoc, ergo ante hoc,” i.e., a consequence is assumed and interpreted as the cause of its own cause) to a group of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Russian texts which, no matter how diverse, voice out the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome (further as MTR; the second being Constantinople). The idea of MTR was an expression of Muscovite Russia’s coming-of-political-and-ecclesiastical-age during this period, that is, it was an important part of the formation of Russia’s early imperial identity.

Among the MTR texts I focus on two relatively obscure ones: “Povest′ o novgorodskom belom klobuke” (fifteenth century) and “Skazanie o knjazex vladimirskix” (sixteenth century).

First, on the basis of Eco’s definition of ideology (which is a corollary of Charles S. Peirce’s definition of the sign), I clarify the ideological character of the MTR texts (which so far have been loosely defined as ideological and publicistic).

Second, by applying the principle “post hoc, ergo ante hoc,” I demonstrate how the MTR texts build a hermeneutic, i.e., circular quasi-historical argument.

Third, I expose Ricoeur’s tenet of narrative identity and within this theoretical framework I show the following:

(a) how the MTR texts are constructed in a way leading to the origins of the Russian community;

(b) how the Russian communal ethos is connected with the circularity of the early Russian imperial identity;

(c) how the MTR texts create an unstable and problematic Russian narrative identity owing to the fact that one set of events is told in different ways;

(d) how the narrative identity of early imperial Russia trespasses textuality and becomes true self-constancy through political praxis. The coronation ritual with its two sides (symbolic and practical) mediates between the narrative and the political practice of Muscovite Russia.

In other words, (a), (b), (c), and (d) outline the dynamic circular nexus between stories and human praxis in the field of historical and fictional naratives. This approach to a group of Old-Russian texts, to my knowledge, is new and it augments the traditional textological, historical, political, and ideological analyses of these texts. Last but not least, this approach defines an aspect in the Old-Russian texts which allows us to research them as narrative texts, and thus to go beyond the established (but highly problematic) view that there are no fictional texts per se in Old Russia. I plead that the category of narrativity is broader than the one of fiction.

Finally, I point out that certain aspects of Russian imperial identity formulated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries resurface today, after the collapse of communism.

The MTR texts are quoted in Old Russian.